chairman mao's catastrophe -- 7/26/17

Today's selection -- from Mao Zedong and China by Rebecca E. Karl. In 1958, Chairman Mao Zedong made a promise that Chinese steel production would soon surpass that of Great Britain and America. It was known as "The Great Leap Forward," and the massive focus on steel had catastrophic consequences as it diverted labor and millions died of starvation:

"Mao's rash promise that China's steel production would surpass England's within fifteen years and overtake America's in thirty had led to some strange developments. At a trivial level, many children born in 1958 and 1959 were named 'Chaoying' ('Surpass England') or 'Chaomei' ('Overtake America'). When the Great Leap was repudiated many years later, a number of this demographic cohort felt compelled to change their now embarrassing names. At a much more serious level, backyard furnaces were encouraged so that each family and locality could contribute to the overall targets in steel production. This was a waste of time, labor, and resources. Scarce fuel was burned to keep the furnaces going; household implements were melted down for their trivial amounts of iron ore; and labor better used for the harvest of bumper crops was eaten up by these schemes. And, the steel ingots produced in these furnaces were useless.

Backyard furnaces in China during the

Great Leap Forward era.

"But for Mao, backyard furnaces showed mass enthusiasm, mass creativity, and mass participation in economic development. Rather than dampen this mass movement, Mao encouraged it. ...

"[A] central aspect of the 'Great Leap' was the total mobilization of all able-bodied people in agricultural and industrial production. This in­cluded women. ... Women's labor was particularly needed in the fields, as male labor was dedicated to the backyard furnaces and construction projects. ...

"And yet, the problem to which the feminist literary figure, Ding Ling, had pointed in 1942 ... and to which she had returned in 1957 during the 'hundred flowers' movement, was exacerbated. Women's dou­ble burden [of both working and child-bearing] became intolerably difficult to manage. With the invisibility of household reproductive labor in the productivity statistics, the fact that someone had to give birth to and take care of children, cook food, and clean the house, in addition to all the domestic maintenance women usu­ally performed, disappeared from view. Women were celebrated in their public role as 'iron women,' for their heroic contributions to production. Meanwhile, they were forced to silently struggle with household chores. ...

"Focused as he was on productivity, Mao addressed the problem of household reproductive labor by encouraging the formation of communal canteens, where everyone would eat together. This was supposed to free women from family cooking chores. These were formed during the Great Leap period, but never became popular among the peasants. The quality of the food and the cooking was bad; the distances people needed to travel to get to the canteens were sometimes formidable; and rather than increase efficiency, the canteens proved to add to women's burdens. ...

A 1958 propaganda poster urges Chinese to produce steel. It reads, "Take steel as the key link, leap forward in all fields."

"The combination of enthusiasms and irrational initiatives, along with Mao's increasing dismissal of criticism of himself, his policies, and theories, pro­duced a tragic situation in China by 1959. Provincial and local authorities, eager to be on the right side of history and of Mao, reported crazily inflated statistics intended to demonstrate the massive gains made in steel and grain production. Based upon these falsified numbers, it remained unclear for some time that crops were rotting in the field for lack of labor to harvest them. Women and children working sixteen-hour days were insufficient for what would have been the largest harvest in Chinese history. It was clear the steel produced in backyard furnaces was unusable in any form, and yet no one dared to call a halt to such projects. ...

"Peasants [in the countryside] soon ... began to die of starvation. Local leaders were too afraid to inform central authorities of the extent of distress. After all, they had reported bumper crops and endless abundance. Those few who tried to make the problems known were accused of 'bourgeois' thinking or 'rightism.' Most ducked their heads, hoping to survive physically and politically. ...

"The 1959-61 famine was enormous. In a contested retrospective num­bers game, reliable statistics are impossible to find. Most responsible de­mographic estimates put the number of dead at some fifteen to twenty million. The vast majority of those were peasants, with the old, young, and female particularly vulnerable. City dwellers did not witness the pileups of corpses in rural areas. Rural refugees were barred from entering the cities. There was a total internal news blackout on the topic. Famine refugees who managed to escape to Hong Kong alerted Western China-watchers to the situation. Yet, they could only report about their own localities and had no sense of the scale of disaster. Only in the 1980s, after the official relaxa­tion of some prohibitions on evaluating the Mao period, did the severity of the famine become known to the world and to the Chinese."



Rebecca E. Karl


Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World: A Concise History


Duke University Press Books


Copyright 2010 Duke University


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