The Great Leap Forward took place some 60 years ago in Chairman Mao’s communist China and led to the greatest famine in human history. Here, Stepan Hobza discusses why the Great Leap Forward took place and how Chairman Mao can be viewed today.

Chinese leader Chairman Mao Zedong.

Chinese leader Chairman Mao Zedong.

Had any Western tourist gone to China 60 years ago, they would certainly have been surprised. They could have wondered if a horrible mistake had taken place and they had actually arrived in England taking part in a Monty Python sketch.

At the beginning of 1958 hundreds of thousands of citizens of the People’s Republic of China flooded the streets with drums and trumpets in their hands. Yet they were not celebrating. Everyone’s eyes were fixed on the sky. Now and then, a shot was fired into a treetop… The sole purpose of this strange behaviour would seem surprising to us: the Chinese simply went out to kill sparrows. The poor birds had fallen into disgrace with the Communist Party of China since they “harmed the crops”, and were probably lucky enough not to be labelled as imperialistic agents. The sequel is emblematic of Mao’s Absurdistan. After annihilating two billion sparrows, an excessive reproduction of insects followed. These vermin now really set about harming the crops and in order to kill them off, China had to import millions of sparrows from the Soviet Union.

This escapade was by no means a one-off eccentricity, rather one of the many components of a wider motion called The Great Leap Forward. This glorious operation was supposed to mean, “three years of hard work”, after which “ten thousand years of happiness” would follow. In fact, what followed was the greatest famine in human history. While in the West “Chinese cuisine” was becoming popular, the actual people of China were happy to obtain a bowl of rice. In one of thousands of starving villages “a teenage orphan kill[ed] and [ate] her four-year-old brother“ and “the last remaining resident, a woman in her 60s, [went] insane. Others [were] tortured, beaten or buried alive for declaring realistic harvests.“

The official account of the Chinese government acknowledges 15 million victims. In the 1990s, when the topic was more thoroughly explored for the first time, historians assumed that the real number could very well be twice as big. However, while it may seem unbelievable, a new and very well researched book concerning the topic, Frank Dikötter‘s Mao’s Great Famine speaks about “at least 45 million“ dead people. By way of contrast, this number is almost twice as big as the toll of all military casualties in WWII. You may as well imagine that a whole modern-day Ukraine would perish in the course of four years - because that’s exactly what happened in China from 1958 to 1962.


The reasons for the tragedy

The question could not be more obvious: Why? As happens to be the rule concerning huge catastrophes, a combination of factors rather than a single one was to blame for the outcome. A major geopolitical shift of global scale stood at the beginning. After the death of Stalin a new set of Soviet leaders vied for power in the Kremlin. Though the biggest chances were attributed to Georgy Malenkov – in fact, not so feckless and compliant as depicted in Armando Ianucci’s recent farce film The Death of Stalin –, Nikita Khrushchev finally prevailed. Yet, unlike the Soviet apparatchiks, Mao didn’t trust him. When they met in 1957 he was absolutely sure that the First Secretary would sacrifice anyone in order to reconcile with the USA. China was alone. Characteristically, Mao didn’t recoil from this new and awe-inspiring prospect. He already felt like an ideological leader of the socialist bloc, anyway. What could he learn from those “grandsons of the Revolution” who held sway in Moscow? With a single Great Leap Forward China would jump over the Soviets and pair its spiritual supremacy with an economic one.  

In Chinese Communists’ minds the ultimate goal of the socialist world – Communism as such – was within arm’s reach. It would suffice to mobilize the masses. In order to achieve this, the Party established mammoth-like communes. Many fanaticized farmers were guided to believe that an economic paradise was descending upon the Earth. Before entering the communes, they killed off their cattle and held carnivorous orgies. Needless to say how dearly they would appreciate the meat later, when they would have not even rice or bread. After their last happy days they finally set out for a journey to giant dams, the Red Flag Canal or other – true or failed – masterpieces of water management. Their working conditions were naturally horrific. An even bigger problem, though, was that since they left, there was – what a wonder – no one to plough their fields. However, this fact didn’t stop provincial officials from reporting massive harvest increases to Beijing. Thus starving cities demanded even bigger supplies from the country which didn’t have enough to feed its peasants. The circle of death soon closed. Nothing could have described the situation better than the words in which Zhou Enlai (contrary to widespread habit to quote this as Mao’s motto) summed up the Chairman’s convictions: All under heaven is in chaos, the situation is excellent.


Mao in perspective

Few countries have ever changed as rapidly and profoundly as China has since 1960s. Although little has been revised in the official doctrine, the Trotskyist idea of permanent revolution seems ludicrous under the shades of hundreds of skyscrapers owned by trillions of dollars’ worth’ Chinese banks. Nevertheless, the white-collared communists keep addressing each other “comrade” and humming Pioneer songs. Chairman Mao is still considered a demigod-like hero and the myth surrounding his exploits is sacrosanct. Unfortunately, this lack of self-reflection is not a uniquely Chinese problem. With the People’s Republic possessing every thinkable potential to become a superpower, it is rather disturbing that the Great Famine of 1958-62, one of the biggest and most consequential crimes in human history, is still redubbed Three Years of Natural Disasters in Chinese vocabulary. Now, since Xi Jinping recently declared himself de facto dictator for life, the chances for change have grown even smaller, if not plummeted to zero.


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AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones
3. Mao_train_1961.jpg

We’re back with a new series of Cold War People, the series where we briefly look at the lives of the key people involved in the Cold War.

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Following our episode on JFK, we’re here with an episode on one of the most important people in the whole Cold War – Chairman Mao Zedong.

He was dominant for decades after taking power in Communist China. He was often more hard-line than Soviet leaders. His views caused rifts with the Soviets as well as the Americans in the Cold War. A truly unique character, his policies also caused havoc within China, and he had a long and winding life before he even took power.

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See you soon,

George Levrier-Jones



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In this book review, George Levrier-Jones tells us about the excellent China Hands by Peter Rand. The book tells the incredible stories of American journalists in China from the 1920s onwards.


I’m sure many of you have been watching the news about Ukraine lately. I’m sure many of you were watching the news during the Arab Spring. This got me thinking, as something that has always intrigued me is how journalists covering these events get to where they are in the world. Whether that be the reporter in Ukraine who accompanied troops as they confront each other. Or the reporter in Libya who tried to be close to the fighting in the rebel uprising against Colonel Gaddafi.

And when I say where, I don’t only mean physically. In theory anybody with the right press pass could get close to these areas. It is the mentality that also interests me. Is it bravery, stupidity, or the quest for adventure that leads to people to put themselves in often dangerous and unknown situations? Or just a desire to tell others what is happening in the world?

A dashing couple. Edgar Snow with his wife in China.  Source: Edgar Snow Collections, University of Missouri, Kansas City.

A dashing couple. Edgar Snow with his wife in China.

Source: Edgar Snow Collections, University of Missouri, Kansas City.

Well, whatever the case, such questions were raised in my mind once again while reading the book China Hands by Peter Rand. This book was published a number of years ago, but we heard about it recently as we were researching authors who had written about articles related to Chairman Mao Zedong, the Great Helmsman who led China for over 25 years from 1949. That led us to this book for several reasons, but key among them was the unique story of Edgar Snow. Snow went to China in the late 1920s and decided to settle there. He worked as a journalist and covered all manner of events during what was a very turbulent time in Chinese history. The Chinese Civil War was erupting as the Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek battled Communist forces in a long-running war. Violence also seemed to be forever close to the surface of society, even in cities.

But this book does not just tell the story of events in China. It also looks at the lives and the thinking of the people involved. And Snow had a very interesting personal life. He married Helen Foster in the early 1930s, somebody who was in many respects more ambitious, able and determined than he was. That would be a constant source of tension for the couple. Snow was later chosen by the communist hierarchy to meet Mao Zedong, the man who was of course to go on to dominate China. When Snow met him though, Mao was in a cave with his hardy soldiers, having been the victim of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces.

In some ways Snow was in the right place at the right time for this famous meeting, but it also helped that he was not strongly affiliated with communism or socialism. That meant that he had more credibility in the eyes of the many in America to whom his encounter with Mao would be told. A second factor that worked in his favor was that America was not gripped by anti-communist hysteria in the 1930s – that truly started after World War II.

But as I’ve just hinted at, a number of the Americans who went to China were closely associated with communism. There was Harold Isaacs, a man who supported the rebelling communists. Equally, there was Rayna Prohme. She went to China in the 1920s, as somebody already affiliated with the communists. Prohme had a certain joie de vivre, and was noticeable wherever she went as she was tall and had striking red hair. While in China, she edited a newspaper, but perhaps more importantly, became closely involved in political machinations. She was involved with shadowy Soviet agent Mikhail Borodin, a man who was under orders to support the Nationalists more than the Communists on occasions. And amid all the chaos in China, Prohme was to make one very important trip to the heart of the communist empire, Moscow. This book recounts that tale in detail – from the luxury to the back-stabbing.

And aside from those mentioned above, there are a number of other stories and lives considered in this book.



In summary, this book shines a light on several areas. It provides an intriguing view of a China in chaos from the 1920s onwards. It really gives you a feel for the turbulence and fear that people had to live through. It also gives us an insight into the wider communist world. The links between Joseph Stalin’s USSR, the Chinese Communists, and the Chinese Nationalists are highlighted – and Stalin’s communists did not always support the side you may think. In addition, the book tells us of the dilemmas, complications and joys that people had to live through in unfamiliar surroundings far from home. As you can imagine, some people reacted well, others less well, in situations that you could simply not make up.

The book was years in the making and it is evident that it was a real labor of love. Above all though, Rand’s excellent writing shines through. He has the rare and great ability to make a story, even a non-fiction story, really come to life.

But at the book’s heart are the tales of adventurers, mavericks, rogues. Call them what you will. People who decided to throw off the shackles of the ordinary and report the news from an extraordinary country at an extraordinary time. Just like some people still yearn to do today.

By George Levrier-Jones


If you would like to find out more about China Hands by Peter Rand, you can click here: Amazon US | Amazon UK


Finally, you can read an article by Peter Rand in the latest issue of History is Now magazine, available here for iPad and iPhone. The magazine will be available on Android imminently.


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Chinese ruler Chairman Mao Zedong was one of the most important leaders of the 20th century. He was one of two communists titan who defined the age. But there is one unknown aspect of his life – he had a lifelong friendship with somebody who was born in the USA, China’s capitalist enemy.

The new issue of History is Now magazine is out now. And our main article tells the story of this lifelong friendship that would go on to influence the Cold War.

To find out more, take up a free trial of the magazine for up to 2 months and download your free copy of our interactive digital magazine for the iPad and iPhone today!

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Plus, the new issue is available in a text version – perfect for smaller devices.

And coming very soon – History is Now Magazine for Android.


And here is what our editor has to say about the new issue…

This month’s issue starts with a fascinating article on Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s American friend, Edgar Snow. Snow was a young American journalist living in China in the 1930s when he was selected to meet Mao and his rebel forces. This extraordinary article goes on to chart their relationship not only during the time when Mao was a revolutionary seeking power, but also when Mao assumed power in all of China. Our second article is another piece of fascinating writing. It charts the story of Lionel Wigram, a man who developed revolutionary military training in the British Army and went on to lead a very unique Anglo-Italian fighting force in World War II. And then we’re back to the Cold War in the article after that. In it, we consider the case of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov. Markov became an exile from his Communist homeland and dared to continue to criticize Bulgaria’s leader when he was in the West. Despite Markov being based in London, there were a number of attempts on his life

Next up is an article on an idyllic English village that was evacuated during World War II. However, the village was evacuated for reasons that you may not expect. Rather than German airplanes driving people from their homes, it was the British Army. Following that, we continue our look at the Bay of Pigs Invasion. The invasion by a group of Cuban rebels based in the US sought to topple Communist Fidel Castro from his position as leader of Cuba. In this article, we look at how the battle progressed and how the rebels fought off repeated waves of attacks from Communist forces before the assault ended.

Finally, as we all know, 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, and with that in mind, we will have a number of World War I articles this year. First up is an interactive essay on a largely unknown aspect of the Eastern Front. The Battle of Lake Naroch was a major battle with disastrous consequences for one of the sides involved. By the way, an ‘interactive essay’ features text accompanied by many images as well as videos.

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With all that and more, come and join us inside for a free trial of up to 2 months…

Just click here for more information! Alternatively search for History is Now on the iOS app store.

George Levrier-Jones


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This article was previewed on the site for a time and the full article is now in the magazine. Click here for more information!


Meanwhile, you can see another of our articles on Cold War Taiwan here: 

Cold War Taiwan’s Electronic Industry



And here is the start of the article on the Taiwan Straits Crisis itself...


Sixty years have come and gone, but the sun has yet to set on the Taiwan Straits Crisis. Stranded on the rocky island of secrecy amid the storms of the Cold War (1947-1991), the mists of time should not be permitted to veil the lessons that must be learned.  In the U.S. during the early 1950s, Eisenhower was in office, China was engaged in a civil war, the Soviets were antsy, and the Air Force longed to hear the words ‘the pickle is hot’, indicating they were free to unload armaments. The only thing missing from the high-tension plot was a bevy of brilliant beauties unless, of course, you consider Madam Chiang Kai-shek and Hedy Lamar.


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A Skyray plane in flight off Taiwan in 1958

A Skyray plane in flight off Taiwan in 1958