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date: 21 April 2019

Famine in Imperial and Modern China

Summary and Keywords

Famines have played an important role in China’s history. Because the Confucian classics interpreted natural disasters as warnings from Heaven, in ancient and imperial China feeding the people in times of crisis was viewed as an essential part of retaining the mandate to rule. Formative famine-relief measures were codified in China’s first imperial dynasty, the Qin (221–206 bce). The importance assigned to famine relief increased in the late imperial era, when a diverse array of local elites worked in tandem with officials to manage and fund relief operations. The Qing state (1644–1912) devoted an extraordinary amount of resources to famine relief, particularly during its 18th-century heyday. Beginning in the 19th century, however, the beleaguered late-Qing state increasingly lost the capacity to prevent droughts and floods from resulting in major famines. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, China’s nascent modern press drew national and international attention to frequent famines, leading to the burgeoning of foreign and nonstate relief activities in what came to be called the “land of famine.”

After the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912, famines continued to be a test of state legitimacy. But Chinese modernizers largely rejected Confucian interpretations of famine in favor of the claim that modern science and technology would provide the best defense against disasters. By the 1940s, both the Chinese Nationalists and their Communist rivals called on people to sacrifice for the nation even during famine times. The Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949 promising that under Communist rule “not one person would starve to death,” but within a decade it presided over the most lethal famine in Chinese and world history. The horrors of the Great Leap Famine of 1958–1962 forced Chinese Communist Party leaders to make changes that ultimately paved the way for the rural reforms of the 1980s.

Keywords: China, famine, Mandate of Heaven, disaster relief, Qing dynasty, North China Famine, Henan Famine, Great Leap Famine, famines under state socialism

The Wages of Famine

Famines and famine relief have played an important role throughout China’s long history. In an agrarian empire like China’s, safeguarding people’s livelihood so that they could pay their taxes was a key way to ensure adequate revenue for the state.1 In China, as in other world regions, famine, defined here as “a shortage of food or purchasing power that leads directly to excess mortality from starvation or hunger-induced diseases,” often involved rising prices, reliance on increasingly unpalatable “famine foods,” an increase in crime, food riots or other forms of social disorder a sharp rise in temporary migration, the emergence of famine-related infectious diseases, and a significant number of starvation deaths.2 North China, the agriculturally crucial but densely populated and ecologically vulnerable region long considered the “cradle of Chinese civilization,” has been particularly susceptible to famine. Feeding the people and “maintaining some semblance of ecological and social stability” in the drought- and flood-prone north was thus a foundational challenge for Chinese rulers from ancient times into the 20th century.3

In Imperial China, famine most often occurred when a drought or flood resulted in a significant harvest failure. The Chinese state was acutely aware of the risks posed by crop failure, and the relief measures it enacted meant that during prosperous periods floods and droughts did not necessarily result in high mortality rates. In times of dynastic decline, on the other hand, even relatively minor disasters could give rise to grave starvation, and major droughts and floods resulted in catastrophic famines such as those of the 1640s or the 1870s.4 When a harvest failure did lead to famine, local gazetteers described how people sold or pawned their possessions, sought to stay alive by foraging for tree bark and wild grasses, slaughtered their draft animals, sold their children or wives to human traders, and at times resorted to cannibalism. As famine conditions worsened, dead bodies piled up along the roads and were consumed by dogs and birds.5 Although some of the dead perished of starvation, modern researchers have determined that infectious diseases such as cholera, typhus, and influenza usually accounted for more famine deaths than literal starvation.6

With a serious famine came social disorder and uncontrolled migration that were feared by the Imperial state. “Along the roadside I saw thousands of starving people forming mobs; with knives outstretched and sacks on their backs, they crowded around, obstructing the carts,” recorded a prefectural judge during a late-Ming famine.7 Chinese officials also dreaded the uncontrolled movement of refugees during famine times. In addition to the threat that large numbers of roving people posed to order and security, the depletion of the labor force in a famine area dimmed the prospect for any kind of harvest, making refugees less likely to return and extending the duration of the crisis. To avoid such scenarios, the Imperial Chinese state sought first to prevent droughts or floods from giving rise to famine conditions, and if that failed, to provide relief that could stabilize grain prices and prevent people from taking to the roads.8

Foundational Interpretations of Famine

There were also important political and cosmological motivations for responding to famine with alacrity. China’s classical texts “articulated the principle that famines were not caused by nature, but by the negligence of the rulers,” emphasized the moral and political importance of “nourishing the people” (yangmin), and identified key instruments of famine prevention such as grain storage and price stabilization. Chinese tradition differentiated between natural calamities (tianzai) and famines (jihuang or daji), and asserted that harvest failures brought about by a natural disaster need not result in full-blown famine as long as benevolent rulers intervened.9 Mencius (372–289 bce), a foundational interpreter of Confucianism, taught that appropriate intervention included storing grain during times of plenty and distributing it during times of dearth.

Mencius also popularized the idea that a ruler’s Heaven-granted mandate to rule (tianming) was not immutable, and could be revoked if the ruler strayed from the path of virtue by failing to act with the good of the people at heart. Disasters such as floods and droughts were viewed as warning signs that a dynasty had displeased Heaven and was in danger of losing its mandate if it did not change course. This “Heaven-centered mode of political criticism” was elaborated upon by the prominent Han dynasty Confucian scholar Dong Zhongshu (195–105 bce). “The source of all portents and anomalies lies in faults that exist within the state,” wrote Dong. “When faults have just begun to germinate, Heaven sends forth fearful portents to warn and inform the ruler of these faults . . . If after being frightened he still fails to recognize the cause of his fear, only then do misfortunes and calamities overtake him.”10 Anticipating with a cosmological twist Amartya Sen’s assertion that “droughts may not be avoidable, but their effects can be,” observers in ancient and imperial China believed that timely action on the part of the state could prevent droughts or floods from escalating into famines.11

Fighting Famine in Imperial China

The classical principle that famines were caused by faults of the ruler rather than by nature “shaped expectations of imperial and bureaucratic responsibility” throughout imperial China’s long history. Basic administrative measures to deal with famine were codified during China’s first imperial dynasty, the Qin (221–207 bce). State-run ever-normal granaries that helped to balance harvest fluctuations were first established in the Jin dynasty (265–420 ce), and continued to serve as a crucial famine-prevention mechanism in later dynasties. The officials who managed these granaries aimed to keep grain prices stable by purchasing grain soon after the harvest, when prices were low, and reselling it at a low price during the lean period before a the next harvest.12 By the Song dynasty (960–1279), influential scholar officials such as Zhu Xi (1130–1200) turned their attention to the topic of famine relief. Zhu Xi, who distrusted state activism, promoted community and charity granaries that were managed by local elites and financed by private contributions, but he also supported the reduction of taxes during times of dearth and the use of public works projects to provide famine refugees with employment.13

By the Ming period (1368–1644), the Chinese state “had an elaborate, and in some cases highly effective, famine relief policy” complete with detailed regulations concerning granaries, tax remissions, and other kinds of famine relief.14 By late Ming times, many areas of China, most famously the prosperous Lower Yangzi (Jiangnan) region, had a rich tradition of philanthropic work at the local level. Local gazetteers began reserving space for the biographies of charitable men, many of whom earned praise for the good deeds they performed during famines. Overall, the late imperial state proved adept at institutionalizing nonbureaucratic forms of famine relief. For example, when flooding, drought, and skyrocketing grain prices led to severe famine conditions in Zhejiang in 1641, prefectural officials in Shaoxing distributed rice and money to the poor and sought to control grain prices by selling and stockpiling grain. At the same time, they called on wealthy households to donate and distribute grain, and commissioned local elites to organize 276 soup kitchens that reportedly saved 19,600 lives. Local benefactors also established an infirmary for the sick and a bureau to care for abandoned infants.15

18th-Century Successes

The late imperial state’s ability to fight famine peaked in the 18th century, when the generous fiscal reserves of the high-Qing state enabled Qing rulers and officials to make use of their well-supplied granary system “with a consistency, intensity, and degree of centralization unknown in previous eras.”16 As a conquest dynasty in which a numerically small ethnic minority (the Manchus) ruled a huge Han Chinese population, the Qing state (1644–1912) had particularly good reasons for promoting civilian granaries and popular welfare during times of dearth. “The legitimation of rule in native Chinese terms meant a concern for properly Confucian signs of benevolent rule,” explain Will and Wong.17 During the 18th-century “golden age of late imperial famine administration,” the high-Qing state aimed to prevent natural disasters from resulting in famines in the first place by selling state grain at below-market prices (pingtiao) in stricken areas to stabilize food prices, and by reducing or cancelling taxes for those areas. When famine conditions did ensue, officials tried to restore agricultural production and avert social unrest by investigating affected areas to classify households according to their degree of disaster. They worked with local elites to open soup kitchens and shelters, and most crucially, distributed large allotments of grain from massive state-run granaries to the affected population free of charge.18 Cosmological responses were important as well. During drought famines, rulers and officials were expected to make attempts to move Heaven to send rain by displaying their sincerity and their concern for the people’s distress. Ritual responses to drought practiced by Qing officials included prohibiting the slaughter of animals, instituting community-wide fasts, praying at temples, exposing themselves in the hot sun, using their own blood to write rain prayers, or even threatening or committing suicide to demonstrate their willingness to suffer for the people.19

Qing officials also recognized the role of merchants in transporting and selling grain, and they generally viewed trade as the “natural means of compensating for differences between unequally endowed regions.” Still, their keen awareness of market principles did not lead Qing officials to espouse anything akin to the laissez-faire or “classical famine policy” championed by British statesmen in the 19th century. Qing officials across the political spectrum generally agreed that the state should intervene to stabilize the price of grain during a severe crisis.20 Due to these deeply held beliefs and extensive state capacity, the degree of state activism employed by the Qing state during subsistence crises dwarfed that found in other early modern societies. The Mughal Empire had limited financial and bureaucratic resources to implement large-scale subsistence policies, while the Ottoman state implemented policies to transport and distribute food supplies to urban areas and the military but did not invest in storing the massive amounts of grain necessary to provision rural producers. In northwestern Europe, states generally relied on commercial exchange to supply needed grain imports, rather than establishing public grain reserves. “European states often lacked both the capacity and the commitment necessary to establish and sustain granary reserves,” writes R. Bin Wong. “Their state-making agenda did not include the kind of paternalistic concern that repeatedly motivated the Chinese.”21

Famine and Dynastic Decline

Qing China’s wealth and power was based in part on the exploitation of the empire’s environmental resources. The 18th century was an era of expansion, most crucially the conquest and administrative incorporation of Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet in the mid-18th century, but also the incorporation of two significant islands, Taiwan and Hainan, and more direct rule of the southwestern borderlands in Yunnan and Guizhou. High-Qing expansion provided new resources as well as less densely populated areas for Han Chinese to settle. Between 1760 and 1820, for instance, roughly 17,000 acres of land in Xinjiang were registered as agricultural land and farmed by Chinese troops.22 On the other hand, once the limits of expansion were reached, it became increasingly difficult for the Qing state to both keep its newly conquered territories and deal with mounting environmental, demographic, and political challenges. A series of rebellions broke out in the late 18th century, “heralding the end of the flourishing age.” As China’s population rose from 225 million in 1750 to 400 million in 1800, Qing officials voiced alarm over the increasing pressure on land resources. The demand for resources intensified in the 19th century, and “a broad ecological crisis mounted.”23

North China, the locus of most of China’s worst famines, experienced a particularly sharp decline in the 19th century. Between 1851 and 1855, the Yellow River abandoned the southeastern course it had followed since 1194 and began flowing northeast to the sea through Shandong. The course change created massive flooding, prompted the state to retreat from active management of North China’s rivers, debilitated the transport of tribute grain on the Grand Canal, and pushed the North China Plain into a period of “economic, demographic, and environmental decline.”24 The successes of the high-Qing state may have inadvertently made 19th-century calamities even more lethal. As Lillian M. Li has demonstrated, both the 18th-century triumphs in hydraulic management and the high-Qing state’s willingness to cushion risks by providing famine relief and tax remissions supported a larger population in North China than the ecologically vulnerable region could otherwise support. Thus people were more willing to move into flood-prone land near swamps and dikes. The denser population settlement meant that the human cost became higher each time a flood or drought occurred. “To a great extent, then, the ecological crisis of the nineteenth century was a product of the very successes of imperial engineering of the eighteenth century, not of its failures,” contends Li.25

As the 19th century wore on, external threats and internal unrest made it ever more difficult for Qing rulers to mount the kind of large-scale relief campaign common in the 18th century. Britain’s defeat of China in the Opium War (1839–1842) was the opening salvo in a century of foreign attacks on China. As Kenneth Pomeranz has argued, beginning in the 1860s, the growing threat from the imperialist west and Japan gradually forced the Qing state to shift its attention and resources from traditional statecraft concerns such as famine relief for inland North China to the task of defending China’s coast from foreign attacks.26 Moreover, the massive Taiping (1850–1864), Nian (1851–1868), and Muslim (1855–1873) rebellions that came close to toppling the Qing empire left the granary system in shambles.27 Due to these challenges, in the late Qing period, droughts and floods more often resulted in lethal famines. In his extensive search of the historical record, Xia Mingfang finds that none of the droughts that occurred in the first half of the Qing period (1644–1839) resulted in a major mortality crisis and that only 151,822 people died in seven serious floods. In contrast, Xia estimates that more than 14.1 million people died in seven major drought famines that struck during the late Qing period (1840–1911), when more than 2 million perished in twelve serious floods.28

Between 9 and 13 million of the disaster-related deaths in the late Qing period occurred during one particularly horrific event, the North China Famine of 1876–1879. This famine, which resulted from an unusually severe drought that lasted for three consecutive years, affected the roughly 108 million people living in the five northern provinces of Shandong, Shanxi, Henan, Shaanxi, and Zhili (modern Hebei). State and popular responses to the great drought both drew on a millennium of traditional Chinese thinking about famine causation and anticipated new issues that would become increasingly important in the Republican and PRC eras.29

Famine in Imperial and Modern ChinaClick to view larger

Figure 1. Map of the Qing Empire and the North China Famine. Published in Tears from Iron, by Kathryn Edgerton Tarpley.

As the Qing state’s capacity to deal with a major calamity declined, the scale and severity of the North China Famine of 1876–1879 galvanized into action new agents such as foreign relief workers and Chinese journalists and philanthropists living in the wealthy Jiangnan region. After the Treaty of Tianjin (1858) forced the Qing government to allow foreigners to travel anywhere inside China and to openly preach Christianity, missionaries from Europe and North America began living and working in China’s interior. As famine spread across North China in 1877 and 1878, missionaries played an active role in raising and distributing relief contributions from the foreign community in China and from overseas. Their efforts “led the way to still greater foreign involvement in famine relief that continued until the 1930s.”30

Chinese journalists and philanthropists based in the treaty port of Shanghai and in other cities in the Jiangnan region also stepped into the vacuum left by Qing decline. In the late 1870s, the constant coverage of the famine in China’s new Western-style press led to an impressive outburst of popular mobilization. In treaty port Shanghai, the influential Shenbao newspaper published regular reports on famine conditions as well as editorials critical of the government’s relief efforts, while philanthropists across the Jiangnan region raised contributions by printing heartrending woodblock print images of famine victims, and traveled north to distribute relief to the starving.31

Famine in Imperial and Modern ChinaClick to view larger

Figure 2. Woodblock Print Image from North China Famine of 1876–1879, “Unburied Corpses Devoured by Birds and Beasts.” Si sheng gao zai tu qi,” shou juan ("Pictures Reporting the Disaster in the Four Provinces", opening volume), in Qi Yu Jin Zhi zhenjuan zhengxin lu ("Statement of Accounts for Relief Contributions for Shandong, Henan, Shanxi, and Zhili") (n.p., 1881),

Courtesy of the Shanghai Library. Please see Links to Digital Materials for more image resources.

The crisis posed by the famine also challenged Jiangnan observers to move beyond regional loyalties and take on a more national vision. In the late Ming and early Qing periods, elite founders of benevolent societies “argued for definite territorial boundaries in charitable activities,” and believed that wealthy families in one locale should focus on aiding the poor of that particular locale.32 Shenbao editors and Jiangnan philanthropists rejected such assumptions in the late 1870s, and insisted in both word and deed that famine victims in distant northern provinces were not starving strangers, but instead were compatriots in need of their aid.

China as the “Land of Famine,” 1912–1949

The fall of the Qing and the birth of China’s new Republican government in 1912 did not reduce the number, severity, or impact of famines. Destroying the imperial system of government that had lasted for two millennia proved far easier than building a new system. In the first decades after 1912 the collapse of central political authority, constant fighting between rival warlords, increasing foreign domination, and unprecedented environmental decline undermined efforts to prevent successive natural and manmade disasters from resulting in famines.33 The Nationalist Party (Guomindang) under Chiang Kai-shek managed to reunify much of the county in 1928 but was beset by threats from internal and external foes, and did not succeed in preventing large-scale famines. Xia Mingfang estimates that more than 15.2 million people died in ten major drought famines that struck during the Republican period (1912–1949), and another 2.5 million Chinese perished in thirty serious floods. Major disasters struck so frequently that many Chinese observers joined Western relief workers in calling China the “Land of Famine.”34

International Aid and Native Relief during the Warlord Period: 1920–1921

Despite Republican China’s “seemingly interminable cycle of flood and drought,”35 the Republican period was not simply a period of unremitting decline in terms of famine relief. The most serious disaster to strike China during the early Republican or “warlord” period was the North China Famine of 1920–1921. This disaster, like the great famine of the late 1870s, was precipitated by severe drought, and it affected the same five northern provinces. In contrast, while the late-Qing North China Famine killed 9 to 13 million people, in 1920–1921 the number of famine deaths was kept to approximately 500,000. The fact that the 1920 drought lasted for only 12 months rather than three consecutive years does much to explain the significantly lower death toll. The extensive involvement of foreign and Chinese relief organizations helped as well, as did new transport technologies that made drought-stricken inland areas more accessible than they had been in the late 1870s.36

The role played by new Sino-foreign relief organizations using “modern” relief methods should be acknowledged but not exaggerated. The apparent dominance of such groups “was in part a product of their own publicity,” cautions Pierre Fuller in his recent work on the 1920–1921 famine. Less well-publicized Chinese relief societies such as lay Buddhist groups also played an essential role in limiting the loss of life, as did “a factionalized but notably coordinated state apparatus,” and “local efforts rising organically from communities drawing from an indigenous north Chinese legacy of charity relief.”37 In spite of the political fragmentation of the period, traditional and modern relief methods, actors, and transport technologies worked in tandem to an impressive degree during the crisis of 1920–1921. Some county magistrates continued to employ the time-honored practice of selling grain at below-market rates to lower food prices, and both local gentry and leading members of the early Republic’s “much-maligned military establishment” opened soup kitchens and shelters for famine refugees. Moreover, state actors such as the influential military governor of the three northeastern provinces made effective use of China’s new railway lines to transport refugees out of stricken areas while shipping in large quantities of relief grain from Manchuria. Traditional modes of transport continued to play an important role as well. Once relief grain arrived at limited railheads, “tens of thousands of ox-carts” transported it into North China’s starving countryside.38

Sacrifice for the Nation: Guomindang Approaches to Food, Famine, and Famine Relief

As militarism and civil war intensified in the 1920s, the China International Famine Relief Commission (CIFRC), a joint Sino-foreign organization formed by relief groups that had been active in the 1920–1921 famine, came to dominate famine prevention and relief efforts. The CIFRC maintained a one-man majority of foreign executives, and 95 of the 125 foreigners on its committees were missionaries.39 The large role foreigners played in the CIFRC was a cause of concern for some Chinese observers. When the Nationalist Party (Guomindang) defeated warlord armies and reunified much of China under Nationalist rule in 1928, Nationalist leaders viewed regaining both economic autonomy and territorial integrity as key to their efforts to build a modern Chinese nation. The new Nanjing-based government tried to assert its authority over foreign participation in relief campaigns, and in a December 1928 address Chiang Kai-shek proclaimed that the time was coming when the Nationalist state would be able to ensure the welfare of China’s people during a disaster without relying on foreign aid.40

When a severe drought again spread across northern and northwestern China in 1928–1930, just as the Nanjing government was being established, neither the new government nor the CIFRC was able to prevent as many as 10 million people from dying of starvation or famine-related diseases. The high death toll was due in part to the fact that this drought was longer in duration and more geographically extensive than the drought of 1920–1921, and the most severely affected areas were in Ganxu and Shaanxi, which were remote and lacked rail lines.41 Yet most contemporary observers judged that the root causes of the disaster were “politics and warfare.” As would also be the case in the 1942–1943 famine, warfare greatly hindered relief efforts. Battles between Chiang Kai-shek and a coalition of three warlord commanders disrupted rail traffic from Manchuria, thus making it far more difficult to rush grain into stricken areas. Moreover, the warring factions not infrequently reserved scarce grain supplies for soldiers rather than civilians, conscripted able-bodied men from rural communities, and commandeered farmers’ carts for military use.42

After the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912, Republican-era modernizers from a broad array of political and cultural persuasions rejected the long-held belief that famines were a warning from Heaven, and joined their counterparts in early 19th-century Europe in interpreting famines as “technical problems that modern social and natural science will eventually resolve.”43 The rejection of the imperial cosmological order became more strident during the Nanjing decade (1928–1937), when forceful antisuperstition campaigns launched from within the Nationalist Party aimed to create a modern nation by “cleansing society of its deleterious aspects and fundamentally reordering it.”44 The collapse of faith in the imperial political and cosmological order resulted in the loss of a crucial part of traditional responses to famine: the mindset of “examining and blaming oneself” and adjusting policies accordingly.45 Instead, Guomindang technocrats increasingly looked primarily to new scientific knowledge and technical expertise introduced from abroad to prevent or relieve famine. They embraced statistics, quantification, macroeconomics, and agricultural and nutrition science, and sought scientific solutions to China’s food supply problem as “the very first step to repudiate the backwardness of the past, during which traditional China had long been harassed by natural disasters.”46

Chinese views and expectations of people afflicted by poverty and famine also changed during the Republican period. During the first few decades of the 20th century poverty took on increasingly pejorative connotations, and many Chinese modernizers came to share the Anglo-American fear that providing unconditional assistance to the poor and hungry could “pauperize” them.47 When the Nationalists came to power, they “espoused a productivism that forged links between work, patriotism, and citizenship,” explains Janet Chen. “Intellectuals and officials began to define the ability and willingness of the ‘common people’ to labor in the service of the nation-state as one of the defining attributes of social membership.”48 The emphasis on producing and sacrificing for the nation increased after the Japanese invasion of China in July 1937, which marked the beginning of World War II in China. The fall of Nanjing and Shanghai and the Japanese conquest of the entire Lower Yangzi region by the spring of 1938 “accounted for a 45 percent decrease in the amount of revenue over which the Nationalists had control,” sharply reducing the state capacity of the Nationalist regime.49 As the Resistance War dragged on, the wartime state raised its “expectations of the wider population in a time of supreme existential crisis” and “demanded greater contributions on all fronts.”50 Refugees who fled either Japanese troops or natural disasters were expected to contribute to the war effort, largely via land reclamation projects or compulsory labor in refugee camps. “‘Refugee production’ became a rallying cry for the cause of national salvation,” states Chen.51

One of the greatest disasters of World War II in China was the Henan Famine of 1942–1943, which resulted in 1 to 2 million deaths and caused another 3 million people to flee the province.52 Severe drought was again the immediate catalyst for the famine, but it was factors related to the war with Japan that made the drought so lethal. Densely populated Henan, a flood-and-drought–prone province that had been severely affected by the famines of 1876–1879, 1920–1921, and 1928–1930, was an important battle theater throughout the war. By the time the drought began in the spring of 1942, the Japanese were occupying 43 of Henan’s 111 counties, while the Nationalists controlled 68 counties in southern and western Henan, and the Chinese Communists were active in their bases behind Japanese lines in northern and eastern Henan. Both Nationalist policy choices and Communist mobilization campaigns shaped famine relief efforts in wartime Henan, and anticipated themes that would become increasingly pronounced and destructive in Mao-era China.53

Famine in Imperial and Modern ChinaClick to view larger

Figure 3. Map of the Henan Famine of 1942–1943.

Previously published in Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley's chapter, “Saving the Nation, Starving the People? The Henan Famine of 1942–43,” in 1943: China at the Crossroads, eds. Joseph W. Esherick and Matthew T. Combs (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University East Asia Program, 2015): 323–364. Please see Links to Digital Materials for more image resources.

An important factor that complicated Henan’s response to the drought was the Nationalist leadership’s fateful decision to order troops to breach a major Yellow River dike in Henan in June 1938 in a desperate attempt to “use water in place of soldiers” to slow the Japanese Imperial Army’s advance.54 Within days the strategic breach widened into a 5,000-foot-wide break, causing the Yellow River to depart from the northern course it had followed since 1855. The breach and course change led to catastrophic flooding that killed more than 800,000 people in Henan, Anhui, and Jiangsu provinces, created close to 4 million refugees, and kept nearly 2 million acres of farmland out of dependable production for almost nine years, until the breach was finally repaired after the war. The resulting “devastation of Henan’s hydraulic infrastructure,” explains Micah Muscolino, left the population of eastern Henan wholly unprepared to deal with the drought and locusts that arrived in 1942.55

The requisitioning of grain to feed the nearly 1 million soldiers stationed in Henan played a particularly important role in exacerbating famine conditions during the wartime drought. Concerned that purchasing large amounts of food grain for the military on the open market was leading to more inflation, in July 1941 the central government made the decision to feed the troops by collecting the land tax in grain rather than in cash. When the land tax alone could not feed the army in a particular area, the Nationalist government, unlike its Qing predecessor but anticipating policies enacted in the Mao era, authorized the compulsory purchase of grain, usually at prices far below market value. “The new system shifted an even greater responsibility for the war effort to the countryside,” writes Mitter. “Suddenly, the burden of feeding the armies fell directly on the peasants.”56 By early 1943, the Guomindang state had collected 340 million jin of wheat from Henan to feed the army. That amount dwarfed the 20 million jin of grain that the state’s allocation of 200 million yuan for famine relief could purchase.57

In a well-known incident, the Nationalist leadership also pointedly discouraged independent newspapers from publishing critical accounts of the Henan famine. When two editorials critical of the government’s handling of the famine appeared in one of Nationalist China’s most well-respected independent newspapers, the Dagongbao (The Impartial), in February 1943, the Guomindang government signaled its displeasure by ordering the newspaper to cease publication for three days.58 Moreover, when American journalist Theodore White embarrassed Chiang Kai-shek by publishing a searing indictment of the Nationalist government’s handling of the famine in Time magazine after touring disaster areas in early 1943, Chiang lashed out at local authorities who had provided White with information Chiang felt was damaging to China’s national prestige.59

The Nationalist state’s narrative of the famine interpreted the disaster as a trial that would prepare the Chinese nation for greatness, and focused first and foremost on the need for the people of Henan to sacrificially hand over their scarce grain to the state to support the nation in its struggle against the Japanese invaders. This narrative was a sharp departure from the traditional emphasis on the need to “nourish the people” to retain Heaven’s mandate to rule.60 It placed the famine squarely within what Diana Lary has termed the Guomindang’s “policy of national sacrifice,” according to which the only way for China to defeat the Japanese was to “use her size and her vast population to trade space and place for time without any apparent concern for human losses.”61

Communist Relief Efforts in Wartime Base Areas

The Henan Famine also presented a challenge for Chinese Communists operating in base areas located primarily behind Japanese lines in the Shanxi-Hebei-Shandong-Henan border region government.62 To some extent, the Communists and their Nationalist rivals drew on a common relief repertoire in 1942. Both parties sent high-level inspectors to investigate disaster conditions and to classify disaster victims into different categories depending on the extent of their destitution. Additional measures reported included reducing the grain tax in stricken areas, providing agricultural loans, transferring in grain from other provinces, and organizing work relief and water conservancy projects. Finally, both the Nationalists and the Communists sought to eradicate “superstitious” beliefs about locusts that made people hesitant to kill them; provided shelters for refugees en route to areas where they could cultivate wasteland; mobilized people to economize and donate to relief efforts; and encouraged the planting of vegetables and the use of substitute foods to make up for the acute shortage of grain.63

In other respects, the Communist Party’s wartime approach to the famine raised suggestive alternatives to Nationalist responses. The border region government encouraged the distribution of relief via the 297 rural cooperatives (hezuoshe) established in the Taihang base between October 1942 and June 1943. Moreover, the border region government’s detailed account of the relief efforts it had carried out in its Taihang base from 1942 to 1944 emphasized ideological training, mobilization, and confidence-building measures far more than Nationalist discussions of the famine. The very first measure put forward during the Taihang relief campaign, for instance, was to “reassure the public” by guaranteeing that “not one person will starve to death” (bu e’si yi ge ren).64 Many of the concrete relief policies pursued in the first phase of the relief campaign aimed to heighten morale and shore up social stability as well as provide relief. For example, the border region government reduced the grain tax by roughly 50 percent during the disaster, and hired disaster victims to serve as porters who transported grain from less effected base areas into famine districts and received double the wages of nondisaster-victim porters.65 Such policies proved appealing to some of the famished people living in Guomindang- or Japanese-controlled areas; by 1943 approximately 250,000 famine refugees had fled into base areas “from surrounding areas where there was no government-provided relief.”66

When its initial relief efforts did not stem the crisis, the border region government changed its focus significantly during the second year of its relief campaign in the Taihang base. Starting in July 1943, the border region government highlighted the call to “produce to provide relief for yourself” (shengchan zijiu). It also put forth the slogan, “Smash superstition, humans can conquer nature” (dapo mixin, renli shengtian). Taihang base cadres told the masses that praying for rain was useless, and mobilized them to increase production and to combat the continuing drought by carrying water from wells to save young crops, participating in water conservancy and irrigation projects, and rushing to plant new crops to replace those that had failed. They also disseminated “scientific methods” of killing locusts, and intensified efforts to eradicate the popular belief that locusts were supernatural insects that would return in ever greater numbers if people tried to kill them.67 Some of the strategies and lines of rhetoric pioneered in base areas in 1943–1944 were later used to disastrous effect when employed on a national scale during the Great Leap Famine of 1958–1962.

The Great Leap Famine: 1958–1962

The Chinese Communists came to power in 1949 promising, as they had done in their wartime bases, that not one person would starve to death under their rule. “The conquest of hunger,” writes Lillian Li, “was the guiding force and the legitimizing principle of the Chinese Communist Party.”68 Yet only a decade after taking control, the Party presided over the worst famine in Chinese and world history in terms of the total number of deaths. Put in global perspective, while the Great Irish Famine of 1845–1849 cost roughly 1 million lives, the Soviet famine of 1931–1933 as many as 6 million, and the Bengal famine of 1943–1944 more than 2 million lives, China’s Great Leap Famine of 1958–1962 resulted in the death of an estimated 30 million people.69 The question of how a famine of such magnitude could occur in a unified country in the second half of the 20th century absent a civil war, invasion, or cataclysmic natural disaster remains a hotly debated issue in the China field and in famine studies.

The Great Leap Forward Context

The 1958–1962 famine occurred in the context of the Great Leap Forward, a utopian campaign that aimed to accelerate China’s industrialization to such a degree that it would surpass Great Britain in industrial output within fifteen years by unleashing the productive energies of China’s mobilized masses. Dissatisfied with the results of China’s first five-year plan and step-by-step collectivization along Soviet lines, Chairman Mao Zedong launched the Great Leap Forward in 1958. Within a few months, smaller agricultural collectives throughout the country were combined into giant “People’s Communes” on which private garden plots were banned, people were expected to eat in communal mess halls, and peasants were organized into quasi-military production brigades that demanded nonstop labor in the fields or on huge water-control and steel-production work projects.70 The rapid establishment of People’s Communes caused a sharp decline in agricultural production and productivity. Agricultural output fell by 33.7 percent from 1958 to 1961, writes Hu Angang, a sharper decrease than was experienced in the United States during the Great Depression. Furthermore, productivity in agriculture was 26.7 percent lower in 1961 than in 1958. Natural disasters and the worsening Sino-Soviet split exacerbated the economic chaos.71

Famine conditions spread throughout China beginning in the spring of 1959, leading to malnutrition, edema, falling birth rates, and deaths from starvation and disease. Decisions made by Mao in the summer of 1959 greatly worsened the situation. When Peng Dehuai and other high officials voiced serious critiques of the Great Leap Forward during the Lushan Conference in July of 1959, Mao responded by launching a vicious anti-rightist campaign that silenced dissent. Moreover, rather than continuing the relative moderation practiced in the spring of 1959, after Lushan Mao sought to revitalize the Leap by demanding “rapid grain procurements, large investments in construction projects, an early transition to commune ownership and universalization of mess halls.”72

In the following months, local cadres submitted increasingly exaggerated estimates of their grain yields to avoid being branded as rightists. The state, which based its procurement requirements on these wildly inflated estimates, then requisitioned dangerous amounts of grain in its effort to provision the cities and fund rapid industrialization. It imposed procurement quotas that equaled 30 to 50 percent of the annual yield in 1958, 1959, and 1960. This was accomplished by sharply reducing rural grain consumption.73 The state also rejected international aid, and even exported more grain abroad to earn foreign exchange currency. China’s net grain exports rose from 1.88 million tons in 1957 to 4.74 million tons in 1959.74 Drought and adverse weather exacerbated the situation. The harvest of 1959 was a miserable failure. Short of food, communal mess halls repeatedly cut rations and in some cases completely ran out of grain. Families attempted to hide grain in their homes, but officials desperate to meet procurement targets used violence to ferret out as much grain as possible to forward to the state.75 During the winter and spring of 1959–1960, widespread starvation ensued in multiple provinces across China. On a national level mortality rates soared between 1957 and 1960, with rural residents suffering an estimated 89 percent of the premature deaths.76 Not all areas suffered to the same extent. In general, cities fared better than the countryside, and provinces headed by officials who moderated Great Leap policies were less devastated than areas under the leadership of newly appointed leftists eager to push forward every radical proposal. In addition, villages that managed to retain leaders with longstanding lineage ties to the locale weathered the crisis better than those whose original lineage leaders were replaced by outsiders during the Great Leap.77


Some of the lines of thinking that underpinned Great Leap policies were extreme versions of ideas and critiques espoused by Nationalist modernizers and Western reformers. For instance, the utilitarian thinking and rejection of China’s past displayed by communist authorities who mobilized peasants to destroy thousands of ancestral gravesites during the Great Leap Forward to open new land for cultivation and generate more material for fertilizer was not that far removed from the logic behind the Nationalist government’s unpopular attempts in the 1920s and 1930s to free fields for planting by promoting cremation and replacing private family burial grounds with public cemeteries.78 Similarly, the Great-Leap call to “turn the dead people’s graveyard into a mountain full of potatoes” echoes in interesting ways the claim, put forth in an influential 1926 work by Walter Mallory, secretary of the CIFRC, that the Chinese practice of setting apart “immense areas” of good land for family burial grounds had “a direct bearing on the production of food” and was thus one of the social causes of famine in China.79

In a surprising turn given its rural roots, the Maoist state also joined its Nationalist forerunner in requiring great sacrifices from China’s rural majority. Just as the wartime Nationalist state had shifted the burden of feeding China’s armies to the peasants in 1941 by authorizing the compulsory purchase of grain at below market value, in 1953 the Chinese Communist Party chose to deal with procurement problems by eliminating free markets, establishing a state monopoly over the grain trade, and fixing the purchase price for grain well below the market price. This enabled the state to feed the growing urban workforce, keep industrial wages low, and export food abroad.80 When Mao launched the Great Leap Forward, the emphasis on rapid industrialization and the need for more workers who could help factories meet high Great Leap targets led to a massive increase in the urban population—China’s urban population increased by more than 19.5 million people between 1957 and 1960, and the number of workers grew by more than 25.8 million. Because urban residents were entitled to rations, this unprecedented increase created intense pressure for the state to extract more grain from the countryside. Fearing the threat of urban famine more than actual starvation in rural areas, urban-based authorities guaranteed the survival of city residents at the expense of the peasants, and in so doing “sacrificed millions of peasants’ lives on the altar of urban stability and industrialization.”81

During the Great Leap Famine, Chinese Communist leaders also shared with their Nationalist predecessors a “high-modernist” faith in scientific and technical progress and the conquest of nature. The Mao-era Chinese state was considerably more “unscientifically optimistic” about how quickly and to what degree scientific solutions could solve China’s problems, however, and it was both more willing and more able than the Nationalists had been to use coercive state power to bring about sweeping change.82 Influenced by “a particularly politicized array of interpretations of modern science” formulated under Andrei Zhdanov in the immediate postwar Soviet Union, Mao sought to increase yields by instructing peasants to plant seedlings extremely close together and plough furrows three or four feet deep, and to boost production by developing new miracle breeds that crossed plants as diverse as sunflowers and artichokes.83 As Judith Shapiro demonstrates, Mao’s insistence that “humans can conquer nature” had particularly serious implications. The Great Leap war on nature, which included massive irrigation and hydropower projects, the wholesale cutting of forests, and the famous “nationwide assault on sparrows,” exhausted both China’s land and its people to a dangerous extent.84 Key leaders on the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party also turned to science when they finally began to acknowledge the existence of a food crisis. In November 1960, the Central Committee issued instructions for launching a Food Substitute Campaign that asked institutes within the Chinese Academy of Sciences to engineer synthetic foods such as artificial meat made from bacteria cultures and conduct tests to determine the nutritional content of items such as sweet potato stems or corn husks. The Food Substitute Campaign did not work out as hoped. Non-grain “foods” such as chlorella stew and meat extract dumplings proved widely unpopular, and a rash of poisonings occurred in different provinces when people tried to consume inedible plants.85 In sum, to some extent the Great Leap Famine can be understood as a radical extension of rhetoric and priorities laid out in the Nationalist period, as well as a classic case of “‘high modernism’ gone wild.”86

Comparison: Famines under State Socialism

In other respects, the Great Leap disaster has more in common with “famines under state socialism” in other countries than with the large-scale Chinese famines that preceded it. Both the Soviet famine of 1931–1933 and the Mao-era famine occurred in countries that had endured decades of hunger, warfare, and agrarian crisis, observes Felix Wemheuer, and both emerged from a “Great Leap” context of rapid industrialization, utopian visions, overambitious production targets, and political polarization that made it difficult for Stalin or Mao to acknowledge the famine in public.87 The state-sponsored violence and terror—including beatings, sleep deprivation, forms of torture, and incarceration in labor camps—that occurred during the Great Leap disaster, most infamously during the Xinyang Incident in Henan, is another factor that aligns the Mao famine with its Soviet predecessor and sets it apart from earlier Chinese famines.88

Change for the Worse

In terms of important differences between the Great Leap Famine and its late-Qing or Republican-era counterparts, drought exacerbated but did not trigger the Mao-era famine, the disaster was national rather than regional in scope, and China was not at war when it struck. The geography of the Great Leap Famine was also different. This time Anhui, Sichuan, Guizhou, and Hunan suffered the highest unnatural death rates rather than the northern provinces that were the locus of the major 19th- and early 20th-century famines. In general, famine conditions were most extreme in provinces where leaders promoted the central government’s radical policies zealously and less devastating in locales where leading cadres were “lackluster in their implementation.”89 Another distinction was the role played by railroads. During the 1920–1921, 1928–1930, and 1942–1943 famines, drought-stricken areas with easy access to railway lines generally fared better than more remote places.90 In contrast, Anthony Garnaut finds that during the Great Leap Famine railroads actually served as “conduits for famine,” because the state could most efficiently extract the grain it required from rural areas “that were well-connected by modern freight transport to large urban populations.” Remote and borderland areas poorly served by modern transport were less severely affected.91

Finally, the lack of outside observers or an independent press differentiates the Great Leap disaster from its late-Qing and Republican-era counterparts and helps explain the belated state response. Having expelled missionaries and other unsympathetic foreign observers in the early 1950s, during the 1958–1962 famine the PRC government did not have to fear that foreign relief workers or journalists might inform the world of the dire situation in rural China. Nor did Mao and his colleagues have to deal with critical press coverage of famine conditions. From the 1870s, when China’s new treaty-port press printed highly critical coverage of the Qing government’s relief efforts during the North China Famine, through the 1940s, when the wartime Nationalist state made an attempt to muzzle unfavorable media coverage of the Henan Famine but lacked the power to prevent foreign, Communist-run, or provincial newspapers from printing critiques, modernizing Chinese states had been forced to have their relief efforts evaluated by the press.92 Even as late as 1957, letters complaining about hunger could still be published in the People’s Daily newspaper, finds Wemheuer. But when peasants and rural cadres made increasingly sharp critiques of rural–urban disparities in food, the state-run media began attacking such arguments as wrong and false. Before long, statements such as “the peasants do not have enough to eat” or “grain quotas are too high” no longer appeared in PRC newspaper reports. The situation became even more restrictive after the Lushan Conference in July 1959, when “famine as a topic became taboo not just for the media, but also within the internal information system of the party.” At that point, the only acceptable narrative concerning food shortages was that “quotas were not being fulfilled because peasants were underreporting production and hiding grain.” This narrative both prevented any discussion of actual famine conditions and gave rise to the violent campaigns against supposed concealment of grain.93

Thus, as millions of people starved to death in the winter of 1959 and spring of 1960, the tightly controlled Chinese media said not a word about famine. Economist Amartya Sen has famously suggested democracy as an important variable to consider when discussing famine causation. “Famines are easy to prevent if there is a serious effort to do so,” he writes. “A democratic government, facing elections and criticisms from opposition parties and independent newspapers, cannot help but make such an effort.”94 While the absence of a critical press in Mao’s China certainly contributed to the Great Leap disaster, the CCP’s sharp rejection of Confucian interpretations of and responses to famine proved equally detrimental. The official explanation of what came to be known as the “three difficult years” was that they were the product of natural disasters including droughts, floods, and insect pests. By denying that widespread starvation was occurring and attributing those problems that were acknowledged to nature rather than to serious policy issues, the PRC leadership cut itself off from China’s long, rich heritage of grappling with famine and famine causation. The Maoist state did not follow imperial precedent by issuing state grain reserves, canceling taxes, or reducing grain requisitions. Rejected as well were Republican-era measures such as soliciting private donations by allowing the media to publicize a disaster, requesting international aid, or using railways to rush grain to famine areas.

Putting an End to Famine

In the summer and fall of 1960 the government finally began to face the famine indirectly by publishing reports about hardships suffered due to “natural disasters,” but it was not until early 1961, when starvation in rural areas affected agricultural production to such a degree that the food supply of major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai was threatened, that peasants were at last allowed to keep more grain.95 The famine was finally ended by the state’s decision to import grain from abroad to feed the cities while at the same time making drastic cuts to the urban population. Between February 1961 and 1965, an average of 5 million tons of grain per year were imported from countries such as Australia and Canada and used to guarantee the food supply of China’s major cities. This allowed the government to lower the grain quota and taxes by 8.85 million tons in 1961 and another 2.1 million tons in 1962, thus improving the food situation in rural China.96 In June 1961, the Chinese leadership announced that the communal kitchens could be dismantled, and the following month the Central Committee made the decision to reduce the state’s food-supply burden by arranging for as many as 20 million temporary peasant workers who had migrated to the cities since 1957 to be sent back to the countryside.97

In spite of its woefully belated response to the crisis, the Chinese state did ultimately learn important lessons from the Great Leap Famine. The 1958–1962 famine was China’s last 20th-century famine; for the 55 years since the disaster, the PRC has successfully prevented a single large-scale famine from occurring. Given the frequent occurrence of major famines in the preceding century, this is a significant achievement. Convinced that the rapid increase of urban consumers had contributed to the Great Leap disaster, in the early 1960s Communist Party leaders tried to address the imbalance between industry and agriculture by putting a halt to urbanization for almost two decades. The famine also motivated the government to begin the serious implementation of birth planning in 1963.98 Moreover, the Great Leap Famine “set the structural incentives for change,” states Dali Yang. By shaking people’s faith in the commune system and pushing peasants to temporarily adopt household-based farming, China’s last 20th-century famine set the stage for the rural reforms of the early post-Mao period.99

Discussion of the Literature

The topic of famine in Chinese history began to receive significant scholarly attention in the 1920s and 1930s, was largely eclipsed by a focus on revolution and war from the 1940s through the 1970s,100 and has become an increasingly rich and important subfield in both China and the west since 1980.

Late Imperial China

Chinese famine studies in the West took off in the early 1980s due to a series of publications that focused on famine relief as a chief concern and success of China’s late imperial state. Work by Pierre-Etienne Will, R. Bin Wong, Lillian M. Li, Peter Perdue, and others called into question earlier characterizations of the Chinese state as despotic, static, or ineffective by using newly accessible sources to examine late imperial China’s impressive methods of preventing and relieving famine. Key contributions included studies of the ideological, bureaucratic, and economic underpinnings of the large-scale relief campaigns organized by the late imperial state, as well as the inner workings of the Qing state’s massive granary system.101 Wong in particular used this foundational work to place Qing famine relief policies in a World History perspective. “The Qing granary system stands out as an impressive eighteenth-century achievement,” writes Wong. “Compared to efforts in other parts of Eurasia, Qing achievements may well be unique.”102

Scholars have also examined connections between famines and dynastic decline. In the 1990s, PRC historians such as Li Wenhai and Xia Mingfang published compilations that provided detailed overviews of the disturbing number of major disasters that occurred in modern China, defined as the period from 1839 to 1949.103 They also asked how and to what extent the increasingly frequent and devastating disasters that struck late-Qing China complicated Chinese efforts to “modernize,” and helped explain why China fell behind the West.104 American Sociologist Mike Davis raises similar questions on a global level in his 2001 book Late Victorian Holocausts. He finds the imposition of free-market economics on the colonized and semi-colonized world responsible for the staggering death tolls that resulted from major drought-related famines that struck 19th-century India, Brazil, southern Africa, and Egypt as well as China.105 In her more longue durée study, Lillian Li argues convincingly that the ecological crisis of the 19th century was to some extent “a product of the very successes of imperial engineering of the eighteenth century.”106

Influenced by the rising influence of cultural history, several recent works have examined how cultural and religious ideals shaped Chinese responses to famine and other major disasters. These works often emphasize the famine relief activities spearheaded by non-state actors, and examine how famines interact with topics ranging from nationalism, rituals, and religion to folklore, gender, and semiotics.107

Republican China, 1912–1949

While the first generation of Chinese famine studies focused on late imperial China, several recent works have examined famines and relief campaigns that occurred in the decades following the Qing collapse in 1912. Xia Mingfang has analyzed the environmental, demographic, economic, and social impacts that natural disasters had on rural society in the Republican period, while Li, Edgerton-Tarpley, and Pierre Fuller have mapped changes and continuities between Qing- and Republican-era responses to famine.108 Several article-length studies examine a particular Republican-era famine, such as the 1920–1921, 1928–1930, or 1942–1943 disasters. Other works focus on the connection between warfare and famine, or trace how famines and floods related to World War II in China chipped away at the legitimacy of the Nationalist government but benefited the Chinese Communist Party.109 Most recently, Micah Muscolino has employed an innovative “social metabolism” approach to examine famine causation in wartime Henan Province through the lens of environmental history.110

The Great Leap Famine of 1958–1962

The most important recent development in Chinese famine studies is the outpouring of scholarly work on the Mao-era Great Leap Famine of 1958–1962, which resulted in 15 to 45 million deaths. Demographers published the first academic studies of this catastrophe in the 1980s, after the Chinese government finally published mortality figures from the Great Leap period.111 In the 1990s, journalist Jasper Becker brought the disaster to the attention of a broader audience, while political scientists and economists, among them Dali Yang and Carl Riskin, debated famine causation and connections between the famine and the rural reforms enacted in its wake.112 Historians began to engage the Great Leap catastrophe in the early 2000s and thereafter published major works that draw on archival sources formerly closed to academics, as well as on interviews with famine survivors.113 Several important books by Chinese scholars have been published in Hong Kong in recent years; most crucially Yang Jisheng’s Tombstone, an edited version of which was later translated into English.114 Topics that have generated the most attention in the past few years include the question of famine causation, in particular how much blame should be placed on Mao Zedong versus other factors; local studies of the disaster; gendered experiences of famine; peasant resistance and survival strategies; violence and terror; the demographic impact of the famine and what people died of; how the famine came to an end; rural–urban disparities during the famine; and comparisons between famines under state socialism in China and the Soviet Union.115

Primary Sources

An enormous array of Chinese-language primary sources address famine. For imperial China, the sections on omens and anomalies (wuxing zhi) in the Standard Histories compiled for each dynasty, and the zaiyi or xiangyi section of local gazetteers, are an excellent starting point. County gazetteers often provide a detailed record of the disasters that struck a particular locale. Famine-related essays in collections of statecraft writings of the Qing dynasty are also very useful.116 Moreover, a recent twelve-volume collection compiled by leading Chinese historians in 2010 provides a treasure-trove of Qing dynasty works concerning famine relief.117 In terms of archival materials for the Ming–Qing period, grain-price data, weather reports, registers of population and granary holdings, and memorials concerning relief campaigns, fiscal affairs, agriculture, and water control can be found in the First Historical Archives in Beijing and the National Palace Museum Archives in Taipei.118

Chinese-language primary sources on 20th-century famines include Republican and PRC gazetteers; government records held in the Second Historical Archives in Nanjing, the Guomindang Archives and Academia Sinica collections in Taipei or provincial and county archives; reports and editorials published in a wide array of Republican-era newspapers and periodicals; records compiled by Republican-era relief organizations such as the Chinese Red Cross or the Buddhist Relief Society; and wenshi ziliao (literature and history materials) publications, which often include firsthand accounts of major disasters that struck a given county.119 It is currently difficult to gain access to archival materials on the Great Leap Famine, though some researchers have managed to do so. To address this issue, the editorial board of the Chinese Great Leap Forward and Great Famine Database made available via CD-ROM approximately 7,000 documents from the 1958–1962 period, including classified records from local archives, CCP directives, investigative reports, and officials’ unpublished speeches.120 Researchers interested in the Great Leap Famine will also find useful the full run of the Neibu Cankao, or the internal news reports published for high-level cadres during the Mao-era, held at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

English-language primary sources on famines in China are for the most part confined to the late-Qing and Republican periods. Some of the richest firsthand observations are letters and reports written by missionaries stationed in drought-prone inland North China.121 Reports compiled by joint Sino-foreign relief committees after major disasters provide detailed information about nonstate relief efforts, as do American Red Cross reports.122 The Shanghai-based North China Herald, the leading English-language newspaper in China from 1842 to 1943, frequently covered serious famines, and overseas newspapers such as the New York Times and London Times provided occasional coverage as well. The Henan Famine of 1942–1943 received international attention due to critical coverage by Time correspondent Theodore White. Famine photos taken by photojournalist Harrison Forman and Forman’s diary from his time in Henan are available online. Moreover, the reports filed by United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration personnel stationed in China in the late 1940s offer detailed information about food shortages during the immediate postwar period.123 Researchers seeking English-language primary sources on the Great Leap Famine should turn to the 121 short documents provided in Zhou Xun’s The Great Famine in China, 1958–62: A Documentary History.124 grew out of a research network based in the UK at the University of Manchester with the aim of making scholarship on major disasters and humanitarian crises readily accessible to the public. It currently focuses on disasters in China’s history, and includes images and maps from one 19th-century famine and from seven disasters in 20th-century China.

MIT Visualizing Cultures. Visualizing Cultures was launched at MIT in 2002 to explore the potential of the Web for developing innovative image-driven scholarship and learning. The VC mission is to use new technology and hitherto inaccessible visual materials to reconstruct the past as people of the time visualized the world (or imagined it to be). Topical units to date focus on early-modern China and Japan in the modern world. The site currently includes a unit on the North China Famine of 1876–1879.

Harrison Forman Collection, Digital Collections at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

The Henan Famine Images and the Harrison Forman Diary (China, December 1942–March 1943).

Further Reading

Longue durée studies

Li, Lillian M. Fighting Famine in North China: State, Market, and Environmental Decline, 1690s–1990s. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Li, Wenhai, Liu, Yangdong, Cheng, Xiao, and Xia, Mingfang. Zhongguo jindai shi da zaihuang [The ten great disasters of China’s modern period]. Shanghai: Shanghai ren min chu ban she, 1994.Find this resource:

Late Imperial China

Davis, Mike. Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World. London: Verso, 2001.Find this resource:

Edgerton-Tarpley, Kathryn. Tears from Iron: Cultural Responses to Famine in Nineteenth-Century China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Elvin, Mark. “Who Was Responsible for the Weather? Moral Meteorology in Late Imperial China.” Osiris 12 (1998): 213–237.Find this resource:

Snyder-Reinke, Jeffrey. Dry Spells: State Rainmaking and Local Governance in Late Imperial China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2009.Find this resource:

Will, Pierre-Etienne. Bureaucracy and Famine in Eighteenth-Century China. Translated by Elborg Forster. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990.Find this resource:

Will, Pierre-Etienne, and R. Bin Wong. Nourish the People: The State Civilian Granary System in China, 1650–1850. With James Lee, Jean Oi and Peter Perdue. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies, 1991.Find this resource:

Zhu Hu. Difangxing liudong ji qi chaoyue: wan Qing yizhen yu jindai Zhongguo de xinchen daixie (The fluidity and transcendence of localism: Late-Qing charitable relief and the supersession of the old by the new in modern China). Beijing: Zhongguo renmin daxue chubanshe, 2006.Find this resource:

Republican China: 1912–1949

Edgerton-Tarpley, Kathryn. “Saving the Nation, Starving the People? The Henan Famine of 1942–43.” In 1943: China at the Crossroads. Edited by Joseph Esherick and Matthew Combs, 323–364. Ithaca, New York: Cornell East Asia Series, 2015.Find this resource:

Fuller, Pierre. “North China Famine Revisited: Unsung Native Relief in the Warlord Era, 1920–1921.” Modern Asian Studies 47.3 (2012): 820–850.Find this resource:

Janku, Andrea. “From Natural to National Disaster: The Chinese Famine of 1928–1930.” In Historical Disasters in Context: Science, Religion, and Politics. Edited by Andrea Janku, Gerrit J. Schenk, and Franz Mauelshagen, 227–260. New York: Routledge, 2012.Find this resource:

Lee, Seung-Joon. Gourmets in the Land of Famine: The Culture and Politics of Rice in Modern Canton. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Muscolino, Micah S. The Ecology of War in China: Henan Province, the Yellow River, and Beyond, 1938–1950. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Xia Mingfang. Minguo shiqi ziran zainan yu xiangcun shehui [Republican-era natural disasters and rural society]. Beijing: Zhonghuashuju, 2000.Find this resource:

The Great Leap Famine

Cao Shuji. Da Jihuang, 1959–1961 nian de Zhongguo renkou [The Great Famine: China’s population in 1959–1961]. Hong Kong: Time International, 2005.Find this resource:

Dikotter, Frank. Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–1962. New York: Walker, 2010.Find this resource:

Garnaut, Anthony. “The Geography of the Great Leap Famine.” Modern China 40.3 (2014): 315–348.Find this resource:

Hershatter, Gail. The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China’s Collective Past. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Manning, Kimberley Ens, and Felix Wemheuer, eds. Eating Bitterness: New Perspectives on China’s Great Leap Forward and Famine. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Song Yongyi and Ding Shu. Dayuejin—dajihuang: lishi he bijiao shiye xia de shishi he sibian [Great Leap Forward—Great Leap Famine: The truth and analysis under historical and comparative perspective]. Hong Kong: Tianyuan shuwu, 2009.Find this resource:

Thaxton, Ralph A. Catastrophe and Contention in Rural China: Mao’s Great Leap Forward Famine and the Origins of Righteous Resistance in Da Fo Village. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Wemheuer, Felix. Famine Politics in Maoist China and the Soviet Union. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Yang Jisheng. Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958–1962. Translated by Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012.Find this resource:

Zhou Xun, ed. The Great Famine in China, 1958–1962: A Documentary History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012.Find this resource:


(1.) Pierre-Etienne Will, Bureaucracy and Famine in Eighteenth-Century China, translated by Elborg Forster (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990); Lillian M. Li, Fighting Famine in North China: State, Market, and Environmental Decline, 1690s–1990s (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007); and Pierre-Etienne Will and R. Bin Wong, with James Lee, contributions by Jean Oi and Peter Perdue, Nourish the People: The State Civilian Granary System in China, 1650–1850 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies, 1991).

(2.) Cormac O Grada, Famine: A Short History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 4, 7.

(3.) David A. Pietz, The Yellow River: The Problem of Water in Modern China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), 3; Li, Fighting Famine in North China.

(4.) Li, Fighting Famine, 31.

(5.) Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley, Tears from Iron: Cultural Responses to Famine in Late-Qing China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 47–51; Li, Fighting Famine, 34–35.

(6.) O Grada, Famine, 108–110.

(7.) Joanna Handlin Smith, The Art of Doing Good: Charity in Late Ming China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 157. See also R. Bin Wong, “Food Riots in the Qing Dynasty,” Journal of Asian Studies 41.4 (1982): 767–788.

(8.) Will, Bureaucracy and Famine, 48–49.

(9.) Li, Fighting Famine, 2; Will and Wong, Nourish the People, 1–3.

(10.) William Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, comp., Sources of Chinese Tradition, vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 305–306.

(11.) Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (Oxford: Clarendon, 1981), 123; Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley, “Tough Choices: Grappling with Famine in Qing China, the British Empire, and Beyond,” Journal of World History 24.1 (2013): 135–176; and Mark Elvin, “Who Was Responsible for the Weather? Moral Meteorology in Late Imperial China,” Osiris 13 (1998): 213–237.

(12.) Li, Fighting Famine, 2–3, 167–168; Will and Wong, Nourish the People, 8–10; Will, Bureaucracy and Famine, 182, 199. The concept of the ever-normal granary dates back to Mencius or earlier.

(13.) Robert P. Hymes, “Moral Duty and Self-Regulating Process in Southern Sung Views of Famine Relief,” in Ordering the World: Approaches to State and Society in Sung China, eds. Robert P. Hymes and Conrad Schirokauer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 303, 309; and Li, Fighting Famine, 3.

(14.) Jennifer Eileen Downs, “Famine Policy and Discourses on Famine in Ming China, 1368–1644” (PhD diss., University of Minnesota, 1995), 27–29.

(15.) Joanna Handlin Smith, The Art of Doing Good, 4–5, 157–159, 163, 168–169, 181, 205, 216–219; R. Bin Wong and Peter C. Perdue, “Review: Famine’s Foes in Ch’ing China,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 43.1 (1983): 315.

(16.) Li, Fighting Famine, 167, 391; Will and Wong, 21. During the 1790s the Qing granary system stored up to 45 million shi of reserve grain. In the eighteenth century, 1 shi of milled rice weighed 175–195 lbs.

(17.) Will and Wong, Nourish the People, 14.

(18.) Will, Bureaucracy and Famine, 188: chs. 7–8; Li, Fighting Famine, chapter 8; Will and Wong, Nourish the People, chapter 3. See also Carol H. Shiue, “The Political Economy of Famine Relief in China, 1740–1820,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 36.1 (Summer, 2005): 33–55.

(19.) Jeffrey Snyder-Reinke, Dry Spells: State Rainmaking and Local Governance in Late Imperial China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2009): 20, chapter 4. See also Elvin, “Who Was Responsible for the Weather?” 213–237.

(20.) Will, Bureaucracy and Famine, 212–213; Helen Dunstan, Conflicting Counsels to Confuse the Age: A Documentary Study of Political Economy in Qing China, 1644–1840 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies, 1996), 7–9, 30–31, 293–326.

(21.) Will and Wong, 507–513, 516–522. For India, see also Paul Greenough, “Comments from a South Asian Perspective: Food, Famine, and the Chinese State.” Journal of Asian Studies 41.4 (August, 1982): 794–795.

(22.) Robert Marks, China: Its Environment and History (Lantham, NY: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012), 175, 191–192, 215, 223. For more on the conquest of Xinjiang and its implications, see Peter C. Perdue, China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2005).

(23.) Peter C. Perdue, “What Price Empire? The Industrial Revolution and the Case of China,” in Reconceptualizing the Industrial Revolution, eds. Jeff Horn, Leonard N. Rosenband, and Merritt Roe Smith (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010), 315, 319; Perdue, “Ecologies of Empire: From Qing Cosmopolitanism to Modern Nationalism,” Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review 8 (September 2013): 18; and Marks, China, 220–223. Perdue defines the “flourishing age” as the period between 1670 and 1760.

(24.) Pietz, The Yellow River, 64–69; and Marks, 240.

(25.) Li, Fighting Famine, 72–73.

(26.) Kenneth Pomeranz, The Making of a Hinterland: State, Society, and Economy in Inland North China, 1853–1937 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 2–3, 273.

(27.) Will and Wong, 89–92.

(28.) Xia Mingfang, Minguo shiqi ziran zaihai yu xiangcun shehui (Natural Disasters and Rural Society in the Republic of China) (Beijing: Zhonghua, 2000), 79, 400–408. Xia’s estimate of the total number of disaster deaths is 3.1 million for the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), 1.2 million for the early-Qing, 17.3 for the late-Qing, and 21 million for the Republican period (1912–1949).

(29.) For fuller analysis of this famine, see Edgerton-Tarpley, Tears from Iron, Hao Ping, Dingwu qihuang: Guangxu chunian Shanxi zaihuang yu jiuji yanjiu (Beijing: Beijing daxue chubanshe, 2012); Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World (London: Verso, 2001).

(30.) Paul Richard Bohr, Famine in China and the Missionary: Timothy Richard as Relief Administrator and Advocate of National Reform, 1876–1884 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972); Edgerton-Tarpley, Tears from Iron, ch. 5; and Li, Fighting Famine, 276–277.

(31.) On elite mobilization during the North China Famine, see Mary Backus Rankin, Elite Activism and Political Transformation in China: Zhejiang Province, 1865–1911 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1986), chapter 4; Edgerton-Tarpley, Tears from Iron, chs. 6 and 8; Zhu Hu, Difangxing liudong ji qi chaoyue: wan Qing yizhen yu jindai Zhongguo de xinchen daixie (The fluidity and transcendence of localism: Late-Qing charitable relief and the supersession of the old by the new in modern China) (Beijing: Zhongguo renmin daxue chubanshe, 2006); and Andrea Janku, “Sowing Happiness: Spiritual Competition in Famine Relief Activities in Late Nineteenth-Century China,” Minsu Quyi 143 (March 2004): 89–118.

(32.) Joanna Handlin Smith, “Benevolent Societies: The Reshaping of Charity During the Late Ming and Early Ch’ing,” Journal of Asian Studies, XLVI.2 (May 1987): 329.

(33.) Li, Fighting Famine, 283, 307; and Pietz, TheYellow River, 77.

(34.) Xia Mingfang, Minguo shiqi ziran zaihai, 79 (tables 2–3). See also pp. 395–397; Li, Fighting Famine, 283–285.

(35.) Pietz, The Yellow River, 78.

(36.) Pierre Fuller, “Changing Disaster Relief Regimes in China: An Analysis Using Four Famines Between 1876 and 1962,” Disasters 39.S2 (2015): 155; and Li, Fighting Famine, 297–299; Andrew Nathan, A History of the China International Famine Relief Commission (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965), 5–9.

(37.) Pierre Fuller, “North China Famine Revisited: Unsung Native Relief in the Warlord Era, 1920–1921,” Modern Asian Studies 47.3 (2013): 822–823.

(38.) Fuller, “North China Famine,” 820, 826, 834–838, 843–845; Fuller, “Changing Disaster,” 156. See also Fuller, “Struggling with Famine in Warlord China: Social Networks, Achievements, and Limitations, 1920–21” (PhD diss., University of California, Irvine, 2011), 222, 270–274, 290.

(39.) Li, Fighting Famine, 302; Fuller, “Changing disaster relief regimes,” 157.

(40.) Seung-joon Lee, Gourmets in the Land of Famine: The Culture and Politics of Rice in Modern Canton (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 13; Li, Fighting Famine, 305; and Andrea Janku, “From Natural to National Disaster: The Chinese Famine of 1928–1930,” in Historical Disasters in Context: Science, Religion, and Politics, eds. Andrea Janku, Gerrit J. Schenk, and Franz Mauelshagen (New York: Routledge, 2012), 227–260.

(41.) Eduard Vermeer, Economic Development in Provincial China: The Central Shaanxi since 1930 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 48–51; and Xia Mingfang, Minguo shiqi, 83–90.

(42.) Janku, “From Natural to National Disaster,” 227–260; Li, Fighting Famine, 303–305; and Fuller, “Changing Disaster,” 158–159.

(43.) Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley, “From ‘Nourish the People’ to ‘Sacrifice for the Nation,’” Journal of Asian Studies 73.2 (May 2014): 455–456; and Edkins, Whose Hunger?, xv, 15–18.

(44.) Rebecca Nedostup, Superstitious Regimes: Religion and the Politics of Chinese Modernity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 15, 229.

(45.) Li Wenhai and Zhou Yuan, Zaihuang yu jijin: 1840–1919 [Disaster and famine: 1840–1919] (Beijing: Xinhua shudian, 1991), 14.

(46.) Lee, Gourmets in the Land of Famine, 13–14, 114–115, 135, 195.

(47.) Janet Y. Chen, Guilty of Indigence: The Urban Poor in China, 1900–1953 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 5–6, 92. For more on British anxieties about “pauperization” resulting from unconditional relief, see Edgerton-Tarpley, “Tough Choices,” 140–150.

(48.) Chen, Guilty of Indigence, 85, 90, 3.

(49.) Felix Boecking, “Unmaking the Chinese Nationalist State: Administrative Reform among Fiscal Collapse, 1937–1945,” Modern Asian Studies 45.2 (2011): 283.

(50.) Rana Mitter, “Classifying Citizens in Nationalist China during World War II, 1937–1941,” Modern Asian Studies 45.2 (2011): 251.

(51.) Chen, Guilty of Indigence, 129, 147–148.

(52.) Wang Tianjiang et al., Henan jindai dashiji, 1840–1949 [Major events in modern Henan, 1840–1949] (Zhengzhou: Henan renmin chubanshe, 1990), 418; Anthony Garnaut, “A Quantitative Description of the Henan Famine of 1942,” Modern Asian Studies 47 (2013): 2009, 2032–2045.

(53.) Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley, “Saving the Nation, Starving the People? The Henan Famine of 1942–43,” in 1943: China at the Crossroads, eds. Joseph W. Esherick and Matthew T. Combs (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University East Asia Program, 2015): 323–364. See also Odoric Y. K. Wou, Mobilizing the Masses: Building Revolution in Henan (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), 166, 170, 172.

(54.) For more on the strategic breach and flood see Micah Muscolino, The Ecology of War in China: Henan Province, the Yellow River, and Beyond, 1938–1950 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Diana Lary, “The Waters Covered the Earth: China’s War-Induced Natural Disasters,” in War and State Terrorism: The United States, Japan, and the Asia-Pacific in the Long Twentieth Century, eds. Mark Selden and Alvin Y. So (Lanham, NY: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004); Rana Mitter, Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937–1945 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), 157; and Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley, “From ‘Nourish the People,’” 456–466.

(55.) Micah S. Muscolino, “Violence Against People and the Land: The Environment and Refugee Migration from China’s Henan Province, 1938–1945,” Environment and History 17 (2011): 299–301; and Muscolino, The Ecology of War, ch. 1; see also Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley, “Between War and Water: Farmer, City, and State in China’s Yellow River Flood of 1938–1947,” Agricultural History 90.1 (Winter 2016): 94–116.

(56.) Rana Mitter, Forgotten Ally, 265–266; Muscolino, The Ecology of War, 96.

(57.) Song Zhixin, ed., 1942: Henan da jihuang [1942: The great Henan famine] (Wuhan: Hubei renmin chubanshe, 2005), 6–7. One jin is equivalent to 1.102 pounds.

(58.) Dagongbao, February 1, 1943; February 2, 1943; Edgerton-Tarpley, “Saving the Nation, Starving the People,” 333–348; Song Zhixin, 42–44.

(59.) Edgerton-Tarpley, “Saving the Nation,” 338–341; and Gao Sulan, ed., Jiang Zhongzheng zongtong dang’an: Shilüe gaoben [The Chiang Kai-Shek Collections: The Chronological Events], vol. 53 (Taipei: Academia Historica, 2011), 234–236.

(60.) Edgerton-Tarpley, “Saving the Nation,” 341–348; and “Zhenzai nengli de shiyan,” Zhongyang ribao, February 4, 1943.

(61.) Diana Lary, The Chinese People at War: Human Suffering and Social Transformation, 1937–1945 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 60.

(62.) The Shanxi-Hebei-Shandong-Henan Border Region was comprised of the Taiyue, Taihang, South Hebei, and Ji-Lu-Yu base areas. David S. G. Goodman, “JinJiLuYu in the Sino-Japanese War: The Border Region and the Border Region Government,” The China Quarterly 140 (December 1994): 1007–1010.

(63.) Edgerton-Tarpley, “Saving the Nation,” 351.

(64.) Jin-Ji-Lu-Yu border area government, “Taihang qu sier, sisan liangnian de jiuzai zongjie,” [Summary of disaster relief in the Taihang area in 1942 and 1943, dated August 1, 1944], in Jin-Ji-Lu-Yu kang Ri genjudi caijing shiliao xuanbian, Henan bufen [Selected historical materials on the finance and economy of the Shanxi-Hebei-Shandong-Henan anti-Japanese base, Henan section], eds. Henan Finance Department and Henan Provincial Archives (Beijing: Dangan chubanshe, 1985), 137, 147. [Hereafter JJLY caijing shiliao].

(65.) JJLY caijing shiliao, 138–140.

(66.) David S. G. Goodman, Social and Political Change in Revolutionary China: The Taihang Base Area in the War of Resistance to Japan, 1937–1945 (Lanham, NY: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), 55; and Li Wenhai, Cheng Xiao, Liu Yangdong, and Xia Mingfang, Zhongguo jindai shida zaihuang [The ten great disasters of China’s modern period] (Shanghai: Shanghai renmin chubanshe, 1994), 292.

(67.) JJLY caijing shiliao, 154–157.

(68.) Li, Fighting Famine, 342.

(69.) O Grada, Famine, 93–97; Cao Shuji, Da Jihuang, 1959–1961 nian de Zhongguo renkou (The Great Famine: China’s population in 1959–1961) (Hong Kong: Time International, 2005), 282; Yang Jisheng, Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958–1962, translated by Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008): ch. 11; Frank Dikotter, Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–1962 (New York: Walker, 2011), 333. The precise demographic impact of the Great Leap Famine remains uncertain and controversial. Official Chinese data released in the early 1980s implies a death toll of 15 million, but more recently Cao Shuji’s careful study puts the total number of “unnatural deaths” at 32.458 million people, while Yang Jisheng gives an estimate of 36 million unnatural deaths. Dikotter estimates “a minimum of 45 million excess deaths.” O Grada calls the evidential basis for the highest claims “flimsy,” but grants that given the gaps in information that remain, “a toll of 25 million is as plausible as 15 million.”

(70.) Thomas Bernstein, “Mao Zedong and the Famine of 1959–1960: A Study in Wilfulness,” The China Quarterly 186 (2006): 421–445; and Xin Meng, Nancy Qian, and Pierre Yared, “The Institutional Causes of China’s Great Famine, 1959–61,” Review of Economic Studies 82 (2015): 1568–1611.

(71.) Hu Angang, The Great Leap Forward: 1957–1965 trans. Hu Guangyu and Vivian C. W. Hui (Singapore: Enrich Professional, 2014), 114.

(72.) Bernstein, “Mao Zedong,” 429–434; Ralph Thaxton Jr., Catastrophe and Contention in Rural China: Mao’s Great Leap Forward Famine and the Origins of Righteous Resistance in Da Fo Village (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), chs. 4–5.

(73.) Hu, The Great Leap Forward, 117–118.

(74.) Penny Kane, Famine in China, 1959–1961: Demographic and Social Implications (London: Macmillan Press, 1988), 137; and Dali Yang, Calamity and Reform in China: State, Rural Society, and Institutional Change Since the Great Leap Famine (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996), 66.

(75.) Thaxton, Catastrophe and Contention, chs. 4–5.

(76.) Hu, The Great Leap Forward, 117; and Yang, Tombstone, ch. 11.

(77.) Jeremy Brown, City Versus Countryside in Mao’s China: Negotiating the Divide (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), ch. 3; Dali Yang, Calamity and Reform, 54–67; Justin Lin Yifu and Dennis Tao Yang, “On the Causes of China’s Agricultural Crisis and the Great Leap Famine.” China Economic Review 9.2 (1998): 132–137; and Chen Yixin, “Kunnan shiqi Anhui nongmin de shengcun wenti” (The subsistence problems of Anhui farmers during the Difficult Period). Ershiyi shiji 72 (2002): 49–58.

(78.) Zhou Xun, ed., The Great Famine in China, 1958–1962, a Documentary History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 94–96; Wang Yanni, “An Introduction to the ABCs of Communization: A Case Study of Macheng County,” in Eating Bitterness, eds. Manning and Wemheuer, 160–162; Nedostup, Superstitious Regimes, 15, chapter 7.

(79.) Zhou, The Great Famine, 94; Walter H. Mallory, China: Land of Famine (New York: American Geographical Society, 1926): 98–100.

(80.) Felix Wemheuer, Famine Politics in Maoist China and The Soviet Union (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 89–93; Jeremy Brown, City Versus Countryside in Mao’s China: Negotiating the Divide (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 34–36; and Anthony Garnaut, “The Geography of the Great Leap Famine,” Modern China 40.3 (2014): 3323–3326.

(81.) Wemheuer, Famine Politics, 65, 73, 148, 247; and Brown, City Versus Countryside, 51, 55–69, 75–76.

(82.) James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 4–5.

(83.) Lyman Miller, Science and Dissent in Post-Mao China: The Politics of Knowledge (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996): 127–128; and Jasper Becker, Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine (New York: Henry Holt, 1996): 54–74.

(84.) Judith Shapiro, Mao’s War Against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), ch. 2.

(85.) Gao Hua, “Food Augmentation Methods and Food Substitutes during the Great Famine,” in Eating Bitterness, 182–191.

(86.) Perdue, “Ecologies of Empire,” 22.

(87.) Wemheuer, Famine Politics, 13, 26–33, 46–61, 240–241.

(88.) For detailed accounts of terror, repression, and violence in Xinyang and elsewhere, see Yang Jisheng, Tombstone, 23–86; Dikotter, Mao’s Great Famine, 287–319; Zhou, The Great Famine, 17–42; and Thaxton, Catastrophe and Contention, 191–198.

(89.) Yang Jisheng, Tombstone, 394–399; Dali Yang, Calamity and Reform, 56–64. Gansu and Henan suffered heavy losses as well, but were not among the top four provinces in terms of the percentage of unnatural deaths.

(90.) Hou Yangfang, “Zhangzheng yu tielu: Jiedu 1942 nian da jihuang de guanjian ci” (War and Railroads: Interpreting key words of the great 1942 famine), Nanfang zhoumo, December 21, 2012.

(91.) Anthony Garnaut, “The Geography of the Great Leap Famine,” 317, 326, 332–339.

(92.) Edgerton-Tarpley, Tears from Iron, chapter 6; Edgerton-Tarpley, “Saving the Nation, Starving the People?” 333–341.

(93.) Wemheuer, Famine Politics, 99–101, 107–110, 119–121. See also Thaxton, Catastrophe and Contention, 191–192.

(94.) Amartya Sen, “Democracy as a Universal Value.” Journal of Democracy 10.3 (1999): 3–17.

(95.) Dali Yang, Calamity and Reform, 72–73.

(96.) Wemheuer, Famine Politics, 144–145.

(97.) Yang, Calamity and Reform, 77–79; Wemheuer, Famine Politics, 145–149; Brown, City Versus Countryside, chapter 4.

(98.) Wemheuer, Famine Politics, 228–233; Brown, City Versus Countryside, 77–86, 105–107.

(99.) Yang, Calamity and Reform, 73, 96–97. Mao turned against the household responsibility system in late 1962, so reform along those lines had to be put on hold until after his death in 1976.

(100.) Important early works include Mallory, China: Land of Famine (1926), and Deng Yunte, Zhongguo jiuhuang shi (The history of famine relief in China) (Beijing: Shangwu yinshuguan, 1937).

(101.) Will, Bureaucracy and Famine; “Food, Famine, and the Chinese State–A Symposium,” Journal of Asian Studies 41.4 (1982): 685–801; Wong and Perdue, “Review Article: Famine’s Foes in Ch’ing China,” 291–332; Will and Wong, Nourish the People. The 1982 symposium includes an introduction by Lillian Li, articles by James Lee, Peter Perdue, and R. Bin Wong, and concluding comments by South Asianist Paul Greenough.

(102.) Will and Wong, Nourish the People, 522–523. See also R. Bin Wong, China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997), 95–101; Edgerton-Tarpley, “Tough Choices,” 135–176.

(103.) Li Wenhai, Jindai Zhongguo zaihuang jinian (A chronological record of disasters in Modern China) (Hunan: Hunan jiaoyu chubanshe, 1990); Li Wenhai, Cheng Xiao, Liu Yangdong, and Xia Mingfang, Zhongguo jindai shi da zaihuang (The ten great famines of China’s modern period) (Shanghai: Shanghai renmin chubanshe, 1994).

(104.) Xia Mingfang, “Cong Qingmo zaihai qun faqi kan Zhongguo zaoqi xiandaihua de lishi tiaojian: zaihuang yu Yangwu Yundong yanjiu zhi yi” (Looking at the historical conditions for China’s early modernization in light of the rise of late-Qing disasters: Part I of research on disasters and the Westernization Movement) Qingshi yanjiu (January 1998): 62–78; Xia, “Zhongguo zaoqi gongyehua jieduan yuanshi jilei guocheng de zaihai shi fenxi” (An analysis of the impact of natural disasters on primitive accumulation during the early stages of industrialization in China) Qingshi yanjiu 1 (1999): 62–81.

(105.) Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts, 9, 15–16, chapter 11.

(106.) Li, Fighting Famine, 73.

(107.) Edgerton-Tarpley, Tears from Iron, Part III; Elvin, “Who Was Responsible for the Weather?,” 213–237; Snyder-Reinke, Dry Spells; Rankin, Elite Activism; and Janku, “Sowing Happiness,” 89–118.

(108.) Xia Mingfang, Minguo shiqi ziran zaihai; Li, Fighting Famine, chs. 10–11; Edgerton-Tarpley, “From ‘Nourish the People,’” 447–469; and Fuller, “Changing Disaster Relief Regimes,” 146–165.

(109.) Fuller, “North China Famine Revisited,” 820–850; Janku, “From Natural to National Disaster,” 227–260; Garnaut, “A Quantitative Description of the Henan Famine,” 2007–2045; Edgerton-Tarpley, “Saving the Nation, Starving the People?” 323–364; and Wou, Mobilizing the Masses; Lary, “The Waters Covered the Earth,” 143–170.

(110.) Muscolino, The Ecology of War, 4, 19–20, ch. 3.

(111.) Ansley Coale, “Population Trends, Population Policy, and Population Studies in China,” Population and Development Review 7 (1981): 85–97; Peng Xizhe, “Demographic Consequences of the Great Leap Forward in China’s Provinces,” Population and Development Review 13.4 (1987); Kane, Famine in China. Scholars continue to debate the death toll of the Great Leap disaster. See Cao Shuji, Da Jihuang; and Zhongwei Zhao and Anna Reimondos, “The Demography of China’s 1958–61 Famine: A Closer Examination,” Population E 67.2 (2012): 281–308.

(112.) Becker, Hungry Ghosts; Yang, Calamity and Reform. For a useful overview of the state of the field by the late 1990s, see Carl Riskin, “Seven Questions about the Chinese Famine of 1959–61,” and the other contributions to a special issue on the famine published in China Economic Review 9.2 (1998): 103–170.

(113.) Manning and Wemheuer, eds., Eating Bitterness; Thaxton, Catastrophe and Contention; Dikotter, Mao’s Great Famine; and Wemheuer, Famine Politics.

(114.) Yang Jisheng, Tombstone; Cao Shuji. Da Jihuang; Song Yongyi and Ding Shu, Dayuejin—dajihuang: lishi he bijiao shiye xia de shishi he sibian (Great Leap Forward—Great Leap Famine: The Truth and Analysis under Historical and Comparative Perspective (Hong Kong: Tianyuan shuwu, 2009).

(115.) Thaxton, Catastrophe and Contention; Brown, City Versus Countryside, ch. 3; Gail Hershatter, The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China’s Collective Past (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011); and Bernstein, “Mao Zedong and the Famine of 1959–60”; Garnaut, “The Geography of the Great Leap Famine,” 315–348.

(116.) Huangchao jingshi wenbian [Anthology of statecraft writings of the Qing dynasty], compilers. Wei Yuan and He Changling, 1827; and Huangchao jingshi wen xubian [Anthology of statecraft writings of the Qing dynasty, continued], comp. Sheng Kang, 1897.

(117.) Li Wenhai, Xia Mingfang, Zhu Hu, compilers, Zhongguo huangzheng shu jicheng (Anthology of works on famine relief in China), 12 vols (Tianjin: Tianjin guji chubanshe, 2010).

(118.) For detailed overviews of published and archival famine-related material from the Qing court and bureaucracy see Li, Fighting Famine, Appendix 2 and bibliography; Will and Wong, Nourish the People, 565–572; and Will, Bureaucracy and Famine, 329–333.

(119.) Major newspapers such as the Shenbao, Dagongbao, Zhongyang ribao, or Jiefang ribao often covered famines and other disasters in detail. Provincial newspapers such as the Henan Minguo ribao, or topical periodicals such as the Buddhist Haichao yin or the relief-focused Jiuzai zhoukan or Zhenzai ribao, are also useful.

(120.) Database of Chinese Great Leap Forward & Great Famine, 1958–1962 (Cambridge, MA: Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies of Harvard University, 2014), available on CD-ROM.

(121.) American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, North China Mission, 1860–1950, 88 vols., Houghton Library, Harvard University; Yale University Library, Mission Periodicals Online; China’s Millions (London: China Inland Mission, 1875–1952); and Timothy Richard, Forty-five Years in China: Reminiscences (New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1916);

(122.) Committee of the China Famine Relief Fund, Report of the Committee of the China Famine Relief Fund (Shanghai: American Presbyterian Mission Press, 1879); American Red Cross, Report of the China Famine Relief, October 1920–September 1921 (Washington, DC: American Red Cross, 1921); Peking United International Famine Relief Committee, The North China Famine of 1920–1921 with Special Reference to the West Chihli Area (Peking, 1922); China International Famine Relief Commission, Annual Report 1929 Series A No. 28 (Peiping, 1929).

(123.) Theodore H. White and Annalee Jacoby, Thunder Out of China (New York: William Sloane, 1946); Harrison Forman Collection, Digital Collections at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; Archives of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), New York.

(124.) Zhou Xun, The Great Famine.