Teacher's Guide: Great Leap

Chairman Mao introduces communism to China with promises to modernize the nation and represent the peasants. For decades, loyal masses follow his revolutionary dictums, often with disastrous results.

Unit Themes and Topics:
changing role of government
the Cultural Revolution
the Great Leap Forward
human rights and human endurance
mass movements

Connections Across History
connection: when: where: program:
political and economic revolution 1917-1940 Soviet Union "Red Flag"
Japan's and Korea's rise to economic prominence 1951-1988 Japan, Korea "Asia Rising"

Qi Youyi
(factory worker, China)

"The big bosses in our factory were executed immediately. The less important ones were forced to reform through hard labor. . . We beat them if they didn't work hard enoughthat's the way they treated us. In the past, they'd been the masters; now we were."
photographic portrait of Qi Youyi


Before Watching

1. Define the difference between reform and revolution. How do revolutions encompass social, economic, and political reforms? Ask students to share what they know about past revolutions.

2. As students watch the program, have them write down specific ways the Chinese revolution changed ordinary people's lives.

After Watching

1. As shown in the program, what conditions contributed to the communists' victory? How did the Chinese government try to change the lives of ordinary people and why?

2. Before communism, Chinese peasant Hu Benxu recalls, "There was justice for the rich but none for the poor...You can't believe how badly the poor were treated." Did the communists bring justice for the poor? Based on Qi Youyi's quotation, do you think he believes the actions he describes were just? Why or why not? Do you think that they were just? Why or why not?


Have students research the May 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square. First, divide the class into four groups: supporters of the Chinese democracy movement, communist leaders, American reporters, and Chinese reporters. After the groups research their assigned roles, have the first two groups present their philosophies and goals to their followers or constituents. Then have the second two groups report their versions of the speeches for their newspapers. Compare and discuss the results.

Have students explore different perspectives on China today by examining the debate over granting China "most favored nation" trading status. Ask students to research different points of view on the United States' economic and political relationship with China. Remind students to consider China's rapid economic growth in the twentieth century, reacquisition of Hong Kong, and record on human rights. Then have them imagine they are a cabinet member or advisor and write a memo to the president recommending a course of action.

The Cultural Revolution

The following lesson focuses on a program segment about changes brought by the Cultural Revolution. Teachers, government officials, and former Red Guard members recall the dramatic changes, denunciations, and abuse, as well as the critical role of young people in the Red Guard.

Program Segment
approximately 25 minutes

The production of Mao's red book of quotations

The end of the program


Before Watching

1. Give examples of peer pressure in your life. Why do you think many teenagers conform to certain behavior? How do teenagers use pressure to coerce peers to conform? How do television and radio commercials use slogans to encourage certain behavior? How does conformity among adults compare to conformity among teenagers? Do you think it is human nature to conform? Explain.

2. As students watch the program segment, have them write down the Chinese government's strategies to promote conformity among young people during the Cultural Revolution.

After Watching

1. Why did Mao launch the Cultural Revolution? Why do you think he chose young people to be the revolution's vanguard? What qualities associated with youth might have made students eager to follow his precepts? Why do you think students were willing to denounce, torture, and kill people they knew well?

2. Beijing opera singer Tong Xiangling says, "As artists, we were engineers of human souls." Why was cultural change an instrumental part of political and economic change in the Cultural Revolution? When, if ever, should a government use culture to reinforce ideology or reforms? What is lost materially and psychologically when a government destroys parts of a country's cultural heritage?


To help students appreciate Chinese life before and during the Cultural Revolution, have them read the introduction and first chapter of Son of the Revolution, a memoir by Heng Liang and Judith Shapiro (Knopf, 1983). Then ask students to write their reactions to the experiences Liang describes and to share their reactions with the class. Discuss how the revolution shaped Liang's family life, how personal and political aspects of life became intertwined, how the events and conditions described in the chapter laid the groundwork for the revolution, and how the experiences of Liang's generation might have prepared them for their role in it.

To follow up, have students read the rest of the book, or read and write reports on other memoirs about this time period, such as:

  • Cheng, Nien. Life and Death in Shanghai. New York: Viking Penguin, 1988.
  • Fulang, Lo. Morning Breeze: A True Story of China's Cultural Revolution. San Francisco: China Books and Periodicals, 1989.
  • Gao, Yuan. Born Red: A Chronicle of the Cultural Revolution. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987.
  • Wakeman, Carolyn. To the Storm: The Odyssey of a Revolutionary Chinese Woman. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.
  • Wen, Chihua. The Red Mirror: Children of China's Cultural Revolution. Boulder: Westview Press, 1994.

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