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The Impact of Communism in China

Grade 7 | Informative | Source-Based

Source Lexile®: 1090L-1220L

Learning Standards



Prompt: Research the impact of the Communist Revolution and the Cultural Revolution that followed on life in China. First, read three secondary sources about the Great Leap Forward and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Then view four primary sources (Chinese propaganda images). After reading and viewing these sources, write an informational essay explaining how communism transformed life in China. Be sure to cite evidence from all sources to support your essay.



Source 1

The Great Leap Forward (Secondary Source)

by Kallie Szczepanski

Updated June 14, 2017


The Great Leap Forward was a push by Mao Zedong to change China from a predominantly agrarian (farming) society to a modern, industrial society--in just five years. It's an impossible goal, of course, but Mao had the power to force the world's largest society to try. The results, needless to say, were catastrophic.


Between 1958 and 1960, millions of Chinese citizens were moved onto communes. Some were sent to farming cooperatives, while others worked in small manufacturing.


All work was shared on the communes; from childcare to cooking, daily tasks were collectivized. Children were taken from their parents and put into large childcare centers, to be tended to by workers assigned that task.


Mao hoped to increase China's agricultural output while also pulling workers from agriculture into the manufacturing sector. He relied, however, on nonsensical Soviet farming ideas, such as planting crops very close together so that the stems could support one another, and plowing up to six feet deep to encourage root growth. These farming strategies damaged countless acres of farmland and dropped crop yields, rather than producing more food with fewer farmers.


Mao also wanted to free China from the need to import steel and machinery. He encouraged people to set up backyard steel furnaces, where citizens could turn scrap metal into usable steel. Families had to meet quotas for steel production, so in desperation, they often melted down useful items such as their own pots, pans, and farm implements.


The results were predictably bad. Backyard smelters run by peasants with no metallurgy training produced such low-quality iron that it was completely worthless.



Was the Great Leap Really Forward?


Over just a few years, the Great Leap Forward also caused massive environmental damage in China. The backyard steel production plan resulted in entire forests being chopped down and burned to fuel the smelters, which left the land open to erosion.


Dense cropping and deep plowing stripped the farmland of nutrients and left the agricultural soil vulnerable to erosion, as well.


The first autumn of the Great Leap Forward, in 1958, came with a bumper crop in many areas, since the soil was not yet exhausted. However, so many farmers had been sent into steel production work that there weren't enough hands to harvest the crops. Food rotted in the fields.


Anxious commune leaders vastly exaggerated their harvests, hoping to curry favor with the Communist leadership. However, this plan backfired in a tragic fashion. As a result of the exaggerations, Party officials carried off most of the food to serve as the cities' share of the harvest, leaving the farmers with nothing to eat. People in the countryside began to starve.


The next year, the Yellow River flooded, killing 2 million people either by drowning or by starvation after crop failures. In 1960, a widespread drought added to the nation's misery.



The Consequences


In the end, through a combination of disastrous economic policy and adverse weather conditions, an estimated 20 to 48 million people died in China. Most of the victims starved to death in the countryside. The official death toll from the Great Leap Forward is "only" 14 million, but the majority of scholars agree that this is a substantial underestimate.


The Great Leap Forward was supposed to be a 5-year plan, but it was called off after just three tragic years. The period between 1958 and 1960 is known as the "Three Bitter Years" in China. It had political repercussions for Mao Zedong, as well. As the originator of the disaster, he ended up being sidelined from power until 1966.




Source 2

What Was the Chinese Cultural Revolution? (excerpt) (Secondary Source)

by Kallie Szczepanski

Updated August 10, 2017


Between 1966 and 1976, the young people of China rose up in an effort to purge the nation of the "Four Olds": old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas.



Mao Sparks the Cultural Revolution


In August 1966, Mao Zedong called for the start of a Cultural Revolution at the Plenum of the Communist Central Committee. He urged the creation of corps of "Red Guards" to punish party officials and any other persons who showed bourgeois tendencies.


Mao likely was motivated to call for the so-called Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in order to rid the Chinese Communist Party of his opponents after the tragic failure of his Great Leap Forward policies. Mao knew that other party leaders were planning to marginalize him, so he appealed directly to his supporters among the people to join him in a Cultural Revolution. He also believed that communist revolution had to be a continuous process, in order to stave off capitalist-roader ideas.


Mao's call was answered by the students, some as young as elementary school, who organized themselves into the first groups of Red Guards. They were joined later by workers and soldiers.


The first targets of the Red Guards included Buddhist temples, churches, and mosques, which were razed to the ground or converted to other uses. Sacred texts, as well as Confucian writings, were burned, along with religious statues and other artwork.

Any object associated with China's pre-revolutionary past was liable to be destroyed.


In their fervor, the Red Guards began to persecute people deemed "counter-revolutionary" or "bourgeois," as well. The Guards conducted so-called "struggle sessions," in which they heaped abuse and public humiliation upon people accused of capitalist thoughts (usually these were teachers, monks, and other educated persons).


These sessions often included physical violence, and many of the accused died or ended up being held in re-education camps for years. According to the Mao's Last Revolution by Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, almost 1,800 people were killed in Beijing alone in August and September of 1966.



The Revolution Spins Out of Control


By February of 1967, China had descended into chaos. The purges had reached the level of army generals who dared to speak out against the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, and Red Guards groups were turning against one another and fighting in the streets. Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, encouraged the Red Guards to raid arms from the People's Liberation Army (PLA), and even to replace the army entirely if necessary.


By December of 1968, even Mao realized that the Cultural Revolution was spinning out of control. China's economy, already weakened by the Great Leap Forward, was faltering badly. Industrial production fell by 12% in just two years. In reaction, Mao issued a call for the "Down to the Countryside Movement," in which young cadres from the city were sent to live on farms and learn from the peasants. Although he spun this idea as a tool for leveling society, in fact, Mao sought to disperse the Red Guards across the country, so that they could not cause so much trouble anymore.



After-Effects of the Cultural Revolution


For the entire decade of the Cultural Revolution, schools in China did not operate; this left an entire generation with no formal education. All of the educated and professional people had been targets for re-education. Those that hadn't been killed were dispersed across the countryside, toiling on farms or working in labor camps.


All sorts of antiquities and artifacts were taken from museums and private homes; they were destroyed as symbols of "old thinking." Priceless historical and religious texts also were burned to ashes.


The exact number of people killed during the Cultural Revolution is unknown, but it was at least in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions.





Source 3

Communism in China Timeline (excerpt) (Secondary Source)



Japan invades and gradually occupies more and more of China.



Mao Zedong emerges as Communist leader during the party's "Long March" to its new base in Shaanxi Province.



Kuomintang and Communists nominally unite against Japanese. Civil war resumes after Japan's defeat in Second World War.



1 October--Mao Zedong, having led the Communists to victory against the Nationalists after more than 20 years of civil war, proclaims the founding of the People's Republic of China. The Nationalists retreated to the island of Taiwan and set up a government there.



Mao launches the "Great Leap Forward," a five-year economic plan. Farming is collectivised and labor-intensive industry is introduced. The drive produces economic breakdown and is abandoned after two years. Disruption to agriculture is blamed for the deaths by starvation of millions of people following poor harvests.



"Cultural Revolution," Mao's 10-year political and ideological campaign aimed at reviving revolutionary spirit, produces massive social, economic, and political upheaval.



US President Richard Nixon visits. Both countries declare a desire to normalise relations.



Mao dies. "Gang of Four," including Mao's widow, jockey for power but are arrested and convicted of crimes against the state. From 1977 Deng Xiaoping emerges as the dominant figure among pragmatists in the leadership. Under him, China undertakes far-reaching economic reforms.



Diplomatic relations established with the US.

Government imposes one-child policy in effort to curb population growth.



China's "Open-door policy" opens the country to foreign investment and encourages development of a market economy and private sector.



Troops open fire on demonstrators who have camped for weeks in Tiananmen Square initially to demand the posthumous rehabilitation of former CCP General Secretary Hu Yaobang, who was forced to resign in 1987. The official death toll is 200. International outrage leads to sanctions.



Russia and China sign declaration restoring friendly ties.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) ranks China's economy as third largest in the world after the US and Japan.




Source 4

Chinese Propaganda Image A (Primary Source)


A painting depicting Mao Zedong surrounded by enthusiastic Red Guards
holding up copies of the "little red book," Quotations from Chairman Mao.




Source 5

Chinese Propaganda Image B (Primary Source)



A color painting shows four Chinese children holding
up a portrait of Mao. They are smiling and clapping.


Chairman Mao and Children. Getty Images. Image.




Source 6

Chinese Propaganda Image C (Primary Source)



A black and white poster shows two Chinese Communists holding
down an “enemy of the people” during the Cultural Revolution.


Chinese Poster, 1966. Getty Images. Image.




Source 7

Chinese Propaganda Image D (Primary Source)



A Chinese propaganda poster from 1953 shows a family moving
into a new house and hanging a portrait of Mao Zedong on the wall.


Chinese Propaganda Poster, 1953. Getty Images. Image.









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