an 1878 illustration of famine victims selling a child

Chinese history has been shaped very much by food supply, hunger and famine. Historians have shown that peasant uprisings and revolutions have tended to occur during times of high food prices and large population increases while periods of stability have tended to occur when there was enough food to feed everybody.

During the Tang dynasty (618 to 907) arts and ideas flourished when record rice harvests were being recorded, but the entire dynasty began to collapse when the rising population began to outstrip the food supply. An Arab traveler to China at end of the Tang dynasty wrote that “Chinese law permits the eating of human flesh, and this flesh is sold publically in markets" as a means of providing enough food In the 11th and 12th centuries, China imported rice from Vietnamese but still suffered from food shortages.

Migration patterns were also defined by the food supply. The population of Hunan increased fivefold between the 8th and 11th century with mass migrations of Han Chinese and the establishment of the region as one of the granaries of China.

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Major Famine in China

In 875–884, a famines caused a peasant rebellion in which Huang Chao, captured Tang Dynasty capital. Huang Chao was a Chinese smuggler, soldier, and rebel. The rebellion greatly that weakened the Tang dynasty. In the 14th century a series of epidemics and famines killed an estimated 35 million people — one in three Chinese. It is estimated that six million died of starvation during the Great Famine of 1333 and 1337. A Famine in China in 1630–1631 in northwestern China contributed to the collapse of the Ming dynasty in 1644. Estimate on the number of people that died in these famines is sketchy at best. [Source: Wikipedia]

In 1810, 1811, 1846, 1849 there were famines. The number of dead is unknown. The population declined by 45 million decrease but it is difficult to say how many died and how many emigrated or avoided censuses to evade taxes

Famines, drought and war associated with the Nian Rebellion and Taiping Rebellion in 1850–1873 killed millions, may tens of millions. Deaths and lower life expectancies were attributed to famine and disease. Nian Rebellion and Taiping Rebellion claimed between be 10 million and 30 million people.

Northern Chinese Famine of 1901 struck Shanxi, Shaanxi, Inner Mongolia and killed about 200,000 people in Shanxi, the worst hit province. A drought from 1898-1901 led to a fear of famine, which was a leading cause of Boxer Rebellion. The famine eventually came in Spring 1901.

Chinese famine of 1906–1907 occurred in northern Anhui and northern Jiangsu. A famine in of 1920-1921 killed about 500,000 people in Henan, Shandong, Shanxi, Shaanxi, southern Zhili (Hebei). Three million starved to death during the devastating drought in the provinces of Hunan, Gansu and Shaanxi in 1928 and 1929. Drought, wartime constraints, and inefficiency of relief led to almost 6 million deaths from 1928 to 1930. The Sichuan famine 1936–1937 Sichuan and Gansu killed as many as 5 million people and produced 50 million 'famine refugees' (some may have taken refuge due to the civil war. The 1942–1943 famine mainly in Henan in the Second Sino-Japanese War killed between 700,000 and 7-1 million people.

There was also hunger and starvation under Mao during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The two greatest famines in the 20th century were in China in the 1950s and 1960s and the Ukraine in the 1930s. The Great Chinese Famine of 1959–61 affected half of China, particularly Anhui (where 18 percent of the population died), Chongqing (where 15 percent died), Sichuan (13 percent died), Guizhou (11 percent died) and Hunan (8 percent died). The Great Leap Forward and the famines, floods, droughts, typhoons and insect invasion that are associated with and occurred during it lead to the death of 17 million to 45 million people.

Famine in 1877-78

A three year drought from 1876 to 1879 in central China resulted in a famine that affected 70 million Chinese and left perhaps nine million dead. According to some reports people turned to slavery, murder and cannibalism to survive and children were sold in the markets as food, it is said. There were so many bodies that huge graves, known as "10,000-man holes," were dug. Because of the secretive nature of the Manchu dynasty no one in West knew of the disaster until a year after it was over.

The Northern Chinese Famine of 1876–1879, caused bydrought-induced crop failures began in 1875. Between 9.5 and 13 million people in China died, mostly in Shanxi province (5.5 million dead), but also in Zhili (now Hebei, 2.5 million dead), Henan (1 million) and Shandong (500,000). The population reduction in censuses, which include famine migration, shows a drop of 23 million people, among which Shanxi lost 48 percent (8.18 million), Shaanxi lost 25 percent (2.43 million), and Henan lost 22 percent (7.48 million). The drought was influenced by the El Niño-Southern Oscillation. [Source: Wikipedia]

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”, published in 1894: The recollection of the terrible sufferings in the famine of 1877-78, which involved untold millions of people, will not soon fade from the memories of those who were witnesses of that distress. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894. Smith (1845 -1932) was an American missionary who spent 54 years in China. In the 1920s, “Chinese Characteristics” was still the most widely read book on China among foreign residents there. He spent much of his time in Pangzhuang, a village in Shandong.]

Self-preservation is the first law of nature, and what is more natural than that those who through no preventible causes have been suddenly brought to starvation, should combine to compel those who have food, to share with those who have none? While it is true that relief is extended in a certain way, in some large cities, and where the poor sufferers are most congregated, it is also true that this relief is limited in quantity, brief in duration, and does not provide the smallest remedy for more than a minute percentage of even the worst distress. Toward the prolongation of the lives of those who suffer from great calamities, the government feels itself able to do but a trifle. Toward the reclamation of their land, the reconstruction of their houses, and the resumption of life under new conditions, the government does nothing whatever. If it remits its taxes, it does all that the people expect, and it frequently does not remit those until it has been again and again demonstrated to the district magistrate, that out of nothing, nothing comes. To a foreigner from the lands of the West, where the revolutionary cry of “Bread! bread! or blood!" has become familiar, it is hard to understand why the hordes of homeless, famishing and desperate refugees, who roam over the provinces blighted by flood or famine, do not precipitate themselves in a mass upon the district magistrate of the region where they have been ruined, and demand some form of succour. It is true that the magistrate would be quite powerless to give them what they demand, but he would be forced to do something, and this would be a precedent for something more. If he failed to "tranquillize" the people, he would he removed, and some other official put in his place. To repeated and pressing enquiries put to the Chinese in the great famine, as to the reasons why some such plan was not taken, the invariable answer was in the words, “Not dare.", It is vain to argue in reply to this statement,' that one might as well be killed for rebellion, albeit unjustly, as to starve to death — nay — much better. The answer is still the same, “Not dare, not dare."

There seem to be two reasons why the Chinese do not adopt some such course. They are a most practical people, and by a kind of instinct the futility of the plan is recognized, and hence it would be next to impossible to effect the needed combination. But we must believe that the principal reason is the unlimited capacity of the Chinese for patient endurance. This it is, which brings about one of the most melancholy spectacles to be seen in China, that of thousands of persons quietly starving to death, within easy reach of overflowing abundance. The Chinese are so accustomed to this strange sight, that they are hardened to it, as old veterans disregard the horrors of battle. Those who suffer these evils have been all their lives confronted by them, although at a little distance. When the disaster comes, it is therefore accepted as alike inevitable and remediless. If those who are overtaken by it, can trundle their families on wheelbarrows off to some region where a bare subsistence can be begged, they will do that. If the family cannot be kept together, they will disperse, picking up what they can, and reuniting if they succeed in pulling through the distress. If no relief is to be had near at hand, whole caravans will beg their way a journey of a thousand miles in mid-winter to some province where they hope to find that the crops have been better, that labour is more in demand, and that the chances of survival are greater. If the floods have abated, the mendicant farmer returns to his home long enough to scratch a crack in the mud while it is still too soft to bear the weight of an animal for ploughing, and in this tiny rift he deftly drops a little seed wheat, and again goes his devious way, begging a subsistance until his small harvest shall be ripe. If Providence favors him, he becomes once more a farmer, and no longer a beggar, but with the distinctly recognized possibility of ruin and starvation never far away.

Famine Relief and Mass Migrations in the 19th Century

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: “The same exemplification of the policy known to history as that of the dog-in-the-manger was frequently met with in the famine relief. On three several occasions the writer was waited upon by a deputation of headmen from various villages, setting forth the perishing condition of their several constituencies, and humbly imploring the benevolent foreigner to visit their insignificant hamlets and administer "water to fishes in a dry rut." On each of these occasions a cart was provided to escort the inspector, and on each occasion trouble . arose as to the return trip of the cart. The difficulty seemed to be to decide who should pay for the scanty fare of the nearly starved animal used to drag the cart, or perhaps how much was to be allowed for the use of the wretched beast itself or for the cart. On each of these occasions disputes lasting several hours took place. 'In one instance a lean horse much resembling a scare-crow was at last found to do compulsory duty, but in the other two villages after the inspection was over no vehicle was forthcoming, and in spite of repeated promises none ever did come forth, the foreigners being in each case allowed to make the best of their way home on foot to a distance of several miles. One of these villages had a population of several thousand persons, and the money involved could not have amounted to more than twenty-five cents. Besides this, there was the imminent danger, vividly set forth by an irate assistant in the distribution, that the whole village would be allowed to starve, as a penalty for the shabby treatment which the inspectors experienced. Yet considerations of this sort were inadequate to provide the small sum which was necessary to adjust matters. Each individual concerned was entirely absorbed in seeing to it that he did nothing for which he was not paid, whether the village as a whole did or did not starve in consequence of his acts. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

It seems to be the ordinary practice in China, for the magistrates peremptorily to forbid the export of food supply, whenever there is any danger of a scarcity, altogether irrespective of what the effect of such prohibition must be. A memorial in the Peking Gazette published in August 1890, called attention to the fact that in the previous year, the governor-general of the two Kiang provinces, had forbidden the export of rice from that province. The result was a great increase in the cost of rice elsewhere, throughout the Empire, so that by the autumn of 1889, rice was actually commanding a higher price in the province of Fujian, which is largely dependent upon Kiangsu, than in Soochow, which was the centre of an innundated district. On the occasion of the great floods in the North of China in 1890, the Emperor ordered these restrictions removed. Acting upon the principle in question during a famine in the province of Shandong, in 1888, a considerable number of district magistrates holding posts adjacent to the regions where the crops had wholly failed, issued proclamations peremptorily forbidding the sale of grain to outside districts. This action was taken because it was feared that the sale of grain, to supply the natural demand in other quarters, might increase the difficulty of collecting the grain-tax in the regions where there was no famine. It was of no consequence to these magistrates that the poor people in the adjacent districts had nothing to eat, and were pulling down their houses, to get money to buy food. Considerations of this sort have little weight with Chinese officials, who have their own living to make and their superiors to satisfy.

The vast masses of people driven from their homes by the utter impossibility of securing any food for themselves and their families drifted hither and thither, begging as they went. Considerable bodies of refugees of this sort, whose home was in the province of Shandong, having heard a rumor that labor was in demand in Shanxi at a distance of a journey of a month or two to the west, bent their weary footsteps in that direction. When they reached the Boundaries of Shanxi; their arrival made a commotion. The people petitioned the local magistrates against them. The officials apologized for the irruption of his people, as if Shanxi and Shandong had been different kingdoms, and a proclamation was issued notifying the natives of Shandong to keep out of other provinces where they are not wanted. If they, have occasion to starve to death, let them do it decently at their own homes, or as near to them as convenient. Occurrences of this sort, which are perfectly well known and which excite no surprise in anyone but a foreigner, serve to call once more to mind that passage in the Confucian Classics, which mentions that (theoretically) "Within the Four Seas all are brethren."

Image Sources: Wikipedia

Text Sources: Wikipedia, “Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, New York Times, Washington Post, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2022

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