The Great Leap Forward
Deepening the Revolution
Painting of a commune during the Great Leap Forward period (1958-1962)
"Great Leap Forward" icon of an industrial worker holding up a steel ingot with a radio tower in the backround
Government officials "sent down" to work in the countryside
From a Hundred Flowers
to the Great Leap Forward

The Hundred Flowers campaign was not a simple plot by Mao to reveal the hidden rightists in his country, as some critics later charged and as he himself seemed to claim in the published versions of his speech “On ... Contradictions.” It was, rather, a muddled and inconclusive movement that grew out of conflicting attitudes within the CCP leadership and forced the intellectuals of China to take a public stance on matters of policy and the meaning of their own lives under the Communist party. At its center was an argument about the pace and type of development that was best for China, a debate about the nature of the First Five-Year Plan and the promise for further growth. From that debate and the political tensions that accompanied it sprang the Great Leap Forward. (SMC, 514)
Peasants engaged in rice farming on a higher-level cooperative in 1958
Despite the speed of compliance with the call for higher-level cooperatives, agricultural production figures for 1957 were disappointing. Grain production increased only 1 percent over the year, in the face of a 2 percent population rise. ... Mao’s emerging response to the disappointing agricultural production on the cooperative farms was a strategy of heightened production through moral incentives and mass mobilization under the direction of inspirational local party leaders. Mao’s vision, which drew on memories of methods used in Yan’an, was endorsed by Deng Xiaoping as party secretary-general, and by Liu Shaoqi, Mao’s probable successor. ... China’s economic woes would be solved by the spontaneous energizing of the whole nation. (SMC, 514-5)
Some of the thousands of workers employed on the Sanmenxia Dam of the Yellow River in July, 1958
In late 1957, the leaders of the CCP began to experiment with a new scale of social organization by mobilizing the peasants for gigantic new tasks in water control and irrigation, as if to prove that human will and strength could vanquish all natural and technical challenges.
The Three Gorges Dam, completed in 2006, on the Yangtze River
By the end of January 1958, 100 million peasants had allegedly opened up 7.8 million hectares of land through irrigation work. If China’s people could be galvanized in this way, surely they could transform agricultural production equally; it was a question of finding the right organizational forms and maintaining mass commitment. (SMC, 517)
The masses digging irrigation ditches
"Great Leap Forward" icon of an industrial worker holding up a steel ingot with a radio tower in the backround
Masses gathered around a line of tractors on a People's Commune
The term “people’s commune” (renmin gongshe) was not used in party journals until July 1958, but as early as April the trial abolition of private plots and the amalgamation of 27 Henan cooperatives into one immense commune of 9,369 households were carried out.
       By the summer of 1958, after a fine harvest had dramatically raised everyone’s hopes, the campaign to end private plots and to organize all of rural China into people’s communes began, with extraordinary apparent success. ... Evidently dazzled by claims that rural production under commune management had doubled, increased tenfold, or even “scores of times,” the Central Committee issued this ecstatic vision of the Great Leap process:
The people have taken to organizing themselves along military lines, working with militancy, and leading a collective life, and this has raised the political consciousness of the 500 million peasants still further. Community dining rooms, kindergartens, nurseries, sewing groups, barber shops, public baths, happy homes for the aged, agricultural middle schools, “red and expert” schools, are leading the peasants toward a happier collective life and further fostering ideas of collectivism among the peasant masses. ...
Members of a People's Commune putting on Mao buttons
In the present circumstances, the establishment of people’s communes ... is the fundamental policy to guide the peasants to accelerate socialist construction, complete the building of socialism ahead of time, and carry out the gradual transition to communism. (SMC, 518-9)
Chinese people with a massive red flag that reads "Long Live the General Line, Long Live the Great Leap Forward, Long Live the People's Communes
“Hold High the Red Flag of
People’s Communes and March On”

People’s Daily
, September 3, 1958

People's Daily Logo
People’s communes, which mark a new stage in the socialist movement in China’s rural areas, are now being set up and developed in many places at a rapid rate. ... The people’s commune is characterized by its bigger size and more socialist nature. ... People’s communes so far established usually have a membership of 10,000 people each, in some cases 10,000 households. ... Being big, they can do many things hitherto impossible to the agricultural producers’ co-operatives, such as building medium-sized water-conservancy works, setting up factories and mines requiring complicated technique, carrying out big projects of road and housing construction, establishing secondary schools and schools of higher learning, etc. ...
Family eating in an outdoor "People's Canteen"
The people’s commune represents a much higher degree of socialist development and collectivization than the agricultural producers’ co-operative. Its massive scale of production requires organization with a higher efficiency and great maneuverability of labour as well as the participation of all the women in production. Consequently more and more community canteens, nurseries, sewing groups and other kinds of establishments are being set up, and the last remnants of individual ownership of the means of production retained in the agricultural producers’ co-operatives are being eliminated. In many places, for instance, the reserved plots, livestock, orchards, and major items of production tools owned by individual peasants have been transferred to the people’s communes in the course of their organization. ...
Propoganda Poster for the Great Leap Forward (featuring enormous gourds)
During the current leap forward in agricultural production and rural work the mass of peasants have witnessed not only a several-fold increase in agricultural production but also the happy future of industrialization and urbanization of rural areas. As a result, the prestige of the Party has become more consolidated than ever among the peasants. The peasants have shown an unprecedentedly firm determination to achieve socialism at an earlier date and to prepare conditions for the gradual transition to communism. ...
The New Center of the Commune: Idealized view of a small town in the countryside, with new housing and all kinds of public facilities, such as the park in the foreground.
Some people’s communes may have gone farther than others, but generally speaking, the transformation of collective ownership into ownership by the whole people is a process that will take three or four years, even five or six years, to complete in the rural areas. Then, after a number of years, production will be greatly increased. ... Differences between workers and peasants, urban and rural areas, mental and manual labour — left over from the old society and inevitably existing in the socialist society — as well as the remnants of unequal bourgeois rights which are the reflection of these differences, will gradually vanish, the function of the state will be limited to protecting the country from external aggression; it will play no role in domestic affairs. By that time Chinese society will enter the era of communism, the era when the principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” will be realized. (DC, 418-22)
"Great Leap Forward" icon of an industrial worker holding up a steel ingot with a radio tower in the backround
"Brave the Wind and the Waves; Everything Has Remarkable Abilities": picture of various workers riding a wave and one soaring on a rocket
An Intoxicating Vision
A Disastrous Reality

The vision was altogether intoxicating, and seemed a complete vindication of Mao’s views on the possibility for sustained growth through the mobilization of mass will and energy, especially when freed of the constraining effects of overcautious planning and an entrenched bureaucracy. ...
Click for video of the "Four Pest Campaign"
It does not belittle the vision ... to say that it did not coincide with reality. The grain-production figures had been disastrously overinflated. The announced total for 1958 of 375 million tons of grain had to be revised downward to 250 million tons (Western economists later guessed that actual production was around 215 million tons). Not only had no cadres dared to report shortfalls of the procurement quotas they had been given out of fear of being labeled “rightists” or “defeatists,” but many of the best trained statisticians from state bureaus, having been removed in the 1957 antirightist campaign (along with the most able demographers), were no longer around to issue words of caution even had they dared.
Four kids standing on wheat
Furthermore, the diversion of resources into local backyard steel furnaces — 1 million had been scattered across the face of China — did not pay off, since the furnaces were not able to produce a high-standard product. (SMC, 519-20)
Backyard Furnaces during the Great Leap Forward period
Iron smelting and steel making in the Shaoyang Special Administrative Region, Hunan Province, are rapidly developing on a mass scale. In a short period in the autumn of 1958, 12,378 local blast furnaces were built in this area. ... Now this region has already produced 50,000 tons of iron. Not only is there a “bumper harvest” in many places but the Chinhua Iron Works in Shaotung County, “king” of local blast furnaces, has produced the remarkable record of almost three tons (5836 catties) a day. ...
Photo of the Backyard Furnaces at night
When they first began to work in iron and steel production, many people wanted to have big ‘foreign’ blast furnaces. They were not interested in these small native furnaces. They thought it necessary to wait for elaborate equipment. Actually that line of thinking would result in producing less, slower, more expensively, and not so well and it would not lead to production on a mass basis. Under the timely guidance of the Central Committee and the provincial committee of the Communist Party, that policy was firmly rejected and the policy of putting iron and steel production on a mass basis, of mobilizing all the party members, and letting politics take the lead was carried out. ... The people felt elated and stimulated; millions of hearts had only one wish — to fight hard to achieve and surpass the goal of producing 300,000 tons of iron in 1958. (DC, 415-7)
Picture of people taking metal junk to the furnaces followed by an image of the (useless) iron that was usually produced
"Great Leap Forward" icon of an industrial worker holding up a steel ingot with a radio tower in the backround

Image of starving peasants during the Great Famine
Poster for the film "To Live"
"Great Leap Forward" icon of an industrial worker holding up a steel ingot with a radio tower in the backround
Peng Dehuai with Mao Zedong
The Fallout
Despite the chaos caused by the Great Leap, there was only one attempt to censure Mao for the extremism of his plan. This criticism came from the army marshal Peng Dehuai ... [who] in a private letter he delivered to Mao at Lushan ... spelled out his worries over the misreporting of conditions in the countryside, and its potential effect on the nation.
       Instead of treating the letter as a private communication from a trusted colleague, Mao circulated it to all the senior cadres present, and launched a personal denunciation of Peng. ... The bitterness of Mao’s attack startled those at Lushan, and marked a key juncture in CCP history. Criticism of policy within senior party ranks had now been treated by Mao as an attack on his own leadership and foresight. Peng was removed from his post as minister of defense, and the other party leaders were cowed into accepting Mao’s interpretations of recent events.
(SMC, 521)
Cartoon showing a starving child with a sign that says "STARVING PLEASE HELP" with Mao saying "Famine in China? Capitalist lies!"
The victory over Peng Dehuai at Lushan gave Mao renewed confidence in his revolutionary vision, and a determination to reassert the primacy of the commune system, bureaucratic decentralization, and mass mobilization. The organizational form of the commune was now spread to many cities in an effort to encourage factory workers to reach new heights of production. ... As China’s investment in industry rose to an amazing 43.4 percent of national income in 1959, grain exports to the Soviet Union were also increased to pay for more heavy machinery. The average amount of grain available to each person in China’s countryside, which had been 205 kilos in 1957 and 201 kilos in 1958, dropped to a disastrous 183 kilos in 1959, and a catastrophic 156 kilos in 1960. In 1961 it fell again — to 154 kilos. The result was famine on a gigantic scale, a famine that claimed 20 million lives or more between 1959 and 1962. (SMC, 522-3)
Peng Dehuai being publically humiliated in 1966 during the Cultural Revolution
"Great Leap Forward" icon of an industrial worker holding up a steel ingot with a radio tower in the backround
Poster of Mao with Stalin with the Caption "The Sino-Soviet Alliance for Friendship and Mutual Assistance promotes enduring world peace
The planning and implementation of the Great Leap Forward, and the subsequent Communist party debates about the reasons for its failure, took place at the same time that relations between China and the Soviet Union entered a catastrophic decline. In important respects, indeed, these two events must be linked together. For the Great Leap — a desperate Maoist attempt to break through economic constrictions and to reassert the centrality of revolutionary social change — stood in contrast to the Soviet Union’s more cautious approach to economic development and mass mobilization. (SMC, 523)
Photo of Mao with Kruschev
Icon for Nuclear Energy[By the] summer of 1960 the Soviet Union declared its intention of removing all its 1,390 experts and advisers working in China, a threat that was carried out in September when they were all summoned home, taking their blueprints with them and leading, the Chinese claimed, to the cancellation of 343 major contracts and 257 other technical projects. Among the departing Soviet scientists were two nuclear-weapons experts who had consistently refused to give information on atomic-bomb construction to the Chinese, and were derided by the Chinese as “mute monks who would read but not speak.” As they left, the two men tore to shreds all the documents they could not take with them. Painstakingly reconstructing the shredded documents, the Chinese found in them crucial information on atomic implosion. (SMC, 528)