Every dictator needs a square. Military parades are at the heart of state rituals in communist regimes: power is evinced by a show of military might, with leaders gathering on the rostrum to greet the cadenced tread of thousands of marching soldiers and model workers, while jet fighters scream and whine overhead. Stalin had the Resurrection Gate on Red Square bulldozed and Kazan Cathedral demolished in order to make room for heavy tanks to clatter past Lenin’s tomb. Mao was Khrushchev’s guest of honour at the fortieth anniversary of the October Revolution, celebrated in Red Square in 1957, but he had no intention of lagging behind his rival. Tiananmen Square had to be bigger, he decided: was China not the most populous nation on earth?1 The square was expanded to hold 400,000 people in 1959, as a maze of medieval walls, gates and roads were levelled to create a vast concrete area the size of sixty football fields.2

The expansion of Tiananmen Square was one of ten gigantic achievements designed to overawe Khrushchev at the tenth anniversary of the Chinese Revolution, to be celebrated in October 1959 in the presence of hundreds of foreign guests – one edifice for each year of liberation. A brand-new railway station, capable of handling 200,000 passengers a day, was built in a matter of months. A Great Hall of the People appeared on the western side of Tiananmen Square, a Museum of Chinese History on the eastern side. The Zhonghua Gate was erased to make room for the Monument to the People’s Heroes, a granite obelisk some thirty-seven metres high at the centre of the square.

The leadership bragged to the foreign press eagerly anticipating the anniversary that sufficient new buildings had been erected to give the capital a total of thirty-seven square kilometres of new floor space – more than fourteen times that of all the office buildings put up in Manhattan since the Second World War.3 It was an empty boast, as Beijing was turned into a giant Potemkin village designed to fool foreign visitors. But there was no denying that the party was spellbound by a vision in which soaring skyscrapers of steepled glass and concrete would transform Beijing overnight, relegating to oblivion the shameful mud huts and grey brick houses clustered along narrow lanes. Plans were drawn up for the systematic destruction of the entire city within ten years. At one point even the Imperial Palace was threatened by the wrecking ball.4 Tens of thousands of houses, offices and factories were pulled down, as the capital became a giant building site permanently covered in dust. Foreign embassy staff were taken aback by the rate of demolition, as some of the buildings that were pulverised had only recently been completed. ‘The general picture is one of chaos,’ commented an observer. All work was concentrated in Tiananmen Square, while elsewhere long-established building sites were deserted.5 More often than not pillars and beams went up for the first and second floor, and were then abandoned because of shortages of materials, leaving skeletal frames to stand forlorn as so many monuments to delusion.6

While most of the prestige buildings were ready in time for the October 1959 celebrations, they came at considerable cost. The planners were effective at creating an illusion of order on paper, but chaos reigned on the ground. In a fitting tribute to the folly of the Great Leap Forward, defective steel was incorporated into the party’s new nerve centre. Close to 1,700 tonnes of the steel beams used for the Great Hall of the People were either bent out of shape or insufficiently thick. Threaded steel produced in Tianjin was so weak that it had to be discarded. Across the square thousands of bags of cement were wasted, while a third of the equipment used on the building site was routinely out of order. And even at the heart of power, the party could not get more than three-quarters of the workforce to arrive on time in the morning. When they finally got to their posts, many slacked and skimped. A team of twenty carpenters called in from Wenzhou took three days to install fifteen window casements. Only one actually fitted.7

Across the country vast amounts of money were lavished on prestige buildings. Stadiums, museums, hotels and auditoria were built specifically to mark the tenth anniversary of liberation in 1959. In Harbin 5 million yuan was spent on a National Day Hotel, more than the total cost of the Beijing Hotel. A further 7 million was thrown at a National Day Stadium. In Tianjin, too, a National Day Stadium was planned, with seats to hold 80,000 spectators. Stadiums went up in Taiyuan and Shenyang, among other cities. Jiangsu decided to allocate 20 million yuan to National Day projects.8

Every local dictator, it seemed, wanted to have his ten pet projects in slavish imitation of the capital. The accoutrements of power in Beijing were widely duplicated at lower levels, as many leaders aspired to become a smaller version of Mao Zedong. Another reason was that officials were accountable to their bosses higher up in Beijing, not to the people below them. Big, tangible structures and flashy projects were a sure way to foster the illusion of effective governance. In Lanzhou, the capital of impoverished Gansu, provincial boss Zhang Zhongliang pushed for ten big edifices, although this rapidly spiralled up to sixteen schemes, including a People’s Hall designed to be exactly half the size of the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square, a People’s Square, an East Railway Station, a Culture Palace for Workers, a Culture Palace for Minorities, a stadium, a library and a luxury hotel, as well as new buildings for the provincial committee, the provincial People’s Congress, a Television Tower and a central park. The cost was set at 160 million yuan. Thousands of houses were destroyed, leaving many of the inhabitants homeless in the middle of the winter. Very little was achieved. After construction work was stopped in the wake of Zhang Zhongliang’s fall from power in December 1960, nothing but rubble remained in the centre of the city.9Dozens of other prestige buildings were also started without any sort of approved plan. One example was a brand-new Friendship Hotel for foreign experts. The number of guests was misjudged by a factor of three, so that in the end the 170 foreigners were given an average of sixty square metres of luxurious accommodation while villagers were dying of cold and hunger just outside Lanzhou. After the recall of Soviet experts the building was eerily quiet.10

A step further down the ladder of power was the commune, and there was no shortage of radical leaders willing to transform them into models of communist utopia. In Huaminglou, where Liu Shaoqi was born, party secretary Hu Renqin initiated his own ten construction projects. These included a ‘pig city’, a giant pig shed stretching for ten kilometres along the main road. Many hundreds of houses set back from the street were destroyed to make room for the project. Stopping here on an inspection tour in April 1961, as we have seen, Liu Shaoqi found nothing but a few dozen scrawny animals. A water pavilion was built on the lake, as well as a large reception hall for visiting officials. In the meantime, half a million kilos of grain rotted in the fields. The death rate in some teams was as high as 9 per cent in 1960.11 All over the country similar monuments to party extravagance appeared. In Diaofang commune, Guangdong, where thousands starved to death, some eighty houses were ripped up for timber and bricks, all of which were earmarked for a People’s Hall spacious enough to convene a gathering of 1,500 people.12

In the three years up to September 1961, a total of 99.6 billion yuan was spent on capital construction, to which had to be added a further 9.2 billion in housing projects ostensibly earmarked for ordinary people. Most of the money ended up being invested in prestige buildings and offices with no tangible benefit for anyone but party members.13 But that did not take into account all sorts of accounting tricks used to fund even more construction. In Guizhou the Zunyi region appropriated some 4 million yuan of state funds, including financial assistance for the poor, to indulge in a building spree, sprucing up leading cities with new buildings, dancing halls, photo studios, private toilets and elevators. In Tongzi county funding reserved for six middle schools was embezzled to set up a brand-new theatre.14 Li Fuchun, on reviewing the many billions spent on prestige projects without state approval, felt sheer despair: ‘People cannot eat their fill and we are still building skyscrapers – how can we communists have the heart to do that! Does it still look like communism? Is it not empty talk when we go on all day long about the interests of the masses?’15

As private property became a thing of the past, collective units moved into the mansions that had once been the pride and joy of the moneyed elite. As a sense of ownership evaporated, no one individual being held accountable for any one property, a form of destruction appeared that was more insidious than the muffled thud of the sledgehammer. Once one of the most magnificent estates in Shanghai, Huaihai Middle Road nos 1154–1170 were taken over by an electric machinery unit in November 1958. In less than a year the windows were broken, the marble and ceramic tiles were smashed, and the building was stripped and gutted of expensive imported kitchen equipment, its heating system, the fridge and all the toilets. Stench permeated the premises, and rubbish was strewn all over the compound. The army was just as careless. Once it had claimed control of a garden villa on Fenyang Road, the place was left to crumble. The staircase fell apart, railings were broken, the chimney collapsed, all removable property was stolen, the trees in the garden died and the lotus pond turned into a smelly swamp. After a manor on Hongqiao Road had been occupied by the air force, the floorboards were broken up, the water taps and electricity switches dismantled, while the toilet overflowed with faeces. There were many other examples, ‘too many to be enumerated’, according to a report by the housing authorities.16

Lack of maintenance spread beyond individual houses. In Wuhan termites literally ate their way through many old buildings. In Station Street, half of one thousand buildings were infested. No. 14 Renhe Street simply caved in on its inhabitants. Architectural landmarks such as the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank in Hankou were in danger of being overrun by vermin.17

Places of worship were no exception. Religion had no place in the people’s communes: churches, temples and mosques were turned into workshops, canteens and dormitories. In Zhengzhou, eighteen out of all twenty-seven places of worship for Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists and Muslims were taken over, and a further 680 rooms privately rented out by religious congregations were confiscated. The city was proud to announce by 1960 that the number of Christian and Muslim worshippers had shrunk from 5,500 to a mere 377. All eighteen religious leaders now participated in ‘productive labour’ – except for three who had died.18

Destruction also extended to historic monuments. In Qujiang, Guangdong, the tomb of Zhang Jiuling, the famous Tang-dynasty minister, was damaged by a people’s commune digging for treasures, while a Ming-dynasty Buddhist temple in Shaoguan was torn down for building material. Further south in Guangdong a cannon built by Lin Zexu to fight the British during the Opium War was blown up and used as scrap iron.19 In Dujiangyan, Sichuan, the scene of an irrigation system dating back to the third century AD, a string of ancient temples were dismantled and burned for fuel.20 The Erwang temple, abounding in cultural relics and surrounded by ancient trees, was declared an historical monument in 1957 – and partly blown up with explosives a few years later.21 In the north the Great Wall of China was plundered for building material, while bricks from the Ming Tombs were carted away with the approval of local party secretaries. A stretch of wall measuring forty metres long and nine metres high at Dingling Tomb, where the Yongle Emperor was buried, was razed to the ground, while hundreds of cubic metres were dug from the Baocheng Tomb, also known as the Precious Hall. ‘Bricks belong to the masses’ was the clinching argument.22

City walls too were an object of official wrath. Their crenellated parapets, erstwhile symbols of imperial grandeur, overgrown with vines and shrubbery, were now seen as monuments to backwardness. Mao Zedong set the tone, pointing out at the Nanning conference in January 1958 that the walls around Beijing should be destroyed. Large sections of the vermilion gates and walls would be taken down in the following years. Other cities followed suit: parts of the wall that girdled the old city of Nanjing were dismantled by collective units in search of building material.23

But most of the devastation was in the countryside. Destruction came in waves. As we have seen, buildings were torn down to provide nutrients for the soil during the fertiliser campaign in early 1958. To allow a continuous revolution to take hold, buildings were used as a source of fuel: as farmers ploughed deep furrows throughout the night, bonfires flared and sparkled. Then, as the people’s communes were established, private property was turned into offices, meeting halls, canteens, nurseries or kindergartens. Some were stripped for building material, others torn down to make way for a vision of modernity that never quite managed to migrate from paper to the village. With the drive to produce more iron and steel, metal window frames and door knobs were stripped, then the floorboards were taken for fuel. When the Great Leap Forward acquired a second life after the summer of 1959, the militia went from house to house searching for hidden grain as if it were a weapon of insurrection, breaking through walls, prodding the floor for hidden holes, digging up cellars, often taking down part or all of the building as compensation. As famine set in, the villagers themselves started cannibalising their homes, either bartering the bricks for food or burning the wood for fuel. If the thatch on the roofs had not yet been consumed by fire, it was taken down and eaten in desperation. Villagers also ate the plaster from the walls.

At best people were compelled to make a ‘voluntary’ contribution, as happened in a village in Xinhui, Guangdong, where each household was asked for thirty bricks towards a new school. As local cadres ‘borrowed’ more and more building material there was no house left in the end.24 Sometimes villagers were compensated for their contributions. One villager in Sichuan dared to ask for both a tea cup and a towel in exchange for half a straw hut. He was given the tea cup. A neighbour received a small washbasin for four rooms.25

But most of the time coercion was the order of the day in the village. In Guangdong, where Zhao Ziyang pioneered an anti-hiding campaign in early 1959, the militia confiscated everything from a single peanut to entire mansions.26 In Longgui commune, Shaoguan, party secretary Lin Jianhua abolished private property, sending the militia on a rampage through the villages. In a typical team of eighty-five households, some fifty-six rooms and outdoor toilets were sequestered. Farmers were tied up and beaten if they refused to follow orders.27

It is difficult to estimate how much was destroyed. The situation varied tremendously from place to place, but overall the Great Leap Forward constitutes, by far, the greatest demolition of property in human history. As a rough approximation between 30 and 40 per cent of all houses were turned into rubble. Here is what Liu Shaoqi, the head of state, wrote to Chairman Mao on 11 May 1959, after having spent a month investigating the region of his birth: ‘According to comrades from the provincial party committee 40 per cent of all houses in Hunan have been destroyed. Besides this there is also a portion that has been appropriated by state organs, enterprises, communes and brigades.’28 The number of people per room in Hunan doubled during the years of the Great Leap Forward, as entire families crowded into a single room the size of a wardrobe – despite the space created by the loss of several million people to starvation.29 In Sichuan the situation was worse, with families living in toilets or under the eaves of somebody else’s house. In Yanyuan (near Xichang), an area dominated by the Yi, a minority people who lived scattered in mountain areas, the situation was dire after thousands of houses were handed over to the state: ‘According to statistics 1,147 families share one room with another family, 629 families share one room with three or four other families, 100 families share one room with five or more families.’30 In the province as a whole, the rate of destruction varied from 45 to 70 per cent in some of the most affected counties.31

Many never found a new home, surviving as well as they could on the margins of society, seeking temporary accommodation in ragged shacks cobbled together from debris or living in pig sheds. In the Huanggang region of Hubei, where temperatures dropped to freezing, about 100,000 families had no home in the winter of 1960–1. Half of the population there had no firewood for heating, and people had to survive the bitter cold wearing miserable rags.32

A special group of victims were displaced by the irrigation and reservoir schemes launched during the Great Leap Forward. There were several million of them. In Hunan alone well over half a million people were evacuated.33 A third of a million, if not more, were evicted as each of the giant projects were started at the Three Gate Gorge in Henan, Xin’anjiang in Zhejiang and Danjiangkou in Hubei.34 In the Zhanjiang region in Guangdong, some 300,000 houses were needed for evacuee families by the end of 1961.35

Most were moved without much planning and generally without compensation. In Yueyang county, Hunan, some 22,000 people lost their homes during the building of Tieshan Reservoir. The bricks, furniture, tools and cattle of the villages to be inundated by the reservoir were commandeered and used to set up a collective farm in the mountains, to which the displaced people were relegated by the county authorities. Marooned in the mountains, without arable land to survive on and with all ties to their home villages cut off, they found life miserable, and many started flocking back to the plain. Then the reservoir project was abandoned. Most of the evacuees decided to return home, but were left stranded in ghost towns from which every removable asset had been stripped. They sought shelter in makeshift huts, outdoor toilets, pig sheds and even caves, some of which periodically collapsed and buried their occupants. Many had to beg or steal to get by, sharing a few cooking utensils and surviving on a paltry ration of 10 kilos of grain a month. Few had any padded clothes or blankets for the winter.36

Many of the displaced people roamed the countryside, but some eventually returned home, pulled by ties to their native place. About a hundred kilometres north-east of Beijing, set in a picturesque valley with chestnut, pear and crab-apple orchards against the wooded mountains, the residents of some sixty-five villages were uprooted to make way for the Miyun Reservoir, built between September 1958 and June 1959. As many as 57,000 people lost their homes. As if this were not bad enough, local cadres requisitioned all the tools and stole the furniture. Farmers who resisted were locked up. Only a quarter of the villagers were relocated, but the makeshift camps were so confined that their inhabitants referred to them as ‘pig sheds’.

Two years later many were still traipsing homeless and adrift in the countryside. In March 1961, a group of 1,500 families returned home, men, women and children shuffling along dirt roads, carrying in ragged bundles and shabby bags whatever clothes and belongings they had managed to salvage. A few went back to their original villages – the reservoir was still without water – and built mud huts or slept in the open.37 Millions of such refugees lived in similar squalor all over the country.

The dead were also evicted. This flew in the face of a deep-rooted concern with the afterlife, expressed through complex mourning practices, funeral rites and ancestor rituals. Burial was the preferred means of dealing with a corpse, as the body was seen as a valued gift to be placed whole under the soil near one’s ancestral village. Mutual obligations were thought to exist between ancestral souls and their descendants. The dead had specific needs that had to be respected. At funerals spirit money was burned, as well as a whole array of goods, from furniture to entire houses, all made of paper and designed to help the deceased to settle in the hereafter. The coffin had to be airtight. Graves had to be swept, and food and gifts regularly offered to ancestors.38

Some of these practices were observed during the Great Leap Forward. As much as the party decried popular religion as superstition, some local cadres indulged in expensive burials. For the burial of his grandmother one official in Hebei summoned a funeral band of thirty musicians. A canteen was commandeered for the occasion, 120 guests being treated to wine and cigarettes – in the midst of the famine. As if this could not quite assuage his grief, Li Jianjian had the remains of his parents, buried some five years earlier, exhumed, transferred to new coffins and reburied. Li Yongfu, the deputy party secretary of a knitting factory in Beijing, not only erected a tent with electric lighting to welcome a funeral band, but also burned a paper car, a paper cow and paper militia to assist the passage of his mother to the next world. Five monks chanted scriptures.39

But many of the burial places were destroyed, for stone, timber or even fertiliser. In Hunan, for instance, gravestones were taken to build a dam, and party activists set the example by destroying the resting places of their own ancestors. In Yueyang, in hundreds of desecrated graves, bones stuck out of the coffins.40 Wei Shu remembered in an interview how he was made to erase graves in the Sichuan countryside: ‘You know, graves for dead people, they usually look like little hills. We had to flatten them, that was one of the things we had to do in 1958. At night, we were ordered to go around to destroy the graveyards and turn them into farming land.’41 In many parts of the country agricultural land occupied by ancestral graves was systematically reclaimed. In Beijing the crematoriums worked full time during the Great Leap Forward. In 1958 over 7,000 bodies were cremated, almost three times more than in 1956, and twenty times more than in 1952. A third of these corpses had been disinterred to make way for agriculture.42

But in the countryside the authorities did not always bother to cremate the bodies that they had unearthed in their frantic search for timber. As a restricted publication edited by the secretarial office of the State Council noted, in Mouping, Shandong, local cadres used corpses to fertilise the land: ‘they have tossed a few not yet fully decomposed bodies on to the crops’. An elderly lady who had been buried only days earlier was stripped of her clothes, her naked body dumped by the roadside.43

This was by no means an exceptional case. In his report to the commissar of the military division in Shaanxi where he worked, party member Hou Shixiang explained that when he returned to his village in Fengxian county, Hunan, he noticed that many of the coffins had been disinterred and had been left strewn about the field in front of his house. The lids were ajar, the remains gone. A few days later, on a rainy afternoon, he noticed a plume of smoke from the chimney of the local deputy secretary. Inside the house were four large cauldrons in which corpses were being simmered into fertiliser, the extract to be evenly distributed over the fields.44

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