What was the Smash Sparrows campaign and how it resulted in The Great Chinese Famine

6 mins read

Enmity with nature leads to great destruction for humankind, history is full of such events. One such event was the Smash Sparrows campaign led by the leader of the Chinese Communist Party Mao Zedong. The campaign was the result of the second five-year plan, called the “Great Leap Forward,” which also became one of the reasons behind the Great Chinese Famine. 

The aim of this article is to shed light on the sensitive issues which created havoc and the greatest of known destructions in history.

What is the Smash Sparrows campaign? The four pest campaign 

History has witnessed many events where nature has wreaked havoc on man. Nature not only punishes the wrong but also restores the imbalance created by humans. The Smash Sparrows campaign was a result of many policies created by the advocates of communism who tried to tamper with the ecological system.

Mao in one of his statements declared while announcing the Great Leap Forward – “There is a new war, we must open fire on nature. Nature is the enemy.” 

There were two major reasons for the smash sparrows campaign. The first one was that Chinese scientists made an observation and based on it calculated that each sparrow consumed 4.5 kg of grain each year and that for every million sparrows killed, there would be food for 60,000 people. Based on this data, Mao Zedong launched the Smash Sparrows campaign without thinking about its consequences. Mao knew nothing special about animals.  

Second, the Smash Sparrows campaign was launched under the four-pest hygiene campaign (1958 – 1962), which was set to exterminate the four pests responsible for the transmission of pestilence and diseases. The four pests were mosquitoes responsible for malaria, rats for plague, pervasive airborne flies, and sparrows responsible for eating grain seeds and fruits. 

“He never discussed his plans with anyone. Again, he did not borrow the opinion of experts. He decided that they would be killed.”

Dai Qing, Environmental activist about Mao Zedong

The main target of the campaign was the Eurasian tree sparrow. It was ordered that the sparrow should be killed in order to protect food for the public. The execution of the campaign was left in the hands of the public, who in a rage started killing birds however it was possible. The elementary and middle school students, government office employees, factory workers, farmers, etc., all came together to ensure the success of this campaign. 

The nests were destroyed, eggs were broken, chicks were killed and flying birds were shot down. People would bang pots and pans so the sparrows leave their sitting areas, and they would continuously follow the birds so they couldn’t get the chance to sit anywhere to rest. The aim was to exhaust them as with the continuous flying the birds would get exhausted and ultimately either fall dead or down on the land, and be killed by the public. 

Even children were involved in the killings, and non-material rewards were given to the people and children who made the highest killings and handed over to the authorities. They were called heroes and patriots. People, blinded by patriotism made sure to kill as many sparrows as they can. 

This idea fitted well with the totalitarian communism ideology of Mao. Mao was a follower of Karl’s ideology. Karl Marx revealed on multiple occasions that nature should be fully exploited to fulfill human needs. 

“If you look at some of the poetry and songs from that period, (Karl Marx) he talks about making the rivers flow uphill, making the mountains bow their heads, making war on the earth.”

Judith Shapiro, author of Mao’s War against Nature.

Who was Mao Zedong? 


Mao Zedong, also known as Chairman Mao, was the founder of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). He was born on 26 December 1893 in Shaoshan village of Hunan province and he died on 9 September 1976 in Beijing. Under his leadership, China has witnessed many changes. He became the guiding force behind the evolution of China’s communist party. He believed in the ideology of Marxism and Leninism, which later became the foundation of communist rule in China. 

Under his leadership, he launched many policies and strategies to eradicate the history of thousands of years and ensured its success. 

Inspired by many communist rulers, Mao launched the Great Leap Forward campaign (the Second five-year plan). It was the social and economic campaign led by the Chinese communist party (CCP), in order to reconstruct the country from an agrarian country to a communist society. Furthermore, under the Great Leap Forward, CCP launched the four-pest campaign, which included the disastrous Smash Sparrows campaign as well.  

Peter Li, who researches Chinese politics and animal rights at the University of Houston-Downtown said – “He (Mao) wanted to show to the world that China can do better than the Soviet Union, so killing sparrows was one of the grand strategies of Mao Zedong to build Chinese socialism.” 

There were many decisions Mao made, that further ruined the relationship between the Chinese people and their history. The Great Leap Forward, which was made with the aim of rapidly transforming China’s economy, became a question mark on the life of its own people. 

We will be discussing the drastic effects of the Smash Sparrows campaign in our next segment. A campaign that not only forced Chinese people to take desperate decisions but also cost the lives of millions. 

After-effects of the Smash Sparrows campaign

There is no official record as to the number of birds killed during this campaign but according to CountryEconomy.com, the population of China in 1958 was 659,943,000. In that case, if every citizen killed even one bird, then the number of sparrows that died that day would be about 659 million!

The extermination of the birds caused an ecological imbalance in nature. The mass killings of the sparrows resulted in the shrinking of its population to an extent that it faced the danger of extinction. 

The Great Chinese Famine 

The Chinese government ignored the long-term effects of this campaign, which later turned into the worst ecological crisis in the history of China. 

Things turned worst for China, the mass killings of sparrows disturbed nature’s balance and increased the population of locusts. Locusts destroyed the crops making the situation worse. As sparrows prey on locusts and kept their population under control. Now, with the absence of sparrows, Chinese agriculture was hit badly by the exponential rise in locusts attacks. 

The overflow of insects, widespread deforestation, and misuse of poison and pesticides all contributed to the Great Chinese Famine. The famine was the result of man’s actions. There was a shortage of food everywhere, people used the last stored grains. Hence, reached a point where nothing was left to eat.

Ornithologist Tso-Hsin Cheng believed that the absence of sparrows in the natural system decreased the rice yields, and resulted in drought. 

This tragedy witnessed the highest number of victims, where millions of Chinese, were starved to death. The official estimate recorded 15 million deaths, but some scholars believed that around 45 million or more than 78 million people lost their lives. 

Do you know there was another man-made famine called Holodomor? You can read more about it here.

People started indulging in desperate activities like the consumption of mud which turned into concrete in their intestines suffering them to death. 

Thousands of cases of cannibalism were also noticed during this time period. People didn’t bury their loved ones, instead kept their bodies to fulfill their food supplies. Chinese historian Yang Jisheng tells the story of how residents of Gansu province lay in wait for travelers, later eating them. 

Furthermore, some sources believe there was enough food stock in the warehouses of the Chinese government. Somehow, the stocks were not available to the common people. There are also claims that the government wanted to maintain its global reputation, and hence, didn’t take any action to overcome this tragedy. People were not allowed to speak against the government, making the matter worse for those who did. 

In an interview with The Guardian, Yang said – “The whole truth of that time may never be fully revealed to the world. Because, at present, the government and society of the country have improved. Therefore, it is very difficult for anyone to realize the awfulness of that time. Our history has also been changed at will. The truth has been hidden. And a nation that cannot face its own history cannot have a bright future.“

This article is just a small attempt of making people aware of the potential threats while interfering with nature. The campaign was the result of unwanted actions taken by the higher authorities with the aim to target the sanity of the common public. In order to wipe out the long-established beliefs, such policies were made. That caused a disturbance in the natural environment. The Smash Sparrows campaign led to a decrease in the population of sparrows. It was a step toward the destruction of humanity. 

Featured image credit – In Marathi

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Renu Solanki works as a content specialist with Postbox Consultancy Services. She is an English Literature graduate.

She is an avid-reader and passionate about the study of the Universe, Spirituality, Psychology and Traditional Culture. In her free time she likes to indulge in a steaming cup of black coffee & Netflix.