Man Must Conquer Nature: Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the Environment

Any explanation of the environmental problems of the world we live in falls short without a mention of China, be it climate change, ozone depletion or over-exploitation of natural resources. Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward in the 1950s was an adventurous attempt to ‘conquer’ nature through human intervention, combining the repression of fellow humans with the repression of nature’s course. However, documentation of environmental changes during this ‘war against nature’ is sparse, and the sources that exist are often semi fictionalised to understate the truth of the damage that Mao’s Cultural Revolution inflicted upon the environment. Maoist thought suggested that the human race were fundamentally distinct from the natural world, and as such humans should mobilise to overcome the obstacles that nature places in their way.

Three Gorges Dam, photo from Wikipedia
Three Gorges Dam, photo from Wikipedia

Make The River Yield The Way

Mao put forward a defiant philosophy in 1958 – ‘make the high mountain bow its head, make the river yield the way’. China’s mission to conquer nature was carried out with military efficiency and accuracy, with families separated and entire towns dissolved in the name of a stronger China. The country’s water conservancy projects intended to keep up with the progress of the Soviet Union, and stated they only needed a further two years to catch up with Britain. The construction of the Red Flag Canal saw more earth moved in a single week in 1959 than the total moved to create the entire Panama Canal.

The hydraulic engineer Huang Wanli wrote that only 23 large and medium dams existed in China before the new government arrived in 1949, a figure which shot to 80,000 in the following 40 years, 2,976 of which had collapsed under nature’s strain. Wanli strongly opposed the plans to construct the Three Gorges Dam on the monstrous Yangtze River, predicting that the dam’s mechanisms would become blocked by the river’s natural siltation process, resulting in extreme flooding and devastation, but he was silenced. Marking the start of China’s boundless mission to control floods and install hydro-electric revolutionary projects which would eventually generate enough energy to power the entire of China, the dam was built regardless, and sure enough, the flooding and ecosystem damage that followed brought more financial damage and devastation than the government could have anticipated. The effects of widespread dam-building and well-digging, such as salinization and alkalinization of water tables are still felt by Chinese to this day in their quality of water and land conditions.

With Many People, Strength Is Great

The government prioritised production that would be maximised by the great population numbers, yet few government officials thought of the consequences. Public propaganda pushed the population in the direction of producing more children to boost the country’s military strength and consequent survival on the world stage. By 1952, all contraceptive devices disappeared from the market, mothers were rewarded with more ration coupons each time they produced a baby and celebrated as ‘mother heroes’ that were saving the country from war defeat. With the blame falling directly at Mao Zedong’s door, the slogan ‘with many people, strength is great’ rang across China since the communist party began. In 1954, Mao claimed that even with nuclear weapons, America could never wipe out China’s 9 million km of territory and 600 million strong population. The figure itself stunned the leadership who had left population numbers unsupervised since the communist success, and Mao later commented that there were so many Chinese people, it would soon be necessary to stand in line to take a walk.

An economist wrote in 1957 that the Chinese overpopulation was soon going to take its toll on the environment, yet this warning fell on deaf ears, and he was accused of supporting the suffering that came with a capitalist approach to government, and he was eventually forced out of his job. That year, the government took family planning measures to import contraception and allow birth control methods, but the action had been taken too late. The one child policy introduced in 1979 has still not saved China from this grave mistake, and to this day the country is still paying a fine price to reduce the drastic population numbers.

With Company They Grow Easily, When They Grow Together They Will Be Comfortable

Imported ‘scientific’ theories turned traditional rural customs on their heads and in 1958, farmers participated in great competition to beat each others’ grain yields, casting aside sustainable harvesting and common sense in an effort to reshape the nonhuman world. China had transformed nature to the point that the earth was producing more grain than could possibly be harvested and stored. Farmers were instructed to plough deeper than ever and plant crops closer to each other as a means of transforming the very soil to respond quicker and more efficiently, and the grain suffocated under the strain, rotting and contaminating the entire field. The Great Leap Forward instructed farmers to launch a direct attack upon the wild sparrows that had been apparently eating too much grain and reducing productivity, launching a mass cull of an innocent species.

Professor Hou Guangjun, a Sichuan teacher who offered ideas for ‘natural nonploughing’ to promote a revolutionary non-invasive approach to agriculture in the early 1950s, was targeted once the Great Leap began, on the grounds his ideas were counter-productive. If his methods had been adopted nationwide, lives would have been spared and land would have remained healthy for generations.

Greater, Faster, Better, More Economical

September 1958 saw the entire country mobilised to smelt steel and iron to meet impossibly high productivity targets, with villages constructing their own ‘backyard furnaces’ to sacrifice their own tools for the smelting of 10,700,000 tonnes of essentially wasted steel, which could not be forged into anything useful. By the close of 1958, 100 million peasants, one in six Chinese, participated under the gleaming promises of a Chinese utopia for all, beginning with the smelting of useful steel to create new tools. Relentless exertion and exhaustion in fear of falling behind on productivity targets or being seen by neighbours as lazy caused the deaths of countless numbers, including children. The pressure to produce a greater amount faster and better than one’s neighbours became too much. Forests were inevitably destroyed by the relentless need to fuel the furnaces, which naturally led to geographical erosion, desertification and climate change across China which transformed once healthy land into barren, unproductive earth. Some forests were never to return, as research in the late 1980s stated forested areas now claimed only 8 percent of Chinese land, down from 13 percent in 1949.

By the winter of 1958, the combination of both exerted harvest efforts and pointless steelworks resulted in the greatest man-made famine in history. The number of lives lost is uncertain, although historians estimate from 23 million to as much as 42 million from famine alone.

Get Grain From The Mountaintops, Get Grain From The Lakes

Dazhai terraces, photo from: Virtual Tourist
Dazhai terraces, photo from: Virtual Tourist

Under a policy of dogmatic uniformity, peasants were encouraged to remould the landscape, regardless of their geographical location and the specific needs of their land, so that land in the north looked and responded identically to land in the south. Across the nation, Chinese were called upon to recreate the example of Dazhai, a commune that left behind the devastation of natural disasters through self-reliance, refusing state compensations of grain while also promising to contribute its own significant figure of grain to the state. Through conquering nature by hand, Dazhai forged hills into stepped landscapes to maximise production potential. However, terracing of sloped land forced deforestation, and brought with it it erosion, sedimentation and ecosystem corrosion, while the transformation of lakes negatively impacted climates and forced widespread flooding. China’s landscape still suffers today from the irreparable damage of terraced slopes, yet these striking horizons appear as picturesque tourist attractions.

China’s misinformed past since the rise of communism in 1949 has irreparably impacted its climate and land conditions, and while China battles on, the nation will never forget the Cultural Revolution. It is impossible to determine the exact number of lives claimed by the Cultural Revolution in its entirety, but the natural as well as human devastation of the grand philosophy of Maoist thought is undeniable.


Elvin, Mark, The Pattern of the Chinese Past (London, 1973).

Shapiro, Judith, Mao’s War Against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China (Cambridge, 2001).

3 thoughts on “Man Must Conquer Nature: Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the Environment

  1. Pingback: Ending the Conquest of Nature

  2. Pingback: Ending the Conquest of NatureCulture Collective

  3. Pingback: The Land Ethic – Colloquium Course Blog

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