In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Great Leap Forward and the Famine

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources
  • Provincial and Local Histories
  • Comparison with the Soviet and Other Famines
  • Memory and Historiography of the Great Leap Famine

Chinese Studies The Great Leap Forward and the Famine
Felix Wemheuer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 February 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0129


Until the early 1980s, little was known about the Great Leap Famine (1959–1962) that caused the deaths of 15 to 45 million Chinese. Mao Zedong’s campaign called the “Great Leap Forward” (1958–1961) (大跃进) aimed to transform China into a modern industrial nation and to prepare China for communism in the near future. However, the Great Leap resulted in one of the greatest disasters in history. In the three years that followed, a massive famine occurred. Serious academic demographic research started when the population census completed in 1982 became available. In the 1990s, political scientists and economists dominated the field of research. They tried to adopt Western theories of bureaucratic organizations and apply statistical models to understand the causes and progression of the Great Leap. The research in this period was strongly focused on the role of Mao Zedong and elite politics. In the 2000s, a new generation of scholars carried out research regarding the experiences of ordinary people and the famine at the village level. It became possible for foreign scholars to hold oral history interviews with survivors of the famine and get access to county archives. Substantial provincial and local variations regarding death rates and the radicalism of leaders were debated. While some books on the famine were banned on mainland China, memoirs of cadres, new biographies of party leaders, or collections of government documents could be published. In the last few years, the Great Leap Famine has become a hot topic and scholarly research has reached a broader Western audience. New archival histories have been published based on documents from provincial archives.

General Overviews

Several general histories of the Great Leap and the famine have been written. The earliest monograph dealing with the horrors of the famine is Becker 1996. Mao’s former secretary wrote Li 1999, which focused on central policies and changing strategies of the chairman. Yang 2008 and Dikötter 2010 are new histories of the famine that are based on files from provincial archives. More facts became known about deadly violence that cadres carried out against peasants and the large degree of human suffering. The edited volumes Manning and Wemheuer 2011 and Ding and Song 2009 include collections of articles written by Western and Chinese scholars on the topic and present an overview of the state of the field.

  • Becker, Jasper. Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine. London: John Murray, 1996.

    This important pioneer study by journalist Jasper Becker was one of the first monographs on the famine. He interviewed peasants in major disaster areas such as Xinyang (Henan Province) and Fengyang (Anhui Province). Since the publication of this work, better academic introductions on the topic have become available.

  • Dikötter, Frank. Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–1962. London: Bloomsbury, 2010.

    This first archival history in a Western language is based on research of numerous provincial archives in China. For critical reviews see: Ó Gráda, Cormac. “Great Leap into Famine: A Review Essay.” Population and Development Review 37.1 (2011): 191–202; Wemheuer, Felix. “Sites of Horror: Mao’s Great Famine,” The China Journal 66 (2011): 155–162; Garnaut, Anthony. “Hard Facts and Half-Truths: The New Archival History of China’s Great Famine.” China Information 27.2 (2013): 223–246.

  • Ding Shu 丁抒 and Song Yongyi 宋永毅, eds. DayuejinDa jihuang: Lishi he bijiao shiye xia de shishi he sibian (大跃进—大饑荒: 歷史和比較視野下的史實和思辨). 2 vols. Hong Kong: Tianyuan Shushi Chuban, 2009.

    This is a rich collection of academic articles that are written mainly by scholars from mainland China.

  • Li Rui 李锐. Dayuejin qinli ji (大跃进亲历记). 2 vols. Haikou, China: Nanfang Chubanshe, 1999.

    This personal account of Mao Zedong’s former secretary Li Rui deals with the period from the early campaigns of the Great Leap in 1957 to the Lushan Conference in the summer of 1959. It provides valuable information on government policies and on the role of Mao in setting those policies.

  • Manning, Kimberley Ens, and Felix Wemheuer, eds. Eating Bitterness: New Perspectives on China’s Great Leap Forward and the Famine. Vancouver: University Press of British Columbia, 2011.

    This edited volume focuses on social history and shows how ordinary men and women from the provincial level to the grassroots experienced the famine. It also includes translations of chapters written by scholars from mainland China.

  • Yang Jisheng 杨继绳. Mubei—Zhongguo liushi niandai da jihuang jishi (墓碑—中国六十年代大饥荒纪实). 2 vols. Hong Kong: Tiandi Tushu, 2008.

    The first volume of this archival study written by the former journalist Yang brings to light many new details of the horror caused by famine in nine provinces. The second volume dealing with elite politics and the role of Mao is less innovative. For scholars who are in command of the Chinese language, the first volume is a must-read because the English and German translations include only a few chapters of the original. Translations into English, French, and German of condensed versions: Yang Jisheng. Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine 1958–1962 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012).

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