The Great Leap Forward

“Advance Courageously Under the Guidance of the Red Flag of Mao Zedong!”: a poster encouraging Chinese citizens to support Mao and, presumably, to forget the horrors of the Great Leap Forward. (source: Flickr)

In January of 1958, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) began the Great Leap Forward, a series of economic, political and social reforms that sought to modernize China and improve its standing on the world stage. Inspired by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s 1957 goal of surpassing the United States in economic output within 15 years, Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong announced a similar goal of beating the United Kingdom’s economy within the same period of time. At the time, both the USSR and the PRC were primitive resource-based economies that lagged behind NATO countries in economic output and sophistication; China in particular was an agrarian economy (based primarily on farming) and had only recently become a communist country in 1946.

ASAP: Mao’s blundering attempts to modernize China – without expert advice – brought about the ruin of the Chinese economy and killed over 56 million people.

Read on for details!
“The struggle in front of the open furnace”: Chinese steelworkers in September 1958. (source: Wikimedia Commons)

In April of 1958 the first commune was established in Henan province. Private farming was outlawed, all property was collectivized (taken over by the “revolutionary” government) and citizens began eating their meals in large dining halls run by the PRC. Chairman Mao, who disregarded the advice of intellectuals, decided that China’s economic dominance would come from mass production of steel and grain. Despite the protests of those who knew better, Mao ordered that every commune would run backyard furnaces to produce mass amounts of steel. These furnaces were unable to produce high quality steel, but the program continued for years due to Mao’s misguided enthusiasm for the project.

Peasants in the Xinyang country work late into the night. (source: Wikimedia Commons)

In the villages and farms, peasant life was “ruined” by collectivization. Chinese society was set up primarily for subsistence farming; with much of the crops being carried off by PRC officials to inflate government output statistics, ordinary Chinese peasants were starving. Commune officials panicked and worked their peasants even harder, forcing them to toil in the fields until late at night. Many workers collapsed from exhaustion and starvation. As Mao diverted more workers to the steel industry (due to the failure of his “backyard furnaces”), much of China’s grain crop rotted in the fields. This lead to the Great Chinese Famine, during which roughly 30 million (or 1% of 600 million) people starved to death – the most deadly famine in world history. If this number is added to the total number of Chinese people who were killed for resisting collectivization (or contradicting Mao’s flawless plans for modernization), we get a total closer to 56 million according to historian Yu Xiguang.

Global death rates spiked during the Great Leap Forward. (source: Flickr)

China’s economy shrank rapidly. Although PRC record-keeping was notoriously inaccurate, it’s estimated that the country’s economic output did not start recovering until the mid-1960s. By this point, Mao had been sidelined in the Chinese Politburo (main governmental body); the resulting Cultural Revolution was Mao’s bloody and successful attempt to regain control. The Great Leap Forward is a tragic example of the clash between communist ideology and reality; it’s also a great example of how communism’s distrust of “intellectual elites” resulted in very unqualified (and very powerful) people making incredibly destructive decisions. The reforms were, obviously, a disaster for China (who refused food aide from the United States). However, even the disastrous setbacks of the 1950s and 1960s could not restrain China’s growth. Today, the PRC has handily surpassed Mao’s goal of beating UK economic output and is, according to some analysts, on track to beat the United States.

Main Points

In a hurry? Here are the ASAP notes on this topic.

  • Who? People’s Republic of China (PRC) Chairman Mao Zedong; the people of China.
  • Where? Communist China.
  • When? Inspiration to begin the Great Leap Forward came to Mao in 1957; the actual reforms began in April of 1958. The reforms lasted from 1958 to 1962.
  • What? The Great Leap Forward was a series of reforms designed to transform China into a modern, non-agrarian society that produced grain and steel in quantities to rival the United Kingdom’s economic output. Chinese peasants and farmers were bullied into giving up their land for “collectivizing” and were worked to death in large numbers to meet quotas. Mismanagement of the various industrial sectors resulted in the Great Chinese Famine.
  • Why? Mao was impressed by the Soviet Union’s goal of surpassing the US economy within 15 years at a meeting in 1957. The impressive goal was impossible at the time, however, because Mao disregarded all expert advice and essentially planned everything himself. Anyone who disagreed was punished.
  • Result: 56 million Chinese people dead from famine and violent government suppression. The PRC’s economy was ruined for at least 10 years, and Mao’s aspirations almost got him kicked out of the country.

Food for Thought

Like what you’ve read? Here are a couple essay questions/prompts to get you thinking. Good writing is all about answering questions the reader didn’t know they had, after all. These questions are to inspire further research, help with an academic paper, or maybe just get you thinking more about the topic.

  • If not for the Great Leap Forward, where would China be today? Was it inevitable?
  • Were there any positive outcomes from the Great Leap Forward?
  • What role did the Korean War and the race for nuclear weapons play in Mao’s decision?
  • How did Soviet-Chinese competition influence Mao’s decision?
  • What were some of the lasting consequences on the Chinese peasantry?

Further Reading & Citations

Here are a couple useful sources for further reading or using to flesh out an essay. Remember to cite everything properly!

  • Pantsov, Alexander, and Steven I. Levine. 2013. Mao: the real story.
  • Shabad, Theodore. “China’s “Great Leap Forward”.” Far Eastern Survey 28, no. 7 (1959): 105-09. 
  • LI, CHOH-MING. “What Happened to the Great Leap Forward?” Challenge 11, no. 10 (1963): 4-7.
  • Thaxton, Jr, Ralph A. “THE MANDATE ABANDONED: THE DISASTER OF THE GREAT LEAP FORWARD.” Chapter. In Catastrophe and Contention in Rural China: Mao’s Great Leap Forward Famine and the Origins of Righteous Resistance in Da Fo Village, 118–56. 
  • Peng, Xizhe. “Demographic Consequences of the Great Leap Forward in China’s Provinces.” Population and Development Review 13, no. 4 (1987): 639-70. 

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