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Encyclopedia > Great Chinese Famine

The Three Years of Natural Disasters (S:三年自然灾害; T:三年自然災害; pinyin: sān nián zì rán zāi hài) refers to the period in the People's Republic of China between 1959 and 1961, in which a combination of poor economic planning and rounds of natural disasters caused widespread famine. "Three Years of Economic Difficulty" and "Three Bitter Years" are also used by Chinese officials to describe this period. Simplified Chinese characters (Simplified Chinese: 简体字; Traditional Chinese: 簡體字; pinyin: jiǎntǐzì; also called 简化字/簡化字, jiǎnhuàzì) are one of two standard character sets of printed contemporary Chinese written language. ... Traditional Chinese characters are one of two standard character sets of printed contemporary Chinese written language. ... Pinyin (Chinese: 拼音, pÄ«nyÄ«n) literally means join (together) sounds (a less literal translation being phoneticize, spell or transcription) in Chinese and usually refers to HànyÇ” PÄ«nyÄ«n (汉语拼音, literal meaning: Han language pinyin), which is a system of romanization (phonemic notation and transcription to Roman script) for Standard... 1959 (MCMLIX) was a common year starting on Thursday of the Gregorian calendar. ... 1961 (MCMLXI) was a common year starting on Sunday (link will take you to calendar). ...



During the Great Leap Forward, farming was organized into communes. In addition, a dangerous number of farmers (estimated 90 million) were working in urban centers on steel production. The population of mainland China was estimated to be about 672,070,000 at 1959. Peoples communes (人民公社 Pinyin: renmin gongshe), in the Peoples Republic of China, were formerly the highest of three administrative levels in rural areas in the period from 1958 to 1982-85, when they were replaced by townships. ...

One cause of the famine was ignorance on the part of both peasants and officials. Peasants across China were urged to plow deeply into the soil, believing that the most fertile soil was deep in the earth. However, useless rocks, soil, and sand were driven up instead, burying the topsoil. In order to increase agricultural output, peasants also planted many more seeds, resulting in the stunted growth of many crops.

Furthermore, droughts, floods, and general bad weather caught China completely by surprise. In July of 1959, the Yellow River flooded in East China. According to the Disaster Center[1], it directly killed, either through starvation from crop failure or drowning, an estimated 3 million people, while other areas were affected in other ways as well. It is ranked as the seventh deadliest natural disaster in the 20th century.

In 1960, at least some degree of drought and other bad weather affected 55 percent of cultivated land while an estimated 60 percent of agricultural land received no rain at all [2].

The Encyclopædia Britannica Yearbooks for 1958 to 1962 speak of abnormal weather, and droughts followed by floods. This includes 30 inches of rain at Hong Kong in five days in June 1959, part of a pattern that hit all of South China.

There was also an occurrence of 'El Nino' for 1957-8, though no one knew it existed until the 1960s. This global weather pattern typically 'lagged' and hit China a year or two after the global shift. See The Origins of the Third World for more details.

Some also believe that if China and America had been at better terms, the number of starvations would have been much less. America had a trade embargo on China at the time and pressured allies to do the same, while the Chinese often gave false statistics about the famine that was occurring.


According to China Statistical Yearbook (1984), crop production decreased from 2,000,000 tons (1958) to 1,435,000 tons (1960). Due to lack of food and incentive to marry at that point in time, the population was about 658,590,000 in 1961, about 13,480,000 less than the population of 1959. Birth rate decreased from 2.922% (1958) to 2.086% (1960) and death rate increased from 1.198 (1958) to 2.543 (1960), while the average numbers for 1962-1965 are about 4% and 1%, respectively.

The official estimated death toll in this period is about 15 million dead of starvation out of a total 40 million deaths. Many analysts have estimated that the number of "abnormal deaths" ranged from 10 millon to 100 million. Some western analysts such as Patricia Buckley Ebrey estimate that about 20-40 million people had died of starvation caused by bad government policy and natural disasters. J. Banister estimates this number is about 23 million. Li Chengrui, a former minister of the National Bureau of Statistics of China, estimated 22 million (1998). His estimation was based on Ansley J. Coale and Jiang Zhenghua's estimation of 17 million. Cao Shuji estimated 32.5 million.

Estimations vary largely because of inaccurate data. According to Wim F Werthheim, emeritus professor from the University of Amsterdam, in the article "Wild Swans and Mao's Agrarian Strategy";

Often it is argued that at the censuses of the 1960s "between 17 and 29 millions of Chinese" appeared to be missing, in comparison with the official census figures from the 1950s. But these calculations are lacking any semblance of reliability...it is hard to believe that suddenly, within a rather short period (1953-1960), the total population of China had risen from 450 [million] to 600 million.[[3]]

Chinese expert of demography, Dr Ping-ti Ho, professor of history at the University of Chicago, in a book titled Studies on the Population of China, 1368-1953, Harvard East Asian Studies No 4, 1959, mentions that:

My conclusion is that the claim that in the 1960s a number between 17 [million] and 29 million people was "missing" is worthless if there was never any certainty about the 600 millions of Chinese. Most probably these "missing people" did not starve in the calamity years 1960-61, but in fact have never existed. [[4]]


See also: Great Leap Forward (1958-1960) The Great Leap Forward (Simplified Chinese: 大跃进; Traditional Chinese: 大躍進; pinyin: ) was a campaign by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of the Peoples Republic of China from 1958 to early 1962 aimed at using mainland Chinas plentiful supply of cheap labor to rapidly industrialize the country. ... 1958 (MCMLVIII) was a common year starting on Wednesday of the Gregorian calendar. ... 1960 (MCMLX) was a leap year starting on Friday (link will take you to calendar). ...


  • China Statistical Yearbook (1984), edited by State Statistical Bureau. China Statistical Publishing House, 1984.Page 83,141,190
  • China Statistical Yearbook (1991), edited by State Statistical Bureau. China Statistical Publishing House, 1991.
  • China Population Statistical Yearbook(1985), edited by State Statistical Bureau. China Statistical Bureau Publishing House, 1985.
  • J. Banister. "Analysis of recent data on the population of China", Population and Development, Vol.10, No.2, 1984
  • Li Chengrui(李成瑞): Population Change Caused by The Great Leap Movement, Demographic Study, No.1, 1998 pp. 97-111
  • Jiang Zhenghua(蒋正华),Method and Result of China Population Dynamic Estimation, Academic Report of Xi'an University, 1986(3). pp46,84
  • Ansley J. Coale, Rapid population change in China, 1952-1982, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 1984.
  • Basil Ashton, Kenneth Hill, Alan Piazza, Robin Zeitz, "Famine in China, 1958-61", Population and Development Review, Vol. 10, No. 4. (Dec., 1984), pp. 613-645.
  • Xizhe Peng, "Demographic Consequences of the Great Leap Forward in China's Provinces", Population and Development Review, Vol. 13, No.4. (Dec., 1987), pp. 639-670
  • Cao Shuji,The deaths of China's population and its contributing factors during 1959-1961. China's Population Science (Jan.2005) (In Chinese)

Official Chinese statistics, shown as a graph.

Death rates in several Asian nations, 1960 to 1994.[5]



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