Causes and Effects of Collective Farms in China Under Mao

Propaganda poster collective farming China main

Mao Zedong led the way toward communist control of China in 1949. Land reform was a fundamental goal. Small farms united into large state-run units (collectivism). The central government planned a Great Leap Forward (1958) in agriculture and industry. People were placed in government-run communes with centralized control. Bad management, labor problems, famine, and ideological blinders led to failure and famine. In the long term, China did industrialize, mixing capitalism with communism. 

Communist China 

Mao Zedong (also spelled Mao Tse-tung) was born on December 26, 1893, to a peasant family in central China. He became the leader of the communist movement in China. 

Mao Zedong controlled all of China in 1949. He was the undisputed leader. Communists promoted their ideology as the only true path. Opposition was treason. 

If you opposed the government, you could be sent to “re-education” camps or killed. Criticism, even to correct mistakes, was not acceptable. People accepted Maoism on faith.  

Land Reform 

Communists promoted land reform. Communism argued that landlords exploited peasant farmers. Communism would supply land to the peasants. Peasants would have an equal role in society. Meanwhile, by working together, production would increase. 

The government promoted agricultural collectivization. Collectivization is the uniting of small landholdings into large farms. The government owned the land. Chinese propaganda promoted peasant life and demonized “power-hungry” land owners. 

Peasant life was traditionally hard. There was much suffering. Leadership before communist control was often corrupt. The people hoped communism would lead to a better life. 

Land reform also occurred in other countries after World War II. Iran, Latin America, and other Asian countries used land reform to address traditional economic imperialism

Great Leap Forward 

Communist leadership tried quickly to modernize China. They followed the “five-year plan” model of the Soviet Union. In 1958, the “Great Leap Forward” would begin.

The Great Leap Forward would revolutionize agricultural and industrial life in China. An increase in agricultural production was necessary to develop industrialization. Urban areas would grow. 

China would be self-sufficient. The need to prove self-sufficiency would entail continuing to export grain to African nations and Cuba as the Chinese people starved. 

Large-scale state projects to increase industrial projects began in urban and rural areas. Mao promised China’s steel production would match Great Britain in 15 years. People and resources made a great deal of useless pig iron. People spent less time raising food as people starved.  

Growth of Communes 

Collectivization focused on farming. The Great Leap Forward promoted the use of communes.

Communes united together several collective farms. Communes were not only larger than collectives. They controlled all economic and social activity. Communes could be agricultural or industrial. There were about 26,000 communes in 1958 with millions of people.

Peasants had already begun to migrate to urban areas. The government limited movement via a permit system. The communes were state-controlled. Local control and flexibility decreased.

The Great Leap Forward resulted in a significant social upheaval. Traditional peasant life was family-based and focused on small plots of land. Now, the state was in charge.

Failure and Famine 

The Central Committee of the Communist Party reported a good harvest in 1958. There was a good harvest. Nonetheless, leadership exaggerated the success. It was a bad omen.

The top-down leadership led to many problems. People left the farms to produce steel, leaving food to rot on the field. Infrastructure and transportation problems worsened the situation.

The increase in food and industrial production harmed the environment. Chemical fertilizers harmed the soil and animal life. People cut down lots of trees to fuel the steel furnaces. 

There was strong opposition from the peasants to the radical changes. Peasants did not have incentives to work efficiently. “Success” on paper did not translate to actual improvement. 

The increase in food production overwhelmed the soil. Weather problems contributed to growing problems. Mao told everyone to kill sparrows because they ate seeds. Spoiler alert: sparrows ate insects. The mass destruction of sparrows made the situation worse.  

The “Great Leap Forward” became the “Great Famine.” The Great Leap Forward ended in 1961.


The Great Famine resulted in twenty million or more deaths. Collectivism was too heavy-handed. Over the years, the government gave peasants more ability to control land and sell products. 

The failures of the Great Leap Forward harmed the reputation of Mao Zedong. The Cultural Revolution developed in the mid-1960s to revive communist ideals. Student-led Red Guards led the way. The Red Guards suppressed opposition. Millions were killed or re-educated. 
The move toward a national economy and industrialization continued in the years after Mao. Communism mixed with capitalism. China’s economy today competes with Germany and the United States. The Great Leap Forward did come, if not the way Mao expected.


  1. How did Mao Zedong’s vision of land reform compare to traditional ownership structures?
  2. Discuss the ideological basis of the Great Leap Forward and how it aimed to transform Chinese agriculture and industry. 
  3. Identify fundamental flaws in Mao’s plans for the Great Leap Forward.
  4. Evaluate the role of propaganda in shaping the peasants’ views towards landowners and collectivization. 
  5. In what ways did the Great Leap Forward affect the social structure of Chinese rural life, particularly in terms of family dynamics and traditional farming practices?
  6. Analyze the consequences of China’s policy to export grain during the Great Leap Forward. 
  7. Why did the Great Leap Forward lead to a significant famine?
  8. Reflect on the aftermath of the Great Leap Forward. How did this period influence the future economic policies of China, particularly the blend of communism and capitalism?

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A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.