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The Great Chinese Famine Of 1876-79

January 30, 2013

By Paul Homewood




We continually hear that global warming is already leading to more, and more severe droughts across the world.

While Obama is prattling on about responding to “the devastating impact of crippling droughts”, it is perhaps a good time to look back at one of the truly crippling droughts, the Great Famine in China, which ran from 1876-79.

This was, of course, the time when the Little Ice Age was having its final fling. Brian Fagan, in his excellent book, “The Little Ice Age”, records that cold weather between 1870 and 1890 affected, not only China and India, but also Britain, where the weather in 1879 rivalled that of the brutally cold 1690’s.

Meanwhile, HH Lamb writes that “the greatest extent of ice on the Antarctic Ocean may have been as late as around 1900.” And many other scientists have identified the late 19thC as the time when glaciers in Iceland, Greenland and across much of the Northern Hemisphere reached their maximum extent.

Make no mistake the late 19thC was an extremely cold time in the Earth’s recent history.

It would, therefore, be reasonable to assume that, if global warming was leading to “crippling droughts”, the 19thC would have been a time of plenty.

If you did, you would be wrong. There were many droughts during this period, but perhaps the worst was in China.


A study by Chinese scientists, “1876-1878 severe drought in North China: Facts, impacts and climatic background” reported that:-


Based on the reconstructed precipitation series in North China from historical documents, the 1876-1878 drought was identified as the most severe and extreme one in North China over the past 300 years. Meanwhile, the spatial patterns of seasonal and annual precipitation during 1876-1877 were analyzed and the social and economic impacts related with this drought event were evaluated according to the descriptions in the historical documents. The results indicated that this long-lasting drought started by the spring of 1876 and did not stop until the spring of 1878. Within the three years, the harvest failures brought the rice price increased to 5-10 times than that in the normal year, and the total population in the five provinces over North China decreased by more than 20 million due to a large number of dead people and migrations. In addition, related investigations suggested that the 1876-1878 drought was prevalent worldwide, which has possible link with abnormal high SST in the equatorial central and eastern Pacific, strong El Niño episode and positive AAO anomalies.


According to Wikipedia,


Nine to 13 million people are estimated to have died in the famine out of a total population of the five provinces of 108 million.

British missionary Timothy Richard first called international attention to a drought causing famine in Shandong in summer 1876. He appealed to the foreign community in Shanghai for money to help the victims. In March 1877, the Shandong Famine Relief Committee was established with the participation of diplomats, businessmen, and Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries.

Richard became aware that drought conditions were even worse in neighbouring Shanxi province which at that time was virtually unknown to foreigners. In early 1878, Richard journeyed to Shanxi. His "famine diary" described conditions. "That people pull down their houses, sell their wives and daughters, eat roots and carrion, clay and leaves is news which nobody wonders at…The sight of men and women lying helpless on the roadside, or if dead, torn by hungry dogs and magpies [and] of children being boiled and eaten up is so fearful as to make one shudder." Shanxi was the most seriously impacted province in the famine with an estimated 5.5 million dead out of a total population of 15 million people. Remote and inaccessible rural districts suffered most.


It is an insult to the memory of the millions of people, who suffered and died during this time, for Obama to attempt to expunge events like this one from the historical record. To do so for political reasons is unforgiveable. The man is a disgrace.

  1. January 30, 2013 3:51 pm

    In terms of individual months, 1878 was amazingly high for the AMO.

    year month AMO
    1878 4 0.642
    1878 6 0.625
    1937 7 0.616
    1937 8 0.597
    1878 8 0.585
    2010 8 0.563
    1878 9 0.546
    1998 8 0.543
    1878 5 0.523
    1998 7 0.515
    1937 9 0.513
    1998 6 0.511

  2. January 30, 2013 6:00 pm

    Reblogged this on Real Science.

  3. John F. Hultquist permalink
    January 31, 2013 5:24 am

    1876 was a bad year – in the USA there was snow, wind, and cold:
    “ A little over 125 years ago, on a cold, bitter, stormy night in Ashtabula, a 40-mile-an-hour gale was blowing. There were already three feet of snow on the ground with the temperature hovering around 10 degrees below zero. In many places, the strong wind had thrown huge drifts of snow six feet or higher.”
    “The National Weather Service in Gray, Maine, said Concord, where New Hampshire records are kept, beat the previous record of 43 inches of snow in December by an inch and a half. That record was set in 1876.”
    “. . . that same March week in 1876 when “a great snow storm visited this country” (our vicinity. The drifting, blinding, furious kind. The whole state was snow bound. The railroads were blocked for a week. With snow plows and hand shovels, the tracks were opened for trains for one day when another big snow fall suspended traffic for several days more.”

    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
    There’s more.
    The HH Lamb quote claims “ice on the Antarctic Ocean” and that sounds a bit odd.

  4. Alex Harvey permalink
    February 2, 2013 12:04 pm


    Obama to attempt to expunge events like this one from the historical record. To do so for political reasons is unforgiveable. The man is a disgrace.

    Why would you assume that Obama knows better than his scientific advisers who are doubtlessly telling him that climate change is the greatest danger to humanity in history? I’m afraid it seems incredibly unfair to blame the climate change alarm on politicians. Their job is to do policy, not science. It would be incredibly irresponsible for politicians to take a position on science that contradicts what scientists are telling them.

    • February 2, 2013 1:45 pm

      Fair point, Alex.

      I think many politicians do have their doubts, but are scared stiff to voice them. It is far easier to go with the flow.

      Nevertheless, if Obama is not aware of the historical context, it does not say much for his competence.

      • Alex Harvey permalink
        February 4, 2013 12:05 pm

        Paul, even to question his competence when he is a politician and not a scientist does not seem even vaguely fair to me. I have been trying to make sense of climate change for about seven years and I would still lack the confidence, however much I am skeptical of some of the claims, to use a position of power, if I had one, to oppose mitigation. If my science advisers insisted the need for mitigation was clear, I’m pretty certain I couldn’t in good conscience oppose them. Now America has a debt problem too – weighing the two things together it’s hard to say what I’d do. But let me say this – the jury is still out and anyone who feels certain about their positions, in my opinion, just hasn’t studied the problem carefully enough.

      • February 4, 2013 12:26 pm

        Are you saying we should not expect our political leaders to be competent?

      • Alex Harvey permalink
        February 5, 2013 7:25 am

        I am not sure how you would read that as a suggestion that politicians don’t need to be competent.

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