The Origins of the Great Leap Forward: The Case of One Chinese Province

The Origins of the Great Leap Forward: The Case of One Chinese Province

The Origins of the Great Leap Forward: The Case of One Chinese Province

The Origins of the Great Leap Forward: The Case of One Chinese Province

Synopsis

The first major study of the Great Leap Forward, this seminal work suggests compelling political and social answers to questions about the movement that have long plagued scholars. The author focuses on the central province of Henan.

Excerpt

Mark Selden

Jean-Luc Domenach's Grand Bond en Avant was the first major study of the Great Leap Forward and its origins in any language. It remains the most probing work on the period, a seminal yet barely studied moment that set the course of mobilizational collectivism that characterized the late Mao years. Domenach suggests controversial political and social answers to a series of troubling dilemmas for students of China and of socialism: How was it possible for China's ruling party, which had come to power in the course of several decades of successful rural mobilization, to launch a movement so divorced from social reality.? Above all, how are we to understand the decision to press the movement to the point of chaos and economic collapse, giving rise to arguably the greatest famine in human history and causing, depending on whose statistics one finds persuasive, 15 to 30 million or more deaths, nearly all of them in the countryside?

In this book, in contrast to other studies that focus on national politics, Domenach provides a closeup of a single critical province, Henan, the national model of the Leap, and subsequently, the leader in famine deaths. Through the close study of documentary sources, particularly provincial and local newspapers, he illuminates the dynamics of a political process that would eventually press beyond reason of humanity. Under the frenzied conditions of the Leap, what counted most in the calculus of national and provincial politics was not the fate of marginalized peasants and other working people, but overcoming political rivals and winning the support of patrons, ultimately of Mao Zedong.

In illuminating the rewards as well as the risks for models, whether local, regional, or national units or individuals, the work clarifies a distinctive feature of Chinese politics, the binary opposition between those who benefit from the favors that the state bestows and those left to survive by their wits and through such protective networks as they can create. The emergence of this relatively poor North China plains province as the national model brought Henan important symbolic and material rewards ranging from Mao's praise to featured status in the national press to the hidden economic benefits that invariably flowed to models.

Ironically, however, the very processes that gave rise to mobilizational models . . .

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