Chinese famine of 1942–1943

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The Henan Famine of 1942–1943 occurred in Henan, most particularly within the eastern and central part of the province. The famine occurred within the context of the Second Sino-Japanese War and resulted from a combination of natural and human factors. 2 to 5 million people died of starvation or disease and upwards of 4 million fled Henan.[1]

The Henan Famine
CountryHenan, China
PeriodSummer 1942 - Spring 1943
Total deaths2-5 million
ObservationsDrought, Locusts, Second Sino-Japanese War, 1938 Yellow River flood, Corruption, Government Inefficiency
The province of Henan in the modern People's Republic of China.
United Nation ship transports supplies to Hunnan 1945



Henan had previously suffered as a result of the war. Thousands of its young men had already been conscripted. In 1938 the Nationalist government flooded the Yellow River in an attempt to stop the advance of the Japanese, flooding through eastern and central Henan, central Anhui and north-central Jiangsu. As many as 400,000 to 500,000 Northern Chinese civilians and Japanese soldiers may have died from famine, disease and flooding. When Japanese troops did enter the area they caused much destruction, which contributed to causing the famine.[2] By the time of the famine itself, Henan was divided, with the eastern half of the province under occupation by Japan and the western half part unoccupied and nominally under the authority of the Nationalist government based in Chongqing.

In 1942 the spring and summer rains failed, causing drought. In addition to this, locusts caused much damage to the existing harvest. The result was that the supply of grain in the affected areas was reduced greatly. This started to make itself felt by the winter of that year. Yet Chinese and Japanese authorities in the affected areas continued their grain requisition policies in order to feed their soldiers. Environmental historian Micah S. Muscolino also suggests that there is a link between the deliberate flooding of the Yellow River in 1938 and the 1942 famine as the flooding 'contributed to a total disruption of Henan's hydraulic and agricultural systems'.[3]

The terrible conditions that the famine created were vividly described by journalist Theodore White in a special report written for Time magazine, published in March 1943. Cannibalism was rife and parents sold their children just to survive.[4] Disease bred in these conditions, contributing greatly to the death toll.[5] Relief efforts were organized by the government, and by Christian missionaries operating in the area.[6]

In his work China's War with Japan, 1937 – 1945, which is broadly sympathetic to Chiang Kai-shek, Rana Mitter places much of the blame at the hands of corrupt or incompetent local officials. He notes that Chiang announced a reduction in the grain quota for Henan, but the head of the Henan grain administration collected more than the quota demanded anyway.[7] Officials in the neighboring provinces refused to send their surplus grain to Henan.[8] A further example of this incompetence and corruption comes from Runan County where a grain storage system had been set up at the outbreak of war. However, officials there had never actually stored the grain and used it instead to make private deals.[9] Theodore White described being invited to a feast by local authorities which included delicacies such as 'chicken, beef, water chestnut and three cakes with sugar frosting'.[10] The Chongqing government is, however, blamed for reacting slowly and sending paper money instead of food for relief.[11] Mitter notes that the famine can be seen as a consequence of the reduction of the Nationalist government's authority over the provinces as the war dragged on.[12] He also says that Chiang's government was also reluctant to press further for a reduction in the grain tax when national survival was at stake.[13]

Death tollEdit

Due to the ongoing Sino-Japanese war, there was a lack of statistics from Japanese occupied regions of Henan.

An investigation report by Zhang Guangsi (张光嗣) on the behalf of the National Government Relief Committee on September 28th, 1943 recorded the following deaths.[citation needed]

Death toll in Henan per county
County Death Toll County Death Toll County Death Toll
Mengxian (孟县) 95,121 Yuxian (禹县) 151,028 Changge (长葛) 58,802
Huangchuan (潢川) 37,392 Xingyang (荥阳) 30,347 Weishi (尉氏) 29,654
Xinzheng (新郑) 34,353 Mixian (密县) 34,593 Guangwu (广武) 15,875
Sishui (汜水) 14,306 Xuchang (许昌) 183,472 Lushan ( 鲁山) 13,822
Linying (临颖) 79,715 Xiangxian (襄县) 118,433 Yanling (鄢陵) 108,498
Linru (临汝) 36,446 Baofeng (宝丰) 11,539 Jiaxian ( 郏县) 34,458
Yancheng (郾城) 40,835 Yexian (叶县) 103,737 Fangcheng (方城) 38,974
Fugou (扶沟) 44,210 Xihua (西华) 51,989 Shangshui (商水) 25,899
Xiangcheng (项城) 32,147 Shenqiu (沈邱) 12,815 Dengfeng (登封) 23,517
Shanxian (陕县) 19,100 Yanshi (偃师) 7,916 Total 1,488,993
  • American Journalist Theodore H. White estimated that more than 5 million people died during the famine, according to his investigations in the region. [14]
  • A report published by the Henan Provincial Government in 1943 recorded 288006 deaths and 1526662 refugees.[citation needed]
  • Guo Zhongkui (郭仲隗), a delegate at the Political Council of the Republic of China during the famine in 1942 claimed 5 million deaths in his book [15]:

    In 1942, I continued my office as a delegate of the 3rd national political council, that was when the Henan Famine happened, not a single grain was yield only a couple of exceptions. The Central (Government) did not allow this to be reported, nor provided aid, I did what I can as a delegate. The result was 5 million deaths in Henan, President Li Peiji (李培基) of Henan only reported 1602 deaths, never have this occurred in politics.

Political ramificationsEdit

In Communist-controlled areas, the authorities did reduce the grain quotas for those most affected by the drought. Mao Zedong exploited this for propaganda purposes to portray his government as more benevolent than the Nationalist government. This was effective as it became 'an obvious point of comparison'.[16][17] The Communists were able to pursue this policy in part because they depended on guerilla warfare and did not need to maintain a standing army in order to participate in the wartime alliance.[18]


The Chinese famine of 1942–1943 has been referred to as 'China's forgotten famine',[19] overshadowed by the war that took place around it and the much greater famine of 1958–61. Even in Henan itself this tragic period is not well remembered or talked about, with novelist Liu Zhenyun saying that there is a 'collective amnesia' in the province.[20] Interest in the event has rekindled in recent years, however, with the release of the film Back to 1942, adapted from Liu Zhenyun's novel Remembering 1942. [21]


  1. ^ Micah S. Muscolino (2011). 'Violence against people and the land: The environment and refugee migration from China's Henan Province, 1938–1945.' Environment and History (17), pp. 301–302.
  2. ^ Rana Mitter (2013). China's War with Japan, 1937–1945: The Struggle for Survival. London: Allen Lane. p. 268.
  3. ^ Muscolino (2011), p. 294.
  4. ^ Diana Lary (2010). The Chinese People at War: Human Suffering and Social Transformation. Cambridge University Press. p. 124.
  5. ^ Odoric Y. K . Wou. (2007). 'Food shortage and Japanese grain extraction in Henan'. IN: Stephen MacKinnon, Diana Lary and Ezra F. Vogel (eds.), China at War: Regions of China. p. 178.
  6. ^ Lary (2010). p. 124.
  7. ^ Mitter (2013), p. 269.
  8. ^ Mitter (2013), p. 268.
  9. ^ Mitter (2013), p. 271.
  10. ^ Mitter (2013), p. 272.
  11. ^ Mitter (2013), pp. 271–273.
  12. ^ Mitter (2013), p. 273.
  13. ^ Mitter (2013), p. 275.
  14. ^ "Until the Harvest Is Reaped". Time. 22 March 1943. ISSN 0040-781X. Retrieved 6 July 2021.
  15. ^ 郭, 仲隗 (1996). 江流天地外. Henan: 河南人民出版社. ISBN 9787215031876.
  16. ^ Mitter (2013), p. 275.
  17. ^ Ralph Thaxton (2008). Catastrophe and Contention in Rural China: Mao's Great Leap Forward Famine and the Origins of Righteous Resistance in Da Fo Village. Cambridge University Press. p. 56.
  18. ^ Mitter (2013), p. 280.
  19. ^ News China Magazine (January 2013) 'The Forgotten Famine' Archived 2014-09-14 at the Wayback Machine
  20. ^ Liu Zhenyun (November 2012). 'Memory, Loss'. Published in The New York Times. [1]
  21. ^ Liu, Zhenyun; 刘震云 (2009). Wen gu yi jiu si er (Beijing di 1 ban ed.). Beijing. ISBN 978-7-02-006612-4. OCLC 436459187.

Further readingEdit

  • Garnaut, Anthony. "A quantitative description of the Henan famine of 1942." Modern Asian Studies 47.6 (2013): 2007-2045. DOI:
  • Muscolino, Micah S. The Ecology of War in China: Henan Province, the Yellow River, and Beyond, 1938–1950 (Cambridge UP, 2014).
  • Ó Gráda, Cormac. "The ripple that drowns? Twentieth‐century famines in China and India as economic history 1." Economic History Review 61 (2008): 5-37 online.

External linksEdit