Today’s topics include famine, coffin heists, and pig iron. They also include economic development, policy, and the growth of the steel industry. Now, for the 0.01% of you who did not immediately click off of this blog out of boredom, get ready to learn about the destructive effects of backyard furnaces in China!
China’s economy has developed at a snail’s pace for most of their history. But under Mao Zedong, China and its economy started growing. Since the late 1970s, China’s economy has been growing with an average annual growth rate of around 10%. They have been doing this with a series of Five-Year Plans. The second of these plans, so called “The Great Leap Forward”, took place from 1958-1962. The purpose of this plan was to help China in both agricultural and industrial innovation (especially steel and iron production), with the ultimate goal of overtaking Great Britain and the United States in industrial production. Spoiler alert: it didn’t work. There was economic stagnation, food shortages that led to the death of millions, and the production of useless steel. The policy that implemented “backyard furnaces” was a main contributor to this.
In March of 1959, Mao Zedong “proposed the establishment of rural industries by communes as a strategy to promote agricultural mechanization, rural electrification, and national industrialization”(Zhihong Zhang, pg 4). This means he wanted people to get in large groups to live and work together. Communes are groups of people that live together and share belongings and responsibilities. This meant abolishing private belongings and plots of land. Many commune enterprises were created during 1958-1959, including the backyard steel and iron furnaces communes. In less than a year, there were around 600,000 commune-run iron and steel establishments.
In these iron and steel communes, the idea was that people would use furnaces to produce steel. Gathering fuel to stoke all these furnaces resulted in the loss of at least 10% of China’s forests. When wood became scarce, peasants resorted to burning their doors and furniture. They would even raid cemeteries for coffins. Rather than mining the ore for smelting or melting down scrap metal, everyone contributed iron implements (sometimes they were forced to by commune leaders). The iron implements included utensils, woks, doorknobs, shovels, window frames, and other everyday items. Children scoured the ground for iron nails and other scraps. Farmers had no technical expertise in smelting steel, so the campaign converted practical items into useless lumps of “pig iron”, good only for clogging railroad yards. The mixture of metals and impurities of the fuel was the cause of this. The steel produced was too weak and brittle, so buildings that were constructed with it did not last long. The furnaces also contributed to pollution. A lot of the steel was disposed of, but officials continued to encourage its production.
There was a huge discrepancy between the government’s demands and people’s ability to deliver. Mao projected that by the end of the Great Leap Forward in 1962, China would be the world’s leading steel manufacturer with 100 million tons. This would mean they would out produce even the US (Brown, pg. 3). Their actual output was 2.4 million tons of iron and over half a million tons of steel (Zhang, pg 4). So, Mao’s original goal of producing 100 million tons of steel within five years was impossible. These high goals made officials inflate the output numbers in their reports, lest they anger the government.
In the end, there was a surplus supply of a useless product. It wasted a massive amount of resources, about the useless output and the energy required to fuel the furnaces. In putting effort into these steel furnaces, these people did not put their effort into agriculture, which was more important. The only iron people need to stay alive is in their diets. Since there was less put into agriculture, it contributed to the Great Famine, which led to high mortality rates. Fertility also dropped 45% from where it was before the Great Leap Forward.
The original intentions and effects of this policy were not actually harmful. It united people by creating senses of ideological optimism and patriotic enthusiasm. The intention was to exceed Great Britain in steel production, and to catch up with the West. Economic advancement in itself is not a bad thing. With where China was at that point, steel production was a good thing to put effort into. This policy also helped to put women in the workforce. Women had few opportunities and rights in the past. But with the goals of the new government, China needed more manpower. Within the communes, there was a designated chef to feed everyone. Infants were put into communal nurseries. So, women were able to work alongside the men, and they didn’t have to continue with the work that came with their traditional roles as housewives. Also, the communes guaranteed each individual a certain income, no matter what their labor contribution was. The goal was to maximize production, free up laborers, and impose greater equality, and in the end, if high officials didn’t have such high hopes for backyard furnaces and the common people, these things would not have happened.
Zhihong, Z. (1999). Rural Industrialization in China: From Backyard Furnaces to Township and Village Enterprises. Springer, East Asia, 61–87. Retrieved from https://link-springer-com.aurarialibrary.idm.oclc.org/content/pdf/10.1007/s12140-999-0023-y.pdf
Xizhe , P. (1987). Demographic Consequences of the Great Leap Forward in China’s Provinces. Population and Development Review, Vol. 13(No. 4), 639–670. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1973026
Gamer, R. E., & Toops, S. W. (Eds.). (2017). Understanding Contemporary China: Fifth Edition. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc.
Brown, C. D. (2012). China’s Great Leap Forward. US, Asia, and the World: 1914-2012, Vol. 17(Number 3), 29–34.