The China Quarterly


Agency and Famine in China's Sichuan Province, 1958–1962*

Chris Bramalla1

a1 School of Oriental and African Studies, London. Email:


A revisionist literature on the Great Chinese Famine has emerged in recent years. These revisionists focus primarily on the question of agency. They claim that that neither poor weather nor the excesses of local cadres can explain the extent of mortality; rather, responsibility lies squarely with Mao and the CCP leadership. Using county-level data on mortality, output, rainfall and temperature for Sichuan province, I argue that this revisionist view is unconvincing. Weather admittedly played only a minor role, and the zealotry of the Party centre contributed significantly to the death toll. However, variations in mortality between Sichuan's counties appear to have been essentially random – suggesting that differences in local cadre responses to central government policy were decisive in determining the scale of famine.


  • Sichuan;
  • mortality;
  • Great Leap Forward;
  • famine;
  • weather;
  • cadres

Chris Bramall is professor of economics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. His latest book is Chinese Economic Development (Routledge, 2009).

* I am grateful to Kerstin Lehr and Julia Strauss for their comments on an earlier version of this article, to Tim Wright for alerting me to a number of sources, and to Kimberley Manning for allowing me an early look at the manuscript version of Kimberley E. Manning and Felix Wemheuer, Eating Bitterness: New Perspectives on China's Great Leap Forward and Famine (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010) [Google Scholar].