Famine in Imperial and Modern China
- Kathryn Edgerton-TarpleyKathryn Edgerton-TarpleySan Diego State University
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.