ArticlesWhat the Great Chinese Famine Means for Overseas Chinese

Introduction I finished a history book, Mao’s Great Famine, which details the consequences of the Great Leap Forward in the infancy of Communist China. It was written after the author, Frank Dikötter, studied in the newly opened Chinese provincial, city and county archives, which were previously inaccessible due to government policy. He was one of the few historians granted access to those archives, meaning that he is one of the few foreigners to be able to...


I finished a history book, Mao’s Great Famine, which details the consequences of the Great Leap Forward in the infancy of Communist China. It was written after the author, Frank Dikötter, studied in the newly opened Chinese provincial, city and county archives, which were previously inaccessible due to government policy. He was one of the few historians granted access to those archives, meaning that he is one of the few foreigners to be able to write about the history of modern China directly from primary government sources rather than what the government reports to the outside world. This authority gives him the ability to skew the narrative of the Great Chinese Famine without much criticism, as most historians don’t have access to the sources that he had. That being said, I have faith that he wrote this in good faith with discovering the truth of the matter as his chief motivation.

Even a third of the way through the book I was already beginning to see the motivations that my parents had for immigrating into the United States. Although they were not born in that era (1958–1962) as they were born in the late 60s grew up in mainland China in the 70s and 80s when things in China were getting better, it isn’t difficult to see the effects of Maoist policy reaching decades beyond the time that he was actually alive. The amount of psychological trauma that may have been inflicted on the generations of people in that era themselves may still be felt today. Anyway I will try not to talk much about the actual contents of the book more than I have to, but rather the implications it has for me and possibly for you.

Whenever my father talks about the era that he grew up in with it’s always told with a tinge of pride, reminiscing his humble upbringing in Jiangmen where things like meat and egg were considered luxuries if they were found in a meal. One such story included how he would suck on a single grain of rice as to preserve the illusion that he was eating something when there was nothing else on his plate at dinner. These stories often became cliched as the years in Brooklyn went by and the comfortable lifestyle that my parents afforded me gave me no medium to relate to my father’s upbringing dictated by hardship and hard work.

These anecdotal stories are obviously at the heart of my father’s identity, but how do they relate to me? I did not ever grow up in China. The only experience that I have of Chinese culture is what my parents brought with them, and the collective 3 months that I’ve been in China across a 3 trips over the course of 21 years. It is only through the shadow of the China that my parents left behind that I base my understanding of the Chinese identity. Toss in an upbringing in America, and that ethnic identity slowly becomes secondary.

There isn’t anything wrong with assimilating with the culture of the country that one is born in, especially America, as that is what it means to be American: to be able to adopt a country’s ideals and share in its prosperity no matter what race, color, creed, or religion. But I also believe that having an understanding of where my forefathers came from can help me understand not only my family (both immediate and distant), but also myself. It would also aid in having a more balanced worldview in general, as the history that is taught in class tends to gloss over the events that occur within countries more far removed from Europe and America. The only way to achieve such goals, besides directly talking to my parents, is to learn the history and culture of the country that my parents came from.

Background of Modern China

I will briefly go over the context of Modern China as to not talk about the Great Chinese Famine in a vacuum.

China post-Qing dynasty until the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 was plagued by constant warlordism and civil war between the two major political factions, the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Communist Party of China (CPC). Both were influenced by Sun Yat-sen who wanted to establish a modern China that was dictated by the Three Principles of the People. The first is 民族主義 or the freedom of China from imperialist influence, including European and Qing imperialists by unifying the five ethnic groups of China. The second is 民權主義 or rights of the people which outlines the civil rights that individuals have as well as the rights that the government has to rule over them. Lastly was 民生主義 ,or the people’s livelihood that addressed how a Chinese government would take care of its people by providing food, shelter, clothes and healthcare. The KMT and CPC waged wars over disagreements about the interpretations of these principles, stopping only to unite against the Japanese invasion of China in WW2, continuing after their expulsion, and ending when the KMT retreated indefinitely to Taiwan where they reside today.

The history of communist China is often clouded by state propaganda, making study of the country’s government policies and its effects on its people difficult to accurately grasp, a common feature of many authoritarian governments formed in the 20th century. This means that talking to regular, uneducated, immigrant parents from China may not grant the most accurate and objective view of their own country and its government. One such example of this is the burning hatred my father has for the Japanese for their occupation of China in WW2, which is constantly fed by the war dramas that he watches depicting Japanese as sworn enemies of the Chinese. Though I recognize the atrocities committed by the Japanese in the Nanjing Massacre, and the underhanded tactics that was used to justify the invasion of northeastern China in the Mukden/Manchuria Incident, I do not share my father’s resentment towards the people of Japan. To hold an entire race responsible for things that happened before their birth is not fair to those that have had no part in it.


I have so far answered a couple of questions

  1. Why are my parents always were wary of strangers taking advantage of me, especially other Chinese?
  2. Why are my parents were sometimes overtly selfish?
  3. Why has America always represented something different to my parents?

To even begin to understand the answers to these questions I had to understand the Great Leap Forward (GLF), including its beginnings, goals, and its outcome. Chairman Mao Zedong was the defacto dictator of the CPC with every party member pledging allegiance to his word and his authority. He was the law, and the communist party was the enforcer (the Ministry of Justice aka the legal system was abolished in 1959 until 1979). When he began to spread his vision of an agricultural and industrial revolution that would propel China into a world power that would equal that of long standing industrial powers like Britain and America in a matter of a decade, many, even if skeptical, simply acted as sycophants and agreed with his policies even if they weren’t realistic.

The agricultural strategies implemented such as deep ploughing choked agricultural output, becoming a significant factor that lead to the famine. Pure negligence of the farmland also contributed to reduced yield, as soil quality became heavily degraded due to poor farming practices. Other things included abandonment of agriculture when Mao began to institute orders to focus on steel production, leading to crops rotting in massive volumes. Lastly, the Chinese government, until 1960 when the famine was at its worst, increased its grain exports(up to 5% of total grain output) to fellow communist countries. In order to sustain the mirage of the overwhelming success of the GLF people lied about figures on every level of administration in order to appease the higher ups, increasingly skewed as the figures went up the ladder, and ending at Mao.

For example, if a commune had produced 10,000 tons of grain one year, it was reported to be 30,000, boosting the reputation of that commune, and encouraging other communes to inflate their numbers in order to save face and to avoid any lack of increased output being interpreted as “rightist conservatism”. The result was that when the state procured grain at approximately 25 percent, collecting 7,500, this would leave only 2,500 left to be distributed among the people but often even this surplus was given away to the state. This was done at the cost of the people as the numbers reported were always spiraling upwards, pressuring cadres (local commune leaders) to collect more and more of the crop every year to prove their supposed agricultural success. When numbers were not met initially, cadres would sweep people’s belongings and homes for hidden grain, often ripping apart entire homes in a frenzy to meet quotas. Those that were caught hiding grain were often labeled as anti-revolutionary rightists and were outcast and punished, often through starvation. This was because the ideology promotes the state above all else, no possession was an individuals but part of the collective, so anything that was kept for oneself was privy to collectivization, including food, shelter, and clothing.

But even those that were genuinely hard workers and were honest were not any more likely to escape privation. In some provinces such as Gansu, Shandong, Guizhou, Anhui, and Sichuan the death rate was one in ten, becoming so severe that during that period in time the population China actually dropped more than 13 million from 1959 to 1961 (658,590,000 in 1961), meaning that the death rate exceeded the birth rate. In the countryside people were often without the meagerest possessions including cutlery and clothing in attempt to exchange for food in order to survive. After they had nothing they slowly died.

Birth and death rate in China where the death rate, peaking at 25 per 1000, exceeds the birth rate, dipping to 18 per 1000, during the period of the Great Leap Foward. This also implies that the reduced birth rates created a loss of between 15 and 30 million lives.

You might ask “but what about the rations that the state returned to the people? “

It just wasn’t enough, and whatever province or county one lived in the distribution of the food always went to those most able-bodied, despite the theoretical equality of the workers. 13 to 15 kilos (29 lbs to 33 lbs) was allocated to each head per month, but almost double, 23 to 26 kilos (51 lbs to 57 lbs) was required to provide 1700 to 1900 calories per day. Furthermore, this already insufficient supply of food was distributed only to those who performed the best, as it was simply the most efficient thing to do: feed the strong and reap the benefits. This meant that women, elderly, and children who were already physically disadvantaged were further discriminated against via deprivation of food, leading to a perpetual cycle of under-performance and subsequent under rationing. As the famine progressed to its peak in 1960 the amount of food only decreased, yet the desired output increased, further exacerbating the dearth of food and weakening the already exhausted and malnourished labor force. As most of the initial revolutionary fervor for the GLF had died off in the first year, the only way that cadres could get people to work was through constant physical abuse, sometimes to the point of death.

This chart in French shows the birth years of Chinese people in 1982, showing that the amount of people that were born in that period was severely decreased, likely due to both infant mortality and decreased birth rates.

These extreme conditions of impoverishment meant that the survival of one often meant the death of another. Everywhere there was deceit and thievery because there was no other way of getting by. Decisions were not a matter of right or wrong as most people did not have the privilege of choosing between those options. As a result, corruption is almost inevitable when it became a matter of eating or starving. Even familial bonds were strained, and often broken when families begun selling other family members, mainly the children and women, in order to have something to bargain for to avoid starvation. The worst was the cases of cannibalism that was performed to recently deceased family members, or to bodies that were recently buried (necrophagy). While the prevalence of cannibalism cannot be determined accurately but it is often assumed that it went underreported. In Anhui, one of the worst hit provinces with death rates up to 68 deaths per a thousand, 1289 cases of cannibalism were reported in 1960.

The overall death count of the famine ranges from 15 million by the Chinese government, between 20–40 million by most scholars, and 45 million by Dikötter. This death toll is out of a population of around 650 million. The questions mentioned earlier can be answered now that a summary of the extent of the famine is established.

1. Why are my parents always were wary of strangers taking advantage of me, especially other Chinese?

This warning was always something that I never took seriously, and never had any reason to believe other than being told to believe because all the Chinese people that I interacted with while growing up were relatively gracious to me. This sample size included close friends, acquaintances, service workers, and of course family members. None of them ever gave me any reason to question their motives, and so I always had a positive bias toward the Chinese. But the time was more than 30 years after the famine, and the place was in a country much wealthier. The era my parents grew up in was not plagued by famine, but it was by economic hardship. One can imagine that the average person who survived the famine had to do some unethical things to make it through that era, eroding many standards of behavior that should dictate civil society, and that those habits after the period did not disappear. One can also imagine a person that was taken advantage of during that period, being on the receiving end of the abuse, was subject to all kinds of psychological traumas that were forever ingrained in both their conscious and subconscious.

The two imagined individuals replicated across society made for one that was fundamentally based in a lack of trust between Chinese people.

2. Why are my parents sometimes overtly selfish?

This relates back to the first question as I believe it is a reaction to those that would choose to take advantage of others. Although selfishness is not endemic to any singular culture, it can fester in situations where there aren’t enough resources to share. When the world bank began to track poverty in China, it recorded more than 870 million people living in absolute poverty ($1.90 per day) and 980 million people or 99% living with less than $3.10 per day. Today that percentage of those living in absolute poverty is down to 2%, but the concentration of wealth is increasingly going to urban cities, leaving people living in rural areas making almost 3 times less than their urban counterparts. What these numbers mean is that even more than 2 decades after the famine, many people were still living in absolute poverty, implying that conditions in China during that era and even up to recent times were not great. It was this extreme lack of material possessions that exaggerated an overarching theme of prioritizing one’s own welfare over that of another.

3. Why has America always represented something different to my parents?

As a native born citizen, America was the norm for me. I know nothing except it, so that its benefits are taken for granted and its drawbacks are exaggerated, so much to the point that at some points in conversations with them about issues like race and wealth I feel as if we are looking at two different countries. My parents openly shame black Americans for their vices and seemingly lack of resolve to persevere in hard work and dedication, while I believe that there are systemic issues in place that make it harder for them to achieve the same economic reaches as the Chinese and other Asian Americans do. I often think about the injustice that the American government perpetuates against those outside our borders as well as inside of them, while my parents never seem to even blink unless it’s an issue directly and adversely affecting them like affirmative action discriminating against Asian Americans, or the possible tax hikes promised under certain presidents. But there is one thing that my parents and I agree on.

Getting a visa to America and countries like it, such as Australia and New Zealand continues to be a golden ticket to prosperity for those in China. It is a place where an individual can succeed despite the destitution they come from. This is embodied in my father’s story, and is one thing that I still genuinely believe in, but to what extent is yet to be determined.

The drastically different upbringing that I have compared to my parents, manifest in contrasting views on a whole host of things, but after reading and researching more on the conditions of the beginnings of Communist China I believe that I have a better understanding and appreciation of the life that I lead today, and especially of my family. The privilege of even being able to discern right and wrong was not something afforded to most in the famine, and I seriously doubt that my own moral fiber would have withstood the brutal conditions of 70 years prior. Thus, I try not to externalize the atrocities committed by the leadership of China by demonizing them, as I realize that I am fundamentally part of the same lineage of imperfect beings, being the same in nature and only different by environment. Lastly, I recognize that many Western native born Chinese are ignorant on these issues, so I would recommend anyone interested in what I wrote to do their own research on this topic and form your own conclusions. I would rather for people to understand a subject on their own terms rather than take my word for it.

Sources: — The Demography of China’s 1958–61 Famine: A Closer Examination


Original Source: This article is from the website “Medium”. You can check out this article and more like it on the link below.
Link to Original Article:

Felix Yang

Felix is a Chinese-American who grew up in Brooklyn, NY, attending public school there until college. Although he's currently studying Environmental Engineering in Cornell University, Felix has a penchant for reading and writing, especially on contentious topics in Western society. If you're interested in reading more, check out his personal website and some sparse topics on medium @

Related Posts

Asian Articulations 2018 © All Rights Reserved