How to analyse the Chinese Famine

The Chinese Famine, despite much research and study, still confuses many. For two decades, the Chinese state covered it up.[1] Even now, researchers must rely on state data.[2] In response to the difficulty of finding trustworthy statistics, many researchers aim to adjust statistics, using a toolset of comparative stats and other factors, while others turn to qualitative evidence, interviewing survivors.

This essay aims to show that these methods are not mutually exclusive and that both can be used to arrive at a probable cause of the famine. This essay will be accomplishing this by evaluating both Qualitative and Quantitive methods and how they both lead to similar conclusions on the cause of the famine. The ultimate findings of this essay will be that both methods are useful and that they both arrived at a similar conclusion that the political system of China is the cause of the famine.

Both forms of data (Quantitive and Qualitative) are produced by humans and, thus, are imperfect. Humans are biased and observation can be flawed. Many foreign visitors to China during the Great Leap Forward, including leaders of Western countries, were enthralled by Communism and believed the country to be prospering.[3] Any qualitative data from them is questionable, as the Chinese state successfully veiled the truth. Quantitive data is not any better, as the state censored and manipulated the stats.[4] Moreover, confusion and incompetence on the ground by local leaders resulted in flawed stats at a grassroots level.[5] Empirical evidence is integral to historical study, else we would be arguing from pure assumption, but the lack of substantive and reliable evidence of the famine requires historians to become a bit more creative.

While state data is questionable, it has two important functions. First, it acts as a testament to the deceitful nature of the political system, a probable cause of much of China’s plight; second, it does reveal trends, that some historians have used to garner useful observations. Ashton (1984), among others, used state data to examine trends that could have caused the famine, such as a major recorded drop in grain supply per capita in 1958-1959.[6] Dikötter (2011) used state stats to show how procurement was at its height during the famine, drawing a correlation between procurement and starvation.[7] Of course, this data is questionable, despite it seeming like a proof from mortification.[8] This is because data collection on the ground was damaged by corruption, incompetence and deceit.[9] Even so, it does provide some insight into the famine.

Qualitative data also suffers from flaws, but can be useful in gaining some understanding of the famine. Numbers can be easily fabricated, but if sufficient people observed the same thing, it may come out in the qualitative data. Qualitative data also allows us to examine policy and its observed effects. An example of this is observations of Mao’s policies and reactions to the famine, revealing his apathy (or disbelief) and how his further policies exacerbated the issues.[10] Observations also allow us to see what fake numbers do not – suffering witnessed by survivors, cannibalism, purges and the flaws of a system, spoken by the victim.[11] Anecdotes are questionable, unless repeated by a critical mass. The number of reports of necrophagy and other atrocities is enough to warrant belief.[12] The fundamental importance of anecdotes and qualitative data is argued well by Yang Jisheng (2012), who used a variety of interviews and personal anecdotes to examine the famine.[13] He argues that a country progresses on human memory, through learning across generations.[14]

Ultimately, both forms of data are not mutually exclusive and have their place. In fact, one could meld them. The anecdotes of state procurement and the destitution that followed reinforces Walker’s and Dikötter’s notion of procurement as a primary cause of the famine.[15] There is no reason to exclusively pick either, and every reason to take advantage of both. In fact, despite claims otherwise, all authors have used a combination of both to advance their interpretation.[16]

While there are varied, even competing, views of the cause of the famine, all seem to have used a combination of both forms of data to condemn aspects or the entirety of the political system.

Dikötter, Chang and Wen cite the destruction of incentives inherent in a Communist production system as being a contributory cause of production insufficiency.[17]+[18] This ties into procurement, as incentives would have been damaged by the notion that labour wasn’t adequately rewarded due to state theft. It is also a major cause itself, as Dikötter observed.[19] Jisheng deals with the system directly, blaming Mao’s totalitarianism.[20] Other approaches, such as Lin and Yang’s attempts to apply Sen’s entitlement theory to the context, all come to similar conclusions, despite the forms of data they may have used.[21] The cause of the famine was Chinese Communism, which practical policies put too much strain on the countryside (in favour of the urban and foreign interests)[22] and an ideology that led to ignoring the disaster for years and leading to irrational behaviour.[23] Thus, it was Communism in its practical application and the ideology that deluded the leadership and population that culminated in the famine. Both forms of data were used to come to this combined conclusion.

Despite protestations that certain data forms are superior to the others, all the authors mentioned used a combination of both anecdotal evidence and data to come to similar conclusions. This, combined with comparison to other contexts and economic theory, leads to the likely conclusion that the irrational nature of Maoist Communism was the cause of the famine. It imposed inhuman burdens upon the populace, and did not acknowledge any sort of plight that this may have caused. In this way, it lied to the people, the world and itself. As historians, it is important to use all data available to us to uncover these lies and to reveal the true nature of a system that killed so many, that even to this day, we cannot truly determine the real number of dead.


  • Ashton, Basil, Kenneth Hill, Alan Piazza, and Robin Zeitz. “Famine in China 1958-61.” Population and Development Review 10, no. 4 (1984), 613-645.
  • Chang, Gene Hsin and Wen, Guanzhong James. “Communal dining and the Chinese famine of 1958-1961.” Economic Development and Cultural Change 46, no. 1 (1997): 1-34.
  • Dikötter, Frank. Mao’s Great Famine. London: Bloomsbury, 2011.
  • Jisheng, Yang. “The Fatal Politics of the PRC’s Great Leap Famine: the Preface to Tombstone.” Journal of Contemporary China 19, no. 66 (2011): 755-776.
  • Lin, Justin Yifu and Yang, Dennis Tao. “On the causes of China’s Agricultural Crisis and the Great leap Famine.” China Economic Review 9, no. 2 (1998): 125-140.


[1] Gene Hsin Chang and Guanzhong James Wen, “Communal dining and the Chinese famine of 1958-1961,” Economic Development and Cultural Change 46, no. 1 (1997): 1.

[2] Frank Dikötter, Mao’s Great Famine (London: Bloomsbury, 2011), 129.

[3] Ibid., 215.

[4] Basil Ashton et al, “Famine in China 1958-61.” Population and Development Review 10, no. 4 (1984), 621.

[5] Ibid., 621.

[6] Ibid., 622.

[7] Dikötter, Mao’s Great Famine, 130. Dikötter’s findings show that while production did not change much during the famine, procurement rose dramatically, with 3.89 million tonnes of grain being procured in 1959 alone.

[8] The Chinese state would only propagate stats that promoted it, so any negative stats would suggest some accuracy.

[9] Chang and Wen, “Communal dining and the Chinese famine of 1958-1961,” 3. The reported output by many leaders was biologically impossible.

[10] Ibid., “Communal dining and the Chinese famine of 1958-1961,” 7.

[11] Yang Jisheng, “The Fatal Politics of the PRC’s Great Leap Famine: the Preface to Tombstone,” Journal of Contemporary China 19, no. 66 (2011): 755. Jisheng’s personal anecdotes reveal a lot of personal emotion, that may be disconcerting for the reader, but keep in mind that all humans have an emotional response to what they are writing, or reading. Jisheng is merely being honest about his reaction.

[12] Ibid., 765.

[13] Ibid., 755.

[14] Ibid., 756.

[15] Dikötter, Mao’s Great Famine, 129-130.

[16] Dikötter, despite relying on qualitative data, also uses stats from other authors. Chang and Wen also use anecdotes to support their Quantitive data.

[17] Chang and Wen, “Communal dining and the Chinese famine of 1958-1961,” 1.

[18] Dikötter, Mao’s Great Famine, 137.

[19] Ibid., 132.

[20] Yang, “The Fatal Politics of the PRC’s Great Leap Famine: the Preface to Tombstone,” 770.

[21] Justin Yifu Lin and Dennis Tao Yang, “On the causes of China’s Agricultural Crisis and the Great Leap Famine,” China Economic Review 9, no. 2 (1998): 126.

[22] Dikötter, Mao’s Great Famine, 133.

[23] Chang and Wen, “Communal dining and the Chinese famine of 1958-1961,” 2.