Mass Communication during the Great Leap Forward, 1958 – 1962

The Communist Party of China used various mediums to mass communicate communist ideology to peasants during the Great Leap Forward of 1958-1962. The circulation of posters and official documents were some of the most frequently and consistently used devices in this period, with each medium effectively reinforcing the other. Methods such as newspapers, radio and the distribution of Mao’s works were also used, however these approaches became more prevalent during the Cultural Revolution initiated by Mao Zedong in 1965. During Mao’s reign, portrayal of communist ideologies often remained coherent and consistent in all forms of mass communication, however its focus and therefore representation gradually evolved over time. Though the initial purpose of distributing material promoting communist ideology was to motivate and bond peasants for a unified cause, there developed a steady shift toward the indoctrination of the public and the presentation of falsities through propaganda.

As a result of the limited literature on public reception of forms of mass communication during the Great Leap, it is difficult to understand how effective the use of posters, official documents and newspapers were in connecting with the peasant population. Historiography thus far often features analyses of what policies and values were enforced by Mao and the CCP but provides little information on how effectively this was communicated to and received by the public. Most works and data are based on the Cultural Revolution, as it is an era that consisted of concepts more commonly associated with mass communication and indoctrination. Whilst portrayal of ideology was the primary concern during the Cultural Revolution, during the Great Leap, emphasis was placed on agriculture and industrialisation with ideology merely underpinning state policy. However, as literacy also plays a crucial part in the reception of print communication, it is difficult to understand to what extent each form of communication was effective, whether the peasants received it at all and if they did, whether or not it played a vital role in their obedience to Mao’s regime. Since 98% of the farm population was organised into approximately 26,000 communes managed by party officials and associates, it is likely that a considerable portion of peasants were exposed to at least one medium of mass communication. Therefore, analysis of mass communication will focus on the government’s representation of communist ideology over time, to what extent the devices used were intended as propaganda and how ideology underpinned how state and policy actions were portrayed.

Figure A. Brave the wind and the waves, everything has remarkable abilities. (1958)

Figure A. Brave the wind and the waves, everything has remarkable abilities. (1958)

Figure B. Go all out and aim high. The East leaps forward, the West is worried.

Figure B. Go all out and aim high. The East leaps forward, the West is worried. (1958)

Though state aims changed during the latter years of the Great Leap, the Communist ideology remained consistent across all mediums of print. Posters and official documents conveyed the same concept of engaging in productive labour for the well being of the community as opposed to the individual. The posters distributed in the year 1958 (see Figures A and B) both indicate a swift forward motion of a cohesive group of people, celebrating the success of the Great Leap. It is evident that during the first two years of the Great Leap, most posters depict a utopian China. The colours used are bright, people are portrayed with smiles on their faces and traditional China is illustrated as a modernising nation triumphing over the West. Men, women and children are all well-clothed and portrayed with a certain role in society, all of which are highlighted as significant for the advancement of the nation. Figure A demonstrates that “everything has remarkable abilities,”indicating a motivational and positive message towards the public. Alongside the projection of a strong work ethic in the posters was the introduction of the “Directive on education work” issued by the CCP Central Committee and the State Council in September 1958. This document was the stepping stone for critical educational reform. It resulted in aspects of politics, CCP leadership and productive labour to be heavily incorporated into the curriculum and outlined the future changes to be implemented throughout the education system. All educational institutions were assigned with overseers from within the CCP in order to promote the new “work-study” movement. The document became the basis of integrating the youth into party plans.


Figure C. The vegetables are green, the cucumbers plump, the yield is abundant.


Figure D. Start the movement to increase production and practise thrift, with foodstuffs and steel at the centre, with great force! (1960)


Figure E. Develop industrial and agricultural production, realize simultaneous development of industry and agriculture. (1960)

Although agricultural production fell for several years after 1958 with steel following a decade of decline after 1960, forms of mass communication falsely advertised continually improving conditions. According to Zhou, Mao refused to accept reality and felt that the success and portrayal of the Great Leap was more significant than the lives of peasants. In harmony with his beliefs, Mao ensured that forms of communication consisted of positive imagery irrespective of the truth. Figure C shows a poster of a peasant woman surrounded by an abundance of healthy crops in 1959, a time where harvest shortages had been resulting in loss of lives. There was an evident decline in living standards which were worsened by natural disasters that resulted in the death of seventeen million people in 1960 alone. Though posters maintained a coherent ideology through the presentation of false information, there developed a stylistic change of imagery within them. Both Figures D and E illustrate a much less romanticised view of peasant lifestyles. There exists an unmistakable transition from a blissful Chinese utopia to a focus on tangible physical goals demonstrated through wheat and steel increasingly becoming primary focus of the images.

Though the use of mass communication had several purposes from the onset of its deployment, the increasing failure of the Great Leap resulted in its primary function being reduced to indoctrination and propaganda. In 1961, output figures, charts and diagrams with growth projections were frequently displayed in factory shops. Photographs of model workers were displayed under glass on ‘boards of honour’ whilst posters, ribbons and slogans decorated the interiors of work stations in order to ensure focus was placed on expectations of Mao and the CCP. Workers were additionally bombarded with propaganda through the playing of radio programmes through loudspeakers in factories, which indicates a clear move from communication for the purpose of motivation towards efforts of indoctrination. Each medium emphasised the significance of Mao and the CCP and highlighted the role of peasants in society as well as what was expected of them.


Figure F. The sunlight of Mao Zedong Thought illuminates the road of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. (1966)


Figure G. Respectfully wish Chairman Mao eternal life! (1968)

Mass communication truly progressed into fully-fledged propaganda a few years after the end of the Great Leap with media focusing on strategies to enthuse peasants to revive the nation from the failures of the Great Leap and place their trust in Mao as their saviour. A newspaper article from the People’s Daily in 1965, written by the party secretary of a production brigade, highlights that during the years 1960 and 1961 brigade cadres did not do enough to “heighten the masses’ class consciousness and enthusiasm for production” which resulted in low efficiency of workers. He later expressed that as a result of arming individuals with the “thought of Mao Zedong” and encouraging them to engage with the works of Mao, people became more understanding of the ideology behind statecraft and therefore more enthused about production. This shift of focus onto Mao is evident in posters being produced post 1962 (see Figures F and G) as they have a common theme of presenting him in place of the sun, a metaphor to indicate his key role in the physical and mental development of the nation. The colour red, frequently associated with Communism and the same colour as Mao’s popular Little Red Book of quotations, is featured in almost every poster. Orders such as demanding respect and loyalty towards him as well as stressing key ideological values became more common over time. Mediums of communication upheld the same message of praising communes and motivating people to increase production but this was gradually achieved through depicting Mao and his values as a reason to improve the nation rather than abstract concepts of sacrifice, endurance and togetherness. The extent to which devices of mass communication were intended as propaganda significantly developed throughout the period.

In conclusion, mass communication played a key part in transmitting communist ideology to the public. It was an important tool that aided in the mass mobilising of the peasantry for the Great Leap and ensured that party policies were brought into force with as much input from the population as possible. A common feature in all mediums of communication was the continual presence of a fictitious dimension. In 1958, a strong portrayal of an unrealistic utopian China gradually evolved into the masking of truths as the Great Leap became increasingly unsuccessful post 1959. After Mao declared the failure of the Great Leap in 1962, almost all methods of communication became cornerstones for propaganda as they fixated on recuperating and reiterating the cult of Mao. Regardless of this fictitious dimension, the commitment of Mao and the CCP to maintaining party support was unfaltering, extending government communications to various aspects of the lives of Chinese people, including education and the workplace. The values of the CCP were therefore successfully manifested through differing forms of media and legislation. How it was received is uncertain, but it is clear that the CCP managed to command obedience and involvement from its people.

Written by Aila Bicer



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