Grain Politics and Sichuan in the 1950s

There are few lines of historical investigation more fraught in China than those concerned with food, security, and famine in Sichuan province in the 1950s. But where to start the investigation? Which reference points obtain?

For Frank Dikotter, the reference point is Mao, and the beginning point seems to be 1953. In his book Mao’s Great Famine, the historian locates the origins of the famine at the top levels of the CCP, Mao’s resentment of Stalin and the deterioration of the Stalinist personality cult. To the extent the localities matter at all, it is in their expression of or victimization by centralized themes — brutality, mostly.

A text which is less forceful in its advancing of a monolithic thesis is no less brutal thereby; Zhou Xun’s collection of translations from local archives provides a picture of widespread suffering from a number of points in Sichuan:

The situation was particularly severe in eastern Sichuan. High up in the hills, in houses clinging to the banks of the Yangtze River, peasants faced harsher conditions than in the western plains of the province. Though not far from prosperous Chongqing, Shizhu county had an average death rate between 20 and 50 percent from mid-1959 to mid-1961. In some areas of the county the death rates were as high as 60 percent. While the majority of those who died did so as the result of starvation, many were also beaten to death. In the Xianfeng big brigade of the county’s model Huaban commune, more than 70 percent of the local population were battered during the Anti-Hiding Campaign. Some areas not only had special ‘people-beating squads’ but local cadres even encouraged children to attack other children. (Zhou Xun, pp. 19-20)

Dikotter’s book circles back in Chapter 17, “Agriculture”, to an institutional aspect of Party control of grain which ultimately facilitated famine — the development of the Unified Grain Purchasing and Market system, more fluently known as the tonggou tongxiao. Here the historian leans quickly on the interpretation put forward in Vivien Shue in 1980:

In 1953 a monopoly over grain was introduced, decreeing that farmers must sell all surplus grain to the state at prices determined by the state. The aim behind the monopoly was to stabilise the price of grain across the country, eliminate speculation and guarantee the grain needed to feed the urban population and fuel an industrial expansion. (Dikotter, p. 127).

There is no time in this text to suss out the debate that arrived at such a policy, or to note that the CCP had achieved a kind of gradualist attitude toward the grain markets in prior years: it is merely the command economy impinging upon the otherwise self-respecting peasantry. And it tells us little about the shape and function of Sichuan’s grain market or agricultural mercantile class over which the CCP would have needed to assert control.

Work now being done by Wankun Li, a graduate of Shanghai Jiaotong University (and currently my PhD student at the University of Leeds) aims to document in much greater detail the meaning of the tonggou tongxiao system in Sichuan, focusing on counties in greater Chongqing.

Why does a local point of view matter when it comes to researching grain policy in Sichuan or the greater Southwest region of the PRC in the 1950s?

In his extraordinary ethnography of the mountainous southwestern region of Zhizuo, Yunnan province, Erik Mueggler describes the arrival of the tonggou tongxiao system. Like Dikotter, he relies entirely on Shue for the historical background, but mentions a specific class of people left out of the Hong Kong scholar’s book: grain dealers.

The supply and marketing cooperatives instituted a new system for the procurement and rationing of grain in late 1953. Called ‘unified purchase and supply,’ this system required peasants to sell quotas of surplus grain to the cooperatives at prices set by the state. It was intended to overcome an immediate serious shortage of grain in state granaries and to create conditions for quicker progress toward socialism int eh countryside. the new system virtually eliminated private grain markets. Peasants were free to sell any grain they produced in excess of quota, but only at government-supervised markets and only to working people and grain-short peasants, not to grain dealers.

In Zhisuo, where virtually all households had been defined as grain-short and exempted from the requirement to sell grain to the state, the most important effect of this system was to make it impossible for residents to continue to buy their grain from dealers. Cooperatives were encouraged to establish grain markets on the sites where traditional periodic markets had once flourished. (Mueggler, p. 169)

Unfortunately for CCP cadre in Zhisuo, the new market was unsuccessful due to the fact that locals thought it was inhabited by ghosts.


Frank Dikotter, Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–62 (London: Bloomsbury, 2010).

Chen Yun, “On the Socialist Transformation of Private Industry and Commerce,” in New China Advances to Socialism: A Selection of Speeches Delivered at the Third Session of the First National People’s Congress (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1956), pp. 102-117.

Erik Mueggler, The Age of Wild Chosts: Memory, Violence, and Place in Southwest China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

Frederick C. Tiewes with Warren Sun, China’s Road to Disaster: Mao, Central Politicians, and provincial Leaders in the Unfolding of the Great Leap Forward, 1955-1959 (M.E. Sharpe, 1999).

Zhou Xun, The Great Famine in China, 1958-1962: A Documentary History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012).

Zhu Yonghong, “Reflections on the Party’s Policy Toward the Rural Individual Economy Druing the First Seven Years of the State,” in Frederick C. Teiwes and Warren Sun, eds, The Politics of Agricultural Cooperation in China: Mao, Deng Zihui, and the ‘High Tide’ of 1955 (London: M.E. Sharpe, 1993) pp. 51-59 [originally published in Zhonggong dangshi yanjiu, no. 9, 1989].



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