In China "大锅饭" (communal dining in English) implies egalitarianism and slack of people, which is the premise of the statement that the famine is partly due to the laziness of the people. As we can see from the previous link (from China's Baidupedia):

大锅饭(mess together)是对分配方面存在的平均主义现象的一种形象比喻,大锅饭的概念,最早可追溯到1958年人民公社的出现,同样是与大跃进加速工业积累密切相关的。弊端: 压抑人们的积极性

But I notice that the following two pieces of evidence conflict with that premise.

First, I read the following statement from Wikipedia:

The communes exercised management and control of all rural resources such as labor and land. Because of governmental mismanagement of resources and bad weather from 1958 to 1960 the Great Chinese Famine spread over the countryside, with much food being exported to urban areas.

I thought most researchers would attribute the famine to mismanagement rather than the people's laziness.

Second, people's workload was increased in that period as we can see in China Under Mao: A Revolution Derailed by Andrew G. Walder:

This work was largely uncompensated and was in no way voluntary. If you refused to work, you had no right to eat in the collective mess hall, the only source of food. ... Farmers were expected to obey strict rules of discipline: obey the leader and follow orders; work actively; do not arrive late or depart early; ... Farmers were required to work at least twenty-eight days each month. ... Prior to the great Leap, labor on collective farms had a rhythm that was determined by the seasons. Planting and harvesting were the busiest periods, and winter was slack time. The Great Leap obliterated this rhythm with constant and seemingly ceaseless demands for hard labor, not only in the fields but also on massive irrigation projects, road building, and terracing of hillsides.

I cannot imagine how would there be any slackers under the pressure of more and more inflated targets.

I thought the provenance of the meaning of "大锅饭" in Baidupedia was manipulated in order to cover the mismanagement problem caused by the mutual deception and self-deception. Am I right?

  • I have no comment on the original text but to define this as an issue of egalitarianism's failings (in English) makes no sense to me.
    – Mockman
    Feb 27, 2021 at 20:54
  • 4
    Software Enginner Hat on here: Any time a large system fails, and the designers blame great masses of common people for not being good or smart or virtuous enough to properly operate the system, that's a pile of fresh grade A steaming nonsense. At best, they should have known what their own people were like, and created a system that would work better with those people. But realistically, people are the same world-wide, and if your system doesn't work with real people, its a crappy system. That's your fault, not theirs.
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 27, 2021 at 21:11
  • not to toot my own horn, but this answer by me on another question may be helpful: history.stackexchange.com/questions/62848/…
    – mart
    Mar 2, 2021 at 10:51

1 Answer 1


Incompetency and deliberate malice

First of all, we should note that in years immediately after the end of civil war in 1949, China was still largely backward agricultural society. Apparently, only 3% of the population lived in urban settlements . Agriculture was based on small households with relatively primitive and obsolete farming techniques. Couple these with devastation caused by war and Japanese occupation, and it is not a surprise that food was not exactly plentiful even in these first years of People's Republic. However, situation was nowhere near as dire as it will become in few years latter due to communist meddling.

Stated goal of CCP was modernization of the country, which included industrialization and increased agricultural production. On the surface there is nothing wrong with that, but the manner it was done was artificial, plain stupid and even malicious. For example, traditional economic theories postulate that in country such as China industry should first follow needs of the agriculture, i.e. industry should primarily focus on producing goods that would increase agricultural output. Such increased output would then be invested towards infrastructure, education and further industrialization.

Note that Chinese communist were not satisfied with such "capitalist" theories. They wanted everything and now - rapid industrialization, modern agriculture, strong military and from beginning of Khrushchev Thaw they strived to reduce dependence on USSR due to ideological divergence and latter Sino-Soviet split. In theory, main difference between Maoism and more mainstream Marxism (Stalinism and Leninism) is in a problem of revolutionary class. Marxism states that working class (proletariat) is a main drive for change. Maoism instead relied on poor peasants, since China didn't have meaningful number of traditional industrial workers. However, in practice, Chinese communists wanted to transform and remold these enormous masses of peasantry into modern socialist (and latter communist) society, even if that meant millions of them would die. Attitude of Chinese communists towards its own population were best described by this quote of Mao Zedong

“I’m not afraid of nuclear war. There are 2.7 billion people in the world; it doesn’t matter if some are killed. China has a population of 600 million; even if half of them are killed, there are still 300 million people left.”

This is obviously about nuclear war, but it shows mindset pretty accurately.

With such mindset, CCP proceeded with destructive policies. It should be noted that collectivization in China begun somewhat before of Great Leap Forward, i.e. already from 1950 some land reforms were enacted. However from 1958 collectivization became massive and compulsory, similar to previous Soviet collectivization and similarly disruptive. Agricultural output dropped, but at the same time due to attempts of industrialization more food was requisitioned to feed growing army of industrial workers and other city dwellers. To add to the burden, villagers were often forcibly put to work on projects like digging canals for irrigation. Communist were prepared to sacrifice thousands in such projects as this Mao quote witnesses :

Wu Zhipu claims he can move 30 billion cubic metres; I think 30,000 people will die. Zeng Xisheng has said that he will move 20 billion cubic metres, and I think that 20,000 people will die. Weiqing only promises 600 million cubic metres, maybe nobody will die.

Overall, collectivization, forced work, employment of new and supposedly modern agricultural techniques (in fact done with little bio-technological knowledge) created Great Chinese Famine of 1958-1962. Countryside was devastated and millions died. Mao was forced to back down a bit, although he arranged comeback with Cultural Revolution. It should be noted that this first wave of industrialization was mostly a failure - due to the lack of even basic industrial knowledge failed projects like backyard furnaces were created. Overall, Mao Zedong and his accomplices cost China at least 30 years of development and likely 100 million deaths.

  • As a sub-category of malice, one should note that if a certain amount of food is produced, reducing the number of people among it whom it is distributed will increase the amount per recipient. If one ignores the people who aren't allowed any food, and if such starvation does not adversely affect food production, restricting distribution may make things look better "on paper".
    – supercat
    Feb 28, 2021 at 17:39
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    "Mao Zedong and his accomplices cost China at least 30 years of development and likely 100 million deaths." - compared to what counterfactual? Compared to the hypothetical possibility of more competent management, or compared to the old regime (whose economic regressiveness cost a comparable number of deaths to famine in the first half of the 20thC alone)?
    – Steve
    Feb 28, 2021 at 19:51
  • @supercat Problem is that actual production of food was significantly reduced. So, it was not the question of starving "useless people". May peasants who were actually very useful, i.e. they could work and produced food before, now starved to death because they were forced to produce low quality pig iron (among other things) . It was not rational malice, it was malice mixed with stupidity.
    – rs.29
    Mar 1, 2021 at 8:23
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    @Steve Considering the fact that Mao actually decreased production, and arguably reforms enacted by Deng Xiaoping in 1980s could have been implemented from the beginning, you get the picture. Note that Xiaoping was also a communist, and far from ideal. Yet, considering vast potential of China, even his mildly competent management yielded significant progress. You could also compare with Japan and South Korea. Bot countries had their own problems, yet they developed much faster and less deadly then China.
    – rs.29
    Mar 1, 2021 at 8:27
  • @rs.29, my purpose is not to argue about the overall competence of Mao, but to clarify on what basis he is being accused of holding development back for "at least 30 years". The comparison to Japan and South Korea is hardly pertinent - Japan was already a first-world country, and South Korea has received massive economic and military subsidy from the Western world, for geopolitical reasons. The history of major 'communist' revolutions in agrarian economies is not that they hold development back, but that industrial development surges compared to unsubsidised capitalist regimes.
    – Steve
    Mar 1, 2021 at 11:42

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