Leaping Forward in Nanjing: Urban Communes and Productive Peddlers, 1958-1960

Katherine Molyneux

University Of Melbourne

During the Great Leap Forward (c1957-1962), a series of radical policy experiments attempted to realise Mao’s vision of China’s communist future, reshaping Chinese urban culture in the process. Recent research has drawn attention to the impact of the expansion of state power into everyday life and of female employment in the cities (Ding, 2013; Lanza, 2019). Aiming to augment and complicate existing knowledge, this paper explores the reorganisation of the daily economy by the state and its social effects during the urban commune movement of c1958-1961 in Nanjing – a period marked by institutional efforts to turn housewives and itinerant peddlers into productive participants in a socialist workforce. Drawing on previously untapped archival sources, I examine the loss of economic independence of petty merchants and handicraftsmen due to their temporary assimilation into state-sanctioned employment, and how they navigated this loss with limited means. In doing so, I show how the urban communes disrupted an extant independent economy of everyday exchanges between small merchants and housewives. Although the commune experiment was short lived, Mao’s industrial utopia fundamentally restructured daily life in the city, bringing it within the ambit of the state.


Katherine Molyneux is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Melbourne. Her thesis focusses on the getihu of the city of Nanjing in 1980s China and their antecedents, exploring the historical process by which a disparate mass of peddlers and handicraftsmen in pre-Revolutionary China were classified and transformed over the course of the Mao era.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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