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Golkin, "The faces of hunger: famine relief to China," 1984

USC dissertation in History.
August 27, 2009

Arline Tartus Golkin, Ph.D

Abstract (Summary)

This study examines chronic and acute food deficit in China during the first half of the 20th century and analyzes the foreign role and legacy in providing famine relief to China.

Part One explains hunger according to present day understanding and within the context of China's historical experience. It demonstrates that, despite centuries of Chinese empiric understanding of the relationship between poor nutrition and illness, prevalent food deficiency disorders and endemic disease rendered millions vulnerable to the rapid decline to famine in an era when the Chinese state could not independently mobilize resources to carry out traditional measures for famine administration.

Part Two is an analysis of foreign relief to China from 1900 to 1949. It shows that foreign aid waxed and waned because of donor attitudes. Assistance increased when conditions in China were relatively stable, and decreased during periods of disorder. Most foreign contributions supported emergency measures designed to halt widespread starvation. In several instances, they achieved a modicum of success. However, donors who did not understand the critical links between chronic hunger and the decline to famine rejected proposals for major famine prevention project. Furthermore, they believed that political and economic disintegration within China would inhibit the success of any long-term measures. Therefore, foreign relief organizations failed to arrest the chronic disorders which combined to produce famine conditions.

The most important foreign relief contribution to China took form in a legacy of ideas and methods designed to produce lasting improvements in medicine, nutrition, agriculture, transport and water control. The Chinese recognized their importance throughout the period examined, but refused to have them selected, funded or controlled by foreign agencies.

Political reintegration and modernization after 1949 made possible the independent utilization and application of innovations proposed by foreign agents. A process of selective adoption and adaptation to Chinese needs led to their acceptance and dissemination as part of integrated, non-emergency programs designed to enhance traditional practices, improve popular welfare and begin to eliminate famine from China.