The gene–environment interactions resulting from famine and the subsequent increased intergenerational risk of type 2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM) have contributed to the current epidemic of T2DM in China, which poses major social, health and economic challenges. The epidemic of T2DM could threaten national development in China through premature morbidity and mortality from T2DM and associated non-communicable diseases. The Chinese Famine (1959–1961), as a contributor to the nation’s current national T2DM epidemic, provides an important and urgent public health warning. The effects of the famine give a strong message that research and actions that address the prevention of T2DM cannot be confined to lifestyle measures, as used in the landmark Da Qing study and the lifestyle prevention programmes and pharmaceutical interventions used in Western nations. To stem the T2DM epidemic, a new paradigm for prevention of T2DM must be developed. This paradigm should include a very strong emphasis on pregnancy planning and maternal and child health during and after the pregnancy. Without action, intergenerational cycles initiated by epigenetic modifications resulting from adverse environmental stimuli during the critical window of early development in utero might continue to fuel the T2DM epidemic in future generations.