China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
China’s Great Leap Famine was mirrored by another crisis: a shortage of cotton cloth that left parts of the rural population ragged and sometimes naked for 20 years. While lack of clothing does not kill as directly as lack of food, the absence of protection against cold and rain can weaken famine-stricken bodies and expose them to disease. At the height of the crisis, in the early 1960s, rural cloth rations were less than one meter of narrow cloth per capita. The minimum replacement need for a person who works outdoors is 10 meters; people who receive less will over time run out of body cover, no matter how much they mend. In contrast to the grain famine, the cotton famine did not end in 1963. In 1965, rural cotton cloth rations were fixed around 5 meters and remained at this level – far below replacement needs – until the end of the collective period. Evidence from interviews suggests that actual supplies were often even lower, and that many rural people did not use their coupons because they lacked the cash to purchase ration cloth. People dealt with the persistent shortage by stealing and embezzling cotton from the collective fields and by producing handloom cloth to clothe their families. Because of its long duration, China’s cotton crisis reveals more clearly than the foodgrain crisis the systemic, long-term nature of rural scarcity, as well as the wide range of peasant counter-strategies.