Did China’s wartime exports of wheat to the allies cause the North China Famine of 1920-21

For some time here at Campaign HQ we have puzzled over an article in the New York Times that appeared on the 5th June, 1921. The article is a plea by Union N Bethell, Chairman of the Executive Committee of the American Committee for China Famine Fund n which he claims a causal link between the thousands of tons of wheat exported by China to assist the allies during the Great War and the famine, which affected 30 million people, of whom 500,000 died. According to the article, China’s response to the allies request for assistance was that,

She held nothing back, but shipped thousands of tons of wheat. The part this wheat played in the winning of the war and the saving of life among the civilian population of Europe can never be overestimated.

We were puzzled because, despite such a highly authoritative newspaper giving voice to a highly respected individual, we could find no other reference or collaborating evidence. That is until very recently when our periodic internet searches on the matter finally bore fruit in the form of an informative analysis of the famine by Dr Pierre Fuller at Manchester University. Although the article made no reference to wheat exports to Europe we corresponded with Dr Fuller from which the following Q&A is based. The insight afforded by Dr Fuller has turned a puzzling story into a really fascinating one!

Dr Fuller, can you confirm whether or not China did in fact export wheat to the allies as the New York Times articles suggests?

The New York Times article in question admirably points out the outpouring of generosity and assistance provided by many parts of Chinese society during the war, and his impassioned case that Western nations should consider relieving the famine as a matter of justice, not just of charity, is a compelling one, to be sure.

“In the last years of the war [China’s] big wheat supply was needed overseas,” the article reads; yet the records I have suggest that Chinese wheat exports were relatively steady from 1913-18, and then doubled each year in 1919 and 1920. (It seems, then, that Chinese producers had a much greater role in feeding overseas communities in the wake of the war – perhaps even having a role in supplying Herbert Hoover’s American Relief Administration’s programs in Europe and the Near East. Unfortunately, though, I cannot say, as I do not know of the exact destination of these Chinese exports.)

The writer then adds that “the last of the wheat” exported from China to aid the war coincided with the great flood that hit the province of Zhili (Hebei) in 1917; yes, the end of wheat exports during the war coincided with this flood, but these exports actually grew exponentially after the flood.

 So the Chinese contribution of wheat was primarily a postwar one, and it occurred amid repeated natural disaster? That seems counter-intuitive, can you help us make some sense of this rather surprising state of affairs?

Yes, this poses a puzzle: how did China’s wheat exports rise during and after flood in 1917, and then again rise during extreme drought in 1919? The question I think must come down to geography: the section of North China most severely affected by drought in 1919-20 was indeed the main (winter) wheat growing region of China, namely southern Zhili (Hebei) and Shandong. But there were also varieties of (summer) wheat that grew at the time mainly in Manchuria and in Inner Mongolia. It seems impossible for the hundreds of counties in Zhili and Shandong with extreme crop failure in 1919-20 to have produced China’s wheat exports that year, since many were producing no grains at all; instead, it was Manchuria and Inner Mongolia that must have been behind the country’s wheat exports, as they also provided enormous amounts of relief grain with their surpluses in 1920-21.

So, whether or not they were related to the war or war relief in Europe, did these exports cause the 1920-21 famine?

Wheat was mostly a luxury crop in the Northern Chinese economy, mostly ground in flour for noodles, and peasant-farmers primarily sold wheat in order to buy cheaper millet for their families. So any wheat exports from the famine region should have provided income for farmers to buy cheaper grains. But my guess is that most of the poorest did not even have wheat to sell in 1918-20. Instead, wheat exports from Manchuria and Inner Mongolia provided income that Chinese could, and did, use for free relief of their countrymen in Zhili and Shandong, and elsewhere.

So in fact these wheat exports may have actually contributed to famine relief?

Yes, I believe that to be the case, though more research needs to be undertaken. These exports are part of the larger story of China’s interconnectedness and contributions to world events circa 1920, but were not in fact causes of mass poverty and starvation across North China that year.If anything, the peak of wheat exports in 1920 may well have helped finance the provisioning of the famine field with cheaper famine relief grains, such as millet and sorghum. That is my hunch, at least.

We are extremely grateful to Dr Fuller for so being so generous both with his time and his insights into what has for so long been a mystery. The reality is certainly far more complex than we had imagined, but we are, nonetheless, happy to have a much better understanding of this fascinating story.

Dr Fuller is Chief Editor of, a research network based in the UK at the University of Manchester with the aim of making scholarship on major disasters and humanitarian crises readily accessible to the public.



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