Don't Say Millions Starved During China's Great Famine. Try ‘Nutritional Death’ Instead

Users on popular Chinese microblogging site Sina Weibo are accusing a Chinese professor of purposefully underestimating by tens of millions the number of people who died during the country's mid-century Great Famine for the benefit of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The hottest search term on Weibo on September 6, 2013 was “nutritional death” (营养性死亡). The term appears in a forum post written by Sun Jingxian, a professor from Jiangsu Normal University, claiming that the 30 million estimated deaths during the Great Chinese Famine (1958-1961) is a rumor. Instead, the professor estimated that about 2.5 million “nutritional deaths” had taken place during the “three year difficult period”.

As the word “deficiency” is missing in the Chinese term “nutritional death”, its meaning can be interpreted as death caused by either deficiencies or excesses in diet. Such ambivalence has outraged many netizens who believe that Sun's intention is to cover-up the historical mistake committed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Historical photo of the rural collectives during the Great Leap Forward. Children are lining up for food. Source: Sina Weibo.

Historical photo of the rural collectives during the Great Leap Forward. Children are lining up for food. Source: Sina Weibo.

Most Chinese people believe that the Great Famine was caused by the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961), a campaign that forced rural peasants to form agricultural collectives and give up private farming. Examining the national census of 1960-1964, a team of researchers found out that the total population of China had a net reduction of 26.44 million people in a four-year time period. Between 1959 and 1960, the reduction was up to 10 million in a single year. It has been estimated that the number of deaths during the Great Famine is around 30 million.

Sun spent three years reviewing [zh] the census and claimed that the previous estimation was a result of census error due to urban-rural migration. His own estimation of “nutritional death” is about 2.5 million.

However, as the CCP has recently vowed to strengthen its ideological control and part of that campaign is to combat “rumors”, Sun's accusation that the conclusions of previous research are “rumors” has very strong political implication.

Many accuse him of using the term “nutritional death” as a euphemism with the aim of covering up the mistakes of the CCP. “BHLi book store” (@BHLi循证书馆) tried to search [zh] for an equivalent English term and found out that it referred to an opposite meaning:

老外貌似”nutritional death”通常是指”肥死” We have long known that the hot dog is a nutritional death trap full of fat, sodium and other preservatives.

It looks like the English term “nutritional death” but the meaning is “eating too much” — We have long known that the hot dog is a nutritional death trap full of fat, sodium and other preservatives.

“Owl's net” (@猫头鹰的巢穴) laughed at [zh] the misleading Chinese term:


Got it. They died from eating too much!

Some believed that the choice of language is an intentional cover-up of the man-made disaster. For example, “Sunny breeze” (@旭日和风) roared [zh]:


Using the term “nutritional death” to name deaths caused by man-made famine, professor Sun's invention of the term will pin himself down to the pillar of shamelessness. Inhumane and cold-blooded intellectuals are worse than average criminals.

“Who knows Yu's happiness” (@安知渝之乐) also found [zh] the term vicious:


Nutritional death — can it be more shameless? How many people died in three years? The intention is to cover up history. Why don't you call the cultural revolution a national party?

The reason why netizens are so outraged with the term is because euphemism has played a significant role in Chinese politics. “Qinghua Qinpang” (@清华秦鹏) made [zh] a list of euphemistic Chinese terms:


Terms with Chinese characteristics: starve to death is called “nutritional death”, traitorous escape called “vacation-style medical treatment” [refers to Wang Lijun's escape to the US consulate], regression is called “negative growth”, unemployment is called “expecting a job”, not knowing is called “beneficial exploration”, servant is called “leader”, criminal is called “extreme leftist”…

Chen Yani offered [zh] a better euphemism:


Why not just call it “forever asleep”

@afa2011 gave [zh] another suggestion:


“Call from the devil” is better than [nutritional death]!

“Eating grapes peel” (@吃葡萄皮不吐葡萄葡葡萄) pointed out [zh] that the public release of historical documents will clear up doubts:


The authorities have kept silent about this period of history. Open all the documents and you can shut down the rumors.

“Really grasping a whole bunch” (@当真一把抓) echoed [zh]:


I don't understand what the professor is trying to hide. Starved to death is starved to death, why replace it with “nutritional death”? Three years of research and the outcome is such a creative term. You say that the death toll is less that 2.5 million, so how many exactly? Please be accurate. And please give us the names. Some say 30 million, please also release the name of the dead.

Like many Chinese who lost family members during the Great Famine, “Meteor 74″ wanted [zh] the truth to be revealed:


The professor is so good at creating new words. I don't know how many died, but many relatives died of “nutritional death”. My four grandparents and my uncle. My parents were still kids, but my mother still remembers from time to time the day when she had to swallow earth to fill up her stomach. Most of the dead were peasants.


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