China’s Worst Self-Inflicted Environmental Disaster: The Campaign to Wipe Out the Common Sparrow

China’s Worst Self-Inflicted Environmental Disaster: The Campaign to Wipe Out the Common Sparrow
by George Dvorsky  /  7/18/12

Back in the 1950s, China was going through its Great Leap Forward, an effort to transform China from a largely agrarian nation to a thriving industrial Marxist powerhouse. These sweeping (and often brutal) reforms, touched virtually every facet of Chinese life — and as one particular episode in China’s history points out, the animal kingdom was also far from immune. In 1958, China ordered the extermination of several pests, including sparrows — an ill-fated campaign that eventually led to catastrophe.

The Four Pests campaign
Chinese leader Mao Zedong initiated the Four Pests campaign after reaching the conclusion that several blights needed to be exterminated — namely mosquitoes, flies, rats, and sparrows. While many people nowadays would regard tampering with the ecosystem in such a radical way as a shockingly irresponsible idea, this was a classic case of something appearing like a good idea at the time. And according to environmental activist Dai Qing, “Mao knew nothing about animals. He didn’t want to discuss his plan or listen to experts. He just decided that the ‘four pests’ should be killed.”

Moreover, the idea fit in quite well with Mao’s hard-line totalitarian Communist ideology. Marx himself was far from an environmentalist, proclaiming that nature should be fully exploited by humans for production purposes (a legacy which may explain China’s poor environmental track record to this very day). Now, while the Chinese citizens were called upon to wage war against all four of these pests, the government was particularly annoyed by the sparrow, or more specifically, the Eurasian Tree Sparrow. The Chinese were having a rough go of it as it was, adapting to collectivization and the re-invention of farming, so they felt particularly victimized by this bird which had a particular fondness for eating grain seeds. Chinese scientists had calculated that each sparrow consumed 4.5kg of grain each year — and that for every million sparrows killed, there would be food for 60,000 people. Armed with this information, Mao launched the Great Sparrow Campaign to address the problem.

“Total war”
To accomplish this task, Chinese citizens were mobilized in massive numbers to eradicate the birds by forcing them to fly until they fell from exhaustion. The Chinese people took to the streets clanging their pots and pans or beating drums to terrorize the birds and prevent them from landing. Nests were torn down, eggs were broken, chicks killed, and sparrows shot down from the sky. Experts estimate that hundreds of millions of sparrows were killed as part of the campaign. An account from the Shanghai newspaper captures the excitement:

On the early morning of December 13, the citywide battle to destroy the sparrows began. In large and small streets, red flags were waving. On the buildings and in the courtyards, open spaces, roads and rural farm fields, there were numerous scarecrows, sentries, elementary and middle school students, government office employees, factory workers, farmers and People’s Liberation Army shouting their war cries. In the Xincheng district, they produced more than 80,000 scarecrows and more than 100,000 colorful flags overnight. The residents of Xietu road, Xuhui distrct and Yangpu road Yulin district also produced a large number of motion scarecrows. In the city and the outskirts, almost half of the labor force was mobilized into the anti-sparrow army. Usually, the young people were responsible for trapping, poisoning and attacking the sparrows while the old people and the children kept sentry watch. The factories in the city committed themselves into the war effort even as they guaranteed that they would maintain production levels. In the parks, cemeteries and hot houses where there are fewer people around, 150 free-fire zones were set up for shooting the sparrows. The Nanyang Girls Middle School rifle team received training in the techniques for shooting birds. Thus the citizens fought a total war against the sparrows. By 8pm tonight, it is estimated that a total of 194,432 sparrows have been killed.

As a result of these efforts, the sparrow became nearly extinct in China. And that’s when the problems started.

By April of 1960, it started to become painfully obvious to the Chinese leaders that the sparrows, in addition to eating grains, ate insects. Lots of insects. And without the sparrows to curb the insect population, the crops were getting decimated in a way far worse than if birds had been allowed to hang around. Consequently, agricultural yields that year were disastrously low. Rice production in particular was hit the hardest. On the advice of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Mao declared full-stop to the Great Sparrow Campaign, replacing the birds with bed bugs on the Four Pests naughty list.

But the damage was done — and the situation got progressively worse. Locust populations swarmed the countryside with no sparrows in sight. Things got so bad that the Chinese government started importing sparrows from the Soviet Union. The overflow of insects, plus the added effects of widespread deforestation and misuse of poisons and pesticides, were a significant contributor to the Great Chinese Famine (1958-1961) in which an estimated 30 million people died of starvation.

The episode serves as a stark lesson for what can happen when sweeping changes are made to an ecosystem. Yet, in a startlingly similar campaign initiated back in 2004, China culled 10,000 civet cats in an effort to eradicate SARS. And according to Tim Luard of the BBC, they have also launched a “patriotic extermination campaign” that targets badgers, raccoon dogs, rats, and cockroaches. The over-arching lesson, it would seem, may not have be learned.

{Sources: BBC, NYT, Independent (1) (2), “Great Sparrow Campaign” video, China: A New History, ThinkQuest.}

“the LOCUSTS NOISILY THANKED US”,9171,863327,00.html
May. 05, 1958

“No warrior shall be withdrawn until the battle is won,” proclaimed the Peking People’s Daily. “All must join battle ardently and courageously; we must persevere with the doggedness of revolutionaries.” Into battle, thus exhorted, went the Chinese millions to wage war on the lowly sparrow.

At dawn one day last week, the slaughter of the sparrows in Peking began, continuing a campaign that has been going on in the countryside for months. The objection to the sparrows is that, like the rest of China’s inhabitants, they are hungry. They are accused of pecking away at supplies in warehouses and in paddy fields at an officially estimated rate of four pounds of grain per sparrow per year. And so divisions of soldiers deployed through Peking streets, their footfalls muffled by rubber-soled sneakers. Students and civil servants in high-collared tunics, and schoolchildren carrying pots and pans, ladles and spoons, quietly took up their stations. The total force, according to Radio Peking, numbered 3,000,000.

At 5 a.m. bugles sounded, cymbals crashed, whistles trilled. The massed students beat their kitchenware and advanced, as Radio Peking recounted, singing a rousing, revolutionary anthem: “Arise, arise, Oh millions with one heart; braving the enemy’s fire, march on.”

The massive extirpation force netted and scatter-gunned the exhausted birds or snared them with long, gum-tipped bamboo poles. At last report 310,000 sparrows had fallen in Peking alone, and an estimated 4,000,000 throughout the rest of Red China. The national hero was Yang Seh-mun, 16, of Yunnan. He had killed 20,000 sparrows by sneaking around during the day locating nesting trees. At night, China Youth proudly reported, he then climbed trees and strangled whole families of sparrows with his bare hands.

“death to sparrows”

…the locusts noisily thanked us and turned their jaws toward our crops, swallowing our greed whole…
BY baphomet  /  October 29, 2007

“In 1958, Chairman Mao started a war. His foe: millions of hungry animals across China, particularly the sparrow. Villages and cities were mobilized to execute the birds en masse. Their crime: pecking away at fields and storehouses, stealing precious grain from the mouths of China’s masses. Entire families brandished pots, pans, and other weapons of cacophonous warfare to panic the birds into forced flight, causing millions of them to drop from the skies.

The sparrows, it was discovered, could sustain no more than a minute or so of continuous flight without dying of fatigue- this technique, along with firing squads and nest destruction, killed an estimated 4 million or more sparrows.

The sparrow war backfired, however. By the time it was realized that the sparrow consumed primarily insects, not grain, the locust population had already spiraled out of control. This event, along with other causes culminated in the deaths of 30 million people as famine unfolded across the land from 1959-1961. This was just one of the many disastrous initiatives of Mao’s Great Leap Forward.”



Children were given a real role in the posters that flanked the campaign that set out to exterminate the so-called four pests. The aim of this large scale hygiene campaign, which started in earnest in 1958 and is often seen as an overture for nationwide mobilization of the Great Leap Forward, was to eliminate flies, mosquitoes, rats and sparrows. Sparrows were later replaced by bed bugs, as their extermination upset the ecological balance, and bugs destroyed crops as a result of the absence of natural predators.

To attain the aim of the elimination of the four pests, everybody was mobilized. Contests were held among enterprises, government agencies and schools in cleanliness. Non-material rewards were given to those who handed in the most tails of rats, or dead flies and mosquitoes, or dead sparrows. As the movement became something of a sport, children turned out to be a group that jumped at the excitement of these activities, and were eminently receptive to the calls for mobilization. Eyewitnesses recall from their youth how they would bang pots and pans so that sparrows would not have the chance to rest on tree branches, and would fall dead from the sky from exhaustion.

The Chinese Sparrow War of 1958
BY Sha Yexin  /  August 31, 1997

Any living organism cannot avoid disasters and catastrophes, no matter whether it is a rat scurrying across the street, a fly hitting the wall, a dog losing its home, a rabbit having its warren destroyed, an ant crawling in a hot pot, a fish in a dried pond, a turtle trapped in a jar or a lamb in the tiger’s jaws.  But none have ever encountered a disaster on the scale of that which fell upon the Chinese sparrows in 1958.  That catastrophe was practically almost enough to extinct the species.  The disaster was not a natural one; rather, it was a man-made one.  In the entire history of sparrows around the world, they have never been embroiled in a people’s war as they were in China in 1958.

In the history of people’s wars in China, there are two extraordinary episodes.  In the first war, the superbly equipped 8-million-strong Kuomintang army was slowly chewed up by the small caliber rifles of the Communists.  The second war was the 1958 war against the sparrows in China.  On December 13, 1958, in Shanghai alone, the most primitive weapons were used to destroy almost 200,000 sparrows.  How many across the nation in total?  Probably at least 8 million?  What do you think about the human’s ability to conduct war?

Let use look at the Shanghai newspaper on that day.  The headline was, “The whole city is attacking the sparrows.”  The news story was quite lively, so that we can still feel the heat of the battle when we read it today: “On the early morning of December 13, the citywide battle to destroy the sparrows began.  In large and small streets, red flags were waving.  On the buildings and in the courtyards, open spaces, roads and rural farm fields, there were numerous scarecrows, sentries, elementary and middle school students, government office employees, factory workers, farmers and People’s Liberation Army shouting their war cries.  In the Xincheng district, they produced more than 80,000 scarecrows and more than 100,000 colorful flags overnight.  The residents of Xietu road, Xuhui district and Yangpu road Yulin district also produced a large number of motion scarecrows.  In the city and the outskirts, almost half of the labor force was mobilized into the anti-sparrow army.  Usually, the young people were responsible for trapping, poisoning and attacking the sparrows while the old people and the children kept sentry watch.  The factories in the city committed themselves into the war effort even as they guaranteed that they would maintain production levels.  In the parks, cemeteries and nurseries (of young plants) where there are fewer people around, 150 free-fire zones were set up for shooting the sparrows.  The Nanyang Girls Middle School rifle team received training in the techniques of shooting birds.  Thus the citizens fought a total war against the sparrows.  By 8pm tonight, it is estimated that a total of 194,432 sparrows have been killed.”

I went back to read my diary back then.  In 1958, I went with the Department of Chinese at the Huadong Normal University to Commune Number 4 in Huating town, Jiading county for revolutionary education. I was living in Hujia village.  On December 13, my diary entry was: “The city government decided to kill the sparrows today, including in the rural outskirts.  In the morning, we were divided into the three teams to fight the war.  In the afternoon, we were also divided into teams to fight the war.”  In retrospect, it would seem that I was being very sketchy about a great historical episode, and therefore I have let history down.  As I recalled, my fellow students and I climbed onto some tall trees on the side of the road and banged our gongs, drums, washbasins and anything else that can make loud noises. The sparrows were forced to keep flying until they dropped dead from fatigue.  If the millions of dead sparrows had been autopsied, I dare say that 90% of them died from sudden cardiac arrest (from fatigue or fright).

Just as the three great battles in the war of liberation were personally ordered and directed by the Great Leader, this people’s war against the sparrows was also personally ordered and directed by his esteemed self.  Between March and May, 1958, he conducted central government work conferences in Chengdu, Wuhan and Guangzhou and also at the Second Plenum of the Eighth Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, he called for the eradication of the sparrows, one of the four pests.  He said: “Here is the method — we make our resolution, we coordinate our actions, we divide our tasks, we cut off the food supply, we set up a trap and we continue our battle of destruction.” Physical force needed to be complemented by propaganda tools to motivate the people.  Thus, he wanted people to write many folk songs.  I tend to think that writing folk songs is just as well-intentioned as the war against the sparrows.  Concerning these folk songs, he said: “Everyone will be given three or five pieces of paper for them to write folk songs.  We have more than 90,000 towns around China.  If each town can publish one collection of folk songs, we would have 90,000 different books.  In order to surpass our quota, our school leaders even asked us to write at least 10 folks songs a day! If they can grow 10,000 jin of crops on one mu of land during the Great Leap Forward, then why can’t you write ten folk songs a day? Fine.  Let’s write; if you can’t, then you must make something up.  So I made up this song on the day of the war against the sparrows. “The entire people is mobilized together.  The sparrows have been wiped out, the mosquitoes have fled to Fujian while the flies are hiding in Guangdong.” There is obviously some element of local protectionism in that. Frankly speaking, it deserved to be criticized.

This disaster against the sparrows was finally terminated in 1959 when the Academy of Sciences leaders brought up the opinions of scientists such as Zhu Xi and Zheng Zuoxin.  The scientists had autopsied the digestive systems of the sparrows and found that three-quarters of the contents were harmful insects and only one-quarter was human food.  This showed that sparrows were basically a beneficial bird. Sparrows have flaws just like intellectuals.  When they jump on the flagstaff, they look self-important.  They also like to chirp when they are in charge, just like intellectuals like to talk.  They are also disinterested in politics and lack deep visions, as they are just happy with a home.  But ultimately sparrows can catch harmful insects and fulfill their functions, just as intellectuals can toil honestly and do what they are good at.  So their contributions are greater than their flaws, say in a 30%/70% ratio.  Although the sparrow is tiny, it has all the body organs and it is also an essential member of the ecology.  So how could we butcher them?  There may a few misbehaving individuals, but that is just a very small number for which there is no reason to mobilize the entire population to eradicate the entire species.

Last year was the thirtieth anniversary of the Cultural Revolution.  This year is the fortieth anniversary of the Anti-Rightist campaign.  Both of these events passed by quietly in this peaceful atmosphere.  Next year will be the fortieth anniversary of the Great Sparrow Disaster.  Can we commemorate it from either the viewpoint of protecting the ecological environment or making policies on the basis of democracy and scientific data?  History should not be forgotten!

China’s Great Leap Forward
BY William Harms  /  March 14, 1996

As a child growing up in rural China, Dali Yang, Assistant Professor in Political Science, heard the stories of his parents and others about the horrors of the Great Leap Forward, a time of suffering for China that came soon after the Communist revolution in 1949. “My parents were peasants who worked in the field. We grew wheat in the area where I lived, and they were part of a production team,” said Yang, who was born in 1964, three years after the Great Leap Forward had ended. “They would often bring up the topic of the Great Leap famine and tell how bad things were during that time.”

Yang’s curiosity about the period led him to write the book Calamity and Reform in China: State, Rural Society and Institutional Change Since the Great Leap Famine, to be published this spring by Stanford University Press. The book, one of the first major works to analyze the period, relates how the Great Leap Forward and the subsequent famine still influence China today.

Unlike the later Cultural Revolution, which is well known in the West, the Great Leap Forward has been less of a focus for research by Western scholars — yet, according to Yang, it was one of the most influential periods of Chinese history. It was the pivotal event that led China to adopt reforms in rural areas after Mao’s death in 1976, resulting in the dismantlement of the people’s communes that the Chinese government had fervently advocated during the Great Leap Forward.

Communist dream leads to mass death
The Great Leap Forward was begun in 1957 by Chairman Mao Zedong to bring the nation quickly into the forefront of economic development. Mao wanted China to become a leading industrial power, and to accomplish his goals he and his colleagues pushed for the construction of steel plants across the country. The rural society was to keep pace with the dream by producing enough food to feed the country plus enough for export to help pay for industrialization. As a result of the Communist revolution, landowners had been stripped of their property, and by 1957 peasants already were forced to work in agricultural cooperatives. These
changes were intended to improve conditions for everyone by collectivizing agriculture and establishing communal eating facilities where peasants could eat all they wanted free of charge. This utopian dream turned into a nightmare as the central leadership grew increasingly out of touch with reality, Yang found through his study of government records and personal accounts.

At the beginning of the Great Leap Forward, Mao proclaimed that China would overtake Britain in production of steel and other products within 15 years. Other Chinese leaders, including Deng Xiaoping, supported Mao’s enthusiasm, according to documents Yang studied in China. A year later, Mao radically revised the time-line for catching up to Britain — what was to be accomplished in 15 years now had to be done in just one more year, he said. “Frequent changes in the timetable were symptomatic of the Great Leap, which, in retrospect, was fantasy incarnate. Even more exaggerated targets were subsequently presented, and then frequently revised upward, for steel, grain, cotton and other products. Any semblance of serious planning was abandoned,” Yang said.

In pursuit of its goals, the government executed people who did not agree with the pace of radical change. The crackdown led to the deaths of 550,000 people by 1958. The government also plunged the country into a deep debt by increasing spending on the development of heavy industry. Government spending on heavy industry grew in 1958 to represent 56 percent of state capital investment, an increase from 38 percent in 1956.

People were mobilized to accomplish the goals of industrialization. They built backyard furnaces for iron and steel and worked together on massive building projects, including one undertaken during the winter of 1957-58 in which more than 100 million peasants were mobilized to build large-scale water-conservation works. Local leaders competed with one another to see who could create the most activity. In the rush to recruit labor, agricultural tasks were neglected, sometimes leaving the grain harvest to rot in the fields, Yang said. In the frenzy of competition, the leaders over-reported their harvests to their superiors in Beijing, and what was thought to be surplus grain was sold abroad.

Although in theory the country was awash in grain, in reality it was not. Rural communal mess halls were encouraged to supply food for free, but by the spring of 1959, the grain reserves were exhausted and the famine had begun. No one is sure exactly how many people perished as a result of the spreading hunger. By comparing the number of deaths that could be expected under normal conditions with the number that occurred during the period of the Great Leap famine, scholars have estimated that somewhere between 16.5 million and 40 million people died before the experiment came to an end in 1961, making the Great Leap famine the largest in world history.

People abandoned their homes in search of food. Families suffered immensely, and reports of that suffering reached the members of the army, whose homes were primarily in rural areas. As soldiers received letters describing the suffering and the deaths, it became harder for leaders to maintain ideological discipline. Chaos developed in the countryside as rural militias became predatory, seizing grain, beating people and raping women.

From famine to reform
During the struggle for survival, farmers in nearly one-third of the rural communities took matters into their own hands, abandoning the people’s commune in favor of individual farming. Heavy central control was reduced, and the country’s agricultural production improved. Following Mao’s death in 1976, central leaders disagreed over rural policies. Taking advantage of this policy paralysis, peasants and local cadres made alliances in those areas that had suffered severely from the Great Leap Famine and contracted land to the farm household. In just a few years’ time, the people’s communes were dismantled. Agricultural performance improved dramatically and gave momentum to the reforms under Deng.

The memory of the famine reinforced the important role peasants play in China’s development, Yang said. That memory also has undermined the appeal of central planning in rural policy-making. “Historical developments during more than four decades of Communist rule in China have again and again shown us how the unanticipated consequences of elite policies subverted their attempts at fundamental social engineering,” Yang writes in Calamity and Reform in China. Institutional changes in China are the result of a contest between the elite and the masses, between the state and the society, he said. “This study thus points to the crucial importance of guarding against those who claim to know some magic route to the radiant future, be they politicians like Mao or party intellectuals who supported Mao or the new technocrats who claim to have found a scientific way to make China rich and powerful and who happily clamor for more power for themselves.”

The best way to prevent the country from following another movement like the Great Leap Forward is to create mechanisms that check those in power, Yang said. “Had there been a free press and other institutions of oversight that are commonly found in open political systems, the Great Leap famine would certainly not have attained the magnitude it did,” said Yang, who continues to follow events in China through visits there as he develops his academic career in the United States.

Yang became interested in the social sciences as a college student in Beijing, where he studied engineering. He received his B.S. in industrial engineering in 1983 from Beijing University of Science and Technology and developed an interest in English, which led him to receive his diploma for advanced studies in English in 1984 from Beijing Foreign Studies University. He came to the United States to pursue graduate studies in political science in 1986 and received his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1993, the same year he joined the Chicago faculty.

Although he does not see rapid democratization coming to China, he has noticed some indications of ways in which the system there is beginning to rein in the excess power of overzealous leaders. “To some extent the trend toward decentralization, market-based competition and legal rule has spread decision-making power throughout the system,” he said.

The new leadership is, however, “tentative, reactive and at times schizophrenic,” Yang said. “They are less driven by firm ideological convictions than by sheer desire to remain in power. “The balance between the state and society thus appears precarious, but it is also less susceptible to elite manipulations and more likely to produce policies dealing with the concrete problems that crop up in a state that is undergoing rapid economic development and social change.”


“In 2006, instrumental post-rock band Red Sparowes released a stunning album, Every Red Heart Shines Toward the Red Sun, inspired by these events. The song titles of the album comprise a poem about the inspiration for the album:

The Great Leap Forward poured down upon us one day like a mighty storm, suddenly and furiously blinding our senses.
We stood transfixed in blank devotion as our leader spoke to us, looking down on our mute faces with a great, raging, and unseeing Eye.
Like the howling glory of the darkest winds, this voice was thunderous and the words holy, tangling their way around our hearts and clutching our innocent awe.
A message of avarice rained down upon us and carried us away into false dreams of endless riches.
Annihilate the sparrow, that stealer of seed, and our harvests will abound; we will watch our wealth flood in.
And by our own hand did every last bird lie silent in their puddles, the air barren of song as the clouds drifted away. For killing their greatest enemy, the locusts noisily thanked us and turned their jaws toward our crops, swallowing our greed whole.
Millions starved and became skinnier and skinnier, while our leaders became fatter and fatter.
Finally, as that blazing sun shone down upon us, did we know that true enemy was the voice of blind idolatry; and only then did we begin to think for ourselves.”