Academic journal article Population

The Demography of China's 1958-61 Famine A Closer Examination

Academic journal article Population

The Demography of China's 1958-61 Famine A Closer Examination

Article excerpt

One of the largest famines in human history took place in China half a century ago. This disaster, lasting from 1958 to 1961 in many areas, resulted in a huge number of excess deaths. While the causes, magnitude and profound impacts of this catastrophe have been brought to light in recent decades, many issues about the famine remain to be adequately examined (Ashton et al., 1984; Banister, 1987; Peng, 1987; Kane, 1988; Jowett, 1991; Li, 1997; Riskin, 1998; Chang and Wen, 1998; Yang and Su, 1998; Lin and Yang, 1998; Kung and Lin, 2003; Cao, 2005; Fan and Meng, 2005; Yang, 2008a; Houser et al., 2009). Through further analysis of data collected by China's 1982 and 1988 fertility surveys, this paper investigates the demographic consequences of the famine and individual demographic responses in some of China's most severely affected provinces.

I. Demographic consequences of China's 1958-61 famine and demographic responses

While China's great famine is often called "three years of natural disasters", a notable decrease in per capita grain output and a marked increase in mortality had already been recorded in several provinces in 1958 (Peng, 1987; Johnson, 1998; Riskin, 1998). In that year, the officially reported crude death rate (CDR) was already higher than those for 1956 and 1957, even at national level. By 1959, the famine spread widely throughout the country, and the situation deteriorated further in 1960 (Huang and Liu, 1995). Although a sign of improvement was seen in some places in 1961, when China's recorded population size was still smaller than that for 1958, a full recovery did not begin until 1962.(1)

We know that this great tragedy was largely a result of policy failure and mismanagement, although it was exacerbated by poor weather conditions in many areas (Peng, 1987; Kane, 1988; Li, 1997; Chang and Wen, 1998; Lin and Yang, 1998; Yang and Su, 1998; Kung and Lin, 2003; Cao, 2005; Yang, 2008a; Houser et al., 2009). The famine occurred on an unprecedented scale and showed remarkable regional, including urban-rural, variations. The CDR in the worst-hit province was ten times higher than in less affected ones. Severe food shortage and its consequences were generally more devastating in the countryside than in cities. The major impact of this famine, which has profoundly affected China's political, social, economic and demographic evolution in the last half century, can still be felt today (Song, 2009).

The widespread starvation and significant reduction in calorie intake during the famine had a devastating impact on population health and led to a sharp increase in mortality (Peng, 1987; Kane, 1988; Jowett, 1991; Houser et al., 2009). Officially reported CDRs rose from 10.8 per 1,000 in 1957 to 25.4 per 1,000 in 1960 (Huang and Liu, 1995). In many counties, the reported CDR reached more than 100 per 1,000. Independent estimates made by various scholars suggested an even greater increase in mortality. According to some studies, the famine was directly responsible for around 30 million excess deaths (Ashton et al., 1984; Coale, 1984; Banister, 1987; Jin, 1993; Cao, 2005).

The famine also resulted in a huge fertility reduction. China's reported crude birth rate was 34.0 per 1,000 population and total fertility rate was 6.4 children per woman in 1957, but they fell drastically to 18.2 per 1,000 and 3.3 children, respectively, by 1961 (Yao and Yin, 1994). Available statistics suggest that fertility decline during 1959-1961 led to a shortfall of 15 to 30 million births (Ashton et al., 1984; Li, 1997; Cai and Wang, 2009).(2) Because of the mortality surge and the fertility crash, China recorded its only period of negative population growth since the founding of the People's Republic in 1949.

Marked regional variations in the severity of starvation triggered extensive internal migration during and after the famine (Peng, 1987; Kane, 1988). Even according to government records, which are probably incomplete, net population losses caused by migration alone reached 2. …

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