Donald B. Wagner, Background to the Great Leap Forward in Iron and Steel

Click on any image to see it enlarged.

‘The Great Leap Forward in Iron and Steel’, 1958–60

On the campaign and the period see especially Roderick MacFarquhar, The origins of the Cultural Revolution, vol. 2: The Great Leap Forward, Oxford 1983; Michael Schoenhals, Saltationalist socialism: Mao Zedong and the Great Leap Forward 1958, Stockholm 1987; —, ‘Yang Xianzhen’s Critique of the Great Leap Forward’, Modern Asian studies, 1992, 26.3: 591–608; S. A. Nikolayev & L. I. Molodtsova, ‘The present state of the Chinese iron and steel industry’, Soviet geography: Review and translation, 1960, 1.8: 55–71; R. Sewell, ‘A guide to the Chinese steel industry’, The British steelmaker, July 1960, 259–263; Robert R. Bowie & John K. Fairbank, Communist China 1955–1959: Policy documents with analysis, Cambridge, Mass., 1962; Harold C. Hinton, The People’s Republic of China, 1949–1979, a documentary survey, vol. 2: 1957–1965: The Great Leap Forward and its aftermath, Wilmington, Del. 1980.

With the Communist assumption of power in 1949 came peace after more than a decade of war and destruction. In its first years the government was fully taken up with acute problems: the rebuilding of agriculture and the most basic infrastructure. Meanwhile the first steps were being taken, with the help of the Soviet Union, toward the establishment of modern industry – coal mines, steelworks, oil refineries, and much more.

‘Gridlock’ problems gradually became apparent. Development of China’s infrastructure (railroads, highways, harbours, the electric power grid, etc.) required steel in immense quantities, but production of steel in the large-scale modern plants recommended by Soviet advisers required a well-developed infrastructure. Resources for investment in industry could only come from agriculture, and in the Soviet Union under Stalin the peasants’ surplus had been confiscated using hard methods. But the Chinese peasants had very little surplus, and furthermore Mao Zedong and most of his associates came from peasant roots; they felt nothing like the hate and contempt for the peasantry that had driven Stalin. Around this time the political tension between China and the Soviet Union began to show itself.

In 1956 a campaign was launched which later has been called the ‘Small Leap Forward’. The formation of agricultural cooperatives was encouraged. Modern large-scale industrial production was to be supplemented by production for local consumption in smaller plants. Local small-scale industry would require less construction time, take advantage of small occurrences of raw materials, and reduce the pressure on China’s underdeveloped transport infrastructure. The formation of cooperatives was expected to increase agricultural production, and presumably also make it easier to tax.

In response to this challenge the Planning Unit for Ferrous Metallurgy under the Ministry of Metallurgical Industry designed and built several ironworks with blast furnaces of modern design but small size, typically 50–80 cubic metres. This is dimunitive compared to modern blast furnaces of 1500–3000 cubic metres, but large compared with the traditional blast furnaces – they were seldom over 10 cubic metres, and for example in Dabieshan they were around 0.4 cubic metres.

An engineering conference on the new small ironworks was called in June 1957, and according to the final report the participants were largely positive. Among the conclusions was the following, on the choice of scale:

Yejin bao, 1957.22: 18.

In the planning of a small blast furnace for a locality, the scale of production should be set to satisfy local needs; it should definitely not be nationally oriented. Especially where the conditions for transport of raw materials are not adequate, the scale should not be too large. Many comrades proposed in their contributions that the appropriate size for a small blast furnace should be 30–50 cubic metres. According to Comrade Tang Fumin, ‘preliminary analyses and economic comparisons suggest that a planned blast furnace of 80 cubic metres in a typical production unit will require an investment of 25,000 yuan, including the blast furnace itself and installation of water, electric power, transportation, and facilities for workers. A blast furnace of 50 cubic metres, on the other hand, requires only 18,000 yuan, and a blast furnace like those in Sichuan and Hunan, of less than 30 cubic metres, requires about 13,000 yuan.

Lille høhovn
Small modern ironworks in Jiaozuo, Henan, 1959. The blast furnace is at the far left. (China reconstructs, December 1959, p. 26).
Lille højovn
Small modern blast furnace, with a production capacity of 5 tons per day, 1958. (Peking review, 12 August 1958, p. 4).

An industrial worker’s salary in this period was on the order of 50 yuan per month, so these investments were not at all small. The production units seem to have been plants with 20–30 workers, producing for a relatively large local market. The largest of the traditional blast furnace types, for example those in Sichuan and Hunan, could be used, but the emphasis was on larger and more modern plants. This was the strategy of the central government in early 1957, and even at a distance of 50 years it seems to have been appropriate for the conditions of the time.

In the provinces, however, there was still interest in very small blast furnaces like the ones used in Dabieshan and Fujian. In isolated regions this technology had never been forgotten, and it had begun to thrive again after 1949. Obtaining iron and steel from outside for local reconstruction required money and political influence, both of which were in short supply in the poorest regions. A continuation of the local iron industry was perfectly natural. In the last months of 1958 a large number of brochures with technical descriptions of the construction and operation of very small blast furnaces were published by various provincial governments, and these must have been under preparation from some time in 1957. My description of the technology in Dabieshan is partly based on one of these. The brochure states that an ironworks which uses the technology it describes requires an investment of ‘only’ several ten-thousands of yuan. Obviously this refers to an industrial plant with numerous workers. At this time no one was suggesting that the peasants should go out and make iron in their backyards.

Some very large problems were ignored here. Most of the smallest blast furnaces were fuelled with charcoal, and increasing their production would necessarily lead to environmental destruction. And those which used mineral coal most often produced cast iron with a high sulphur content; this could be used in foundries, but it could not be converted to useable wrought iron or steel.

Politics now took an unfortunate turn. The happy days that followed the revolution of 1949 gradually receded, and criticism of the Communist Party by intellectuals became strident. In 1957 the party responded with the ‘Anti-Rightist Campaign’, which in large part was a campaign against experts. Engineers and economists who warned against predictable consequences of some of the party’s dispositions were demoted or fired; the last bastions against ignorance or even stupidity fell. Enthusiasm took command.

Peking Review, 4 March, p. 8; 8 July, p. 8; 29 July, p. 12; 2 September, pp. 4, 6–7; 16 September, pp. 21–23; 30 September, pp. 13–15; 14 October, pp. 15–16; 21 October, pp. 3–4; 11 November, pp. 14–16; 18 November, p. 3; 30 December, pp. 6–9.

Freed from the warnings of experts, the government’s ambitions rocketed, as can be seen in the official magazine Peking review for the year 1958. The national economic plan for 1958 included the construction of 14 small and medium-sized ‘metallurgical projects’, to be administered by local authorities. In April the Great Leap Forward was announced: collectivization (the formation of communes rather than cooperatives) was to be encouraged, and 13,000 small steelworks were to be established, mostly to be administered by the new people’s communes. These were to have a capacity of 20,000,000 tons, i.e. an average of about 1,500 tons per year, so what was meant seems to be small modern plants plus perhaps the largest of the traditional works. The photographs directly below probably show furnaces built at this time.

Chengdu furnace 1959Chengdu furnace 1959
A blast furnace at Chuan Zhumiao in Qionglai County, Sichuan. According to local residents this was one of six blast furnaces built at the time of the Great Leap Forward, 1958. On the right is the inside of the furnace, photographed from the bottom of the shaft. Its condition indicates that the furnace was probably never used.

By the end of July 50,000 small steelworks were said to have been built, in August 240,000, and in the middle of September 350,000. Most of these no doubt used very small traditional blast furnaces like those of Dabieshan and Fujian. How many actually produced anything significant is not clear.

Model people’s commune, propaganda poster from the Great Leap Forward, 1958. At the top right are three blast furnaces. To the left of these, a fertilizer factory and a cement factory. Centre right, a research field, including scientist (with magnifying glass), lecturer, and a busfull of interested persons from other communes. Top left, fields of grain and cotton. Left centre, granaries. Further forward, hospital and collective dining hall. Bottom left, retirement home. (International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam,

A directive of 29 August announced the forced collectivization of all agriculture. The poster on the left shows the ideal, including a collective dining hall and three blast furnaces. Each of these is labelled ‘blast furnace’, and they are more or less correct renditions of one of the traditional blast furnace types (see the photograph below), but there is no blast apparatus and no arrangement for charging, and the workers seem to be taken from a photograph of a modern Siemens-Martin open-hearth steelmaking furnace.
Blast furnace in Wushan, Gansu, 1958. (Photo Rewi Alley; archives of the Needham Research Institute, Cambridge).

Blast furnace in Jinzhai county, Anhui, photographed 1958. (All China makes iron and steel, Peking 1959).

In September 1958 Mao Zedong visited a small traditional steelworks in Anhui and was greatly impressed. This was no doubt a plant of the Dabieshan type, as shown here on the right. The blast furnace looks simple, like something anyone could build and operate, and in a newspaper interview he called for a mass campaign for steel production. Ambition now reached new heights: everyone – everyone – should go out and produce iron and steel.

The propaganda magazines of the time were very enthusiastic about the mass campaign, but the photographs which accompanied the glowing reports tell a different story. Anyone who was convinced by the two photographs below must truly have been a true believer.

Soong Ching Ling (Song Qingling), widow of Sun Yat-sen and vice-chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, produces iron in her back yard, 1958. (China reconstructs, January 1959, p. 3).

Blast furnaces built by the masses, 1958. (China reconstructs, January 1959, p. 6).

The underlying problem was that the small traditional blast furnaces were not in fact at all simple. Efficient operation required a feeling for sounds, smells, and colours which could only be acquired through a long apprenticeship. Experience in blast furnace operation was available only in places where production had never stopped, and these were in the poorest and most isolated regions of China. We know very little about what went on here, for these regions were avoided by both journalists and politicians. 

Rewi Alley, China’s hinterland – in the Leap Forward, Peking: New World Press, 1961.

The exception was the New Zealand journalist Rewi Alley, a true poverty-romantic who loved the hardships and dangers of travel in the poorest parts of China. He seems to be the only journalist – Chinese or foreign – who saw traditional ironworks actually in operation during the Great Leap Forward. He remarked proudly that it was the poorest peasants who made the best steel, and he no doubt believed that there were moral reasons for this, but economic factors surely played an important role as well. The poorest peasants were the most isolated, and therefore those who had never stopped producing iron by traditional methods – their comparative advantage lay in iron production.

The problems can be seen fairly clearly in an otherwise optimistic report at the beginning of December:

Peking review, 2 December 1958, p. 7.

The relationship between popularization and elevation – two aspects of the mass movement – is well illustrated by the nationwide drive to produce iron by native methods. At the start, when the masses had not yet mastered the necessary technical knowledge and the resources of iron ore were not known in detail,the accent was on technique and the quantity of output. That was the period of popularization.  Now, more than two months later, a huge number of workers are familiar with the preliminary smelting technique, the distribution of iron resources are better known and the output has attained considerable proportions. The time has ripened for elevation. The small and native-style furnaces will, therefore, be gradually led to form integrated iron and steel centres using both native and foreign production methods. When this is accomplished throughout the country, the movement will be elevated to a higher stage.

It can be seen between the lines that the mass campaign had been no sort of success. Now it was necessary to drop the campaign while preserving appearances: the mass campaign’s only purpose had been to ‘popularize’ iron production, not actually produce anything.

Peking review, 30 December 1958, pp. 6–8.

A report at the end of the year from the State Economic Commission tells more. Among the tasks for 1959 are the consolidation of the small iron- and steel-production units, and ‘manpower should be rationally arranged and used’. The steelworks should integrate traditional and modern methods, as has been done in Shangcheng and Macheng Counties (both in the Dabieshan region). Transport must be improved, so that the plants can obtain the necessary raw materials and the pig iron produced can be delivered on schedule to the larger steelworks.

Four furnace types

In virtually everything that has been written about the Great Leap in recent years, both academics and journalists have hopelessly confused four different technologies:

  • The small modern steelworks designed and promoted by the Ministry of Metallurgical Industry. They were – and are still – a valuable supplement to the large-scale plants which were built with Soviet help. But the decision in April 1958 to build an enormous number – 13,000 – of such works was undoubtedly a grave error, and it is uncertain how many of these were actually finished, or produced anything much.
  • The largest of the traditional blast furnaces. In regions where the technology was well known, such as Sichuan and Hunan, they contributed to production both by supplying local needs and by delivering pig iron to the larger steelworks.
  • The very small traditional blast furnaces which were documented and promoted by various provincial governments in east China. These could no doubt supply local needs, and some seem also to have delivered pig iron to the modern plants, but with a danger of widespread forest destruction. Their operation was probably best in poor and isolated regions, and transport from these to markets or other works must have been difficult. We hear of large quantities of ‘useless’ iron produced in these furnaces which many years later lay rusting; in all probability it lay unused more because of transport difficulties than of inferior quality.
  • ‘Furnaces of the masses’ – the millions of small blast furnaces which Mao Zedong on 29 September 1958 urged the peasants to build. The campaign was a massive failure, but it lasted only a couple of months.
Yejin bao, 1958.52: 33–35 + 30.

A technical article published in December 1958 surveys production costs in a sample of 104 small ironworks in 12 provinces and municipalities. The average cost of one ton of pig iron was 250 yuan, with considerable variation, from 108 yuan at one works in Shanxi to 852 yuan at one in Liaoning. The article goes on to explain the discrepancy under four heads: (1) regularity of blast furnace operation: (2) political leadership, mobilization of the masses, and technical advance (i.e. efficient use of labour and fuel); (3) transportation costs; and (4) management costs. It is concerned only with serious ironworks which used traditional technology; the ‘furnaces of the masses’ are never even mentioned. The survey found that ‘management costs’, which in other contexts might have been called the profits of the owner, varied between 5.3 and 30.2 percent of total cost.

Unfortunately, historians who have dealt with this period seem virtually all to believe that the ‘furnaces of the masses’ were the only type of furnace involved in the Great Leap. Serious consideration of the technology would without doubt lead to a better understanding of the politics and economics of the time.

An example: Fenghuangwo

An article in the propaganda magazine China reconstructs for December 1959 reports on a small steelworks in the people’s commune Fenghuangwo in Macheng County, Hubei (in Dabieshan). The peasants of the commune, responding to the appeal in April 1958 for a great leap forward, had built several hundred blast furnaces of a traditional type which was well known here. These produced 700 tons of pig iron and 100 tons of steel (undoubtedly the low-carbon steel which is generally called wrought iron). By the end of the year, as has been noted above, it became clear that there were problems with the small traditional ironworks, and the government recommended that larger and more modern works should be built on the basis of experience with the traditional ones. The small modern steelworks at Fenghuangwo went into operation in November 1958, still producing pig iron in small traditional blast furnaces of 0.4 cubic metres, but with more modern Bessemer converters and rolling mills to process it. This was probably an excellent arrangement, at least in the short run, but the use of charcoal in the blast furnaces would either have limited production or threatened environmental destruction. Toward the end of 1959 most of the traditional blast furnaces had been replaced by very small modern blast furnaces of 3 cubic metres, presumably coke-fuelled. The reason for the use of modern blast furnaces of such small size was perhaps that the ore was ironsand, which can be difficult to use in larger furnaces – though it is also quite possible that this ‘3’ is a typographical error for (for example) ‘30’.

The article presents the Fenghuangwo steelworks as a great success. One would hardly expect any other evaluation in this context, but it seems reasonable to believe in the success. Dabieshan had always been a region whose comparative advantage lay in iron production, and the technical details in the report are clear enough to allow the presumption that the works produced quite good steel for local consumption.

Communist China 1955–1959: Policy documents with analysis, cited above, pp. 540–550; also The People’s Republic of China 1949–1979, cited above, pp. 762–769.

A report by Premier Zhou Enlai in August 1959 states that total production of pig iron in 1958 was 13.69 million tons, of which 9.5 million tons were produced by modern plants. Thus the small furnaces had produced about 4 million tons, ‘excluding the 4 to 5 million tons of pig iron suitable not for making steel but for the manufacture of simple farm implements and tools’. He also reports that ‘the aggregate volume of small blast furnaces (between 6.5 and 100 cubic meters each) now in operation reached 43,000 cubic meters’ – so it seems that the smallest blast furnaces were no longer in use, and that there were now a few thousand small-modern and large-traditional blast furnaces in operation.

Daniel Houser, et al., ‘Three parts natural, seven parts man-made: Bayesian analysis of China's Great Leap Forward demographic disaster’, Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 69.2: 148-159 .
The Great Leap Forward in Iron and Steel was overall not a success, but it was not the catastrophe which is often reported. The catastrophe of the time was the great famine of 1959–62, in which millions died of starvation because of failed harvests coupled with inexperienced, incompetent, and/or corrupt leadership in the new people’s communes. But that is another story.

Click on any image to see it enlarged.