The book below is one of the best books I have ever read. It comes highly recommended for those interested in China and Chinese economics.
If one was to read this book and then read the paper below you might arrive at a different conclusion as to the cause of the great famine.
The Institutional Causes of China's Great Famine, 1959-61
Australian National University - Department of Economics; Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA)
Yale University - Department of Economics
Columbia University - Graduate School of Business
NBER Working Paper No. w16361
This paper investigates the institutional causes of China’s Great Famine. It presents two empirical findings: 1) in 1959, when the famine began, food production was almost three times more than population subsistence needs; and 2) regions with higher per capita food production that year suffered higher famine mortality rates, a surprising reversal of a typically negative correlation. A simple model based on historical institutional details shows that these patterns are consistent with the policy outcomes in a centrally planned economy in which the government is unable to easily collect and respond to new information in the presence of an aggregate shock to production.
The following book deals directly with the famine. The title gives it away.