The Great Leap Forward

Elderly man dead of starvation. Keystone / Getty Images

The Great Leap Forward was a push by Mao Zedong to change China from a predominantly agrarian (farming) society to a modern, industrial society - in just five years. It's an impossible goal, of course, but Mao had the power to force the world's largest society to try. The results, needless to say, were catastrophic.

Between 1958 and 1960, millions of Chinese citizens were moved onto communes. Some were sent to farming cooperatives, while others worked in small manufacturing.

All work was shared on the communes; from childcare to cooking, daily tasks were collectivized. Children were taken from their parents and put into large childcare centers, to be tended to by workers assigned that task.

Mao hoped to increase China's agricultural output while also pulling workers from agriculture into the manufacturing sector. He relied, however, on nonsensical Soviet farming ideas, such as planting crops very close together so that the stems could support one another, and plowing up to six feet deep to encourage root growth. These farming strategies damaged countless acres of farmland and dropped crop yields, rather than producing more food with fewer farmers.

Mao also wanted to free China from the need to import steel and machinery. He encouraged people to set up back-yard steel furnaces, where citizens could turn scrap metal into usable steel. Families had to meet quotas fro steel production, so in desperation they often melted down useful items such as their own pots, pans and farm implements.

The results were predictably bad. Backyard smelters run by peasants with no metallurgy training produced such low-quality iron that it was completely worthless.

Over just a few years, the Great Leap Forward also caused massive environmental damage in China. The backyard steel production plan resulted in entire forests being chopped down and burned to fuel the smelters, which left the land open to erosion.

Dense cropping and deep ploughing stripped the farmland of nutrients and left the agricultural soil vulnerable to erosion, as well. 

The first autumn of the Great Leap Forward, in 1958,  came with a bumper crop in many areas, since the soil was not yet exhausted. However, so many farmers had been sent into steel production work that there weren't enough hands to harvest the crops. Food rotted in the fields.

Anxious commune leaders vastly exaggerated their harvests, hoping to curry favor with the Communist leadership. However, this plan backfired in a tragic fashion. As a result of the exaggerations, Party officials carried off most of the food to serve as the cities' share of the harvest, leaving the farmers with nothing to eat. People in the countryside began to starve.

The next year, the Yellow River flooded, killing 2 million people either by drowning or by starvation after crop failures. In 1960, a wide-spread drought added to the nation's misery.

In the end, through a combination of disastrous economic policy and adverse weather conditions, an estimated 20 to 48 million people died in China. Most of the victims starved to death in the countryside.  The official death toll from the Great Leap Forward is "only" 14 million, but the majority of scholars agree that this is a substantial underestimate.

The Great Leap Forward was supposed to be a 5-year plan, but it was called off after just three tragic years. The period between 1958 and 1960 is known as the "Three Bitter Years" in China. It had political repercussions for Mao Zedong, as well. As the originator of the disaster, he ended up being sidelined from power until 1967.