The Forgotten ‘Great Chinese Famine’ of 1959

Great Chinese Famine victims
Victims of the Great Chinese Famine

From 1959 to 1961, the Chinese people were decimated, not by a SARS or coronavirus, but by a devastating modern day famine. The death toll, concealed by the Communist government at the time, is still a matter of debate. The consensus however is that at least 30 million people died, though some estimates take it as high as 50 MILLION. The death toll is staggering,  greater than ALL the people killed in World War I. The root cause of the famine remains a taboo subject in the People’s Republic of China even 60 years later.

With its huge population and historically agricultural economy, China is no stranger to famines. Its food production is easily susceptible to droughts, floods, population growth, and wars.  The 3 year Great Chinese Famine of 1958-61 however, was deadlier than any in China’s long history. The causes and numbers of dead have long been hidden by the communists.  Though exacerbated by drought, the GCF was worsened by the strict actions of Chairman Mao and the government in Beijing.

According to the Chinese Communist Party, the GCF was caused by a string of natural disasters, referred to rather innocently as the “Three Years of Difficulties.” In 1959, the Yellow (Huang Ho) River massively flooded, causing ruined crops and thousands of deaths. Almost 100 million acres of farmland was destroyed.  The flood was followed by a severe drought, several typhoons, more flooding, and a plague of insects. In 1960, the prolonged drought caused crop failures in 6 provinces, cutting their food production by more than half.

China’s coastal and southern provinces also bore the brunt of those major typhoons. In 1961, the northern provinces suffered another drought, while the south endured more river flooding.  The bad weather and climate were fairly localized however. Only 10% of Chinese farmland was destroyed. While there is no doubt all these natural disasters had an impact on China’s agriculture, communist mismanagement and bad Maoist policies were far more responsible for the famine to come.

In 1959, Chairman Mao launched his “Great Leap Forward.”

This was a mass mobilization of China’s huge population to achieve, in just a few years, the economic growth it took the West decades to accomplish.  Mao Zedong believed Josef Stalin, who had stressed steel production was the key to national success. Peasants were forced to abandon private farming; and agricultural communes planted less grain. Tens of millions of peasants were ordered to mine iron ore, cut trees for charcoal, build clay furnaces, and make steel. This ill-conceived effort produced mostly brittle cast iron, unfit for even hand tools.

The population now ate in commune kitchens, pots and pans were confiscated, and much farming was simply stopped.  Local Chinese officials exaggerated the effects of those natural disasters in order to justify their low farm yields and appease the Beijing government. At the same time, provinces reported record grain hauls — greatly exaggerating their figures to meet the high government quotas.

Under Chairman Mao, Chinese farmers were required to give all their grain to the government. Some of this grain was then ‘redistributedback to the farmers as their food source. Most, however, was either sent to the biggest Chinese cities, like Shanghai and Beijing, or sold as exports to create the illusion of superior Red China policies.

With the state commandeering all the grain, peasant communes were left with not enough food of their own. Some communes didn’t ration, believing the government would simply send them the promised food relief.  That did not happen.  In reality, grain harvests plummeted due to the shift in manpower to steel production.  By 1959, food shortages outside the cities reached a critical point. Millions in the countryside began starving to death, with famine in a third of China’s provinces.

Chairman Mao then hid or ignored the failings of his own policies.

Mao’s response was to attack any critics, rather than solve the food problem. History was rewritten by the party and the truth covered up.  Taking away private farming, forcing peasants into communes, preferentially supplying food to large cities and continuing grain exports were all Communist Party acts.  To make matters worse, in never acknowledging the great famine, China’s rulers failed to ask for any foreign food aid.

In some communes, a third of the inhabitants die of painful starvation. Survivors are beaten by the military for refusing to hand over what little food they have, or for stealing from the government simply to survive. Millions of Chinese were dying of hunger.  Villages became ghost towns — no chickens, no dogs, even the trees were stripped of bark and eaten.  Those who complained, or tried to leave their province, were sent by the Communist Party to forced labor camps.

Without a doubt, the drought in 1960 didn’t help, but caused only a fraction of the nationwide famine. Meanwhile, in the countryside, the peasants starved. Many resorted to eating grass, leather, even sawdust and dirt. Dogs, cats, rats, mice and insects were all eaten until they too were gone.  The birth rate sank as malnourished women could not carry to term. Insanity and suicide became common place.  2.5 million people are believed to have taken their own lives out of desperation.

Overwhelming hunger made humans behave in desperate ways, including cannibalism.

Government records reported cases where people ate dead bodies and even fought over corpses.  Parents ate their own children. Children ate their parents. Cannibalism was punished by the authorities, but continued nonetheless.  There were also many cases of child abandonment and even child selling. Some starving parents killed their children or elderly relatives to relieve them of their misery.

Movement out of affected regions was banned by the military, while communications were cutoff or censored. The Communist Party arrested or killed those who sought to tell the truth. Propaganda posters celebrated Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward, showing bountiful harvests, happy peasants and fat livestock. The reality throughout China, of course, was very different.

No one imagined there was still grain sitting in the city warehouses, that the government was in fact still exporting. The Red China government concealed the famine, both from its own people and the world.  Food supplies in the large cities then began to dwindle, causing urban death rates to double.  Even these were attributed to the natural disasters.

Chinese peasants waiting for food distribution
Chinese peasants waiting for government food distribution

The Chinese government continued to export grain, sending 7 million tons offshore during the 3 famine years– an amount that could have saved 16 million Chinese lives. The International Red Cross offered food, but this was turned down by Beijing.  Only a return to more reasonable farming policies and food distribution after 1961, including importing desperately needed grain, finally ended the GCF.

At the time, the Great Chinese Famine was virtually ignored by the international press and politicians in the US and Europe.  Eyewitness stories of refugees who had fled to Hong Kong were dismissed and rarely reported during the 3 years of famine.  What are we to make of the Western indifference to the suffering of Red China’s population at the time?  Remember, this was at the height of the US-USSR super power Cold War.  And the Red Chinese were die hard Communists.

Today’s modern China is lightyears from Chairman Mao’s. 

It’s grown from its agricultural and military past into a technology and manufacturing superpower.  There is hope that new generations of Chinese leaders may be willing to revisit the country’s past and acknowledge the mistakes that were made. The archives of the Chinese Communist Party will hopefully someday be opened and yield those long hidden secrets. Even then, we will perhaps never know exactly how many millions of Chinese people perished due to starvation during those three terrible years of the great famine.

For future posts, click FOLLOW below.  For more by historical writer Paul Andrews, click BOOKS in the menu.

Similar posts: Why the Chinese Boxer Rebellion should sound familiar

Published by andrewspaulw

LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

One thought on “The Forgotten ‘Great Chinese Famine’ of 1959

  1. Magnificent site. Plenty of useful information here. I’m sending it to some pals ans additionally sharing in delicious. And obviously, thank you in your sweat!

Leave a Reply