This article explores how cultural constructions of famine causation and famine victims in nineteenth-century China and Britain forged radically different state and societal responses to mass starvation. It goes on to demonstrate that at the precise moment when Britain began to eschew the laissez-faire approach to famine that it had implemented in nineteenth-century India and Ireland in favor of a more humanitarian famine policy, a combination of internal and external pressures forced Chinese policy makers to call into question the high priority that relieving famine traditionally had been given by the late imperial state.