Between 1876 and 1879, the most lethal drought-famine in imperial China’s long history of famines and disasters struck the five northern provinces of Shandong, Zhili, Shanxi, Henan, and Shaanxi. The drought in the Yellow River basin area began in earnest in 1876, and worsened dramatically with the almost total failure of rain in 1877. By the time conditions began to stabilize in 1879, an estimated 9.5 to 13 million of the affected area’s total population of about 108 million people had perished of starvation and famine-related diseases.
The severe drought that struck North China in the late 1870s was the catalyst but not the underlying cause of the Incredible Famine. In a vast and highly commercialized economy like Qing China’s, a serious regional dearth did not have to result in a major famine. During the eighteenth century, when the Qing state’s power and commitment to storing and distributing grain were at their apex, the state on several occasions effectively prevented serious droughts from resulting in mass starvation. In contrast, by the late nineteenth century the Qing state had been considerably weakened by the mid-century rebellions, fiscal crisis, a lack of strong leadership, and the pressure of foreign imperialism. It thus was no longer able to muster the degree of intervention necessary to prevent the drought from causing a famine.
The mid-century rebellions that began in the 1850s depleted both national and provincial resources to dangerous levels, leaving the state woefully ill-prepared to deal with a major drought. The combined fiscal impact of the Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864), the Nian Rebellion (1853-1868) and the Muslim Revolts (1855-1873) was enormous. According to some calculations, military expenses constituted nearly three-fourths of the total expenditure of the government. The Taiping war devastated some of China’s richest Yangzi valley provinces and cut off the capital from the land tax and salt monopoly revenue of thirteen provinces. Simultaneously, the Nian rebels disrupted administration in large sections of four northern provinces, and the Muslim revolts in the southwest and the northwest depopulated entire areas. The monumental effort expended to suppress the mid-century rebellions wreaked havoc on the Qing granary system. Especially in the drought-prone northern provinces, Qing officials relied on state and community granaries to keep grain prices down and to provide emergency relief during subsistence crises. The decline of the granary system began in the 1790s and reached crisis levels after the mid-century rebellions. This decline meant that by the time drought spread across North China in the late 1870s, the Qing state’s first line of defense against serious food crises had for the most part been replaced by a “makeshift” system run by local elites who lacked the state’s power to maintain enormous granary reserves and to carry out vital inter-regional grain transfers.
Fiscal problems also contributed to the late-Qing state’s inability to relieve the drought-stricken provinces in a timely manner. High-Qing officials were able to maintain an effective granary system in large part because of the state’s generous fiscal reserves, which normally remained at or exceeded 20,000,000 taels during the eighteenth century. By the time drought struck North China in the 1870s, the Qing treasury had suffered major reversals. The decline in fiscal reserves began in the late eighteenth century, when the state had to spend about 100,000,000 taels to suppress the White Lotus Rebellion of 1796-1804. By the early nineteenth century, tax collection became more and more difficult, and the imperial clan had grown from 2,000 members in the early-Qing period to 30,000 members whose maintenance cost several million taels a year. As the century progressed, the cost of maintaining the Yellow River dikes grew tremendously because of increasingly serious flooding brought about by ecological destruction. Paying indemnities to victorious Western powers after military confrontations and financing coastal defense projects that aimed to improve China’s ability to repel maritime invaders brought additional fiscal pressures.
The threat posed by western and Japanese imperialists also forced Qing rulers and their ministers to make excruciating choices about how best to use the country’s depleted resources. The country’s humiliating defeat at the hands of the British and the French in the Arrow War of 1856-60 accentuated the danger posed by the West, while the “punitive expedition” that Japan landed on Taiwan in 1874 signaled Japan’s growing willingness to challenge Qing predominance in East Asia. The empire’s northwestern frontier also fell under attack when the rich Ili Valley of modern-day Xinjiang, the Inner-Asian area that Qing emperors had worked so hard to conquer in the mid-eighteenth century, was invaded and occupied by Russia in 1871. The costly military campaign to recover what is today Xinjiang province coincided exactly with the worst years of the Incredible Famine, making it all the more difficult for the state to fund relief efforts for the starving people of North China.
A lack of strong leadership was yet another factor that hindered the late-Qing state’s ability to respond quickly and effectively to the drought. The throne was particularly weak during the Incredible Famine of 1876-1879 due to questions about the legitimacy of the Guangxu emperor’s succession that occurred in 1875, only a year before the great drought began. Bereft of strong guidance from the throne, in the late 1870s it was more difficult than usual for the Qing government to implement a famine policy requiring large-scale expenditures.  In sum, the combination of internal rebellions, foreign aggression, fiscal problems, the demise of the granary system, and weakness and division in the top echelons of power left the Qing state unprepared for a drought of the magnitude of the one that struck North China between 1876 and 1879.
Chinese responses to the North China Famine of 1876-79 both drew on a millennium of traditional Chinese thinking about famine causation and anticipated new issues that would become increasingly important in the Republican and PRC eras. Like their high-Qing predecessors, during the 1870s Qing rulers and officials presented themselves as benevolent parents of the people, and portrayed the famished as suffering children in need of the state’s help. They carried out an array of rituals that aimed to move Heaven to send rain by demonstrating their sincerity and the depth of their concern for the people’s misery. The state also relied on time-honored strategies such as selling state grain at below-market prices (pingtiao) in stricken areas in order to stabilize food prices, reducing or cancelling taxes, investigating affected areas in order to classify households according to their degree of disaster, and working with local elites to open soup kitchens and shelters. The customs official and historian of China H.B. Morse calculated that between 1876 and 1878 the Qing government granted over 18 million taels of tax remissions, which equaled “more than one-fifth of one year’s receipts of the imperial treasury,” to drought-stricken Shanxi, Henan, Shaanxi, and Zhili. The central government also allocated over 5 million taels in direct aid for famine relief, and ordered provinces outside the famine area to loan additional relief money to the drought-stricken provinces. Unlike the high-Qing state, however, in the 1870s the government no longer had the resources and the will to transport and distribute enormous amounts of grain to the stricken population. For example in Shanxi Province, where the famine was most severe, government relief offices dispensed a total of 10.7 million taels of relief silver, but only 1 million shi of relief grain, during the disaster.
The severity and scope of the disaster galvanized into action not only the Qing court and the officials in charge of relieving the famished northern provinces, but also Western missionaries and Chinese philanthropists living in the wealthy Jiangnan (lower-Yangzi) region. The catastrophe received widespread coverage in Chinese and English-language newspapers published in the treaty-port of Shanghai. In the spring of 1877, prominent members of the large foreign community in Shanghai responded to missionary appeals for aid by canvassing the foreign settlement for relief donations. In January 1878 the Committee of the China Famine Relief Fund was founded in Shanghai to expand the fund-raising campaign overseas and to supervise the efforts of thirty foreign relief distributors (primarily British and American Protestant missionaries), who dispensed cash relief raised by the Committee to famine sufferers in Shanxi, Shandong, and Zhili. The Committee collected and distributed a total of 204,560 taels of relief funds. At least forty Roman Catholics who were not officially connected to the Shanghai committee also distributed relief.
The late-Qing state’s inability to provide sufficient relief for the drought-stricken northern provinces, combined with critical coverage of the famine in China’s new Western-style newspapers, most importantly the Shanghai-based Shenbao, also spurred the emergence of an extensive famine relief network run by Chinese scholars, merchants, and officials in the Jiangnan region. By the summer of 1878, gentry and merchant relief organizers had established special relief offices (xiezhen gongsuo) in Shanghai, Hangzhou, Suzhou, and Yangzhou. Over the next three years these networks cooperated to raise over a million taels for disaster relief. They cooperated with, but remained separate from, the official relief- coordinating bureau in Tianjin.
The North China Famine presented a serious crisis for an empire already beleaguered by internal unrest, foreign aggression, and fiscal woes. While Qing rulers and officials never abandoned the rhetoric that championed the State’s responsibility to nourish the people, in actual practice officials were deeply divided over how to divide scarce resources between famine relief and military spending in the late 1870s. One group of powerful officials and Manchu princes wanted to spend China’s limited resources on self-strengthening projects, most notably coastal defense. A second group of influential officials felt that frontier defense in the Northwest, particularly the costly campaign to recover Xinjiang, was even more urgent than maritime defense. Finally, members of a group of lower-ranking metropolitan officials known as the Qingliu (Pure Stream) argued that relieving the famine should be the government’s chief priority. Disagreements between powerful groups of officials hampered the Qing state’s ability to respond to the famine quickly and effectively. A strong and confident emperor might have been able to stop the infighting. Unfortunately, during the late 1870s no one person or group had the authority and confidence to set a clear policy. Instead, the weak Qing Court wavered between the Qingliu perspective that nourishing the people should be a benevolent state’s top priority, and the insistence from self-strengtheners that defending Qing territory from foreign invasion was even more urgent. The debates between self-strengtheners and Qingliu proponents signified a breakdown of consensus over how to interpret a major disaster. By the 1870s, the overall context for understanding the meaning of a famine and the type of response it required was slowly changing from one in which the key issue for rulers was avoiding the charge of losing the Mandate of Heaven, to one that emphasized defending the country from rapacious and increasingly powerful foreign powers.
As work by Mary Rankin, Zhu Hu, Andrea Janku, and Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley has demonstrated, the famine also had a significant effect on influential elites in the wealthy Jiangnan region. There the disaster led Chinese philanthropists to move beyond their locale and focus on saving starving strangers in distant North China rather than the poor in their own native places, to compete with the relief activities organized by foreigners, and to take on the responsibility of government officials when the state failed to nourish the people. Among some members of the Jiangnan elite, intense frustration over the Chinese government’s delayed and inadequate relief effort during the disaster also gave rise to critiques of Qing officialdom and loud cries for reform. Faced with a constant barrage of foreign critiques of the Qing government’s relief efforts and with the challenge posed by foreign missionaries who rushed to northern provinces to distribute famine relief, members of Jiangnan’s merchant and literati elite came to view the famine as primarily a national humiliation. Particularly in Shanghai, the famine was one of the major nineteenth-century crises that forced activist members of the treaty-port elite to begin what Joseph Levenson called the transition from “culturalism” to nationalism. As it began entering China from the West in the 1860s, modern nationalism differed from earlier forms of Chinese identity “both in its emphasis on the idea of competition between states and in its rejection of much of what previously constituted Chinese identity.” Foreign critiques and new information about relief efforts overseas and missionary relief campaigns in China forced educated Chinese in Shanghai to wrestle uncomfortably with the possibility that just as China was not “all under heaven” but simply “one country among many,” so Chinese famine relief methods were not “the relief method,” but only one of many different ways of dealing with disaster.
In spite of the considerable national and international attention it received in the 1870s, throughout most of the twentieth-century the North China Famine was all but forgotten by Chinese and foreign scholars alike. It was not until the Mao-era Great Leap Famine of 1958-62, which killed approximately thirty million people, that the horrors of the late 1870s were deliberately drawn back into public memory in China to downplay the PRC state’s total failure to feed the Chinese people. Discussions of the late-Qing famine published in the early 1960s laid the blame for the North China Famine squarely at the foot of rapacious Qing officials, and argued that only in the cannibalistic “old feudal society” did corrupt leaders, rapacious local elites, and a fundamentally flawed social system allow natural disasters to result in mass starvation and even intra-familial cannibalism.
In the 1980s, Chinese historians working on a national-level took a new interest in researching the 1876-79 famine as part of a cluster of major natural disasters that plagued China during the late-Qing period. Post-Cultural Revolution scholarly literature on the North China Famine has shifted away from using the disaster as a prime example of the corruption and heartlessness embedded in the “old feudal society.” One new focal point has been to examine the 1876-79 famine and other late-Qing disasters as possible keys to understanding why China fell behind the West during the nineteenth-century, and why late-Qing efforts to “modernize” come to naught. Historian Xia Mingfang, for example, asserts that the Self Strengthening Movement (1861-1895), which aimed to enrich and strengthen China by fostering industrialization, was seriously hampered by a series of costly and destructive droughts and floods. According to Xia, these disasters drained the Qing treasury, diverted the attention of progressive officials away from modernization efforts, and played a role in impeding primitive capital accumulation and the development of commodity and labor markets in late nineteenth-century China.
Sociologist Mike Davis has taken the discussion of the impact of this famine to a global level. The devastating drought-related famines that struck China, India, Brazil, southern Africa, and Egypt in the late nineteenth century, he argues, were both a symptom and a cause of the transformation of “former ‘core’ regions of eighteenth-century subcontinental power systems” into “famished peripheries of a London-centered world economy.”  Davis blames the imperialist imposition of free-market economics on the colonized and semi-colonized world for the staggering death tolls caused by these famines. In the Chinese case, Davis argues, a “drastic decline in state capacity and popular welfare, especially famine relief” followed “in lockstep” with the Qing dynasty’s forced ‘opening’ to modernity by Britain and the other Powers. Borrowing David Arnold’s emphasis on famines as “engines of historical transformation,” Davis asserts that “what we today call the ‘third world’ is the outgrowth of income and wealth inequalities . . . that were shaped most decisively in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when the great non-European peasantries were initially integrated into the world economy.” 
Finally, influenced by the rise of cultural history, recent works by Andrea Janku and Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley have examined how cultural and religious ideas shaped Chinese responses to and interpretations of the North China Famine of 1876-79. In one of her articles, for instance, Janku demonstrates that the competition between Western missionaries and Jiangnan philanthropists pursued on a material level in the fund-raising campaigns during the famine was paralleled by a “rivalry on the spiritual level” that contributed in key ways to China’s “Buddhist revival” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Edgerton-Tarpley’s monograph on the famine, Tears from Iron (2008), analyzes disparate cultural and political responses to the disaster. One section of her book examines how villagers in famine-stricken Shanxi, provincial and central-government officials in charge of relief efforts, treaty-port philanthropists, and Anglo-American missionaries and journalists interpreted famine causation and defined moral and immoral responses to mass starvation. The final section examines the key images and stories Chinese observers selected to signify the horror of the famine.
TYPES OF SOURCES
There is a wide array of primary source material on the North China Famine of 1876-79. There are many easily-accessible local sources such as county gazetteers and wenshi ziliao publications, especially for Shanxi Province. Woodblock print illustrations and accompanying laments (see Qi Yu Jin Zhi zhenjuan zhengxin lu in bibliography) designed by Chinese philanthropists in Shanghai and Suzhou are available in the Shanghai Library, and the Shanghai-based Shenbao newspaper provides detailed coverage of the disaster. The perspective of leading provincial and central-government officials can be found in a published collection of famine-related memorials and edicts gathered for use by the Zongli Yamen (see “Chouban ge sheng huangzheng an” in bibliography), and in the Guangxu chao Donghualu. Useful English-language primary sources on the famine include the Shanghai-based North China Herald and Celestial Empire, a lengthy report in the British Parliamentary Papers, and missionary publications such as China’s Millions and Timothy Richard’s Forty-five Years in China.
In terms of secondary sources, book-length studies of the famine published in Chinese include He Hanwei’s Guangxu chunian (1876-79) Huabei de da hanzai (1980), Zhu Hu’s Difangxing liudong ji qi chaoyue: wan Qing yizhen yu jindai Zhongguo de xinchen daixie (2006), and Hao Ping’s Dingwu Qihuang: Guangxu chunian Shanxi zaihuang yu jiuji yanjiu (2014). Book-length studies in English include Paul Richard Bohr’s Famine in China and the Missionary: Timothy Richard as Relief Administrator and Advocate of National Reform, 1876-1884 (1972), and Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley’s Tears from Iron: Cultural Responses to Famine in Nineteenth-Century China (2008). Important articles or book chapters (see bibliography) on this disaster have been published by Xia Mingfang, Li Wenhai, Andrea Janku, Mary Rankin, Lillian M. Li, and Mike Davis.
Mortality: Determining famine mortality rates during the North China Famine is difficult. In 1879, the Report of the Committee of the China Famine Relief Fund estimated that 5.5 million people had died in Shanxi, 2.5 million in Zhili, 1 million in Henan, and .5 million in Shandong, for a total of 9.5 million deaths due to starvation and famine-related diseases such as typhus fever and dysentery. Lillian Li observes that the Report’s estimate of 2.5 million deaths in Zhili may be too high, since relief did reach the most severely-affected southern area of the province. On the other hand, the number of deaths in Shanxi may have been even higher (see below), and the Report did not include an estimate for the death toll in Shaanxi Province, which also suffered extensively from the drought. Modern historians have generally estimated the death toll as between 9.5 and 13 million people.
Estimates of famine-related population loss in Shanxi Province, the epicenter of the famine, vary considerably. Foreign relief workers estimated that roughly 5.5 million of Shanxi’s pre-famine population of 15 million people had “perished of famine and the subsequent pestilence.” In contrast, toward the end of the disaster Shanxi’s governor, Zeng Guoquan, wrote that nearly half of the people of Shanxi had died since the disaster began, and that deaths were continuing due to the arrival of epidemic disease. The edition of the Shanxi provincial gazetteer compiled shortly after the famine under Zeng Guoquan’s order and published in 1892 stated that based on the province’s population registers, no fewer than 10 million people died during the famine. Liu Rentuan’s recent gazetteer-based study of the impact that the famine had on Shanxi’s population from 1877 through 1953 finds that both the province’s pre-famine population and the level of population loss were higher than the foreign estimates but lower than Zeng Guoquan’s. Liu states that Shanxi’s population dropped from 17.2 to 9.6 million people between 1876 and 1880—an astounding 44.2 percent population loss. Unfortunately, it is impossible to use the gazetteer records to ascertain how many of Shanxi’s missing millions actually died during the famine and how many of them migrated to other areas.
Geographic Scope: The drought and famine affected the five northern provinces of Shandong, Zhili, Shanxi, Henan, and Shaanxi, which encompassed an area of approximately 300,000 square miles.
Affected population: The roughly 108 million people in the five northern provinces affected by the drought.
Duration: Three years — summer of 1876 to summer of 1879. The worst period was 1877-78. The drought began in Shandong and Zhili, and then spread to Shanxi, Henan, and Shaanxi.
Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley is Associate Professor of Late Imperial and Modern Chinese History at San Diego State University
 R.J. Forrest, “China Famine Relief Fund” (Shanghai, 1879), 1, 9; Susan Cotts Watkins and Jane Menken, “Famines in Historical Perspective,” Population and Development Review 11 (1985): 650.
 Pierre-Etienne Will, Bureaucracy and Famine in Eighteenth-Century China, trans. Elborg Forster (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990); Lillian M. Li, Fighting Famine in North China: State, Market, and Environmental Decline, 1690s-1990s (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007), chapter 8.
 Pao Chao Hsieh, The Government of China, 1644-1911, (Baltimore: The Johns Hpkins Press, 1925), 205-206, 214; Philip A. Kuhn, “The Taiping Rebellion,” in The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 10, 264-316.
 Pierre-Etienne Will and R. Bin Wong, Nourish the People: The State Civilian Granary System in China, 1650-1850 (Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, 1991); Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World (London: Verso, 2001).
 Will, Bureaucracy and Famine, 290-92.
 Li, Fighting Famine, chapters 2 and 9; Will, Bureaucracy and Famine, 292-93.
 Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley, Tears from Iron: Cultural Responses to Famine in Nineteenth-Century China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 28-39, 92-102. The Xinjiang campaign cost 52.3 million taels between 1875 and 1881. Xinjiang became a full-fledged Chinese province only in 1884.
 Richard Horowitz, “Central Power and State-Making: The Zongli Yamen and Self-Strengthening in China, 1860-1880,” (Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 1998), 105-106.
 Mike Davis demonstrates convincingly that the cause of the severe droughts that impacted places as diverse as northern China, India, southern Africa, and northeastern Brazil in the late 1870s was a particularly powerful “El Nino event,” or a rapid warming of the eastern tropical Pacific that led to the prolonged and virtually complete failure of the monsoons that normally provide rainfall for the affected areas. The grand “El Nino event” of 1876-1878 disrupted the entire tropical monsoon belt, as well as the East Asian and Arabian Monsoons that provide rainfall for North China and North Africa. (Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts).
 Jeffrey Snyder-Reinke, Dry Spells: State Rainmaking and Local Governance in Late Imperial China (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2009), chapter 4.
 Li, Fighting Famine, chapter 8; Will, chapters 7-8; Will and Wong, chapter 3.
 H.M. Morse, The International Relations of the Chinese Empire, vol. 2, (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1918), 312; He Hanwei. Guangxu chunian (1876-79) Huabei de da hanzai (The great Huabei region drought disaster of the early Guangxu period) (Hong Kong: Zhongwen daxue chuban she, 1980), ch. 4.
 Shanxi tongzhi, j. 82, 18b-19a. The gazetteer states that 3,402,833 people in Shanxi received relief between 1877 and 1879 and that a total of 10,700,315 taels of relief silver and 1,001,657 shi of relief grain were distributed in the province.
 These illustrations later appeared in James Legge, trans. The Famine in China: Illustrations by a Native Artist with a Translation of the Chinese Text. London: Kegan Paul & Co., 1879.
 Paul Richard Bohr, Famine in China and the Missionary: Timothy Richard as Relief Administrator and Advocate of National Reform, 1876-1884 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972), 89-90.
 Bohr 1972: 187-189, 113-114.
 Mary Rankin, Elite Activism and Political Transformation in China: Zhejiang Province, 1865-1911 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986), 142-147.
 Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley,“Tough Choices: Grappling with Famine in Qing China, the British Empire, and Beyond.” Journal of World History Vol. 24, No. 1 (March 2013): 166-169.
 Rankin, Elite Activism, chapter 4; Zhu Hu, Difangxing liudong ji qi chaoyue: wan Qing yizhen yu jindai Zhongguo de xinchen daixie (The fluidity and transcendence of localism: Late-Qing charitable relief and the supersession of the old by the new in modern China) (Beijing: Zhongguo renmin daxue chubanshe, 2006); Edgerton-Tarpley, Tears from Iron, chapter 6; Andrea Janku, “The North-China Famine of 1876-1879: Performance and Impact of a Non-Event,” 2001 online publication.
 Henrietta Harrison,“Newspapers and Nationalism in Rural China, 1890-1929,” Past and Present 166 (1999): 182.
 Edgerton-Tarpley, Tears from Iron, chapter 8.
 Edgerton-Tarpley, Tears from Iron, chapter 9.
 Xia Mingfang, “Cong Qingmo zaihai qun faqi kan Zhongguo zaoqi xiandaihua de lishi tiaojian: zaihuang yu Yangwu Yundong yanjiu zhi yi,” (Looking at the historical conditions for China’s early modernization from the rise of late-Qing disasters: Part I of research on disasters and the Westernization Movement) Qingshi yanjiu (January 1998): 70. See also Xia Mingfang, “Zhongguo zaoqi gongyehua jieduan yuanshi jilei guocheng de zaihai shi fenxi” (An analysis of the impact of natural disasters on primitive accumulation during the early stages of industrialization in China), Qingshi yanjiu 1 (1999): 62-81.
 Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts, 291.
 Davis, 9; 15-16; chapter 11.
Andrea Janku, “Sowing Happiness: Spiritual Competition in Famine Relief Activities in Late Nineteenth-Century China.” Minsu Quyi 143 (March 2004): 89-118.
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“Chouban ge sheng huangzheng an chaodang mulu” (Catalogue of proposals for preparing famine relief policies for each province). In Guojia tushuguan cang Qingdai guben neige liubu dangan, compiled by Sun Xuelei and Liu Jiaping. Beijing: Quanguo tushuguan wenxian suowei fuzhi zhongxin, 2003, 37: 18375-413.
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