Miracles and fairy tales: The “Great Leap Forward” in Chinese newsreels

03 April 2018

Area Studies | Cultural Studies | History | Politics

Having toiled over several hundred hours of socialist film output, the increasingly left-wing, heavily unionised proletariat of the Аdam Matskii Digi Werks often jest of pin-up tractors, heroic cosmonauts and blast furnace appreciation societies. Nevertheless, despite the kitsch aesthetic we’ve come to admire, the story of twentieth century communism was one of muddied glory.

China Today 1961 No. 11. Digitised from the archives of the British Film Institute (BFI).

This week marks the publication of Newsreels & Cinemagazines, the second module of Socialism on Film: The Cold War and International Propaganda. The latest release adds nearly 1,000 documentaries and newsreels to a collection which charts social, technological and political progress across the Soviet Union, China, East Germany and beyond. Communist societies, we learn, are packed with happy peasants, aerobatic athletes, futuristic factories and spas galore.


Coincidentally, this year also marks the 60th anniversary of the beginning of China’s Great Leap Forward (1958-1962). Under the auspices of Chairman Mao, the Chinese Communist Party laid out a programme which aimed to rapidly transform their agrarian economy into an industrial, collectivised, socialist state. Produced by the Central Newsreel and Documentary Film Studio of the People’s Republic of China, newsreel series China Today provides a unique, state-sponsored narrative of bumper crop yields, cultural exploits and factory construction in this period.


China Today No. 9 1958 is representative of the propagandist tone of the series:

“In a barren land with a rather cold climate, the … co-op has harvested a total of more than 64,849 catties of rice over a little over one mu of land in the second rice crop. The average yield reaches 60,437 catties per mu, which is a wonderful miracle. … 1958 is an unusual year, wherein lots of fairy tale-like miracles have appeared in our land. With creative labour, we Chinese people have added a glorious page in the agricultural history of the world.”


L: China Today 1962 No. 22, and R: China Today 1961 No. 1. Digitised from the archives of the British Film Institute (BFI).

If 1958 was an unusual and glorious fairy-tale, 1959 would signal the beginning of a nightmare. Away from the camera lenses, behind the carefully curated curtain of these black and white newsreels, Mao’s policies had instigated an unprecedented agricultural crisis. Alongside adverse weather conditions, the collectivist, “close planting”, sparrow-hunting and irrigation practices advocated by the chirpy narrators of China Today, would lead to increasingly scant crop yields. Scholars estimate that the Great Chinese Famine may well have claimed as many as 55 million lives. It is unlikely, however, that the world will ever know the true toll; the term “starvation” was officially prohibited during this period. Nevertheless, while millions starved, the cameras rolled, capturing a China of smiling workers and abundant harvests.


As propaganda, China Today stands in stark contrast to other series included in Socialism on Film; GDR Magazine, Around the Soviet Union and Czechoslovak Life may trumpet modern housing, superior childcare and psychotically chipper industrial workers, but their utopian vision of socialist society would not obscure one of the twentieth century’s greatest tragedies. While features like these may not always be rooted in fact, they certainly show us how countries like China wanted to be viewed by the world, and the benefits they believed socialism would sow.


Digitised from the archives of the British Film Institute (BFI), Socialism on Film: The Cold War and International Propaganda is a collection of documentaries, newsreels and features that reveal the world as seen by film makers in socialist countries around the world.

Module I Wars & Revolutions and Module II Newsreels & Cinemagazines are available now. For more information, including trial access and price enquiries, please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

About the Author

Lindsay Gulliver

Lindsay Gulliver

Since joining the editorial team at Adam Matthew, I have worked on a range of resources charting the history of colonial America, nineteenth-century publishing and socialist propaganda. My main academic interests lie in cultural history and Thatcherism, but I enjoy researching all areas of modern history.