Great Chinese Famine (1959-1961)

Famine remains one of the least known episodes in modern Chinese history. This is due to the reluctance of the Chinese to publicize this kind of information, and for many people, even the mention of those times hurts. It is not for nothing that the phrase “Three bitter years” is used to describe this disaster.

Equally important is the lack of reliable data. Facts and figures, if they are real at all, were so distorted during the Great Leap Forward that, until recently, they were largely unusable.

The situation changed, to some extent, with the release in 1983 of the “Chinese Yearbook” with a statistical summary of those years. The figures have been checked and carefully evaluated so that the State Statistical Office could describe them as “generally reliable, despite“ a certain amount of value judgment ”.

Scary numbers

Other important sources for data collection are the 1982 census and the infant survival rate per thousand survey, in which women were asked about their entire childbearing history. This study helps to track the large number of deaths and births that were never recorded and therefore were not included in the official figures.

It is now possible to analyze at least some of the causes of hunger and its consequences. The most tragic thing in this story is the number of victims. It looks like it ranges from 14 to 26 million deaths in three years – that is, “excess” deaths are higher than the ordinary, normal mortality rate.

As is often the case with hunger, working adult family members tended to receive preferences, so infants and young children (especially girls) were the most vulnerable, as were the elderly.

The impact of hunger on cities and villages

While the number of deaths among peasants was off the charts, mortality rates have doubled in both rural and urban areas. This suggests that food shortages were widespread. Urban famine tends to have a higher survival rate than elsewhere, because urban dwellers have greater purchasing power and because governments are particularly concerned about avoiding unrest in densely populated areas.

Since 1988, mortality rates have been analyzed in 18 Chinese provinces. The analysis shows that Sichuan and Gansu began to suffer as early as 1958, and these two provinces, together with Hunan, Guizhou, Guangxi and Anhui, had mortality rates more than two and a half times higher than normal during the entire disaster. The crisis was most acutely felt in the north and west of China. The northernmost and southeastern provinces survived the famine relatively easily.

Due to famine, weddings were postponed in many areas. This is probably due to problems with the bride ransom and fundraising for marriage ceremonies, as well as the unwillingness of the husband’s family to take on an extra mouth.

Even when people were already getting married, the birth of children was postponed indefinitely. From 1959 to 1961, fertility rates were between 21 and 34 million lower than expected compared to normal levels. Malnutrition, in any case, negatively affected the reproductive functions of people.

Scary facts

Many Western sources note that the Chinese people reached that terrible measure of despair when cannibalism, the sale of human flesh on the market, the exchange of children, so that people could use them for food, without committing the sin of infanticide – not eating their own, became widespread.

Between 2 and 3 million people were tortured to death or executed, often for the slightest violation. People accused of insufficiently diligent labor were hung and beaten; sometimes they were tied up and thrown into ponds. The source describes quite fantastic punishments: for minor violations, they injured and forced to eat excrement.

A report from November 30, 1960, circulated to senior management, described how a man named Wang had his ear cut off, his legs were tied with metal wire, and a 10-kilogram stone was thrown on his back before he was branded with a red-hot iron. Wang’s whole crime was that he dug up potatoes.

We draw your attention to the fact that information about all the horrors was taken from Western sources that do not favor the Communist Party in general, so it remains to be hoped that not everything was so bad.

The causes of hunger

We may never fully understand what led to hunger, but there are a number of conflicting factors that can be analyzed. The most obvious cause was a series of floods and droughts that China experienced between 1958 and 1960. Natural disasters occur in China every year, but during this particular period every province was affected except Xinjiang and Tibet, in particular, there was an unusually severe drought.

Food production has also suffered from the massive introduction of the people’s communes. In the period from August to November 1958, almost all farms were united into communes. The communes were large, with an average of 30 farms or 25,000 people, and the haste to establish them led to poor organization and management. Many peasants did not believe at all in the idea of ​​communes (especially since it was not initially clear what compensation they were entitled to), so they killed their pigs and hid food supplies.

Public canteens, introduced in many communes, often resulted in excessive spoilage of food. The chefs were inexperienced or too ambitious; peasants with collective food products were not particularly scrupulous.

The widespread planting of communes was associated with the massive Great Leap Forward campaign, which fueled the crisis in a number of ways. They decided to decentralize the steel production, small volumes of smelting took millions of people from the field work. No less ambitious agricultural projects like dams have swallowed up even more peasant labor. Peng Dehuai, critic of The Jump, wrote in one of his poems: “… Only small children and old women were left to harvest the grain. How will we get through the next year? ”


And yet, this problem, like many others, was overcome by the Chinese people. Grain harvests began to grow, and the widespread creation of common farms also sprouted. Now Chinese grocery stores and markets can amaze not only with the variety of assortments, but also with the amount of inexpensive and tasty food. Now the question of excess weight among the now numerous middle class of the Middle Kingdom is entering the arena, but this is a topic for another article.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments