Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward


By Richard Baum, Ph.D.University of California, Los Angeles

Mao’s Great Leap Forward was his efforts to dramatically accelerate China’s economic development. Distrustful of Nikita Khrushchev’s revisionism, Mao abandoned the Soviet model of socialist construction. And, in 1958, he struck out in a new and uncharted direction, hoping to leapfrog the Russians and beat them to the promised land of communism.

Chinese flags hanging from ropes.
The Great Leap Forward strived for social change by means of communal labor. (Image: Mirko Kuzmanovic/Shutterstock)

New and Improved Communist Model

For various reasons, the Soviet model had not proved to be a very good fit for China. For one thing, Soviet-style socialism spawned economic free riders. For another, it was ill-suited to China’s demographic and economic conditions. 

China had little advanced technology for industrial development; few world-class scientists and engineers; little virgin land to bring under cultivation; and a massive, unskilled rural population that was still using thousand-year-old farming techniques.

The Great Leap began not as a grandiose blueprint for human social engineering, but as a series of ad hoc responses to specific developmental problems. The programs of the Great Leap were often improvised and experimental, and some of them made reasonable sense, at least in theory.

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of ChinaWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Making Use of Entire Workforce

The first major innovation, introduced at the end of 1957, involved the mobilization of tens of millions of collective farmers during the slack winter season when the demand for field labor was sharply reduced. Instead of sitting around in their villages through the long Chinese winter, peasants could be put to work building large-scale water conservancy projects—dams, reservoirs, dykes, and canals.

The concept was rather simple and dated back to ancient imperial times: Large-scale water conservation projects meant higher, stable crop yields; and stable crop yields meant greater tax revenues for the state.

Abundance of Unskilled Labor

Since China was short on both investment capital and advanced technology, but long on raw, unskilled human labor, idle male laborers were conscripted from the villages to do the heavy work of building water management projects using whatever simple tools they had at hand—shovels,  picks, and hoes.

In some cases, as many as ten thousand peasants from up to a dozen or more villages were transported to a single work site. Since the distances involved often exceeded 10 or 15 miles, they were too great to be traveled on foot in a single day. So, temporary barracks were erected at the sites, where the laborers would remain for weeks, or even months at a time, returning home only infrequently.

Learn more about the deepening agricultural crisis during the Great Leap Forward.

Maintaining the Morale of the Workforce

To maintain discipline and morale among the workforce, a rudimentary military-style regimen was introduced: Workers rose at dawn to recorded bugle calls, ate their meals in communal canteens, and marched in step to the work sites, their tools over their shoulders like rifles.

Once there, they synchronized their labor to the sharp, regular rhythms of work chants. Participating laborers received no paid compensation for their work, though meals, housing, and transportation were provided free of charge.

Perhaps inevitably, this new, militarized form of large-scale, labor-intensive conservation work was compared to the Red Army’s conduct of people’s war during the Yan’an period. In fact, the entire enterprise was now portrayed  in the state media as a ‘people’s war against nature’. And this, in turn, set a militaristic tone for the entire Great Leap Forward to be followed.

Experts and Scientists Not Needed

One key feature of the water management campaign was the marked absence of expert scientific or technical input. Blueprints were done on the fly, often by inexperienced draftsmen; surveying was slipshod; material specifications were mere approximations, based on crude estimates of load-bearing capacities and structural requirements.

The fact that many of these huge projects later failed or collapsed because of design or construction flaws did not immediately dampen the regime’s enthusiasm for the triumph of the human spirit. In the can-do ethos of the Great Leap Forward, expert scientists, engineers, and technical intellectuals were denigrated as useless, impractical bookworms, while the politically mobilized ‘red’ peasants and cadres were given credit for achieving amazing feats of creativity and daring.

Learn more about the program for mass ideological indoctrination.

Women Joined the Workforce

Image of workers on a farm
As work was managed communally, many women were freed from household chores to work alongside men. (Image: mikeledray/Shutterstock)

With millions of male laborers living on construction sites, often for months at a time, the spring of 1958 saw a growing shortage of able-bodied farmworkers in the villages. As the busy spring planting season approached, women were mobilized to work in the fields. To conserve household labor, domestic chores were now collectivized. 

Instead of each woman cooking for her own family, a few women would prepare meals for everyone in the village. Childcare was also managed on a communal basis, with a few village grannies keeping watch over all the local children. Care for the elderly, sick, and disabled was similarly arranged on a large-scale basis.

The net effect of all this was the freeing up of large numbers of women from the demands of household domestic chores, enabling them to participate in farm labor while the men were away working on conservation projects. 

Chinese propagandists praised the new system for having liberated Chinese women from household drudgery. But if it was women’s liberation, it was a rather strange type of liberation, involving the swapping of one kind of drudgery for another.

Common Questions about Mao’s Great Leap Forward in China

Q: Why was the Soviet model of Communism not a good fit for China?

China did not have the industrial technologies that the Soviets did. It also lacked many world-class scientists, but what it did have was a large number of workers. This made Mao’s Great Leap Forward a somewhat reasonable plan in theory.

Q: What was the nature of Mao’s Great Leap Forward plan?

Mao’s Great Leap Forward wasn’t at first that much of a thought-out or thorough plan. At first, it was a series of on-the-spot innovations/improvisations, and as time went by, it became more sophisticated.

Q: How were scientists and engineers viewed during the Great Leap Forward?

Mao’s Great Leap Forward celebrated the human spirit’s war against nature. It was like a miracle that a group of people could achieve nearly impossible things through their own sheer will. Thus, scientists and engineers were viewed as bookworms who were useless in general.

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