I have often heard and read this, but I wonder if credible sources can support these claims. I even heard stories of merchants selling human flesh and children under 12 sold to be eaten. I read about this in "comprendre le pouvoir" by Noam Chomsky and in tuersenserie.org; there's a letter in which Albert Fish talks about a friend of him who went to China and developed a taste for human flesh because merchants were selling it everywhere.
Yes we have at least one account of cannibalism. First source:
A teenage orphan kills and eats her four-year-old brother. Guardian
I didn't know that there were thousands of cases of cannibalism. . . . People ate corpses and fought for the bodies. In Gansu they killed outsiders; people told me strangers passed through and they killed and ate them. And they ate their own children. Terrible. Too terrible."ibid
But the head of the Anhui police department ... wrote a report [during the 2000s] in which he said that [there had been] 1,289 cases of cannibalism reported in the province in 1960. That's 1,289 cases. These were considered "special cases." That's the name they gave to cases of cannibalism. RFA.org
Third source, separate quote:
Here's one: "Ma Waiyou, of Maiji commune, Xinmin village. Status: common peasant. He ate Chen Zaxi. Relationship: spouse. He ate his own wife. He dug up her body and cooked it." ibid
The RFA article is an interview with one of the researchers who starts out skeptical. I could have quoted more, but the quotes above were sufficient to unnerve me.
Aside: Whenever dealing with horrific or sensational facts, it is prudent to check the source for bias and reliability. RFA is "Radio Free Asia (RFA) is a private, nonprofit international broadcasting agency of the United States government" (big hat tip to @bright-Star) MediaBias lists it as left-center.
Jung Chang -author of bestseller Wild Swans (Harper Collins, London 1992) together with her husband, British sinologist, Jon Halliday, in their biography, Mao,The Unknown Story (Cape, London 2005) assert that it happened.
During the famine, some resorted to cannibalism. One post-Mao study (promptly suppressed), of Fengyang county in Anhui province, recorded sixty-three cases of cannibalism in the spring of 1960 alone,including that of a couple who strangled and ate their eight-year-old son. And Fengyang was probably not the worst. In one county in Gansu where one-third of the population died, cannibalism was rife. One village cadre, whose wife, sister and children all died then, later told journalists: 'So many people in the village have eaten human flesh...See those people squatting outside the commune office sunning themselves? Some of them ate human flesh...People were just driven crazy by hunger.' (p 456)
In the general atmosphere of fostered cruelty, cannibalism broke out in many parts of the province, the best-known being the county of Wuxuan, where a post-Mao official investigation (in 1983 promptly halted and its findings suppressed) produced a list of 76 names of victims. The practice of cannibalism usually started with the Maoist staple, 'denunciation rallies'. Victims were slaughtered immediately afterwards, and choice parts of their bodies - hearts, livers, and sometimes penises - were excised, often before the victims were dead, and cooked on the spot to be eaten in what were called at the time 'human flesh banquets'. (p.566)
Jung Chang was born in Yibin, Sichuan Province, China, in 1952. She was a Red Guard briefly at the age of fourteen and then worked as a peasant, a 'barefoot doctor', a steelworker and an electrician before becoming an English-language student and, later, an assistant lecturer at Sichuan University. She left China for Britain in 1978 and was subsequently awarded a scholarship by York University, where she obtained a PhD in linguistics in 1982 - the first person from the People's Republic of China to be awarded a doctorate at a British university. Her award-winning book, 'Wild Swans' was published in 1991.
Jon Halliday is a former Senior Visiting Research Fellow at King's College, University of London. He has written or edited eight previous books (Extracts from dust cover).
The evidence is very strong that cases of cannibalism happened, especially during the Great Leap Famine (1958-1961), but also during the Cultural Revolution.
The other answers offer some good references from journalistic sources and general survey histories. This has also received more detailed attention in the historical scholarship and from Chinese Communist Party sources:
- This is a translation of research done on the Chinese side in the 1980s and has incredible extensive details on a slew of cases in Guangxi during the Cultural Revolution.
An even better source is the important collection of archival documents put together by Zhou Xun (which historian Frank Dikötter has also put to good use) from an earlier period, during the Great Leap Famine:
- The Documents in Chapter Four, which include Communist party reports etc., have a lot of detailed examples. These are government documents coming straight out of provincial level archives in many cases.
Having said this: I would not be surprised if rumors of cannibalism were spread and vastly exaggerated even when referring to this period. It has a long history as a literary and political trope in China, at least since the famous Chinese writer Lu Xun uses cannibalism to represent a total failed society (See Tears from Iron by Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley and What Remains by Tobie Meyer-Fong discussion of this). Perhaps the most extensive discussion of the border between fact and fiction when it comes to the history of cannibalism in China I have seen is in