Sparrow smashing

In 1958 Mao Zedong declared war on sparrows. Although he won that battle, China lost the war.

Oleg Soroka, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Chinese Communist Party initiated the Great Leap Forward in 1958: the intention was to use collective action to reconstruct the economic structure and industry of China. One wing of that campaign was a huge campaign of pest control. This was known by various names, most commonly the Four Pests Campaign, but I’m partial to another name: the Smash Sparrows Campaign.

Mao Zedong, as chairman of the party and leader of the country, targeted four specific animals for complete elimination: rats and mosquitos because they spread disease, flies because they were bloody annoying, and sparrows because they ate crops.

This was not a meek campaign: it is estimated that three million people were part of the sparrow attack force in Beijing alone. Armed with pots and pans they made so much noise everywhere that the sparrows could not stop or rest, and most of the birds dropped dead from exhaustion. Bounties for dead sparrows, nest destruction, and general anti-bird havoc took out the rest.

Some of the only sparrows to survive were those that took refuge (political asylum?) in foreign embassies, which were of course diplomatically exempt from this campaign.

Mao got his wish. Sparrows were very nearly eliminated in China. There was just one problem: in addition to eating the country’s crops, the sparrows also ate a lot of insects. And, absent their largest predators, the insect population exploded. And many of those insects (like locusts) began to eat the crops themselves.

The elimination of the sparrow in China was a major contributing factor to the Great Chinese Famine. This famine lasted from 1959 until 1961 and is estimated to have killed more people than any other human-made disaster in history – perhaps as high as 55 million people.

The edict against sparrows was lifted in 1960 and the focus shifted to eliminating bedbugs. An eminent Chinese ornithologist, Tso-hsin Cheng, was the one to make the connection between sparrow-smashing and locust-plaguing. He should have been rewarded but was in fact severely punished, a consequence of the Chinese government’s antipathy towards academics and intellectuals.

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