top of page

The Smash Sparrow campaign and the Great Chinese Famine

The rain-drenched sparrow

My kitchen window opens up to my backyard where there is a Jackfruit tree, a Mango tree, a Coconut tree, a Stone Apple tree and some flowering plants. In between my culinary work, I have a habit of staring out of the window to look at the sparrows chirping with each other and the squirrels jumping from one tree to another in search of food. I often wonder how beautiful it would be if we could be like them - carefree, lost in their own world and not interfere with others unless interfered.

Talking about interference with nature or the natural ecosystem - The world has already witnessed one such result of such monstrous interference of nature by humans in the Great Chinese Famine during 1958-1962...

Mao Zedong, the founding father of People's Republic of China (PRC) and ruler of the Chinese Communist Party from 1949 to 1976, in his bid to modernize China and rapidly transform China's economy from 'agrarian' to 'industrial', launched the "Great Leap Forward" campaign in 1958. The various drives and policies that were undertaken under this campaign, many a time without scientific logic, led to widespread deforestation, low crop yields, and other negative impacts. The "Four Pests Campaign" was one such campaign that was aimed at the eradication of pests that transmit diseases and pestilence. Since the ascension of the Communist rule in 1949, China has been grappling with various vector-borne infectious diseases viz., Tuberculosis, plague, cholera, polio, malaria, smallpox, and hookworm. To tackle these endemics, the "Four Pests Campaign" was taken up to remove the four pests: (1) mosquitoes (responsible for spreading malaria), (2) rodents (responsible for spreading plague), (3) flies (responsible for spreading diseases), (4) sparrows (responsible for eating hard-earned crop yields from fields).

Exterminate the four pests poster, 1958.

The Four Pests campaign started with much enthusiasm with the involvement of troupes of children, adults as well as the elderly. Illustrated posters were distributed to the public for further encouragement in the killing of the pests.

Everybody get to work to destroy the four pests

An inhumane slaughter of sparrows followed which was also known as the Smash Sparrows campaign. Shooting down sparrows from the sky, breaking their eggs, killing the chicks, destroying their nests, catching them in nets with baits, poisoning them - every possible means was employed to kill them. The worst method that was adopted was to drive the sparrows to exhaustion. The people were asked to make noises by banging on pots and pans and create a ruckus to terrorize them. By this, the sparrows were forced to keep flying until they became too exhausted and dropped dead from exhaustion.

A young propaganda troupe
Eliminating the last sparrow
Catching Sparrows
Let's beat down sparrows

While the Four Pests campaign became a huge success in the eradication of the vermins, it came at a grave ecological and demographical cost to the Chinese. Even though the sparrows ate grains, they also ate the insects that destroyed or wreaked havoc on crops. Now with the sparrows gone, insect/locust infestation on the crops increased, leading to immense loss of yield and thus becoming one of the reasons for the beginning of one of the most deadliest famine which killed 15-45 million people over a period of four years. The ecological problems that were already there because of the Great Leap Forward campaign were further exacerbated by this Smash Sparrows campaign and further use of poison and pesticides.

Chairman Mao eventually ordered to end the campaign against sparrows and replaced sparrows with bed bugs as the fourth pest, but it was already too late and the ecological balance was already skewed. The government finally had to resort to import of sparrows from the Soviet Union to replenish the lost bird.

Xiamen, Fujian 1958 (Source:

'"No warrior shall be withdrawn until the battle is won," proclaimed the Peking People's Daily.'

And the battle was indeed won over the lowly sparrows but at what cost?


  1. (Run by the International Institute of Social History, the representation of Chinese history, culture and politics can be seen here as represented by the propaganda posters).

bottom of page