The great leap forward- a disaster for Chinese antique furniture

China history great leap forward

(The following is a few slides from one my classes on Chinese Antiques. Sooner or later I hope to post all the slides here along with videos.)

China history great leap forward


A Bit of Background

The Great Leap Forward was a socialist mass movement designed to harness China’s enormous peasant labor force in order to rapidly transform China from an agrarian society into a modern industrial society. The main goal was to simultaneously surpass England and “catch up” with the United states in terms of economic and living standards All this within 15 years! Rapid industrialization and collectivization were the primary strategies.


Some Facts and Figures


I must be careful here not to get sidetracked as the history is fascinating. So, in order to stay focused, I will touch on the main points only (despite my strong desire to get lost in such a interesting part of China’s history).

  • In 1957 steel production in China was approximately 5 million tons. In comparison, steel production in the United States was around 102 million tons.
  • It was hoped that the target of 80 million tons of steel would be met or exceeded by 1962, in other words within five years.
  • All farms were gradually collectivized into “people’s communes,” essentially rural collectives of sometimes up to 5,000 families.
  • Mao believed that the production targets could be achieved using small traditional blast furnaces throughout the countryside, often in the communes that had recently been established.
  • Part this plan called for people to make steel by smelting scrap metal reclaimed from farm and/or household items such as pots and pans.


backyard furnaces great leap forward china


Unfortunately the plan was a disaster. Most of the pig iron produced could not be turned into usable steel for industrial use and was a total waste. And because farmers were encouraged to make steel rather then tend to crops, harvests were missed and crop yields declined which eventually led to country wide famine. It is said that up to 45 million people starved over the next few years. Entire mountainsides were stripped of trees to provide fuel for the furnaces. Farming tools such as rakes and shovels were lost to the furnaces as were millions of pots and pans.

Its Effect on Antique Furniture


missing brass hardware on chinese furniture

In addition to trees, other kinds of “scrap wood” such as doorways, windows and furniture was also “reclaimed”and subsequently used to fuel the furnaces. For many items that survived the furnace, hardware was still stripped off and melted down. Therefore, pieces found in China after this period commonly are either missing the original brass/iron hardware or have already had the hardware replaced in recent times. Each of the cabinets and trunks below are seen in original un-restored form – minus their original brass or iron hardware.

hardware missing on chinese furniture

While its always possible for a piece to have lost a clasp or a pull along the way, the stark differences in oxidation and color (where the hardware was removed) often illustrates the loss occurred in more recent times.  Sometimes this results in crude but functional replaces and its not unusual to see all sorts of mismatched contemporary hardware fitted to genuine Chinese antique furniture.

replaced clasp on chinese antique wooden trunk

Its interesting to note that items from city seemed to have fared better and the chances of original hardware is greater then the countryside which is consistent with the history. But who knows what other metal items were lost to the furnaces during this time…

Both of these books are excellent and fascinating tales of the great leap forward. From cannibalism to selling flesh, this is the tale of the struggle of millions to survive this disastrous period in China’s contemporary history.



More sources of information



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1 Comment

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