Epidemic: Chinese Famine

Place: North China

Date: 1876-1879

Result: 9.5-13 million dead

Summary of the Event

During the mid to late 1870s a protracted drought in the provinces of northern China precipitated one of the worst famines in recorded history. Five provinces, each with 15 to 25 million inhabitants, were severely struck by famine. In many regions it is estimated that sixty to ninety percent of the population died. All told, somewhere between nine and thirteen million Chinese perished from starvation, disease, and violence. Contemporary witnesses, both local officials and foreign missionaries, agreed that China had never before seen such a devastating famine.

Following three consecutive years of sparse rainfall and months of dry, dusty winds, the famine initially struck large segments of Shantung during the summer of 1876. Massive crop failures led to a desperate search for food. The eating of grass and roots mixed with ground clay resulted in sickness and usually hastened death. Several years into the famine, a Christian missionary graphically described the suffering:

the people find it difficult indeed to purchase the necessaries of daily life. In all directions they seek these in vain, and try to get the grass covering the ground, in order to allay hunger. So they strip the bark off trees, and pluck up roots and grind the chaff to enable them to live. In ordinary times what the pigs and dogs would not eat, now the people eat, and may they not still be called men, not beasts? [The Great Famine, 71]

As winter approached conditions worsened. Diseases such as typhoid fever, typhus, and dysentery ran rampant. Millions attempted to migrate to neighboring provinces hoping to escape death. Some residents resorted to pillage and banditry for food. In certain areas hundreds huddled together for warmth in huge underground pits. Corpses, too numerous for individual burial, were piled by thousands into mass graves. Countless women and children were sold into slavery and prostitution in an effort to obtain food. Ravenous packs of dogs and wolves roamed the countryside eating the dead and attacking the living. Parents killed their own children and committed suicide to avoid continued suffering. At the height of desperation, many turned to cannibalism. As English missionary Timothy Richard remarked in May 1878:

The eating of human flesh is a regular thing, and if the people were really dead before, there is little said about it, but if killed then litigations arise . . . About one fifth only of the children in some places are said to be left, the rest have perished by hunger, disease or— what shall I call it? The butcher’s hand! Whole villages are said to have disappeared. [The Great Famine, 66]

In some areas, local merchants openly sold human flesh at the market; in others, horrific stories circulated of parents killing and eating their own children.

In addition to northwestern parts of Shantung, the Great Famine affected large sections of Shansi, Shensi, Honan, and Chihli. In these provinces, the landlocked and almost entirely mountainous Shansi experienced the most devastation. Of a population of 15 million, at least 5.5 million perished, and only about 3.4 million received government assistance. One Westerner described the terrifying scene in Shansi:

Many of the corpses were fearful to behold. . . . Men, women, and children alike, were among the victims. Outside some cities were heaps of skulls, bones, and pieces of human flesh; and very often, away on the open country, we saw a number of corpses lying together, evidently remains of wanderers, who, exhausted by their weary search after food, had huddled together to die. [Bohr, Paul Richard, 22]

Shansi’s dessicated, exhausted soil exacerbated the agricultural impact of prolonged drought. Poor communication combined with government inefficiency and corruption to worsen the famine’s effects. Starving residents found it impossible to escape on the narrow, heavily-rutted mountain roads. When grain could be transported to starving inhabitants via mules, donkeys, and camels, it was usually too little too late. Frequently the animals needed for transport were eaten.

Relief efforts of the late Ch’ing imperial government met with many obstacles. Since the late eighteenth century, the rulers in Peking had struggled with a series of massive rebellions and natural disasters. The Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) destroyed the richest agricultural lands, cut off vast amounts of tax revenues, and cost millions of lives. As famine ravaged the northern provinces in 1876, floods caused major economic dislocation along five coastal provinces. Underlying all these problems, the total population had more than doubled since the mid-eighteenth century; even in good years, China could not produce enough food to sustain its burgeoning hundreds of millions.

Although the government brought in considerable money and grain to famine stricken provinces, Western missionaries and Chinese commentators critiqued traditional bureaucracy, inefficiency, and corruption. Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries contributed to the relief of famine victims, as did many Chinese merchants and gentry. In many instances, foreign relief efforts met with resistance from local officials who believed that Westerners would foment rebellion. Some of the most active missionaries, such as Timothy Richard, pushed for eliminating the underlying causes of famine. Suggestions from Westerners, such as centralizing relief programs and building railways, were often rejected. Although vastly differing in their methods and outlook, Westerners and Chinese came together for the first time during the Great Famine over humanitarian concerns. --Robinson M. Yost

For Further Information:

Bohr, Paul Richard. Famine in China and The Missionary: Timothy Richard as Relief Administrator and Advocate of National Reform, 1876-1884. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972 [published by East Asian Research Center, Harvard University].

Committee of the China Famine Relief Fund, The Famine in China, London: C. Kegan Paul and Co., 1878.

Committee of the China Famine Relief Fund, The Great Famine, Shanghai: American Presbyterian Mission Press, 1879.

Guinness, M. Geraldine. The Story of the China Inland Mission. 2 vols. London: Morgan and Scott, 1894.

Mallory, Walter H. China: Land of Famine. New York: American Geographical Society, 1928.

Perkins, Dwight H. Agricultural Development in China, 1368-1968. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Co., 1969.

Richard, Timothy. Forty-five Years in China: Reminiscences. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Co., 1916.