Cultural heritage and backyard iron smelting


Backyard blast furnaces in Sunan, Gansu

A group of more than 150 steel furnaces stretching two kilometers across a hillside was recently discovered in Gansu Province.

The furnaces date from the Great Leap Forward, when the entire country was mobilized to turn scrap iron into steel using small-scale furnaces, with the aim of doubling the national output. The project was a total disaster and the furnaces were abandoned two years later.

Some of the furnaces are in remarkably good condition, writes Cao Yong in the Lanzhou Morning Post:

On July 17, this reporter learned that during a cultural heritage survey, Sunan County discovered a large cluster of backyard steel furnaces. According to preliminary research by workers at the county Cultural Heritage Bureau, the site may be the largest, most numerous, and best-preserved group of backyard furnaces in the country. The site has been listed as protected cultural ruins by the Sunan County government and has been entered on the seventh batch of sites recommended for national-level protected status.

The backyard furnaces are located on the south slope of a hillside within the borders of Heiyaodong Village in Baiyin Mongolian Township, Sunan Yugur Autonomous County. They are situated in an east-west line and number 159 furnaces in total, most of which have crumbled. About fifty are still largely intact. The largest is 8 meters high and 14 meters in circumference; the smallest is 2.5 meters high and 2.7 meters around. Most are pagoda-shaped, with one or more chimneys. Their insides are lined with clay bricks. Some of the larger furnaces are dug into the hillside and have one or more arched entrances for feeding raw material, lighting the fire, or cleaning out slag, and multiple air vents are set into the floor. Some are made up of ten individual furnaces joined together. The whole group extends for a more than two kilometers, making for an impressive sight. The furnaces were built in 1958 during the Great Leap Forward and ceased operating in 1960. Some of them were never put to use. The area around the furnaces was a source of iron ore and coal, providing an excellent setting for smelting. At the time, nearly one thousand steel furnaces were built in an area of fifty square kilometers stretching fifty kilometers up and down both sides of the Liyuan River.

The Lanzhou Morning Post report, which was reprinted in newspapers around the country alongside the photo reproduced above, does not provide any larger context for the “backyard” (土法) furnaces or the Great Leap Forward’s steel production drive.

In a The Beijing News op-ed, Wu Zuolai, a cultural critic and current president of the journal Theory and Criticism of Art and Literature (文艺理论与批评), delved into the “Great Leap Forward mentality” and argued for the preservation of the furnaces as a way to carry on the memory of that time:

“Ruins of Great Leap Forward smelters” should be preserved

by Wu Zuolai / TBN

A cultural heritage survey in Sunan County discovered a large area of backyard iron furnaces from the Great Leap Forward. One hundred fifty nine of them altogether, around fifty of which are mostly intact. The smelters stand eight meters high at their tallest and up to fourteen meters around, and they are possibly the largest, most numerous, and best-preserved group of Great Leap Forward smelters in the country. The county government has named the ruins a protected cultural heritage site. (From the Yangcheng Evening News, July 20)

Half a century has passed in the blink of an eye, and the backyard smelters of the Great Leap Forward have at last become ruins, lying there on the ground for people to reflect upon. History is recorded in words, but the preservation of a group of relatively intact iron furnaces is extremely valuable. The men and women who labored to refine iron in that era have grown old, and it is hard to imagine what feelings and memories will be brought to mind when they see the furnaces that they constructed and the “products” they produced.

On August 17, 1958, a resolution calling on the Whole Party and People to Strive to Produce 10.7 Million Tons of Steel sparked a great mass movement to produce steel. If we think along those lines, we could say that the steel production campaign was a result of China’s positive enthusiasm at the time as well as anxiety over development on the part of a backward country, and a forceful call could irresistibly become a duty and a mission for which the entire populace would strive and struggle.

People who experienced that time recall that whole forests were cut down to make charcoal to burn, bringing immense disaster to the environment. And because some areas were unable to produce acceptable steel, the people had to break apart their cooking pots and melt them down in the furnaces, and as a result, unusable lumps of iron were all that was produced. One unforeseen consequence was that real cultural heritage was plundered during the steel production campaign. The two-storey tower at the famous Hangu Pass* was torn down, and inscriptions accumulated over the course of two thousand years were destroyed. Wuwei County,* Gansu, was an important northwestern garrison in the Tang Dynasty, and its city wall, built of large bricks, towered for a thousand years. But those thousand-year-old bricks became part of the furnaces.

There are natural laws that govern nature: you can’t pull on shoots to help them grow. Similarly, social and economic development has its own set of laws: all-out effort won’t bring accelerated economic growth overnight. In those days, iron was the “supreme commander,” iron was everything. That was the extreme mentality of the Great Leap Forward. Society no longer meant unified economic development. It was forced to make immense, unconditional sacrifices for the cause of increasing a particular type of output, and spiritual victories were won by realizing a particular target. As a result, the views of those who opposed rash advances were criticized, and they were sidelined as obstacles to rapid development. Radical speech, thinking, and officials became the mainstream and its guiding forces.

The past has become a memory and a historical lesson. But has the mentality of the Great Leap Forward been entirely eradicated? Faced with this massive cluster of iron smelters, we have much to reflect upon. Public, scientific, and democratic decision making must not be merely empty words but must be put into practice in every project.

Now that backyard iron furnaces have become a new cultural heritage site, I propose that there be a corresponding set of initiatives, such as the establishment of a small museum in the northwest in memory of the Great Leap Forward, which will collect contemporary documents. Particularly important are the memories of the people who endured it, and it would be even more meaningful if they could be recorded on film. If cultural relics protection is sought, and if a park is to be built around the ruins, we also hope that it will the methods of the Great Leap Forward will not be employed. As few man-made structures as possible should be erected in the area around the furnaces so that their original appearance can be retained. This is the best way to respect and preserve historical relics.


  1. 函谷关: :Located in Henan Province, this pass is said to have been where Lao Zi wrote the Dao De Jing.
  2. 武威县: The county of Wuwei was set up in the Republican era. In 2001, Wuwei was promoted to a prefecture-level city.
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