Peng Dehuai: The Fearless Minister of National Defense


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

China’s Minister of National Defense, Peng Dehuai, played an important role in helping peasants suffering under the Great Leap Forward. The bubble of unreality that had enveloped China caused a number of senior party leaders to question the wisdom of the entire enterprise. As reports of peasant malnutrition began filtering up to Beijing, a few bold souls dared to speak out.

An image of an ancient town in Hunan province
Peng Dehuai revisited his home village in Hunan province to see how it was coping. (Image:

Peng Dehuai Took Stock of the Situation

Peng Dehuai was a war hero. He had been the commander-in-chief of Chinese forces in the Korean War. He was widely respected as an able, candid, and forthright leader who stood up for what he believed in. 

He had crossed swords with Mao on more than one occasion in the past, and he was not afraid to challenge the chairman. Hearing reports of severe rural hardship, Peng made an inspection tour of people’s communes in several provinces in the late fall and winter of 1958. He was dismayed to find that conditions on the ground did not resemble the idyllic portrait being painted in the party’s own media. 

Revisiting his native village in Hunan Province, Peng observed, first-hand, the deteriorating economic conditions. Peasants were being worked to the point of collapse. Cadres were beating people who failed to fulfill their grain quotas. Many women had stopped menstruating prematurely as a result of overwork and undernourishment.

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

Peng’s Message to Mao 

Mao Zedong's portrait
Mao asked people to eat less in the winter to stay alive. (Image: The People’s Republic of China Printing Office/Public domain)

Peng Dehuai then sent an urgent cable to Mao Zedong in Beijing, requesting that him to reduce grain quotas and predicting a massive famine if something was not done to ease the plight of the peasants.

After receiving Peng’s cable, Mao visited his own hometown of Shaoshan, also in Hunan Province—his first such home visit in more than three decades. Conditions there were bleak, but the peasants were so in awe of Mao—and so intimidated by their local cadres, who were eager to please the chairman—that they did little other than genuflect to the brilliance and authority of the chairman. 

When Mao asked if the communes were popular with the masses, they responded enthusiastically. Mao responded to this poignant revelation in a cavalier fashion, suggesting that people should be ‘more thrifty with [their] food’. They should eat less in the winter, he advised, and a bit more in the spring and fall.

Learn more about the Great Leap’s failure through faulty engineering and massive bureaucratic errors.

Confrontation between Mao and Peng Dehuai

Photo of building in Mt. Lushan National Park
Mao held a conference at Mt. Lushan resort in 1959. (Image: C.Lotongkum/Shutterstock)

Though Mao kept his irritation at Peng Dehuai locked within himself, his behavior in 1959 became increasingly erratic and bizarrely erotic as well. By the early summer of 1959, the stress had been building steadily, and a confrontation between Mao and his outspoken defense minister seemed increasingly likely.

The setting for their epic showdown was Mt. Lushan, a famously scenic mountain resort in Jiangxi Province, near a picturesque bend in the Yangzi River. There, for six weeks in July and early August of 1959, Mao presided over a working conference attended by 100 top party and state officials, including Peng Dehuai. 

Peng initially tried to beg off from attending the meeting on grounds of fatigue. But a personal phone call from Mao persuaded him to attend.

Learn more about Mao’s offensive against class struggle.

Mt. Lushan Conference

When the party’s leadership conference began at Lushan on July 2nd, Mao divided up the participants into six regional groups. Peng Dehuai was assigned to the northwest group. In the first few group meetings, Peng voiced his concerns over falsified grain statistics and bemoaned the fact that China was continuing to export grain to Russia despite the famine.

But his colleagues were uneasy, reluctant to join in his criticism, afraid to challenge Mao’s judgment and authority. Peng was growing alarmed. Surely his comrades knew that something was greatly amiss in the countryside. But none were willing to express their doubts on the record.

Now he changed his tack. Acutely aware that his base of support was dwindling to practically nothing, Peng decided to present his contrarian views directly to Mao. On July 14, he sent the chairman a five-page handwritten ‘letter of opinion’, detailing the findings from his recent provincial inspection tour.

Peng Dehuai’s Letter of Opinion to Mao

Deferring at the outset of his letter to Mao’s superior wisdom, Peng Dehuai took great pains to reassure the chairman that the Great Leap was a ‘great achievement’ and that it had brought ‘more gains than losses’. Choosing his words carefully, he skirted around the issue of malnutrition, never using the words ‘famine’ or ‘hunger’.

He noted that the ‘habit of exaggeration’ had spread throughout the country in the summer of 1958 and that ‘tremendous harm’ had been done when reports of ‘unbelievable miracles’ were published in the party press. People had become ‘dizzy with success’, he said, believing that ‘communism was [just] around the corner’.

Peng’s conclusion was that the wave of ‘leftist tendencies’ that had accompanied the implementation of the Great Leap had ’caused considerable damage to the socialist cause’. Although Peng Dehuai concluded his ‘letter of opinion’ with the obligatory acknowledgment of Mao’s brilliance in blazing a path filled with ‘great achievements’ en route to a ‘bright future’, there could be no denying the deeply critical message that he had conveyed to the chairman.

Common Questions about Peng Dehuai

Q: Who was Peng Dehuai?

Peng Dehuai was the Minister of National Defense and a war hero. He was able to fight for what he believed in and stand up to oppression.

Q: What did Peng Dehuai realize after the inspection tour of people’s communes?

After making a tour of several provinces, Peng Dehuai noticed deteriorating economic conditions. The peasants worked to death. Communist cadres beat people for not paying grain quotas, and most women were in terrible state due to poor nutrition and overwork.

Q: Why did Peng Dehuai write the letter of opinion to Mao?

Peng Dehuai was upset by the plight of the peasants and expected his colleagues to take action. Peng’s colleagues were also aware of the situation, but didn’t do anything out of fear of Mao. Therefore, Peng Dehuai decided to write a letter of opinion to Mao, expressing his criticism openly, but respectfully.

Keep Reading
The Birth of the Provisional Republic of China
How Imperial China Gave Way to Modern China
Collapse of the Manchus and Rise of Sun Yat-sen