The Causes of Starvation During the Great Leap Forward

by Scott Manning on March 25, 2009

In May of 1958, the People’s Republic of China launched The Great Leap Forward, an effort by the country’s leaders to transform China into a military superpower in just five years. The goal was to increase the country’s grain and cereal production by grouping the peasants into “thousands or even tens of thousands of families, with everything to become communical. . .”1 The peasants would work longer and harder while practicing extreme frugality. The result was a great jump backward when about “38 million people died of starvation and overwork” in the ensuing famine that followed.2 There are many causes of such an astronomical body count, but they can be grouped into four major categories: ignorance, fear, denial, and apathy. The Communist Government is the main culprit in this mass death because it was ignorant in its lofty goal-setting for grain production, it scared the peasants and local leaders into inflating their statistics, it denied reports of starvation and missed goals, and it ultimately did not care that people would die in the process of taking a “great leap forward.”

Average Calorie Intake in China, 1957-1961

The leader of Communist China, Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, was the brainchild of the Great Leap Forward. In 1958, the government propaganda told the people “that the goal of the Leap was for China to ‘overtake all capitalist countries in a fairly short time, and become one of the richest, most advanced and powerful countries in the world.’”3 In order to accomplish this goal, the nation would be required to increase production in its main commodity: grain. A goal of 375 million tons of grain was set for the year 1958.4 This was almost twice the actual production of 195 million tons in 1957.5 The problem was Mao “calculated on the basis, not of what the peasants could afford, but of what was needed for Mao’s Programme.”6 Mao’s Programme was militaristic in nature. In 1958, Mao told a group of military officers that the “Pacific Ocean is not peaceful. It can only be peaceful when we take it over.”7

At first, local leaders claimed they were meeting the lofty goals when in reality they weren’t even close. The actual amount of grain produced for 1958 was 215 million tons8 which was nearly 52% less than what was estimated and reported. “Cowed by the mass rural hunts for dissidents, and manipulated by their local political leaders who were often fighting their own career battles, local peasants dared not dispute even the most fanciful claims for higher agricultural yields.”9 A vicious cycle began. Local leaders continued to give false reports of meeting impossible goals and other local leaders followed suit in order to keep pace. The Communist Government appropriated grain for its needs as though the goals were met while the peasants went without food. One such need was used to produce ethyl alcohol for fuel in “missile tests, each of which consumed 10 million kilograms of grain, enough to radically deplete the food intake of 1-2 million people for a whole year.”10 Another use was to export the grain for money and other military projects in which millions of tons were exported.11

Reports of the food situation and missed goals did trickle into the government, but they were ignored. In April of 1959, a series of reports were shown to Chairman Mao stating that “there was severe starvation in half of the country. . .” and “his response was to ask the provinces to ‘deal with it.’”12 In July of the same year, Mao received a report from an army marshal who called into question the 375 million tons of grain reportedly produced from the previous year. The report was sent privately to Mao whose response was to circulate “it to all the senior cadres . . . and launched a personal denunciation [of the army marshal].”13

In 1960, the Communist Government estimated that the “average daily calorie intake fell to 1,534.8.”14 This is less half the estimated 3,100-3,900 calorie/day international standard needed by a man working a hard eight-hour day.15 Before the Great Leap Forward began, China did not have enough food to feed the population and the Communist Government knew it. In January of 1958, a government meeting concluded that there was not enough food to eat. Mao gave the following solution: “No worse than eat less . . . Oriental style . . . It’s good for health . . . I think it is good to eat less. What’s the point of eating a lot and growing a big stomach, like the foreign capitalists in cartoons?”16 These were the same capitalists that Mao was determined to overtake with the Great Leap Forward. A year earlier Mao stated, “We are prepared to sacrifice 300 million Chinese for the victory of the world revolution.”17

The Great Leap Forward produced the greatest famine in human history. The Communist Government set impossible goals for grain production based off of military needs. In order to meet these goals, the people worked harder and lied about their actual production. When the reports about starvation throughout the country were received, they were ignored. The government knew from the beginning that the country was already dangerously low in food production, but proceeded with the plan anyway. Mao gambled for supremacy in the world and the cost was 38 million people, but this was only one tenth of what he was willing to sacrifice for “the victory of the world revolution.”18 The world revolution never came, but people of China still paid the price.


Chang, Jung, and Jon Halliday. Mao: The Unknown Story. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.

Courtois, Stephane et al. The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Rummel, R. J. China’s Bloody Century: Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1900. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1991.

Spence, Jonathan D. The Search for Modern China. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999.


  1. Stephane Courtois et al., The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 488. []
  2. Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao: The Unknown Story (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 438. []
  3. Chang and Halliday 2005, 426. []
  4. Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China, 2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999), 550. []
  5. Courtois et al. 1999, 488. []
  6. Chang and Halliday 2005, 426. []
  7. Chang and Halliday 2005, 426. []
  8. Spence 1999, 550. []
  9. Spence 1999, 548. []
  10. Chang and Halliday 2005, 429. []
  11. Courtois et al. 1999, 495. []
  12. Chang and Halliday 2005, 428. []
  13. Spence 1999, 551. []
  14. Chang and Halliday 2005, 437. []
  15. R. J. Rummel, China’s Bloody Century: Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1900 (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1991), 250. []
  16. Chang and Halliday 2005, 427. []
  17. Chang and Halliday 2005, 439. []
  18. Chang and Halliday 2005, 439. []

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Carla April 23, 2011 at 5:08 PM

Thanks for this post! It has always galled me that the pop artist Andy Warhol lionized Mao in his insipid series of colorized portraits, without the slightest regard for the horrific acts of brutality and inhumanity Mao perpetrated. I also find it incredible that as American consumers of pop culture, there was no opposition to this fact, just a simpleminded rationalization by “art critics”, and those with a financial stake in his continued success. Warhol described himself as “a deeply superficial person”. I don’t think he was being glib. I think he was being truthful. Art dealers invented any rhetoric necessary to counter what little protest may have been required to staunch the flood of…as it turns out, apathy. A genocidal maniac in China, and a Warhol “superstar” in America, with just a few years to divide the events.


2 Wejuitse June 23, 2011 at 4:05 AM

@Carla: Does it surprise you that what is convenient at the time is what an American artist would advertise regardless of the human toll? Or does it surprise you that the USA would turn its propaganda machine the opposite direction when it became inconvenient?

In any case, Communism cannot work without preexisting wealth that when divided by the common denominator of population results in a sustainable, proper life. Marx in Prussia/Russia at his time is like McDonalds on Mars in 2011; an irrelevant disaster in the making.

One does not apply communism to any western country unless it has a massive self-sustaining surplus. If you do that as a policy maker, you will be immortalized as an laughable idiot.


3 lowell April 27, 2012 at 10:46 AM

@Wejutse well comunism certainly can work in a considerably poorer nation. the difference here and with soviet russia is that they both wanted to become world superpowers in the matter of a few years. and although communism itself cant work within pratical reasons espacially with the way the human mind works, there are some aspects that we need to embrace. a country should provide some support to its citizens espacially when it comes down to surviving. to say communism is something to laugh at i believe is wrong.


4 Wayne May 9, 2012 at 10:04 AM

Here are Jung Chang’s statistics:

“death rates in the four years 1958-61 were 1.20 per cent, 1.45 per cent, 4.34 per cent and 2.83 per cent, respectively. The average death rate in the three years immediately before and after the famine was 1.03 per cent–1957: 1.08 per cent, 1962: 1 per cent and 1963: 1 per cent. The death rates over and above this average could only have been caused by starvation and overwork during the famine.
– Jung Chang, MAO: THE UNKNOWN STORY, p. 438. ”

Chang’s averaged mortality for 1958 to 1961 is thus: (1.2 + 1.45 + 4.34 + 2.83) / 4 = 2.46%

Assuming a mean population of 660 million over the period, Chang then assumes 10/1000 (1%) as ‘normal’ mortality.

So (2.46% – 1%) * 4 years * 660 million = 38.5 million excess deaths.


Points to note:

A mortality of 2.46% in the late 1950′s was typical in Asia and Africa. 2.46% is around the same as the mortality rates of India, Pakistan, and Indonesia of the time.

An annual mortality rate of 2.46% during the GLF was still far better than the 3.8% (refer Judith Bannister) before 1949. And it was still far better than the mortality rates of India under the British (just ten years before) of well over 3% per annum.

Chang calculates ‘excess’ deaths by assuming a 1% mortality in 1957, in order to maximise her body count.

That is ridiculous, considering the fact that almost all developing countries in 1957 had mortalities well in excess of 2%. In fact 1% mortality in 1957 was better than the US, the UK, and Australia at the time (which would have been remarkable, even considering China’s younger age distribution).


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