Great Chinese Famine


The Great Chinese Famine (Chinese 三年大饑荒 三年大饥荒, pinyin Sānnián dà jīhuāng – “The Three-Year Great Chinese Famine”) occurred in the People”s Republic of China in 1959-1961. Some scholars also included the year 1958 or 1962. The years of starvation are also referred to as “the three bitter years” in China. Estimates of the dead range from 15 to 55 million people. It is generally considered the greatest famine in human history as well as one of the greatest man-made disasters.

Before June 1981, the Communist Party of China called it the “Three-Year Natural Disaster” (三年自然災害 三年自然灾害, Sānnián zìrán zāihài).

Beginning in June 1981, the Chinese Communist Party called it the “Three-Year Difficulty Period” (三年困難時期 三年困难时期, Sānnián kùnnán shíqī).

According to the China Statistical Yearbook, grain production fell from 200 million tons (1958) to 143.5 million tons (1960).

Number of fatalities

According to government statistics, 15 million people died during the famine. Unofficial estimates vary, but researchers put the number of starvation deaths at between 20 and 43 million. Historian Frank Dikötter, who was granted special access to Chinese archival material, estimates that there were at least 45 million premature deaths between the years 1958 and 1962. Chinese journalist Yang Jisheng concluded that there were 36 million deaths from starvation, while another 40 million were not born, so that “China”s total population loss during the Great Famine then comes to 76 million.” (German: “China”s total population loss during the Great Famine then comes to 76 million.”) The term “Three Bitter Years” is often used by Chinese farmers to describe this period.

The officially reported death rate showed a much more dramatic increase in some provinces and counties. For example, in Sichuan Province, China”s most populous province, the government reported 11 million deaths out of an average population of about 70 million between 1958 and 1961, and in Huaibin County, the government reported 102,000 deaths out of a population of 378,000 (1960). At the national level, official statistics include about 15 million so-called “excess deaths” or “abnormal deaths,” most due to starvation.

Yu Dehong, secretary of a party official in Xinyang (1959 and 1960), claimed,

Overwhelmingly, the view is that the government greatly understated the death toll: Lu Baoguo, a reporter in Xinyang for the Xinhua newspaper, told Yang Jisheng about why he never reported his experience:

Most researchers estimate the death toll at between 15 and 55 million. Some Western analysts, such as Patricia Buckley Ebrey (University of Washington), estimate that about 20-45 million people died of starvation caused by poor government policies and natural disasters.


There are extensive oral accounts, as well as some official documentation, of cannibalism occurring in various forms as a result of the famine. Due to the scale of the famine, the resulting cannibalism has been described as unprecedented in the history of the 20th century.

Great leap forward

The Great Chinese Famine was caused by social pressure, economic mismanagement and a radical restructuring of agriculture. Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, introduced drastic changes in agriculture that prohibited private ownership. Violations of this led to persecution. The social pressure imposed on citizens regarding agriculture and commerce, which was controlled by the government, led to state instability. Due to the laws passed during the Great Leap Forward between 1958 and 1962, according to government statistics, approximately 36 million people died during this period.

During the Great Leap Forward, agriculture was organized into people”s communes and private cultivation was banned.

Yang Jisheng summarized the impact of the focus on production targets in 2008 as follows:

For their part, local party leaders conspired to cover up failures and blame others in order to protect their own lives and positions. In one famous example, it was announced that Mao Zedong was going to visit a local agricultural commune in Shaanxi Province in the midst of the greatest famine to personally assess conditions. In preparation for his visit, local Party officials ordered hundreds of starving farmers to carefully uproot hundreds of thousands of stalks of grain by hand and then transplant them from nearby farms into a “sample field,” which was subsequently shown to Mao as proof that the harvest had not failed. Similar to the severe partial anthropogenic famine in the USSR that affected Ukraine the worst (Holodomor), doctors were forbidden to list “starvation” as the cause of death on death certificates. A famous propaganda picture of the famine shows Chinese children from Shandong province apparently standing on a wheat field that had grown so thick that it could support their weight. In fact, they were standing on a bench hidden below the plants, and the “field” consisted entirely of individually transplanted stalks.

Simultaneously with collectivization, the central government decreed several changes in farming techniques based on the ideas of the Soviet pseudoscientist Trofim Denisovich Lyssenko. One of these ideas was to plant the fields to be cultivated more closely, first tripling the density of seedlings and then doubling it again, which resulted in the seeds being virtually planted on top of each other.

Institutional policy

According to the work of economist and famine expert Amartya Sen, most famines do not simply result from lower food production, but also from inappropriate or inefficient food distribution, often coupled with a lack of information or even disinformation regarding the extent of the problem. In the case of these Chinese famines, the urban population (under the dictates of Maoism) had protected legal rights to a certain amount of grain consumption, while the peasantry had been granted no such rights and were subject to non-negotiable production quotas on whose surplus they had to survive. As local officials in the countryside competed with each other in exaggerating the production levels that their own communities had achieved in implementing the new economic organization, the local peasants were left with less and less surplus if they were to meet the quotas, and eventually there was no surplus at all. When they finally failed to achieve even the quotas needed to feed the cities, peasant farmers were falsely accused of hoarding, profiteering, and other counterrevolutionary activities by the Chinese Communist Party, which cited the massively inflated production estimates of local party leaders as evidence.

However, there was disagreement about the significance of the drought and floods in triggering the Great Famine. According to published data from the Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences (中国气象科学研究院), the drought in 1960 was not unusual and its severity was only classified as “mild” compared to other years – it was less severe than those in 1955. 1963, 1965-1967 and so on. Moreover, Xue Muqiao (薛暮桥), then head of the National Bureau of Statistics of China, is reported to have said in 1958 that “we give whatever figures the superior wants” in order to exaggerate natural disasters and exonerate official responsibility for deaths due to starvation. Yang Jishen claimed he had examined other sources, including a nongovernmental archive of meteorological data from 350 weather stations across China, and the droughts, floods, and temperatures between 1958 and 1961 were within typical patterns for China. Some scientists also pointed out that the negative effects of the 1959-1961 climate were local at best and definitely not the main cause of the three-year famine that spread throughout the country. Under conditions of abundant food supply, even in the event of a major disaster, farmers have the energy and enthusiasm to keep disaster losses to a minimum.

Amartya Sen places this famine in a global context. His book Development as Freedom claims that the main culprit is the lack of democracy. He adds that it is “hard to imagine that anything like this could happen in a country where people go to the polls and where there is an independent press. During this terrible disaster, the government was not subject to any pressure from news papers, which were controlled, or from opposition parties, which did not exist.” Nonetheless, Sen notes in his Hunger and Public Action that “despite the gigantic scale of excessive mortality in the Chinese famine, the extraordinary mortality in India from regular shortages was already at normal times those considerably This view is also reflected in Noam Chomsky in Rogue States: The Rule of Force in World Affairs.


  1. Große Chinesische Hungersnot
  2. Great Chinese Famine
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