Revolutionary China

The Famine of 1959-1961 in China

Revolutionary China

Penny Kane, traces the causes and consequences of the famine of 1959-1961 in which at least fourteen million died. It is much debated as to whether the Communist 'Great Leap Forward' in 1958 contributed to this disaster. This article first appeared in China Now 1990.

The Chinese famine of 1959-1961

The famine has remained one of the least known episodes of modern history. This is due to the reluctance of Chinese to release information about it and, for many individuals, even to discuss a time remembered as deeply painful. There is no understatement about the phrase so often used to describe it: the 'Three Terrible Years'.

Equally important has been the lack of reliable data. Facts and figures, if available at all, were so distorted during the Great Leap Forward (GLF) - which much exacerbated the disaster - that until recently they were largely unusable.

The situation changed, to some extent, with the release of the 1983 China Yearbook, with its time series of statistics. These had been checked and carefully evaluated so that the State Statistical Bureau could describe them as 'reliable on the whole', despite 'a certain amount of estimation'.

Calculating the tragedy

The other major recent sources are the 1982 Census and the One Per Thousand Fertility Survey, which asked women about their entire childbearing history. The Fertility Survey traced many births and deaths which had never been registered and had therefore not been included in official figures.

It is now possible to trace at least some of the causes of the famine and its consequences. The most dramatic of the famine effects is the number of people who died. It appears that them were between 14 million and 26 million excess deaths over the three years - that is, additional deaths above the normal, expected levels.

As is frequently the case in a famine, the most productive family members tend to get preferential treatment, so infants and small children (especially girls) were particularly vulnerable, as were old people.

Manual construction
Manual construction of an hydro-electric plant Langdian (Liangtien), Luzhuan (Luchuan) 1970

Town and countryside affected

While the number of deaths was highest among peasants, death rates doubled in both rural and urban areas. This suggests that food shortages were very widespread. In famines elsewhere, cities have usually tended to do better, both because urban people have greater purchasing power and because governments are especially anxious to avoid urban unrest.

Since 1988, death rates have been examined for 18 Chinese provinces. 'These show that Sichuan and Gansu began to suffer as early as 1958, and those two provinces, together with Hunan, Guizhou, Guangxi and Anhui, had levels of deaths during the whole period which were more than two-and-a-half times the normal ones. The crisis was most acute in the north and west of China. Provinces of the far north and south east escaped relatively lightly.

Because of the famine, in many areas marriages were postponed. This was probably due to the difficulty of providing a bride-price, and money for the marriage ceremonies, as well as to the reluctance of the man's family to take in an extra mouth.

Even when a couple did marry, births were postponed or avoided. In the years 1959 to 1961, there were between 21 million and 34 million fewer births than would have been expected by comparison with 'normal' years. Malnutrition would also in any case have reduced people's fertility.

In general, such losses seem to have followed much the same provincial pattern as the excess deaths, with Sichuan and Anhui having the greatest losses and the far north and south east the most moderate ones.

We shall probably never fully know what led to the famine, but a number of contradictory factors can be identified. The most immediate one was the series of floods and droughts which China experienced between 1958 and 1960. Natural hazards occur in China every year, but in those particular years every province except Xinjiang and Tibet suffered, and drought, in particular, was unusually bad.

A policy-led disaster

Food production was also affected by the rushed introduction of the People's Communes. Between August and November 1958, almost all the co-operatives were said to have merged into communes. These were large, incorporating an average of 30 co-operatives or 25,000 people, and their hasty creation led to poor organisation and administration. Many peasants distrusted the whole idea (especially as it was not originally clear how they were to be compensated) and killed off pigs or hid other stores.

The drive to establish communes was bound up with the mass campaign of the Great Leap, which fuelled the crisis in a number of ways. The call to make steel through decentralised, small-scale smelting took millions of people from their work in the fields. Equally ambitious agricultural projects, such as dams, took away more peasant labour. Marshall Peng Dehuai, the Leap's critic, wrote a poem:

“... To harvest the grain there are small children and old women. How shall we get through next year?”

Common mess-halls, introduced in many places with the communes, often resulted in waste. The cooks were inexperienced or over-ambitious; the peasants less frugal with a collective food supply than they would have been with their own.

Lies, damn lines and statistics

But the worst of the GLFs effects was the lies it generated. Boastful claims about output were capped by more boastful ones, and these in turn by sheer fantasy. Nobody - least of all the government knew the real output figures; nobody, in the mood of euphoria, cared.

The euphoria extended to the peasants. Since the 1949 Liberation, each year had seen them better off. Their belief that things could only go on getting better led to unusual extravagance on the part of people who had little experience of any margin for saving.

In an atmosphere where targets had only to be set to be 'exceeded', government policies of grain procurement (vital to ensuring that the cities, grain-poor areas and those hit by natural disaster were fed) became hopelessly unrealistic. Acceptance of absurd production claims meant that the authorities set grain quotas which left some areas with insufficient stocks.

When this became apparent, getting grain back to the hungry peasants was hampered both by the inadequate transport system (already over-stretched by the logistics of a border war with India) and by Mao Zedong's cynicism about the cries for help. Peasants, as he well knew, always hid grain: the exposure of hidden supplies in some provinces reinforced his assumption that there was plenty more to find.

Political rivalry

The early pall of the famine saw the government preoccupied with foreign affairs and especially the deteriorating relationship with the Soviet Union. The 'exaggeration wind' of the GLF suggested that all was better than well on the home front; it could safely be ignored. Marshall Peng's efforts to alert the policy-makers were sadly clumsy, and Mao saw them in the context of a leadership struggle. Thus he refused to accept the truth.

On average during the 1950s, national grain surpluses exceeded regional deficits by the small margin of just over a million tons. Any one of the factors described here would probably have been enough to tilt the balance and result in severe hunger in parts, at least, of China. In combination, they brought grain output down from around 190-200 million tons in a 'normal' year to 170 in 1959 and less than 150 million in 1960 and 1961. The result was the greatest - if not the most acute famine in modern history.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2006, reprinted from SACU's magazine China Now 133, Page 24, March 1990

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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