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The Chinese famine of 1942–43 occurred mainly in Henan, most particularly within the western part of the province. The famine occurred within the context of the Second Sino-Japanese War and resulted from a combination of natural and human factors. 2 to 3 million people died of starvation or disease and upwards of 4 million fled Henan.
Henan had previously suffered as a result of the war. Thousands of its young men had already been conscripted. In 1938 the Nationalist government flooded the Yellow River in an attempt to stop the advance of the Japanese. The flooding killed 500,000 to one million people in Henan, Anhui and Jiangsu. When Japanese troops did enter the area they caused much destruction, which contributed to causing the famine. By the time of the famine itself, Henan was divided, with the eastern half of the province under occupation by Japan and the western half part unoccupied and nominally under the authority of the Nationalist government based in Chongqing.
In 1942 the spring and summer rains failed, causing drought. In addition to this, locusts caused much damage to the existing harvest. The result was that the supply of grain in the affected areas was reduced greatly. This started to make itself felt by the winter of that year. Yet Chinese and Japanese authorities in the affected areas continued their grain requisition policies in order to feed their soldiers. Environmental historian Micah S. Muscolino also suggests that there is a link between the deliberate flooding of the Yellow River in 1938 and the 1942 famine as the flooding 'contributed to a total disruption of Henan's hydraulic and agricultural systems'.
The terrible conditions that the famine created were vividly described by journalist Theodore White in a special report written for Time magazine, published in March 1943. Cannibalism was rife and parents sold their children just to survive. Disease bred in these conditions, contributing greatly to the death toll. Relief efforts were organised by the government and Christian missionaries operating in the area.
In his work China's War with Japan, 1937 – 1945, which is broadly sympathetic to Chiang Kai-shek, Rana Mitter places much of the blame at the hands of corrupt or incompetent local officials. He notes that Chiang announced a reduction in the grain quota for Henan but the head of the Henan grain administration collected more than the quota demanded anyway. Officials in the neighbouring provinces refused to send their surplus grain to Henan. A further example of this incompetence and corruption comes from Runan County where a grain storage system had been set up at the outbreak of war. However, officials there had never actually stored the grain and used it instead to make private deals. Theodore White described being invited to a feast by local authorities which included delicacies such as 'chicken, beef, water chestnut and three cakes with sugar frosting'. The Chongqing government is, however, blamed for reacting slowly and sending paper money instead of food for relief. Mitter notes that the famine can be seen as a consequence of the reduction of the Nationalist government's authority over the provinces as the war dragged on. He also says that Chiang's government was also reluctant to press further for a reduction in the grain tax when national survival was at stake.
In Communist controlled areas, the authorities did reduce the grain quotas for those most affected by the drought. Mao Zedong exploited this for propaganda purposes to portray his government as more benevolent than the Nationalist government. This was effective as it became 'an obvious point of comparison'. The Communists were able to pursue this policy in part because they depended on guerilla warfare and did not need to maintain a standing army in order to participate in the wartime alliance.
The Chinese famine of 1942–43 has been referred to as 'China's forgotten famine', overshadowed by the war that took place around it and the much greater famine of 1958–61. Even in Henan itself this tragic period is not well remembered or talked about, with novelist Liu Zhenyun saying that there is a 'collective amnesia' in the province. Interest in the event has rekindled in recent years however, with the release of the film Back to 1942, adapted from Liu Zhenyun's novel Remembering 1942.