Mao’s Great Leap Forward Brings Chaos to China

The Great Leap Forward was Mao Zedong’s policy of forming communes to boost agriculture, to increase industrial production, and to make the “great leap” toward communism. However, natural disasters and mismanagement resulted in famine that killed more than thirty million people and to social dislocation.

Summary of Event

The People’s Republic of China’s First Five-Year Plan First Five-year Plan, Chinese[First Five year Plan]
China;First Five-year Plan[First Five year Plan] (1953-1957) was coming to a close by June, 1957. The Chinese representatives at the National People’s Congress were jubilant on hearing of an economic growth rate averaging 11 percent per year. China’s top leaders, Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Peng Dehuai, Liu Shaoqi, and Chen Yun, were worried, however, about a statistical imbalance: Industry had grown 18.7 percent, while agriculture had a growth rate of 3.8 percent. What was most disheartening to the leaders was that grain production had increased only 1 percent over the year while the population had grown 2 percent. The Chinese people already had to endure rationing in certain food items and other essentials. Now they would have to receive smaller rations because of low production in agriculture and the further need for China to repay the loans from the Soviet Union with agricultural products. [kw]Mao’s Great Leap Forward Brings Chaos to China (Beginning 1958)[Maos Great Leap Forward Brings Chaos to China]
[kw]Great Leap Forward Brings Chaos to China, Mao’s (Beginning 1958)
[kw]China, Mao’s Great Leap Forward Brings Chaos to (Beginning 1958)[China, Maos Great Leap Forward Brings Chaos to]
Great Leap Forward
China;Great Leap Forward
Economic policy;China
Agricultural policy;China
Great Leap Forward
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Economic policy;China
Agricultural policy;China
[g]Asia;Beginning 1958: Mao’s Great Leap Forward Brings Chaos to China[05740]
[g]China;Beginning 1958: Mao’s Great Leap Forward Brings Chaos to China[05740]
[c]Government and politics;Beginning 1958: Mao’s Great Leap Forward Brings Chaos to China[05740]
[c]Agriculture;Beginning 1958: Mao’s Great Leap Forward Brings Chaos to China[05740]
[c]Economics;Beginning 1958: Mao’s Great Leap Forward Brings Chaos to China[05740]
[c]Manufacturing and industry;Beginning 1958: Mao’s Great Leap Forward Brings Chaos to China[05740]
Mao Zedong
Peng Dehuai
Zhou Enlai
Chen Yun
Liu Shaoqi

For industry to sustain its growth rate and for agriculture to improve considerably during the Second Five-Year Plan, Second Five-year Plan[Second Five year Plan]
China;Second Five-year Plan[Second Five year Plan] more would have to be extracted from the Chinese population, which was 80 percent peasantry. According to Premier Zhou Enlai and the brilliant economist Chen Yun, this could be accomplished only by offering the peasants more material incentives, with the chance of being able to buy more consumer goods. Such incentives would have to be accompanied by availability of modern agricultural machinery and chemical fertilizers.

Mao disagreed with such a model because it would merely reflect the Soviet Union’s development plan. Ideologically, Mao had contempt for the Soviet model because he interpreted it as a step backward from socialism and lacking in revolutionary zeal. Mao’s program was based on reorganizing the social structure of the peasantry and cultivating its altruistic qualities. In short, the Chinese peasant could be exhorted to greater production by good leadership in an environment that encouraged selflessness. If Mao could achieve this, he could take the place of Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev as leader of the developing world.

From late 1957 to January, 1958, 100 million peasants were mobilized to tackle gigantic projects such as building irrigation canals and dams, resulting in 7.8 million hectares of land being opened up for agriculture. This enormous task of moving millions of peasants to work on gigantic projects disrupted the normal routine of farming. There was a shortage of peasants, made up by encouraging women to work in the fields as replacements while men worked away from home. To increase peasant productivity, certain industries were relocated in rural areas so that peasants could be gainfully employed during the slack periods of the farming cycle. This mass mobilization took women away from their historical role of domestic work, so attempts were made to centralize children and meal preparations. To expedite the process, 2 million urban party cadres were encouraged to visit the countryside to learn from the peasants and to lead them with the slogan, “More, faster, better, cheaper.” Propaganda;China

This frenzy of cheerleading and propaganda resulted in the establishment of the people’s communes in Henan Province by April. Private farms were abolished, and twenty-seven cooperatives with 9,369 households were absorbed into one large commune. By the summer of 1958, people’s communes had sprouted throughout China. Party leadership attributed the good harvest to the “Great Leap” in agricultural technique and political reforms. By December, 99 percent of the peasant population, or 120 million households, formed twenty-six thousand communes.

Morale was very high within the ranks of the Chinese Communist Party Communist Party, Chinese (CCP). Chairman Mao directed the creation of a new journal for the party, called the Red Flag, Red Flag (periodical) which provided the vehicle for espousing the socialist reconstruction that was taking place and the theoretical framework for the “great leap” toward communism.

Some striking features of the Great Leap Forward were the massive entry of women into the workforce, the twenty-million-person increase in the number of clerical and industrial workers, and the need for about three million mess halls to feed 90 percent of the rural population because women had been liberated from home kitchens. Mao’s Great Leap was a scheme to transform people socially, to make them selfless and able to overcome all obstacles through sheer will. Mao believed that with correct leadership and encouragement, the Chinese could be directed toward economic transformation by “walking on two legs” to achieve both industrial and agricultural development.

With the establishment of communes, rural labor could be mobilized to work on more gigantic projects, especially irrigation, flood control, and land reclamation. Agricultural productivity could also be raised by employing more hands to plant, weed, and harvest. Light industry could then be established locally to produce consumer goods with local material and equipment. This transformation and production would breed the altruistic person who would be both “red and expert”—the communist. “Redness” would be reflected in the belief in Mao’s leadership, and “expertise” would come from practical application rather than dependence on the knowledge of the bureaucrats and intellectuals, who were being persecuted in the Anti-Rightist Campaign Anti-rightist Campaign, Chinese (1957-1958)[Antirightist Campaign, Chinese] of 1957-1958.

To reinforce the Great Leap belief that the Chinese people could achieve miraculous productivity, Chinese, as opposed to outmoded Soviet, monumental showpieces were erected in Beijing around Tiananmen Square. The People’s Hall was built in ten months by shifts of workers from all over China. The building has an area of 1,853,568 square feet. The foyer is paved with red marble and can hold ten thousand people. The walls are of green marble and are illuminated by twelve chandeliers weighing one ton each. The auditorium has ten thousand seats, the banquet hall can seat five thousand, and the kitchen has the facilities to serve ten thousand diners. At roughly the same time, workers built a three-thousand-loom and 100,000-spindle textile factory. Workers also completed a railway station that could accommodate 200,000 passengers a day. The effect of all these gigantic projects was to give the impression that the Chinese people could accomplish anything if they were well led, well organized, and encouraged to practice altruism.

The commune system, which eliminated most private ownership except the house and a small plot for gardening, was supposed to provide an environment for ending private gain and an atmosphere for practicing altruism. It was meant eventually to produce in such great quantities the accomplishment of the communist dream of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Thus, free from all personal wants and greed, the communist would work only for the good of all. Mao had this deep faith in “selflessness” because his personal experiences were of giving for the betterment of China. He believed that he had wanted nothing of his country and that all Chinese could be like him when they were shown the way. He saw the people’s commune as the foundation of altruism and communism.

In an unprecedented campaign, Mao urged the people to produce iron everywhere. With a great surplus of iron, he thought, China could industrialize rapidly and even catch up with the United Kingdom in fifteen years. Backyard furnaces sprung up everywhere: in villages, in back streets, and in front of offices. Peasants, workers, officials, doctors, and other professionals found time to smelt iron day and night. Outrageous production quotas were set in a wild frenzy of competition. To meet them, kitchen utensils, iron beds, and even farm tools were smelted.


In a single year, 1958, more than one-half billion peasants were shorn of private property and organized into a new social organization, the commune. Communism;China
Economic systems;communism Men and women were formed into production teams and brigades, and with military precision were exhorted to work in huge farms, dam sites, factories, and backyard iron-making furnaces. Slogans, street opera, and the media were used to urge people to work around the clock and to increase production 300 percent or more. To keep up this frenzy of production, the government provided free food, child care, and even haircuts, as if to show the Soviet Union that China was leaping over it toward communism.

As slogans and songs blared, peasants were told to plow as deep as four feet and to plant three times more seedlings in the same area of land. When harvesting was completed, farmers were urged to join students, factory workers, teachers, and other professionals to produce iron and steel. Much of the iron and steel was of such low quality that it could not be used, yet pride kept production at a high level. Much of the farmland was also ruined by deep plowing and inappropriate irrigation. Delicate machines and engines were ruined by overheating because many factories ran nonstop. Because communes were in competition, many commune officials inflated production statistics. This encouraged the setting of higher production quotas by the government, which furthered the falsification of statistics. All such setbacks were compounded by three consecutive years of bad weather.

China produced only 150 million tons of grain in 1960. This equaled the grain production of 1952, but China had had 100 million fewer mouths to feed in 1952. Consequently, even as close as 50 miles outside the capital, Beijing, there were signs of famine. Famine;China
Hunger;Chinese famine The lack of food was remedied with harsh rationing. This would cause malnutrition and illnesses that eventually killed more than thirty million people, mostly peasants, between 1959 and 1961.

As the initial euphoria of the frenetic pace of production faded because of overwork, machine breakdowns, or impossible quotas, the Chinese became disillusioned and cynical. As hunger became a reality, the people reverted to what the CCP labeled as “rightist tendencies.” The cure was to identify the criminals—the misguided and the lazy—and apply appropriate punishment. Millions were “sent down” to the countryside and to distant provinces. The more unfortunate were purged from the CCP, driven to suicide, or executed for state crimes.

The CCP faced an internal struggle to seek the appropriate ideology for development. Mao’s model would be put aside temporarily until its resurgence in the Cultural Revolution that began in 1966. Great Leap Forward
China;Great Leap Forward
Economic policy;China
Agricultural policy;China

Further Reading

  • Chan, Alfred L. Mao’s Crusade: Politics and Policy Implementation in China’s Great Leap Forward. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Analyzes the politics of establishing the Great Leap program and its massive policy implications.
  • Hsiung, James C. Ideology and Practice: The Evolution of Chinese Communism. New York: Praeger, 1970. Covers the historical and ideological perspectives of Chinese communism. Chapters 9 and 10 provide perceptive analyses of ideology and practice, with emphasis on the Great Leap Forward and its aftermath.
  • Lawrance, Alan. China Since 1919: Revolution and Reform, a Sourcebook. New York: Routledge, 2004. A history of China from 1919—the year that saw major changes in political ideologies—to the first years of the twenty-first century. Includes chapters on the Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution.
  • _______. China Under Communism. New York: Routledge, 1998. A broad history of communism in China, with a chapter on the Great Leap Forward.
  • Li, Zhisui. The Private Life of Chairman Mao: The Memoirs of Mao’s Personal Physician. New York: Random House, 1994. Fascinating and revealing, this personal account provides new insight into Mao’s private life. Includes notes and chronology.
  • Portisch, Hugo. Red China Today. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1966. Chapter 11 covers the Great Leap and provides a good summary of the positive and negative effects of the social experiment.
  • Short, Philip. Mao: A Life. New York: Henry Holt, 1999. This voluminous, well-researched biography is an invaluable addition to studies of Mao’s life and career. Illustrated and indexed.
  • Spence, Jonathan D. The Search for Modern China. 2d ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999. Chapters 20-21 provide comprehensive accounts of the First Five-Year Plan and the Great Leap Forward. Also provides government budget statistics.
  • Weatherley, Robert. Politics in China Since 1949: Legitimizing Authoritarian Rule. New York: Routledge, 2006. A study of the history of authoritarian government in China, with chapters examining the Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution.

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