China Underground > China History Images > 15 Rare Images of the Tragic Four Pests Campaign to Wipe Out the Sparrow

15 Rare Images of the Tragic Four Pests Campaign to Wipe Out the Sparrow

Last Updated on 2023/05/15

A series of rare photographs and propaganda posters of the Four Pest Campaign in China (1958-9162).

The Four Pests campaign, 除四害, Chú Sì Hài, in China was one of the first actions taken during the Great Leap Forward between 1958 and 1962. 

The four plagues to be eliminated according to the Chinese authorities were rats, mosquitoes, flies, and common sparrows. The extermination of the sparrows led to a serious ecological imbalance and was among the causes of the Great Chinese Famine, 三年 大 饥荒, which occurred between 1958 and 1962, causing the death of tens of millions of people. 

In 1960 the campaign against sparrows finally came to an end and was redirected against bed bugs. The campaign was introduced and conceived by Mao Zedong as an initiative to promote public hygiene: the aim of which was to eradicate the four scourges responsible for the transmission of pestilences and diseases: rats (responsible for the plague), mosquitoes, and flies (responsible for malaria) and common sparrows (blamed of eating seeds and fruit). 

On February 12, 1958, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council issued the “Instructions to Eliminate the Four Parasites and Pay Attention to Hygiene”, beginning the extermination of the sparrows. 

The sparrows were suspected of consuming each about four pounds of grain per year. For this reason, the authorities ordered the destruction of the nests and eggs, and the elimination of the chicks. 

People scaring sparrows at the Summer Palace, in Beijing, circa 1958

Millions of people organized themselves into groups to kill sparrows or to wear them out by harassing them by loudly hitting pots and pans. The campaign was a success and almost led to the extinction of the bird in the country. All the people were mobilized, including young, old people, women, and children.

Four-Pests-campaign images

Numerous tactics were used to eradicate the “threat” posed by the sparrows: they were therefore poisoned, tormented with drums, or fireworks to exhaust them, killed with a slingshot. Bamboo branches were used to chase sparrows from tree branches while flags were waved to confuse them. Anti-sparrow forces had no boundaries: alleys, roofs, trees, or walls of the houses, had all become battlefields. According to a newsletter in the People’s Daily, more than 83,200 sparrows died of exhaustion, poisoning, and beatings during the one-day raid in Beijing.

Four-Pests-campaign images

Some sparrows found refuge in the extra-territorial territories of the international diplomatic missions. The Polish embassy staff did not grant access to the Chinese authorities. For this reason, the embassy was surrounded by ordinary people armed with drums. After two days of drumming, the Poles had to use shovels to get rid of the corpses of the dead birds. 

Four-Pests-campaign images

In April 1960, ornithologist Tso-hsin Cheng pointed out that sparrows ate numerous harmful insects, as well as wheat. Due to the combined effects of floods and drought, compounded by the lack of sparrows, the rice and grain harvest decreased. In this context, Mao ordered the end of the campaign against the sparrows, which were replaced by bed bugs. The extermination of birds had disturbed the environmental balance resulting in an uncontrolled increase in the populations of locusts and other insects harmful to crops. 

Four-Pests-campaign images

Due to the lack of a natural predator, swarms of locusts began to move around the country, aggravating the environmental situation, already severely affected by wild deforestation and the abuse of pesticides and other substances that were poisoning the lands. 

Eventually, the government had to import 250,000 sparrows from the Soviet Union to repopulate the country. 

Four-Pests-campaign images

Among the measures taken to combat insects, schools distributed DDT pumps to children. DDT was the first modern insecticide; it has been used since 1939, especially to eradicate malaria. However, DDT is a persistent and highly resistant organic pollutant in the environment. DDT is also highly toxic to aquatic life forms.

Sources 1, 2, 3

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