Emaciated Chinese boy, a victim of famine. Historic photo dating to the early nineteenth century.

Descriptions of famine punctuate China’s historical records. Conditions such as drought, flood, or war caused famine conditions, but official response (or lack of it) often exacerbated their severity. Since the late 1970s, death from famine conditions has all but disappeared from China, to be replaced by disorders more akin to those of modern developed nations, such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

Famine is a result of multiple political, economic, social, and ecological disorders that combine to produce an overwhelming number of deaths from starvation and epidemic disease. An examination of Chinese famines and Chinese official responses to famine conditions reveals universal features that apply to both traditional and modern times. Famine descriptions punctuate China’s historical records, with one survey noting that eighteen hundred famines were recorded between 108 BCE and 1929. Chinese record keepers were careful to document that, in most cases, actual famine conditions did not result directly from drought, flood, war, or neglected infrastructure, but rather from failures of official intervention in the face of widespread distress of the population.

Traditional Relief and Prevention

Famine relief and prevention traditionally formed an inherent part of China’s official responsibility for the welfare of its population. Historical literature describes different episodes of famine and explains direct, indirect, and long-term measures for dealing with famine conditions. Lists of precipitating events point to differences between so-called heavenly calamities, such as drought or flood, and calamities linked to human causes, such as political ineptitude, rebellion, or war. Scarcities produced by transferring or removing grain from distribution centers and failure to maintain irrigation works, dikes, and transport networks are classified as human causes.

A guiding principle in dealing with famine called for relief efforts to be administered according to circumstances. Local investigators described famine conditions in terms of degrees of hunger or the amount of food available per person during a given period. Immediate, or direct, relief measures included food and cash distributions to halt starvation. Indirect measures included tax relief, seed distributions to restore agricultural productivity, and work-relief projects to repair famine-related damage. Long-term relief measures included plans for water conservancy and programs to help settle famine refugees on unused land. Officials often planned projects ahead of actual needs so that they could be implemented quickly and without controversy.

An examination of Chinese official responses to famine conditions reveals that, overall, relief efforts succeeded best when China had a strong central order to mobilize physical and economic resources on behalf of popular welfare. When the central order was weak, millions were doomed. A hallmark of Chinese famine intervention called for grain storage to protect against the dangers of crop failures. China’s “ever normal granaries” served the dual goals of price stabilization and food relief by permitting officials to sell grain at reduced prices and to arrange grain transfers to avert hoarding and price gouging.

Historical data reveal that, by the mid-nineteenth century, the Chinese state could not mobilize resources necessary to carry out effective famine relief and that famine conditions occurred somewhere in China almost every year throughout the first half of the twentieth century.

Foreign Intervention

Foreigners in China during the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries made repeated attempts to provide famine relief, but they confronted a system in decline and their efforts never evolved into coherent programs. Foreign efforts did, however, address issues to confront a variety of relief agents and agencies in China with ways of handling the problem. One was foreign insistence that China needed long-term physical and economic improvements before the constant threat of famine could be eliminated. A second proposed that the necessary improvements be instituted and run by foreign agencies and personnel. A third issue concerned negative reports that discouraged foreign donors and governments from contributing to Chinese official relief efforts.

Chinese officials regularly accepted foreign food and money for short-term relief and, with equal regularity, rejected long-term relief proposals for projects designed to be owned and run by foreigners. Ultimately, foreign relief efforts emulated Chinese trends. They succeeded best when they had strong external political support. They failed when foreign governments determined that conditions for relief were hopeless and resisted supporting agents and agencies operating in China.

China and the Great Leap Famine

Establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 brought dramatic improvements in medical care, disease prevention, and agricultural production. For a time it seemed as if official priority given to eliminating famine would bring positive results. Food production and distribution came under strict central controls, and the state gave high priority to increasing food supplies and improving transport networks. But changing state policies produced disaster as outside assistance was halted, agriculture became collectivized, demands for huge quotas could not be met, and limited resources could not be distributed equitably. An estimated 30 million people died of starvation and disease during the Great Leap Famine of 1958–1962. It is now referred to as the worst famine in human history. A consensus holds that it was human made and that it resulted primarily from political failures associated with the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s abortive effort to encourage rural industrialization at the expense of agriculture.

The years following Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 heralded rapid transformations in all sectors of China’s economy, including food security. The specter of famine faded. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, China demonstrated adequate food supply, positive economic growth, and official policies supporting appropriate responses to both chronic and emergency food needs.

China’s enormous success in ending the threat of famine had a negative side. Twenty-first-century Chinese food consumption patterns began to emulate Western practices. Chinese levels of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease rose to levels formerly found only in modern developed nations.

Instead of facing the dread issues associated with widespread death from starvation, twenty-first-century Chinese leaders confronted new issues associated with feeding the population, including policy research, public education in nutrition, and official support for programs to combat the causes and effects of obesity.

Further Reading

At China’s table: Food security options. (2007). China 2020 Series: A World Bank Publication. Washington, DC: The World Bank.

Becker, J. (1966). Hungry ghosts: Mao’s secret famine. New York: Henry Holt.

Bohr, P. R. (1972). Famine in China and the missionary: Timothy Richard as relief administrator and advocate of national ref
orm, 1876–1884.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Chang Chung-li. (1974). The Chinese gentry. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Golkin, A. T. (1987). Famine: A heritage of hunger. Claremont, CA: Regina Press.

Golkin, A. T. (1990). American missionaries and the politics of famine relief to China. In P. Neils (Ed.), United States attitudes toward China: The impact of American missionaries. New York: M. E. Sharpe.

Tawney, R. H. (1932). Land and labour in China. New York: M. E. Sharpe.

Will, P. E., & Wong, R. B. (1991). Nourish the people: The state civilian granary system in China, 1650–1850. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies.

Source: Golkin-Kadonaga, Arline. (2009). Famine. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 795–797. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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