Background to the Great Leap Forward in Iron and Steel

The traditional Chinese iron industry and its modern fate

Donald B. Wagner
August 2011

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The Great Leap Forward in Iron and Steel, 1958–60, was not really about ‘backyard furnaces’ of the ‘masses’, though that is the story we hear from both inside and outside China. The mass campaign – an almost total failure – lasted only a few months at the end of 1958. Much more important were small-scale industrial plants, either private or run by the people’s communes, which used either well-tried traditional furnaces or scaled-down versions of modern furnaces. In 1958 these small-scale plants produced 4 million tons of pig iron.

To understand what happened, and why the Leap was nevertheless a failure, we need to investigate in detail both the history and the technology of the traditional Chinese iron industry in the past few centuries.

This web-site is partly based on my book, The traditional Chinese iron industry and its modern fate, Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 1997, where further details and references to sources will be found. My latest book, Science and civilisation in China, vol. 5, part 11: Ferrous metallurgy, Cambridge University Press, 2007, covers the history of iron in China from the earliest times to the 20th century. There is more on my web-site,

Studies in the history of technology tend to favour success stories and technical progress. Here we are concerned with a negative development: the steep fall of the Chinese iron industry, from the world’s most advanced iron production technology in 1600 to a relatively primitive technology which, around 1900, only survived in the poorest regions of the country. This story is neatly paralleled by the development in Europe, over the same period, from a new and untried technology through the Industrial Revolution to the technology which dominates the industry today throughout the world, including China.

From the middle of the 19th century and well into the 20th attempts were made by various Chinese governments to adopt Western technologies, at first without much success. For iron and steel China became very largely dependent upon foreign imports. But the great conflicts of the 20th century – the First and Second World Wars and the Cold War – often cut off the trade in iron, and this provided renewed opportunities for the traditional iron industry. The last and best known of a number of attempts to revive the traditional industry occurred as one aspect of the so-called Great Leap Forward, 1958–60; we shall conclude with a look at that campaign and bring technical and historical insights to bear on some of the many misunderstandings that flourish about it.

This web-site is largely a translation of a Danish booklet for use in courses in the history of technology. The purpose of the booklet was to show some examples of historical interactions among technology, economy, geography, and political decisions. Various kinds of sources are used here in their investigation, and one aspect of the story is the critical approaches which are necessary to use them effectively.

On this page I give a brief outline. Click on the links to read the whole story.

Historical background

The recent history of China has been a roller-coaster ride from peace and economic development in the 18th century through civil war and military humiliation in the mid-19th to today’s status as a world industrial power. One aspect of China’s decline was a greatly increased trade with the West, which brought its economy out of balance and caused the collapse of several branches of industry. Its effect was especially severe on the iron industry, which, because of competition with cheap Western iron, survived best in poor isolated regions.

China 1600–2010

The technology

From very ancient times the Chinese iron industry used a technology which is generally called indirect smelting. Cast iron was produced from ore in a blast furnace, and this was converted to wrought iron by fining or puddling. This process seems at first sight unnecessarily complicated, but it is still today the most efficient method of producing iron.

An aspect with great historical significance is that blast-furnace iron production gives great economies of scale: the larger the production, the lower the cost per unit produced.

Traditional Chinese iron-production technology

Technical description of blast furnace operation

This very general description fits most of the regional iron industries in China, but in technical details and – especially – scale there was great variation. In the following we consider first the subtropical province of Guangdong, where the traditional industry and its history is best documented; several other regions will then be considered more briefly.


Guangdong kupolovnThe iron industry of Guangdong was divided into two distinct sectors, with large-scale and small-scale ironworks. Works in the mountains produced pig iron in large blast furnaces, and this was transported by the great rivers of the province to the industrial city Foshan, near the provincial capital Guangzhou (formerly known as Canton). In Foshan iron and steel products of all kinds were produced and sold all over China and Southeast Asia. At the same time iron was being produced for local consumption in small blast furnaces in villages throughout the province.

This division into two sectors was not unique for Guangdong. The same was the case in some other regions in China, and also for example in Norway and Sweden in the 18th century. It was a matter of the relative isolation of the villages, transportation costs, and the consequent comparative advantage.

It is also in Guangdong that the effects of foreign trade on China’s economy can be seen most clearly. Competition with cheap imported iron and steel meant that the large-scale ironworks closed, while the small works survived and in some cases prospered.

The iron industry of Guangdong

The large ironworks, described by Qu Dajun (1630–1696)

C. F. Liljevalch’s description, 1847

The two sectors in Norway and Sweden in the 18th century

Comparative advantage

Other parts of China

                      DabieshanDabieshan is an isolated mountainous region where poverty until recently was extreme. Here iron was produced in small blast furnaces for local consumption. This production continued without a break into modern times, and it was the subject of thorough technical documentation in 1958 as part of the Great Leap Forward.
The iron industry of Dabieshan

Guo Yujing’s description of the technology, 1932

A manual from the Great Leap Forward, 1958

HøjovnFujian, a mountainous province on the southeast coast, had a similar iron industry with small-scale ironworks in the many isolated valleys. Migrant workers from Fujian in the 18th and 19th centuries took this technology with them to the Philippines, where it was documented by American engineers.

The iron industry of Fujian and the Philippines

                      højovnSichuan is a prosperous province in southwest China. Here iron was produced in large blast furnaces for sale throughout the province.

The iron industry in Sichuan

Béla Széchenyi’s description of the technology, 1877

HøjovnIn the provinces of Hunan and Jiangxi in central China we find again, as in Guangdong, that the iron industry was divided into two sectors. The economic and social aspects of this industry were documented in 1930 by no less a personage than Mao Zedong.

DiglerThe ‘crucible smelting’ technology of the province of Shanxi was quite different from the iron-production technologies in the rest of China. The same process was adopted in the early 20th century by the Höganäs firm in Sweden, where it seems to be still in use.

Peace came in 1949 after a half-century of war and civil war. The technology which has been described above was still a living tradition in many regions, and it turned out to be useful in post-war reconstruction. In the ‘Great Leap Forward’ it came to have a special significance which is often misunderstood.

Numerous myths surround the campaign for ‘backyard furnaces’, and the story is much more complex than is generally known. The campaign started as a sensible attempt to break economic gridlock by establishing smaller industrial plants which had smaller infrastructure requirements in comparison with giant modern plants. It quickly became too ambitious, however, and ended in fiasco.

The part of the campaign which called for the whole population to go out and produce iron in their backyards was utterly foolish, but lasted only a couple of months and did not have major consequences. The real catastrophe of the time was the great famine of 1959–62, when millions died of hunger.

The Great Leap Forward

Roderick MacFarquhar, The origins of the Cultural Revolution, vol. 3: The Great Leap Forward, Oxford 1983.
There were really four distinct technologies in play in the Great Leap Forward: scaled-down modern blast furnaces, large traditional blast furnaces, small traditional blast furnaces, and the ‘backyard’ blast furnaces of the mass campaign. Unfortunately, virtually all reports of the Leap, by journalists and scholars assume that only these last were involved. Even such an eminent historian as Roderick MacFarquhar, in the best study we have of the politics of the period, makes this mistake. My hope for this web-site is that it may provoke scholars of contemporary Chinese history and politics to take a more nuanced look at the Great Leap Forward.

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