Skip to main content Accessibility help

Dealing with Responsibility for the Great Leap Famine in the People's Republic of China

  • Felix Wemheuer

In the aftermath of the famine in 1962, Mao Zedong took formal responsibility for the failure of the Great Leap Forward in the name of the central government. Thousands of local cadres were made scapegoats and were legally punished. This article focuses on the question of how the different levels of the Chinese state, such as the central government, the province and the county, have dealt with the question of responsibility for the famine. The official explanation for the failure of the Great Leap will be compared to unofficial memories of intellectuals, local cadres and villagers. The case study of Henan province shows that local cadres are highly dissatisfied with the official evaluation of responsibility. Villagers bring suffering, starvation and terror into the discourse, but these memories are constructed in a way to preserve village harmony. This article explains why these different discourses about responsibility of the famine are unlinked against the background of the “dual society”; the separation between urban and rural China. Finally, it will be shown that the Communist Party was unable to convince parts of society and the Party to accept the official interpretation.

Hide All

1 Legge, James (ed.), The Chinese Classics, Vol. 2, The Works of Mencius (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1970) p. 132.

2 Jennifer Eileen Downs, “Famine policy and discourses on famine in Ming China 1368–1644,” unpublished PhD thesis, University of Minnesota, 1995), p. 42. see also Pierre-Etienne Will, Wong, R. Bin and Lee, James, Nourish the People: The State Civilian Granary System in China, 1650–1850 (Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, 1991).

3 The number of people who died as a result of the famine remains a controversial issue. Based on Chinese population statistics that were published in the early 1980s, scholars estimate different figures. Peng Xizhe calculated 23 million deaths in 14 provinces (Xizhe, Peng, “Demographic consequences of the Great Leap Forward in China's provinces,” Population and Development Review, Vol. 13, No. 4 (1987), p. 649). Ansley Coale came to the conclusion that 16.5 million people died, and Basil Ashton counted 30 million deaths and 30 missing births (Ashton, Basil and Hill, Kenneth, “Famine in China, 1958–1961,” Population and Development Review, Vol. 10, No. 4 (1984), p. 614). Jasper Becker estimated 43 to 46 million casualties on the basis of an internal investigation of the Chinese government (Becker, Jasper, Hungry Ghosts – China's Secret Famine (London: Murray 1996), p. 272).

4 This article is an outcome of my dissertation. Wemheuer, Felix, Steinnudeln: Ländliche Erinnerungen und staatliche Vergangenheitsbewältigung der „Großen Sprung“ - Hungersnot in der chinesischen Provinz Henan (Stone Noodles: Rural and Official Memories of the Great Leap Famine in the Chinese Province Henan) (Vienna: Peter Lang, 2007).

5 Western academics have already debated the question of who developed and promoted the idea of the Great Leap Forward in the central leadership. On this point see MacFarquhar, Roderick, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution 2 – The Great Leap Forward 1958–1960 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983); Teiwes, Fredrick and Sun, Warren, China's Road to Disaster – Mao, Central Politicians, and Provincial Leaders in the Unfolding of the Great Leap Forward 1955–1959 (London: Sharpe, 1999); Bachman, David, Bureaucracy, Economy and Leadership in China – The Institutional Origins of the Great Leap Forward (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991); Chan, Alfred L., Mao's Crusade – Politics and Implementations in China's Great Leap Forward (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); and Bernstein, Thomas, “Mao Zedong and the famine of 1959–1960: a study of wilfulness,” The China Quarterly, No. 186 (2006), pp. 421–45.

6 Regarding memories see Erik Mueggler, “Spectral chains: remembering the Great Leap Forward famine in a Yi community,” and Manning, Kimberley “Communes, canteens, and creches: the gendered politics of remembering the Great Leap Forward,” in Lee, Ching Kwan and Yang, Guobin (eds.), Re-envisioning the Chinese Revolution – The Politics and Poetics of Collective Memories in Reform China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007); and Jing, Jun, The Temple of Memories – History, Power and Morality in a Chinese Village (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), p. 100.

7 Halbwachs, Maurice, Das Gedächtnis und seine sozialen Bedingungen (The Social Frames of Memory) (Frankfurt (M): Suhrkamp, 1985), p. 360.

8 Halbwachs, Maurice, Stätten der Verkündigungen im Heiligen Land (The Legendary Topography of the Gospels in the Holy Land) (Konstanz: UVK Verlagsgesellschaft, 2003), p. 166.

9 Regarding party history in China see Weigelin-Schwiedrzik, Susanne, “Party historiography,” in Unger, Jonathan (ed.), Using the Past to Serve the Present – Historiography and Politics in Contemporary China (London: M.E. Sharpe, 1993).

10 Watson, Rubie S. (ed.), Memory, History and Opposition under State Socialism (Houston: School of American Research Press, 1994), p. 4.

11 Regarding the Great Leap Forward in Henan see Domenach, Jean-Luc, The Origins of the Great Leap Forward – The Case of One Province (Oxford: Westminster Press, 1995). This book focuses on the politics in Henan from 1949 to 1958 and not on the famine.

12 Interview with a Party historian from Henan, 5 August 2005 (Zhengzhou).

13 Yibo, Bo, Ruogan zhongda juece yu shijian de huigu (Reflections on Certain Major Decisions and Events) (Beijing: Zhongyang dangxiao chubanshe, 1993).

14 For a more detailed comparison with the Soviet Union see Felix Wemheuer, “Regime changes of memories: creating official history of the Ukrainian and Chinese famine under state socialism and after the Cold War,” Kritika Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, Vol. 10, No. 1 (2009), pp. 31–59.

15 See Joseph, William A., “A tragedy of good intentions – post-Mao views of the Great Leap Forward,” Modern China, Vol. 12, No. 4 (1986), pp. 419–57.

16 Xiaoping, Deng: “Dui qi cao ‘guanyu jianguo yilai de ruogan lizhi wenti de jueyi’ de yijian” (“Draft the suggestions for ‘Resolution on some questions concerning the history of the Party since the founding of the PRC’”), in Deng Xiaoping wenxian, Vol. 2 (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 1983), p. 296.

17 “Guanyu jianguo yilai dang de ruogan lishi wenti de jueyi” (“Resolution on some questions concerning the history of the Party since the founding of the PRC”) Renmin ribao (People's Daily), 1 July 1981.

18 Liangong (bu) dangshi jianming jiaocheng (Short Course in History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 1975), p. 339.

19 Shaoqi, Lui, “Zai kuoda de zhongyang gongzuo huiyi shang de jianghua” (“Speech on the expanded working conference of the Central Committee”), in Zhonggong zhongyang wenxian yanjiushi: Jianguo yilai zhongyao wenjian xuanbian (A Collection of Important Documents after the Foundation of the State) (Beijing: Zhonggong zhongyang wenxian chubanshe, 1997), Vol. 15, p. 88.

20 Ibid. p. 23.

21 Bo Yibo, Reflections on Certain Major Decisions and Events, Vol. 2, p. 27.

22 Xianzhi, Feng and Chongji, Jin, Mao Zedong zhuan 1949–1976 (A Biography of Mao Zedong) (Beijing: Zhongyangwenxian chubanshe, 2003), Vol. 2, p. 1181.

23 Deng Xiaoping, “Draft the suggestions,” p. 296.

24 Lui Shaoqi, “Speech on the expanded working conference,” p. 39.

25 Bo Yibo, Reflections on Certain Major Decisions and Events, Vol. 2, p. 1284.

26 Stalin, Gesammelte Werke, Vol. 13, p. 105.

27 For example Ge Jinwei, “Fudan daxue de ‘Dayuejin’ guihua” (“The planning of the ‘Great Leap Forward’ at Fudan University”), and Junyi, Wei, “‘Hou re’ de niandai, hou re de xin” (“Hot time, hot heart”) in Zhanbin, Zhang, Jiehui, Liu and Guohua, Zhang (eds.), “Dayuejin” he sannian kunan shiqi de Zhongguo (The “Great Leap Forward” and China in the Period of Three Years of Difficulties) (Beijing: Zhongguo shangye chubanshe, 2001), and Lian, Liu, “Xushui ‘dayuejin’ qinshiji” (“The ‘Great Leap Forward’ in Xushui – experienced history”), Bainian Chao, No. 7 (1999), pp. 5359.

28 Wemheuer, Felix, Chinas Großer Sprung nach vorne (1958–1961) Von der kommunistischen Offensive in die Hungersnot - Intellektuelle erinnern sich (China's Great Leap Forward 1958–1961: From the Communist Offensive to the Famine – Intellectuals Remember) (Münster: LitVerlag, 2004).

29 Liu Lian, “The ‘Great Leap Forward’ in Xushui,” p. 57.

30 Interview with Zhang Chengguang, May 2002 (Beijing), interview with Zhang Zhiguo, 5 August 2005 (Zhengzhou).

31 Wei Junyi, “Hot time, hot heart,” p. 143.

32 Felix Wemheuer, Chinas Großer Sprung nach vorne, p. 93.

33 Wang Ding, “Yige da weiqing' de muhou” (“The background of a great Sputnik”), in Zhang, Liu and Zhang, The “Great Leap Forward” and China in the Period of Three Years of Difficulties, p. 58.

34 Ibid. p. 59.

35 Zhiyuan, Liang, “‘Dayuejin’ zai Anhui Bo xian” (“The ‘Great Leap Forward’ in Bo county in Anhui”), Zhonggong dangshi ziliao, No. 75 (2000), pp. 531.

36 Ibid. p. 29.

37 For the discourse on “suzhi” see Rachel Murphy, “Turning peasants into modern Chinese citizens: ‘population quality’ discourse, demographic translation and primary education,” The China Quarterly, No. 177 (2004), pp. 1–20, and Kipnis, Andy, “Suzhi: a keyword approach,” The China Quarterly, No. 186 (2006), pp. 295313.

38 Yang, Dali, Calamity and Reform in China – State, Rural Society and Institutional Change since the Great Leap Forward (Stanford: University Press of California, 1996), p. 38.

39 Linnan, Zhang, “Guanyu fan Pan, Yang, Wang shijian” (“On the Anti-Pan, Yang, Wang incident”), in Zhonggong Henan shengwei dangshi gongzuo weiyuanhui (ed.), Fengyu chunqiu – Pan Fusheng shiwen jinian ji (Wind and Rain, Spring and Autumn – Poetry and Articles in the Memory of Pan Fusheng) (Zhengzhou: Henan renmin chubanshe, 1993), p. 323.

40 Shuji, Cao, Dajihuang – 1959–1961 nian de Zhongguo renkou (The Great Famine – The Population of China from 1959 to 1961) (Hong Kong: Dangdai guoji chubanshe gongsi, 2005), p. 264.

41 Wemheuer, Steinnudeln, pp. 151–57.

42 Xin'an difangshi zhi bianzuan weiyuanhui (ed.), Xin'an xianzhi (Gazette of Xin'an County) (Zhengzhou: Henan renmin chubanshe, 1989).

43 Yiyang xianzhi bianzuan weiyuanhui (ed.), Yiyang xianzhi (Gazette of Yiyang County) (Beijing: Sanlian shudian, 1996).

44 Henansheng Runan xianzhi bianzuan weiyuanhui (ed.), Runan xianzhi (Gazette of Runan County) (Zhengzhou: Zhongzhou guji chubanshe, 1997).

45 Vivian Wagner, “Erinnerungsverwaltung: die politische Instrumentalisierung von Staatsarchiven in der VR China” (“The administration of memories: political instrumentalization of the state archives in the PRC”), unpublished dissertation, University of Heidelberg, 2003, p. 471.

46 tongjiju, Henansheng (ed.), Henan sheng renkou tongji ziliao huibian 1949–88 (Collection of Population Statistics of Henan Province 1949–88) (Zhengzhou: 1989), pp. 556617.

47 Interview with a Party historian from Henan, 5 August 2005 (Zhengzhou).

48 Wind and Rain, Spring and Autumn, p. 290.

49 Ibid.; Zhonggong Henan shengwei dangshi gongzuo weiyuanhui (ed.), Jinian Wu Zhipu wenji (Collected Works in Memory of Wu Zhipu) (Beijing: Zhongyang dangshi chubanshe, 1995).

50 Interview with a Party historian from Henan, 5 August 2005 (Zhengzhou).

51 Tiyun, Hu and Zhiying, Hou, Dangdai Henan jianshi 1949–1998 (Short History of Modern Henan 1949–1998) (Beijing: Dangdai Zhongguo chubanshe, 1999), p. 136.

52 Zhonghua renmin gongheguo guojia nongye weiyuanhui bangongting (ed.), “Zhonggong zhongyang dui Xinyang diwei guanyu zhengfeng zhengshe yundong he shengchang jiuzai gongzuo qingkuang de baogao de pizhi,” Nongye jitihua zhongyao wenjian huibian (A Collection of Important Documents Regarding the Collectivization of Agriculture) (Beijing: Zhongyang dangxiao chubanshe, 1981), Vol. 2, p. 423.

53 Gao Hua, “Da zaihuang yu siqing yundong de qiyuan” (“The great famine and the origins of the four clean up movement”), 2000,

54 Rui, Li, “‘Xinyang shijian’ jiqi jiaoxun” (“The lessons of the ‘Xinyang Incident’”), Yanhuang chunqiu, No. 4 (2002), p. 21.

55 Regarding the “Xinyang Incident” see Becker, Hungry Ghosts – China's Secret Famine, p. 112.

56 Shufan, Zhang, “Xinyang shijian: yige chentong de lishi jiaoxun” (“The Xinyang incident: bitter lessons from history”), Bainian chao, No. 12 (1998), p. 44.

57 Ibid. p. 43.

58 Dehong, She, “Guanyu ‘Xinyang shijian’ de yishu” (“Memories of the ‘Xinyang Incident’”), in Zhongguo nongcunyanjiu bianji weiyuanhui (ed.), Zhongguo nongcun yanjiu 2002 quan (Bejing: Zhongguo shehui kexue chubanshe, 2003), p. 325.

59 Ibid. p. 329.

60 Ibid. p. 330.

61 Ibid. p. 331.

62 All names of persons and villages are pseudonyms.

63 Interview with Chen Chuwu, 12 February 2005 (Baotou, Xin'an county, Henan).

64 Bo Yibo, Reflections on Certain Major Decisions and Events, Vol. 2, p. 1285.

65 Interview with Li Zhuru, 12 February 2005 (Baotou, Xin'an county, Henan).

67 Interview with Wu Tianchen, August 2005 (Judong, Runan county, Henan).

68 Interview with Li Pengkui, 11 February 2005 (Baotou, Xin'an county, Henan).

69 Interview with Li Bin, 12 February 2005 (Baotou, Xin'an county, Henan).

70 Interview with Huang Xuemei, 8 August 2005 (Judong, Runan county, Henan).

71 Interview with Li Minghu, 9 August 2005 (Judong, Runan county, Henan).

72 Weigelin-Schwiedrzik, Susanne, “In search of a master narrative for 20th-century Chinese history,” The China Quarterly, No. 188 (2006), p. 1072. Regarding “fragmented memories” see also Lee and Yang, Re-envisioning the Chinese Revolution, p. 5.

73 Regarding the separation between rural and urban society see Potter, Sulamith Heins, “The position of peasants in modern China's social order,” Modern China, Vol. 9, No. 4. (1983), and Cheng, Tiejun and Cheek, Mark Selden, “The construction of spatial hierarchies: China's hukou and danwei system,” in Cheek, Timothy and Saich, Tony (eds.), New Perspectives on State Socialism in China (London: M.E. Sharpe, 1999), pp. 2350.

74 Interview with Huang Liang, 12 February 2005 (Wangcun, Yiyang county, Henan).

75 Wemheuer, Steinnudeln, pp. 230–32.

76 Jian, Kang, Huihuan de huanmie –Renmingongshe de jingshilu (The Glorious Disillusion – Warning about the People's Commune) (Beijing: Zhongguo shehui chubanshe, 1998), p. 558.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

The China Quarterly
  • ISSN: 0305-7410
  • EISSN: 1468-2648
  • URL: /core/journals/china-quarterly
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed