San José State University
Department of Economics
Thayer Watkins
Silicon Valley
& Tornado Alley


In 1943 and 1944 the provice of Henan in China experienced a terrible famine. It came as a result of drought and warfare but the Nationalist Government not only failed to remedy the food shortage it through its unrelenting taxation made it far worse than would have been. As a famine it might not have been worse than other famines which occurred in China in the past but it is the only one for which we have a detailed description. The American journalist Theodore H. White gave us an eye witness account. The famine which occurred during the Great Leap Forward resulted in the deaths of more than ten times as many people but it was kept secret from the outside world and China outside of the famine areas for about two decades. The reason for the secrecy is that Chinese culture treats such calamities as harbingers of changes of dynasties. So, even natural disasters have a political content.

Theodore H. White puts it this way:

Famine and flood are China's sorrow. From time out of mind Chinese chroniclers have recorded these recurrent disasters with beating, peersistent note of doom. Always in their chronicles Chinese historians have judged the great dynasties of the past by their ability to meet and master such tragic emergencies. In the concluding years of the war against Japan such a famine ravaged the north and tested the government of Chiang K'aishek.

The name Henan (Honan) means south of the river; the river in this case is the Yellow River (Huang He). In north central China the Huang He turns north, then travels east for some distance before turning south and then flowing east again. Henan is the province in the bend in the river. The soil is loess (wind blown dust) and productive but the climate severe. The major crop is spring wheat; i.e., wheat that is sown in autumn and harvested in the spring. The farmers in Henan also raise some millet and maize (corn). These were sown after the spring wheat crop was harvested and they were harvested in the fall before the next year's wheat crop could be sown.

The crops of 1940 and 1941 were poor and accumulated reserves were used up. Then in winter and spring of 1942 the rains failed to fall and there was nearly no wheat crop. The Government nevertheless extracted the tax in terms of grain as in a normal year. This meant that nearly the whole crop was taken by the government. Government officials said that this tax was alright because the rains would fall in the summer and give the peasants millet and maize to eat. Theodore White questioned one peasant how much wheat he got from one mou (a unit of land equal to one sixth of an acre). The peasant replied that he harvested 15 pounds of grain. White then asked what the tax was for that mou of land. The peasant replied, "13 pounds."

Incredibly the situation was even worse than what that peasant described. White spoke with a district officer who said he was ordered to extract 400,000 pounds of grain when his district produced only 350,000 pounds. How was the difference to be made up. One farmer told White he had harvested five thousand pounds and the government took it all and told he that it was not enough. The government officials forced him to sell his ox and donkey to cover the difference. The peasants depended upon oxen to pull their plows for the next planting. So the government turned a year of a bad harvest into a complete disaster through its tax policy.

As White describes the situation

The government in county after county was demanding of the peasant more actual poundage of grain than he had raised on his acres. No excuses were allowed; peasants who were eating elm bark and dried leaves had to haul their last sack of seed grain to the tax collector's office. Peasants who were so weak they could barely walk had to collect fodder for the army's horses, fodder that was more nourishing than the filth they were cramming into their own mouths. Peasants who could not pay were forced to the wall; they sold their cattle, their furniture, and even their own land to raise money to buy grain to meet the tax quota.

The price that had to be paid by a peasant to buy wheat to meet his tax quota was exorbitant. The price of wheat in Henan was 60 times was it was in America.

When White questioned the governor of the Henan province about tax collectors demanding more than the land produced the governor replied

Only the wealthy had to pay [the tax] in full. From the poor we collected no more than the land produced.

So the governor was admitting that his tax collectors were taking at least all the wheat the peasants were producing.

The Nationalist party (Guomindang) government in Zhongjing (Chungking) was slow to recognize that a problem existed in Henan. White says,

The story of the Honan famine rolled into Chungking like tumbleweeds blown by the wind.
"I heard from a man who was there …"
"I saw in a letter from Loyang …"
"In Sian they say that …"

When in February of 1943 the most independent newspaper in Zhongjing (Chungking) published an article telling of the unbearable suffering of the people of Honan the government closed the newspaper down for three days.

Shortly after the closure of the newspaper in Zhongjing (Chungking) Theodore White and a British journalist decided to go to Henan to see for themselves. They flew to Xi'an and took a train from there to Henan. At the train station in Xi'an there was a multitude of refugees from Henan fleeing the famine.

The train traveled across thirty to forty miles of plains where White said he aw bunches of refugees walking in an endless precession that arose beyond the horizon. There were couples carrying their possessions and children in wheelbarrows. Some old women with deformed feet had to be carried piggyback by their sons. Children often had to carry packs as big as themselves. White said the some of the children had eyes that appeared to have seen a thousand years of suffering.

White and his companion journalist traveled to the smaller towns. There children cried out K'o lien (Mercy) begging for food.

White describes the scenes in the small towns.

There were corpses on the road. A girl of no more than seventeen, slim and pretty, lay on the damp earth, her lips blue with death; her eyes were open and the rain fell on them. People chipped at bark, pounded it by the roadside for food; vendors sold leaves at a dollar a bundle. A dog digging at a mound was exposing a human body. Ghostlike men were skimming the stagnant pools to eat the green slime of the waters.

Despite the famine there was in each town a restaurant able to provide food for those who had money.

White and his companion reached Zhengzhou (Chengchow), a city where 120,000 people lived before the war. Only one third that number remained. White heard from missionaries that the strong had fled first. All who remained were the old and weak except for a few hardy souls who remained to guard their spring wheat crops. Some of the starving were tearing up the spring wheat plants by their roots. Others were stripping bark from elm trees and grinding it up for food. In some places people were pounding peanut shells to powder to fill their bellies. On the road White and his companion had seen people eating soil.

The missionaries told White that earlier mobs of peasants had broke into wealthy homes and carried off everything they could. Others took the crops from the fields. White also heard stories of desparate behavior. One couple tied their six children to trees so they could not follow them as they fled to find food. Other parents killed their children to stop them from begging for something to eat. There were reports of cannibalism. White says,

In the mountain districts there were uglier tales of refugees caught on lonely roads and killed for their flesh. How much of this was just gruesome legend and how much truth we could not judge. But we heard the same tales too frequently, in too widely scattered places, to ignore the fact that in Honan human beings were eating their own kind.

What had the central government in Zhongjing done. It had not anticipated that the drought would bring a famine. China, no matter whether it is called Republic or not, is still an empire and it is difficult for the center in an empire to know what is happening on the edge of the empire. Furthermore the central authority has far more matters to command its attention than it can take care of. Here is what White found happened.

The Chinese government failed to foresee the famine; when it came, it failed to act until too late. As early as October (1942), reports of the situation were arriving in Chungking. In November two government inspectors visited Honan, traveled the main motor roads, and returned to say the that the crisis was desparate and something must be done immediately. The Central Government dismissed the matter by appropriating $200,000,000 --paper money--for famine relief and sending a mandateto provincial authorities to remit taxes. The banks in Chungking loaded the bales of paper currency on trucks and sent a convoy bearing paper not food, to the stricken. It would have been hopeless to try to move heavy tonnage of grain from central China over the broken, mountainous communications to northern China and Honan. Yet just across the provincial border from Honan was the province of Shensi, whose grain stores were more than ample. A vigorous government would have ordered grain from Shensi into neighboring Honan immediately to avert disaster. But cracking down on Shensi in favor of Honan would have upset the delicate balance of power the government found so essential to its functioning. Grain might also have been moved to Honan from Hupeh, but the war commander in Hupeh (Hubei) would not permit it.

What happened to the 200 million Chinese dollars that had been printed up for Henan? First of all it was in $100 denomination bills that merchants were reluctant to accept. However by the time White arrived in Henan in March of 1943 only 40 percent of the allocated funds had arrived. Even this was not being utilized. It was kept in banks to draw interest while the authorities debated how to use. Even with the little amount that was distributed to households the taxes owed were deducted from the amount given.

The government distribute some grain but it amounted to only ten thousand sacks of rice and twenty thousand sacks of mixed grains for ten million people who had been starving since the fall. This amounted to only about one pound of grain per person. In contrast, government officials received four pounds of grain per day.

In the April of 1944 the Japanese launched a drive to capture control of Henan. They had 60,000 troops. The Chinese army had 300,000 troops in Henan, but they were ill-trained and incompetently commanded. The Japanese captured on staff headquarters while the staff was playing basketball. In the capital city of Loyang the Chinese army had seven or eight hundred trucks. One hudred of these were used to rush troops to the front lines, the rest were being used to evacuate the families and private property of the officers. Two Chinese army units retreated from the front and fought each other.

The Chinese army had such low respect among the population that when they had the opportunity the peasants disarmed the soldiers. Some fifty thousand Chinese government soldiers were captured and disarmed by the local peasants in Henan. The three hundred thousand Nationalist government army in Henan just disappeared. The Japanese captured all of their objectives in Henan.

Source: Theodore H. White and Annalee Jacoby, "The Honan Famine" in Thunder Out of China, William Sloane Associates, New York, 1946, pp. 166-178.

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