• If you are citizen of an European Union member nation, you may not use this service unless you are at least 16 years old.

  • Stop wasting time looking for files and revisions. Connect your Gmail, DriveDropbox, and Slack accounts and in less than 2 minutes, Dokkio will automatically organize all your file attachments. Learn more and claim your free account.


Great Leap Forward

Page history last edited by Bob Andrian 9 years, 6 months ago

The Great Leap "Backward" and the Great Famine


In 1957 on the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, Nikita Khrushchev announced that the Soviet Union would surpass the United States as an economic power in the next 15 years. That promise was not lost on Mao, who wanted to make China into a modern power as well by "leaping forward" at breakneck speed.  Unfortunately for Mao and disastrously for China, he was not a good economist.


Mao thought that Khrushchev's approach was drifting too far away from what socialism should be. However, his decision to mobilize the entire population to make steel (and consequently for the peasants to stop farming), and to rely on ideological ardor, voluntarism, will and self-sacrifice instead of skilled workers and technicians, economic incentives, and strategic planning (for example, the Five Year Plan modeled on the USSR's, which had worked quite well from 1953-58) ultimately led to poor quality steel production and far worse, the loss of up to 45 million Chinese due to starvation and disease.


To put his "Great Leap Forward" into practice, Mao decided to take an ideological leap towards communism by creating 26,000 "people's" communes" (composed of 2,000-20,000 households each) across the country. In effect, the state completely controlled the lives of the villagers. Families were broken up, all food belonged to the state, and all meals had to be eaten at communal canteens. (It was impossible to cook in one's home anyway since anything iron-based---like a wok---was taken away to be smelted into steel.) The cult of Mao, peasant docility, and fear of speaking one's mind (the result of the Anti-Rightist campaign of the year before) led local commune leaders to overstate food production figures to impress their superiors.


Mao believed increased grain production would help support industry. Grain quotas (the amount each commune ultimately gave over to the government) went higher to help pay off loans for Soviet technology and industrial equipment. But the peasants were busy making steel instead of farming. 90 million workers were operating 500,000 furnaces.* Even when they were farming, because all food belonged to the state, and because peasants could always eat at the canteen, there was no incentive to work. The failure to get in the harvest of 1958 was an ominous portent of things to come. Nonetheless, as grain production went down, reported harvests went up. *(Roderick MacFarquhar, "The Worst Man-Made Catastrophe, Ever," NYReview of Books, 2/10/11, p.27.)


Chen Yanning's 1972 painting, Chairman Mao Inspects the Guangdong Countryside, from the Asia Society's exhibition, Art and China's Revolution, illustrates in part the cult of Mao as peasants looked to please their Party superiors about how much rice they could grow. 




Food shortages led to starvation on a massive scale. The province of Sichuan, a major source of Chinese grains, suffered negative population growth rates from 1959-61. Party leaders who had made it through the Long March, war with Japan and civil war with the GMD, however, remained undeterred. Chinese historian Roderick MacFarquhar, in his review of a recent study of the famine, quotes Marshal Chen Yi, China's foreign minister, 


"Who knows how many people have been sacrificed on the battlfields and in the prisons [for the revolutionary cause]? Now we have a few cases of illness and death: it's nothing!" (as quoted in NYReview, 2/10/11, 27)


Party officials who made sure to get to the cities ended up eating rather lavishly, courtesy of the state. Ordinary folks, especially women, children and the elderly bore the brunt of the famine and the diseases accompanying it. In 1957, China's median dying age was 17.6; in 1963 it was 9.7. Half the people dying in China were under 10 years old. (Spence, The Search for Modern China, 553.) Clever folks who were able to "lie, charm, hide, steal, cheat, pilfer, forage, smuggle, slack, trick, manipulate or otherwise outwit the state" were the fortunate ones. The Party successfully destroyed population data in areas where droves had died. (MacFarquhar, 27)




Chinese historian, Perry Link cites Yang Jisheng, in his book, Tombstone, on the famine of 1959-62, who wrote of how


"starving people ate tree bark, weeds, bird droppings, and flesh that had been cut from dead bodies, sometimes of their own family members; how they wandered into neighboring counties in search of food, only to find adjacent areas equally destitute, and then, when caught, found themselves charged as 'criminal fugitives,' deniers of the truth that 'there is no famine.'" (as quoted in Perry Link, "China: From Famine to Oslo," NYReview, 1/13/11, 52)


Those who spoke the truth suffered horribly and in a public fashion. Link notes how Yang "lists cases of people buried alive, or suspended from beams in commune mess halls, and cites countless examples of the severing of ears." (Ibid.) 


Some Party officials became disillusioned with the man-made (in this case "Mao-made") disaster unfolding. Among them included Jung Chang's father, who took to fishing when he suffered from edema and depression, and when he was criticized by the Party for "letting his revolutionary will wane," . As Jung Chang writes,


"Throughout history Chinese scholars and mandarins had traditionally taken up fishing when they were disillusioned with what the emperor was doing. Fishing suggested a retreat to nature, an escape from the politics of the day. It was a kind of symbol for disenchantment and noncooperation." (WS, 236-37)


Finally in 1961, wiser, more pragmatic, economic heads began to prevail, and Mao's economic plans for the Great Leap were shelved. Mass production of steel by the "will" of the people ended. Signs of a market economy emerged and public canteens were discontinued. Material incentives were adopted, and peasants began to be paid for their work; private plots of land appeared as well. Party leader Deng Xiaoping remarked, "It doesn't matter whether the cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice." A much more intelligent path emerged to lead China forward.


This photos shows (from left to right): Zhou Enlai, Chen Yun, Liu Shaoqi, Mao Zedong, and Deng Xiaoping at a Party conference in 1962. According to Perry Link, Frank Dikotter's new book on the famine, Mao's Great Famine, reveals that Liu Shaoqi "openly blamed 'human errors' rather than 'nature' for the famine." (NY Review, 2/10/11, 27)



Mao retreated for the time being, but blamed the disaster on Khrushchev and the Soviets insisting that the Chinese had to pay off indemnities occurred from Soviet help in the Korean War. At the same time as the Great Leap Forward and famine were taking place, China was being threatened or at least challenged on their own borders.



  • In Laos, a right-wing coup, backed quietly by the United States, overthrew a Communist elected government.
  • Chinese occupation of Tibet resulted in the destruction of many monasteries prompting protests and rebellion and the killing of many Tibetans with the Dalai Lama seeking (and receiving) sanctuary in India. The CIA continued to train Tibetan rebels in Colorado. (These protests and rebellions most recently occurred in 2008 inviting swift repression as the Chinese continued to populate the Tibetan "autonomous" region with Han Chinese.)
  • Disputes over trade relations led to anti-Chinese riots in Indonesia.
  • The threat of war existed with bordering India; skirmishes broke out over territorial claims.
  • The ongoing Sino-Soviet split over the correct ideological path to communism was about to reach an irreparable level. Khrushchev supported Indian territorial claims, complained about Mao's belligerent attitudes towards the U.S. and refused to extend an offer of the atomic bomb to Mao.
  • U.S. military support for Taiwan (e.g. surface to surface missiles that could reach deep into China) created severe antagonism between the "two" Chinas (even if the PRC viewed Taiwan as part of the mainland). Thus China's leadership was being tested precisely at the same time there was a leadership crisis due to the failure of the Great Leap Forward and the ongoing famine.


          Here are two maps from 2008 illustrating China's border disputes:




In order for Chinese undergraduate students to learn about the tragic consequences of Mao's Great Leap Forward, they need to go abroad to study. The 26,000 or so Chinese students in the U.S. last year received a more complex narrative of the Chinese past in American universities than they would in their Chinese counterparts. Visitors to the new National Museum of China in Beijing will discover a gargantuan celebration of sanitized Chinese history, rooted in a narrative that closely follows the Party line. Of course, the Chinese are not alone in providing museum goers a one-dimensional portrait a nation's past as Ian Johnson notes in his New York Times article about the grand opening of the museum in April. 





Comments (0)

You don't have permission to comment on this page.