Mao Zedong in a rice field with hat, from Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung

Effectively unreported by the world press at the time, the famine that swept China from 1958 to 1962 cost perhaps thirty-six million dead from starvation and related causes. In addition, because without food women cease to menstruate, perhaps another forty million babies were not born. So the total population loss was well over seventy million. The suffering was overwhelmingly rural, with farmers turning, among other things, to elm bark, wild herbs, egret droppings, and even guanyintu—a kind of fine clay—in the desperate quest for food. Impossible choices were forced on families about whom to...


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