Mass killings of landlords under Mao Zedong

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Mass killings of landlords under Mao Zedong
Location People's Republic of China
Date 1947[1]–1951[2][3]
(1947–1976)[note 1]
Target Extermination of landlords
Attack type
Classicide,[4][5][6] mass murder
Deaths 4,500,000[7] (from 1947[8]–1951)
13,500,000 to 14,250,000
(from 1947–1976)[note 2]
Perpetrators Radicalized Chinese peasants[2]

Part of Mao Zedong's land reform during the late phase of the Chinese Civil War[1] and the early People's Republic of China[2] was a campaign of mass killings of landlords[3] in order to redistribute land to the peasant class and landless workers.[9] It resulted in millions of deaths. Those killed were targeted on the basis of class rather than ethnicity, so terming the campaign genocide is, sensu stricto, incorrect. The neologism "classicide" is more accurate.[4] Class motivated mass killings continued through the almost 30 years of social and economic transformation in Maoist China resulting in the deaths of 90% to 95% of the what used to be 15 million members of the landlord class in China according to Harry Wu.[4]


Initial classicide (1947–1951)

In 1946, three years before the foundation of the People's Republic of China (PRC), The Communist Party of China launched a thorough land reform, which won the party millions of supporters among the poor and middle peasantry. The land and other property of landlords were expropriated and redistributed so that each household in a rural village would have a comparable holding. This agrarian revolution was made famous in the West by William Hinton's book Fanshen.

1947–1950s killings

The idea of a mass extermination of the landlord class was already planned by 1947 by Kang Sheng an expert on terror tactics.[1] Ren Bishi, a member of the party's Central Committee, likewise stated in a 1948 speech that "30,000,000 landlords and rich peasants would have to be destroyed."[7] Shortly after the founding of the PRC, land reform, according to Mao biographer Philip Short, "lurched violently to the left" with Mao laying down new guidelines for "not correcting excesses prematurely."[2] Beatings, while not officially promoted by the party, were not prohibited either. While landlords had no protection, those branded as "rich peasants" received moderate protections from violence and those on the lower end were fully protected.[10]

Mao in this vein insisted that the people themselves, not the security organs, should become involved in killing landlords who had oppressed them.[2] This was quite different from the Soviet practice, in which the NKVD would arrest counterrevolutionaries and then have them secretly executed and often buried before sunrise. Mao thought that peasants who killed landlords with their bare hands would become permanently linked to the revolutionary process in a way that passive spectators could not be.[2] Those condemned as landlords were buried alive, dismembered, strangled and shot.[10] The killing eventually gave rise to the saying "dou di zhu", or "fight the landlord" which was used by Mao to build support for the party.[8]

Death toll of the 1947–1951 killings

The actual number of people killed in the land reform campaign is believed to be lower than Ren Bishi's estimate, but it still runs into the millions,[7] because there was a policy which required the selection of "at least one landlord, and usually several, in virtually every village for public execution".[11] R. J. Rummel, an analyst of government killings, or "democide", gives a "reasonably conservative figure" of about 4,500,000 landlords and better-off peasants killed.[7] Philip Short estimates that at least one to three million landlords were killed along with the members of their families, either by being beaten to death on the spot by enraged peasants at mass meetings organized by local communist party work teams or by being reserved for public execution later on.[2] Estimates abroad ranged as high as 28,000,000 deaths.[7] In 1976 the U.S. State Department estimated that a million landlords may have been killed in the land reform;[12] Mao estimated that only 800,000 landlords were killed.[7]

Historian Walter Scheidel notes that the violence of the land reform campaign had a significant impact on economic inequality. He gives as an example the village of Zhangzhuangcun, made famous by Hinton's book Fanshen:

Great Leap Forward (1958–1962)

The Great Leap Forward was an economic and social campaign by the Communist Party of China (CPC) from 1958 to 1962. The campaign was led by Chairman Mao Zedong and aimed to rapidly transform the country from an agrarian economy into a socialist society through rapid industrialization and collectivization. However, it is widely considered to have caused the Great Chinese Famine. 20 to 43 million people perished from starvation during the Great Leap Forward.[13] Not all deaths during the Great Leap Forward were due to starvation. Frank Dikötter estimates that at least 2.5 million people were beaten or tortured to death and an additional 1 to 3 million people committed suicide.[14] The Great Leap Forward also led to the greatest destruction of real estate in human history, outstripping any of the bombing campaigns during World War II.[15] Approximately 30 to 40 percent of all houses were reduced to rubble.[16] Frank Dikötter states that "homes were pulled down to make fertilizer, to build canteens, to relocate villagers, to straighten roads, to make place for a better future beckoning ahead or simply to punish their owners.”[15]

Great Leap Forward as classicide

Edwin Daniel Jacob made the case that the Great Leap Forward was a genocidal campaign along class lines quote: "The Great Leap Forward constituted genocide, as Mao employed all of Stanton’s “Eight Steps of Genocide” against his Chinese compatriots in his unsuccessful effort to launch China into a sterling model of communism. Mao classified the Chinese agrarians according to economic lines, labeling them peasants and wealthy peasants."[13]

Cultural Revolution (1966–1976)

The Cultural Revolution, formally the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, was a sociopolitical movement that took place in China from 1966 until 1976. Set into motion by Mao Zedong, then Chairman of the Communist Party of China, its stated goal was to preserve 'true' Communist ideology in the country by purging remnants of capitalist and traditional elements from Chinese society, and to re-establish Maoist thought as the dominant ideology within the Party. At least 400,000[17] to by some estimates 10,000,000 people[18] perished during the Cultural Revolution as the result of communal massacres and starvation for the sake of these inter-party struggles.

Class motivations in the Cultural Revolution

By the time the Cultural Revolution broke out, the landlord class had all but faded away, so factions of the Chinese Communist Party used class terms as a means to purge each other under the guise of fighting the bourgeoisie.[19]

Fate of the landlords after Mao

After 60 years the Chinese Communist Party has started the reversal of collectivism and have allowed farmers to own land with some limitations.[8]

See also


  1. Class killings continued until the end of Mao's rule which lasted from 1949–1976.[4]
  2. 90% to 95% of China's 15 million landlords were killed during the entirety of Mao's reign which lasted from 1949–1976.[4]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Moore, Malcolm. "Children and families suffered in Mao purges". Telegraph. According to Mao, the Unknown Story, a biography of the dictator by Jung Chang, the fight against the landlords was drawn up between March and June 1947 by Kang Sheng, an expert on terror tactics. ... Some grisly scenes took place right under Mao's nose in Jiaxian county, where he was staying from August to November 1947.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 Short, Philip (2001). Mao: A Life. Owl Books. pp. 436–437. ISBN 0-8050-6638-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 James Palmer, The Death of Mao: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Birth of the New China, Faber & Faber, 2012, ch. 1: "Who will protect us now": "[live burial] was followed by the mass killings of landlords, rich peasants and supposed collaborators and Nationalist supporters in 1949–51, when any wild accusation could result in a lynching."
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Wu, Harry. "Classicide in Communist China". Comparative Civilizations Review.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Martin Shaw. What Is Genocide?. Cambridge, England, UK; Malden, Massachusetts, USA: Polity Press, 2007. p. 72.
  6. Su, Yang. "Collective Killings in Rural China".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 Rummel, Rudolph J. (2007). China's bloody century: genocide and mass murder since 1900. Transaction Publishers. p. 223. ISBN 978-1-4128-0670-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Moore, Malcolm. "Mao's hated landlords allowed to return to China". Telegraph.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. 9.0 9.1 Scheidel, Walter (2017). The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century. Princeton University Press. p. 226. ISBN 978-0-691-16502-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. 10.0 10.1 Scheidel, Walter (2017). The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century. Princeton University Press. p. 225. ISBN 978-0-691-16502-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Twitchett, Denis; John K. Fairbank; Roderick MacFarquhar. The Cambridge history of China. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-24336-X. Retrieved 2008-08-23.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Stephen Rosskamm Shalom. Deaths in China Due to Communism. Center for Asian Studies Arizona State University, 1984. ISBN 0-939252-11-2 pg 24
  13. 13.0 13.1 "Mao and The Great Leap Forward". Rutgers.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Frank Dikötter (2010). Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–62. pp. 298, 304.
  15. 15.0 15.1 Dikötter (2010). pp. xi, xii.
  16. Dikötter (2010). p. 169.
  17. Maurice Meisner (1999). Mao's China and After: A History of the People's Republic, Third Edition. p. 354.
  18. "The Chinese Case: Was It Genocide or Poor Policy?" by Merrill Goldman featuring Lydia Perry (Tuesday, December 5, 1995): "The Cultural Revolution was modern China's most destructive episode. It is estimated that 100 million people were persecuted and about five to ten million people, mostly intellectuals and party officials lost their lives."
  19. Rees, Jeremy (n.d.). "Class Struggle and the Cultural Revolution".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links