Mao’s War Against Nature

Mao’s War Against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China by Judith Shapiro. 2001.  Cambridge University Press (book review by Alice Friedemann)

The main thesis of this book is that when free speech is squelched, the consequences can be dire for the environment.

Mao was a military leader.  He saw that he could defeat the technologically superior Japanese by sheer force of numbers.  In the fifties, demographers and other scientists became alarmed at the quickly expanding population and started speaking and writing about the need to practice birth control.  Mao stopped them.  He didn’t think you could have enough people.

Mao saw people as being extremely expendable.  He shocked Nikita Khruschev in 1957 while visiting him in Moscow when he said: “We shouldn’t be afraid of atomic missiles.  No matter what kind of war breaks out – conventional or thermonuclear – we’ll win.  As for China, if the imperialists unleash war on us, we may lose more than three hundred million people.   So what?  War is war.  The years will pass and we’ll get to work producing more babies than ever before.”[i]

Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” led to the greatest loss of life in history – it resulted in 35-50 million deaths from starvation.   This came about because of various campaigns.  One of them was to make China a steel-producing nation within five years.  The implementation was a surreal nightmare: people had their cooking pots, the nails from their homes, and other metal that held the infrastructure together melted into steel bars at the village square to meet the production quotas.  The “steel” that resulted was useless.  The metal was such a motley mix, and wasn’t forged at high enough temperatures.

Firewood was used to melt the gathered metal.  This resulted in the devastation of forests across China as millions of trees were cut to fuel the forges.

Simultaneously there was a campaign to rid China of the Four Pests: Sparrows, Rats, Flies, and Mosquitoes.  Schoolchildren were the main actors in the anti-pest drive.  One child recalled: “The whole school went to kill sparrows. We made ladders to knock down their nests, and beat gongs in the evenings, when they were coming home to roost…”  Millions of children went into the hillsides at dusk, there were no tranquil places for the sparrows to retreat to.

Mao thought sparrows were eating grain.  When the sparrows were destroyed, it was discovered that they were the farmers’ best friend, eating scores of insects. The crops were devastated.  Not all of the crops were harvested because people were too busy finding steel to melt and chopping trees down to melt the steel.  Much of the crop that was harvested was appropriated for city dwellers.   The resulting famine lasted for three years.

This disrupted the ecological balance of many of the agricultural areas.  As people starved across china, in labor camps and interior villages, any creature that moved, mice, lizards, birds, rats, deer, moles – anything alive was hunted and eaten.  Plants were decimated as people ate tree bark, seeds, roots, and anything else that was remotely edible.

Mao issued a new offensive to feed people, his  “Take Grain as the Key Link” policy, implemented during the “Learn From Dazhai” campaign.  Dazhai was place where miracles occurred in growing grain.  Miracles indeed, this was a carefully staged Miracle that millions made pilgrimages to and tried to copy in their own villages.

By growing grain everywhere famine would be overcome.   In Dazhai, famous fruit orchards were cut down to grow grain.  Across China, lakes were completely or partially filled in to grow grain.  Trees, tea plantations, medicinal herb gardens, grazing land, all types of crops were torn out and landscapes planted with grain, only grain. Deserts were planted with grain.  Not only was grain planted, it was over-planted, and expected to produce 10-fold over what had grown before.   Farmers, plant nutritionists, soils engineers, and many other people knew this was insane, but could do little to stop it.

The slogan, “Get Grain from the MountainTops, Get Grain from the Lakes” resulted in inappropriate terracing on steep slopes and areas with thin topsoils, which brought deforestation, erosion, and sedimentation.  The filling in of lakes resulted in microclimate changes, increased flooding, and vast filling of wetlands.  In some places, hills were built on flat land so they could be terraced.  Millions of acres have been permanently turned to desert, there are now sandstorms so severe that Beijing is brought to a halt.

Zhang Xianliang writes of his time in a labor camp in barren Ningxia province: “The grassy plains had already been destroyed by those who “Learned from Dazhai”.  On the land before me abandoned fields stretched in all directions.  Now covered with a thick layer of salt, they looked like dirty snow-fields, or like orphans dressed in mourning clothes.  They had been through numerous storms since being abandoned, but you could still see the scars of plough tracks running across their skin.  Man and nature together had been flogged with whips here: the result of “Learn from Dazhai” was to create a barren land, on whose alkaline surface not a blade of grass would grow”.

Mao thought China could conquer nature.  In addition he would remold their souls.    From a newspaper of the time about filling in part of one of China’s largest lakes (p128):
”This great revolution of launching an attack on nature subjected each Revolutionary Committee and the broad revolutionary masses to tempering.  It both created land and tamed people, and greatly promoted the revolution in people’s thought.  In launching an attack on nature, this great revolution promoted a new leap in each line of revolutionary production.  In all Kunming District there occurred a leap like that of 10,000 horses rushing forward, its greatest lesson being: if you do everything according to Chairman Mao Thought, then “mountains can be moved, seas can be filled in, and any miracle among men can be created.

In 150 days of struggle, the mountain changed, the water changed, and the people’s though changed.  People said, “We not only pulled lake water from the reclamation area, we also took out the muddy wastewater of capitalism from the deep parts of our souls…we not only built 10,000 mu (= ? Acres) of farmland, we also built a brand new proletarian world in ourselves.”

The death rate on road building, mining, and the industrial aspects of the revolution reached as high as thirteen percent of the workforce in 1965.  From 1966 to 1975, the annual rate of death was 5.42 percent.  Vast steel mils were built to win the “battles” of road building and other projects.  Their placement often was such that they polluted vast rivers downstream below them, and the cities around, the air choked with pollution because the plant was in a valley surrounded by mountains or other poor geographical locations.

About three thousand dams were built during Mao’s reign, most of them were poorly constructed or caused more harm than good.   Then and now those brave enough to speak out against these projects are silenced, usually by being sent to prison camps.  The Three Gorges dam is nearing completion, sure to wreak more environmental harm on vast areas of China.

Mao left a horrible legacy that is felt to this day.  But even now China is not able to move in an environmentally sound direction.  Greed has replaced revolutionary fervor.  Vast unresponsive bureaucracies make change almost impossible.  Corruption, lack of information, and the inability of environmentalists to communicate problems to the public from suppression of free speech continue to make progress difficult.

P80: “Perhaps the oddest challenges to nature’s laws arose from the effort to “Break Through Superstition” by encouraging untrained people, even schoolchildren, to conduct far-fetched experiments in grafting and interbreeding.  Claims reached the fantastic.  In Shaanxi, a rooster was made to bear chicks; at Northwest Agricultural University, a pig was created without ears or tail.  A sheep was caused to bear five lambs instead of the usual one to three.  A bean was weightat more than 50 grams, a pumpkin grown as heavy as a man.  Persimmon trees bore grapes, pear trees yielded apples. Rabbits were bred with pigs and pigs with cows.

Millions of young people were ripped from their homes and sent to the countryside.   City born and bred, they unintentionally wreaked further havoc on the environment as they desperately tried to survive in alien places.


[i] Kruschev Remembers: The Last Testament, translated and edited by Strobe Talbott, 1974, p. 255

This entry was posted in Agriculture, Books. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Mao’s War Against Nature

  1. Virginia Cox says:

    After watching all of the Wild China episodes, my curiosity brought me to this site, and article. I am guilty of being absorbed in everyday life and being ignorant to the threats that complacency create. Thank you for posting this article. I have found it, others will as well. One more person to remember what devastation occurs when Man interferes with nature.