Winter 1958, and the city streets of Shanghai in China were filled with sensational color and noise. In among the chaos, armed citizens were encouraged to fire their weapons into the sky. It was the opening salvos in a war against the country’s sparrows, ordered by none other than the Chinese leader, Chairman Mao Zedong himself. But why did he pick such a bizarre fight, and how did the conflict cause chaos for years to come?
When the Chinese Civil War ended in 1949 with the victory of the Chinese Communist Party, its then 56-year-old leader, Mao Zedong, oversaw the foundation of the People’s Republic of China. And, under his radical modernizing red regime, the nation flourished at first. However, in 1958, Mao launched a disastrous social and economic scheme ironically known as the Great Leap Forward.
Indeed, the purpose of the Great Leap Forward was to transform China from a medieval agrarian society into a fully functioning industrialized socialist republic. And as part of that four-year plan, Chairman Mao aimed to reform antiquated agricultural practices, turning farming in the country from a private enterprise activity into a collectivized form of industry.
To this end, one of Mao’s first initiatives was the Four Pests Campaign, a scheme intended to eliminate the presence of mosquitoes, rats, sparrows and flies across the country. Mao believed, correctly, that these creatures were responsible for the spread of disease and pestilence. But he was seriously wrong to think that eradicating them would help to bring prosperity to the nation.
Of particular concern to Mao were sparrows with their diet of grain seeds. The leader blamed these scavenging birds for the loss of vital food resources in China. And, despite having no formal training in biology or ecology, Mao decided that the best solution to the problem was the large-scale slaughter of these innocent winged creatures.
And, apparently, there were even some vague facts to back up his bizarre conclusion. According to Chinese scientists of the time, a single sparrow had an annual consumption of approximately ten pounds of grain. So, by this calculation, if the Republic could arrange the deaths of one million birds, the country would be saving enough resources to feed 60,000 people.
In keeping with his people-power ideals, Mao enlisted the help of China’s civilian population to complete the bloody task. And, reportedly, the ordinary citizens of the country took to the streets with relish and a few household items. By banging on pans and pots to create a loud intimidating noise, they were able to prevent the sparrows from coming to the ground to rest. Unable to land, the birds were eventually pushed to the point of exhaustion and they simply dropped dead out of the sky.
And the hostile avian campaign did not end there. In a further bid to rid themselves of the country’s sparrow population, Chinese citizens also took to destroying their nests, damaging eggs and slaughtering young chicks. Additionally, “free-fire zones” were established in larger cities, such as Shanghai, where civilians with guns were encouraged to take aim at the troublesome birds.
According to a contemporaneous report in a local Shanghai newspaper, even the pupils from a girl’s middle school got in on the act. Apparently, the school’s rifle team gained valuable shooting practice when they dispatched flocks of the nuisance birds using gunfire. Meanwhile, other educational institutions, government agencies and enterprises were all encouraged to compete against each other to see who could kill the most sparrows.
Although the exact number of sparrows killed in China in the two years following 1958 understandably remains unknown, experts believe the fantastical death toll to be in the hundreds of millions. In fact, Mao’s orders pushed the bird to the brink of extinction across the country. However, by 1960, it had become apparent that this murderous tactic had been somewhat short sighted.
As it turned out, it was not only great quantities of grain seed that the hapless sparrows had been feasting upon. It became all too apparent that bugs had also formed a significant part of the bird’s diet. And when the sparrow numbers dropped due to the incredible cull, all manner of insect pests began to thrive in their absence – devastating the nation’s crops to a far worse degree.
In particular, the locust population experienced a massive boom without the sparrows to keep them in check. And as the voracious insects ate their way through the country’s already scarce resources, Chinese officials realized that their leader had made a terrible mistake. But even though Mao’s vendetta against the birds was called to a halt, the damage had already been done.
Desperate to prevent insects of many varieties from destroying more crops, the Chinese authorities even resorted to shipping in sparrows from overseas. However, it was simply too late to stop ecological disaster from taking hold. And, by 1961, millions of people were dead or dying of starvation across the Republic.
Of course, the slaughter of the sparrows was not the only factor that caused China’s Great Famine. Although experts still debate the degree to which various elements contributed to the human disaster, it is generally accepted that a combination of economic problems, bad weather and changes in agricultural policy was chiefly responsible.
In 1958, Chairman Mao’s decision to transfer agriculture in China to collective ownership caused massive upheaval and instability across the country. And while the steel and iron industries were prioritized, and ordinary workers strove to meet extraordinary targets, civilians began dying of starvation – despite the fact that the country’s grain stores were full.
Yang Jisheng, a Chinese historian and journalist, summarized the mismanagement in his 2008 book Tombstone. He wrote, “If the granaries of Henan and Hebei had been opened, no-one need have died. As people were dying in large numbers around them, officials did not think to save them. Their only concern was how to fulfill the delivery of grain.”
Additionally, the authorities took advice from a number of so-called experts from the Soviet Union on how to maximize China’s agricultural productivity. However, these ideas, such as planting seeds close together and ploughing deep beneath the soil, were seriously flawed, and they ended up further destroying the nation’s crops.
By the time that Mao launched his war against the sparrows, China’s ecosystem was already in a fragile state. Then, in 1959, a great flood spilled out across the eastern parts of the country – possibly as a result of irrigation work carried out as part of the Great Leap Forward. In 1960, a year-long drought affected some 60 percent of the agricultural land in the north of the nation.
By that year, grain production in China had dropped a staggering 70 percent compared to levels before the Great Leap Forward. Consequently, a famine descended on the Republic. And, although there is no official death toll in existence from that secretive state, some experts estimate that as many as 78 million Chinese people lost their lives.
Although Mao’s decision to eliminate China’s sparrows played a significant part in this shocking loss of human life, some observers believe that the important lessons of the Great Leap Forward have yet to be learned. In fact, as recently as 2004, China was responsible for culling tens of thousands of civets in the hope of wiping out severe acute respiratory syndrome – or SARS. As the philosopher once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”