Cultural Revolution

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Cultural Revolution
Cultural Revolution poster.jpg
Cultural Revolution propaganda poster. It depicts Mao Zedong, above a group of soldiers from the People's Liberation Army. The caption says, "The Chinese People's Liberation Army is the great school of Mao Zedong Thought."
Chinese 文化大革命
Literal meaning"Great Cultural Revolution"
Formal name
Simplified Chinese 无产阶级文化大革命
Traditional Chinese 無產階級文化大革命
Literal meaning"Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution"

The Cultural Revolution, formally the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, was a sociopolitical movement in China from 1966 until 1976. Launched by Mao Zedong, then Chairman of the Communist Party of China, its stated goal was to preserve Chinese Communism by purging remnants of capitalist and traditional elements from Chinese society, and to re-impose Mao Zedong Thought (known outside China simply as Maoism) as the dominant ideology within the Party. The Revolution marked Mao's return to a position of power after the failures of his Great Leap Forward. The movement paralyzed China politically and negatively affected both the economy and society of the country to a significant degree. An estimated 500,000 to 2,000,000 people were killed. [1]

Social movement type of group action

A social movement is a type of group action. There is no single consensus definition of a social movement. They are large, sometimes informal, groupings of individuals or organizations which focus on specific political or social issues. In other words, they carry out, resist, or undo a social change. They provide a way of social change from the bottom within nations.

China Country in East Asia

China, officially the People's Republic of China (PRC), is a country in East Asia and the world's most populous country, with a population of around 1.404 billion. Covering approximately 9,600,000 square kilometers (3,700,000 sq mi), it is the third- or fourth-largest country by total area. Governed by the Communist Party of China, the state exercises jurisdiction over 22 provinces, five autonomous regions, four direct-controlled municipalities, and the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau.

Mao Zedong Chairman of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China

Mao Zedong, also known as Chairman Mao, was a Chinese communist revolutionary who became the founding father of the People's Republic of China (PRC), which he ruled as the Chairman of the Communist Party of China from its establishment in 1949 until his death in 1976. His theories, military strategies, and political policies are collectively known as Maoism. During Mao's lifetime the Western media universally rendered his name as Mao Tse-tung, using the then-common Wade-Giles system of phonetic spelling.


The movement was launched in May 1966, after Mao alleged that bourgeois elements had infiltrated the government and society at large, aiming to restore capitalism. To eliminate his rivals within the Communist Party of China (CPC), Mao insisted that revisionists be removed through violent class struggle. China's youth responded to Mao's appeal by forming Red Guard groups around the country. The movement spread into the military, urban workers, and the Communist Party leadership itself. It resulted in widespread armed clashes between conservative and radical factions in all walks of life, as a result of Mao's open call for "all-round civil war" against the conservatives in the communist party establishment. In the top leadership, it led to a mass purge of senior officials, most notably Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. During the same period, Mao's personality cult grew to immense proportions.

Bourgeoisie polysemous French term which denotes the wealthy stratum of the middle class that originated during the latter part of the Middle Ages

The bourgeoisie is a polysemous French term that can mean:

Communist Party of China Political party of the Peoples Republic of China

The Communist Party of China (CPC), also referred to as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), is the founding and ruling political party of the People's Republic of China. The Communist Party is the sole governing party within mainland China, permitting only eight other, subordinated parties to co-exist, those making up the United Front. It was founded in 1921, chiefly by Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao. The party grew quickly, and by 1949 it had driven the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) government from mainland China after the Chinese Civil War, leading to the establishment of the People's Republic of China. It also controls the world's largest armed forces, the People's Liberation Army.

Revisionism (Marxism) various ideas, principles and theories that are based on a significant revision of fundamental Marxist premises; often used as a derogatory term by more “orthodox” Marxists

Within the Marxist movement, the word revisionism is used to refer to various ideas, principles and theories that are based on a significant revision of fundamental Marxist premises.

In the violent struggles that ensued across the country, millions of people were persecuted and suffered a wide range of abuses including public humiliation, arbitrary imprisonment, torture, hard labor, sustained harassment, seizure of property and sometimes execution. A large segment of the population was forcibly displaced, most notably the transfer of urban youth to rural regions during the Down to the Countryside Movement. Historical relics and artifacts were destroyed and cultural and religious sites were ransacked.

Public humiliation form of punishment whose main feature is dishonoring or disgracing a person

Public humiliation or public shaming is a form of punishment whose main feature is dishonoring or disgracing a person, usually an offender or a prisoner, especially in a public place. It was regularly used as a form of judicially sanctioned punishment in previous centuries, and is still practiced by different means in the modern era.

Arbitrary arrest and arbitrary detention are the arrest or detention of an individual in a case in which there is no likelihood or evidence that they committed a crime against legal statute, or in which there has been no proper due process of law or order.

Torture intentional infliction of physical or mental suffering upon a person or an animal

Torture is the act of deliberately inflicting severe physical or psychological suffering on someone by another as a punishment or in order to fulfill some desire of the torturer or force some action from the victim. Torture, by definition, is a knowing and intentional act; deeds which unknowingly or negligently inflict suffering or pain, without a specific intent to do so, are not typically considered torture.

Mao officially declared the Cultural Revolution to have ended in 1969, but its active phase lasted until the death of military leader and proposed Mao successor Lin Biao in 1971. After Mao's death and the arrest of the Gang of Four in 1976, reformers led by Deng Xiaoping gradually began to dismantle the Maoist policies associated with the Cultural Revolution. In 1981, the Party declared that the Cultural Revolution was "responsible for the most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the Party, the country, and the people since the founding of the People's Republic". [2]

Lin Biao Vice Chairman of the Communist Party of China

Lin Biao was a Marshal of the People's Republic of China who was pivotal in the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War, especially in Northeast China. Lin was the general who commanded the decisive Liaoshen and Pingjin Campaigns, in which he co-led the Manchurian Field Army to victory and led the People's Liberation Army into Beijing. He crossed the Yangtze River in 1949, decisively defeated the Kuomintang and took control of the coastal provinces in Southeast China. He ranked third among the Ten Marshals. Zhu De and Peng Dehuai were considered senior to Lin, and Lin ranked directly ahead of He Long and Liu Bocheng.

Gang of Four Chinese political faction

The Gang of Four was a political faction composed of four Chinese Communist Party officials. They came to prominence as malefactors during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) and were ultimately charged with a series of treasonous crimes. The gang's leading figure was Jiang Qing. The other members were Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan, and Wang Hongwen.

Deng Xiaoping Chinese politician, Paramount leader of China

Deng Xiaoping was a Chinese politician who was the paramount leader of the People's Republic of China from 1978 until his retirement in 1992. After Chairman Mao Zedong's death in 1976, Deng led China through far-reaching market-economy reforms.


Great Leap Forward

In 1958, after China's first Five-Year Plan, Mao called for "grassroots socialism" in order to accelerate his plans for turning China into a modern industrialized state. In this spirit, Mao launched the Great Leap Forward, established People's Communes in the countryside, and began the mass mobilization of the people into collectives. Many communities were assigned production of a single commodity—steel. Mao vowed to increase agricultural production to twice 1957 levels. [3]

China's Five-Year Plans are a series of social and economic development initiatives issued since 1953. Since 1949 the Communist Party of China has shaped the economy of China through the plenary sessions of the Central Committee and national congresses. The Party plays a leading role in establishing the foundations and principles of Chinese socialism, mapping strategies for economic development, setting growth targets, and launching reforms.

Great Leap Forward economic and social campaign by the Communist Party of China

The Great Leap Forward of the People's Republic of China (PRC) 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. These policies led to social and economic disaster, but these failures were hidden by widespread exaggeration and deceitful reports. In short order, large internal resources were diverted to use on expensive new industrial operations, which, in turn, failed to produce much, and deprived the agricultural sector of urgently needed resources. A significant result was a drastic decline in food output, which caused millions of deaths in the Great Chinese Famine.

Mass mobilization refers to mobilization of civilian population as part of contentious politics. Mass mobilization is defined as a process that engages and motivates a wide range of partners and allies at national and local levels to raise awareness of and demand for a particular development objective through face-to-face dialogue. Members of institutions, community networks, civic and religious groups and others work in a coordinated way to reach specific groups of people for dialogue with planned messages. In other words, social mobilization seeks to facilitate change through a range of players engaged in interrelated and complementary efforts.

People in the countryside working at night to produce steel during the Great Leap Forward Backyardfurnace5.jpg
People in the countryside working at night to produce steel during the Great Leap Forward

The Great Leap was an economic failure. Uneducated farmers attempted to produce steel on a massive scale, partially relying on backyard furnaces to achieve the production targets set by local cadres. The steel produced was low quality and largely useless. The Great Leap reduced harvest sizes and led to a decline in the production of most goods except substandard pig iron and steel. Furthermore, local authorities frequently exaggerated production numbers, hiding and intensifying the problem for several years. [4] [5] In the meantime, chaos in the collectives, bad weather, and exports of food necessary to secure hard currency resulted in the Great Chinese Famine. Food was in desperate shortage, and production fell dramatically. The famine caused the deaths of millions of people, particularly in poorer inland regions. [6]

Backyard furnace

In China, backyard furnaces (土法炼钢) were small blast furnaces used by the people of China during the Great Leap Forward (1958–62). These were constructed in the backyards of the communes, to further the Great Leap Forward's ideology of the rapid industrialization of China.

Pig iron iron alloy

Pig iron is an intermediate product of the iron industry, also known as crude iron, which is first obtained from a smelting furnace in the form of oblong blocks. Pig iron has a very high carbon content, typically 3.8–4.7%, along with silica and other constituents of dross, which makes it very brittle and not useful directly as a material except for limited applications. Pig iron is made by smelting iron ore into a transportable ingot of impure high carbon-content iron in a blast furnace as an ingredient for further processing steps. The traditional shape of the molds used for pig iron ingots was a branching structure formed in sand, with many individual ingots at right angles to a central channel or runner, resembling a litter of piglets being suckled by a sow. When the metal had cooled and hardened, the smaller ingots were simply broken from the runner, hence the name pig iron. As pig iron is intended for remelting, the uneven size of the ingots and the inclusion of small amounts of sand caused only insignificant problems considering the ease of casting and handling them.

Great Chinese Famine Famine killing millions in China, stemming from Great Leap Forward and climate

The Great Chinese Famine was a period in the People's Republic of China between the years 1959 and 1961 characterized by widespread famine. The policies of ruler Mao Zedong contributed to the famine, although the relative weights of the contributions are disputed. Estimates of deaths due to starvation range in the tens of millions.

The Great Leap's failure reduced Mao's prestige within the Party. Forced to take major responsibility, in 1959, Mao resigned as the President of the People's Republic of China, China's de jure head of state, and was succeeded by Liu Shaoqi. In July, senior Party leaders convened at the scenic Mount Lu to discuss policy. At the conference, Marshal Peng Dehuai, the Minister of Defence, criticized Great Leap policies in a private letter to Mao, writing that it was plagued by mismanagement and cautioning against elevating political dogma over the laws of economics. [4]

Despite the moderate tone of Peng's letter, Mao took it as a personal attack against his leadership. [7] Following the Conference, Mao had Peng removed from his posts, and accused him of being a "right-opportunist". Peng was replaced by Lin Biao, another revolutionary army general who became a more staunch Mao supporter later in his career. While the Lushan Conference served as a death knell for Peng, Mao's most vocal critic, it led to a shift of power to moderates led by Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, who took effective control of the economy following 1959. [4]

By the early 1960s, many of the Great Leap's economic policies were reversed by initiatives spearheaded by Liu, Deng, and Zhou Enlai. This moderate group of pragmatists were unenthusiastic about Mao's utopian visions. Owing to his loss of esteem within the party, Mao developed a decadent and eccentric lifestyle. [8] By 1962, while Zhou, Liu and Deng managed affairs of state and the economy, Mao had effectively withdrawn from economic decision-making, and focused much of his time on further contemplating his contributions to Marxist–Leninist social theory, including the idea of "continuous revolution". [9] This theory's ultimate aim was to set the stage for Mao to restore his brand of Communism and his personal prestige within the Party.[ citation needed ]

Sino-Soviet split and anti-revisionism

In the early 1950s, the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union were the two largest Communist states in the world. Although initially they had been mutually supportive, disagreements arose after the death of Joseph Stalin and the rise of Nikita Khrushchev to power in the Soviet Union. In 1956, Khrushchev denounced Stalin and his policies and began implementing post-Stalinist economic reforms. Mao and many members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) opposed these changes, believing that they would have negative repercussions for the worldwide Marxist movement, among whom Stalin was still viewed as a hero. [10]

Mao believed that Khrushchev did not adhere to Marxism–Leninism, but was instead a revisionist, altering his policies from basic Marxist–Leninist concepts, something Mao feared would allow capitalists to regain control of the country. Relations between the two governments soured. The USSR refused to support China's case for joining the United Nations and went back on its pledge to supply China with a nuclear weapon. [10]

Mao went on to publicly denounce revisionism in April 1960. Without pointing fingers at the Soviet Union, Mao criticized its ideological ally, the League of Communists of Yugoslavia. In turn, the USSR criticized China's ally the Party of Labour of Albania. [11] In 1963, the CCP began to openly denounce the Soviet Union, publishing nine polemics against its perceived revisionism, with one of them being titled On Khrushchev's Phoney Communism and Historical Lessons for the World, in which Mao charged that Khrushchev was not only a revisionist but also increased the danger of capitalist restoration. [11] Khrushchev's downfall from an internal coup d'état in 1964 also contributed to Mao's fears of his own political vulnerability, particularly because of his declining prestige among his colleagues after the Great Leap Forward. [11]


The purge of General Luo Ruiqing solidified the Army's loyalty to Mao Luo Ruiqing.jpg
The purge of General Luo Ruiqing solidified the Army's loyalty to Mao

Mao set the scene for the Cultural Revolution by "cleansing" powerful officials of questionable loyalty who were based in Beijing. His approach was less than transparent, achieving this purge through newspaper articles, internal meetings, and skillfully employing his network of political allies.[ citation needed ]

In late 1959, historian and Beijing Deputy Mayor Wu Han published a historical drama entitled Hai Rui Dismissed from Office . In the play, an honest civil servant, Hai Rui, is dismissed by a corrupt emperor. While Mao initially praised the play, in February 1965 he secretly commissioned his wife Jiang Qing and Shanghai propagandist Yao Wenyuan to publish an article criticizing it. [12] Yao boldly alleged that Hai Rui was really an allegory attacking Mao; that is, Mao was the corrupt emperor and Peng Dehuai was the honest civil servant. [13]

Yao's article put Beijing Mayor Peng Zhen [14] on the defensive. Peng, a powerful official and Wu Han's direct superior, was the head of the "Five Man Group", a committee commissioned by Mao to study the potential for a cultural revolution. Peng Zhen, aware that he would be implicated if Wu indeed wrote an "anti-Mao" play, wished to contain Yao's influence. Yao's article was initially only published in select local newspapers. Peng forbade its publication in the nationally distributed People's Daily and other major newspapers under his control, instructing them to write exclusively about "academic discussion", and not pay heed to Yao's petty politics. [15]

While the "literary battle" against Peng raged, Mao fired Yang Shangkun—director of the Party's General Office, an organ that controlled internal communications—on a series of unsubstantiated charges, installing in his stead staunch loyalist Wang Dongxing, head of Mao's security detail. [16] Yang's dismissal likely emboldened Mao's allies to move against their factional rivals. [16] In December, Defence Minister and Mao loyalist Lin Biao accused General Luo Ruiqing, the chief of staff of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), of being anti-Mao, alleging that Luo put too much emphasis on military training rather than Maoist "political discussion". Despite initial skepticism in the Politburo of Luo's guilt, Mao pushed for an 'investigation', after which Luo was denounced, dismissed, and forced to deliver a self-criticism. Stress from the events led Luo to attempt suicide. [17] Luo's removal secured the military command's loyalty to Mao. [18]

February Outline

Having ousted Luo and Yang, Mao returned his attention to Peng Zhen. On February 12, 1966, the "Five Man Group" issued a report known as the February Outline (二月提纲). The Outline, sanctioned by the Party centre, defined Hai Rui as constructive academic discussion, and aimed to formally distance Peng Zhen from any political implications. However, Jiang Qing and Yao Wenyuan continued their denunciation of Wu Han and Peng Zhen. Meanwhile, Mao also sacked Propaganda Department director Lu Dingyi, a Peng Zhen ally. [19]

Lu's removal gave Maoists unrestricted access to the press. Mao would deliver his final blow to Peng Zhen at a high-profile Politburo meeting through loyalists Kang Sheng and Chen Boda. They accused Peng Zhen of opposing Mao, labeled the February Outline "evidence of Peng Zhen's revisionism", and grouped him with three other disgraced officials as part of the "Peng-Luo-Lu-Yang Anti-Party Clique". [19] On May 16, the Politburo formalized the decisions by releasing an official document condemning Peng Zhen and his "anti-party allies" in the strongest terms, disbanding his "Five Man Group", and replacing it with the Maoist Cultural Revolution Group (CRG). [20]

Early stage: mass movement

May 16 notification

In May 1966, an "expanded session" of the Politburo was called in Beijing. The conference, rather than being a joint discussion on policy (as per the usual norms of party operations), was essentially a campaign to mobilize the Politburo into endorsing Mao's political agenda. The conference was heavily laden with Maoist political rhetoric on class struggle, and filled with meticulously-prepared 'indictments' on the recently ousted leaders such as Peng Zhen and Luo Ruiqing. One of these documents, released on May 16, was prepared with Mao's personal supervision, and was particularly damning: [21]

Those representatives of the bourgeoisie who have sneaked into the Party, the government, the army, and various spheres of culture are a bunch of counter-revolutionary revisionists. Once conditions are ripe, they will seize political power and turn the dictatorship of the proletariat into a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Some of them we have already seen through; others we have not. Some are still trusted by us and are being trained as our successors, persons like Khruschev for example, who are still nestling beside us. [22]

This text, which became known as the "May 16 Notification" (Chinese :五一六通知; pinyin :Wǔyīliù Tōngzhī), summarized Mao's ideological justification for the Cultural Revolution. [23] Effectively it implied that there are enemies of the Communist cause within the Party itself: class enemies who "wave the red flag to oppose the red flag." [24] The only way to identify these people was through "the telescope and microscope of Mao Zedong Thought." [24] While the party leadership was relatively united in approving the general direction of Mao's agenda, many Politburo members were not especially enthusiastic, or simply confused about the direction of the movement. [25] The charges against esteemed party leaders like Peng Zhen rang alarm bells in China's intellectual community and among the eight non-Communist parties. [26]

Early mass rallies

After the purge of Peng Zhen, the Beijing Party Committee had effectively ceased to function, paving the way for disorder in the capital. On May 25, under the guidance of Cao Yi'ou—wife of Maoist henchman Kang ShengNie Yuanzi, a philosophy lecturer at Peking University, authored a big-character poster (Chinese :大字报; pinyin :dàzìbào) along with other leftists and posted it to a public bulletin. Nie attacked the university's party administration and its leader Lu Ping. [27] Nie insinuated that the university leadership, much like Peng Zhen, were trying to contain revolutionary fervour in a "sinister" attempt to oppose the party and advance revisionism. [27]

Mao promptly endorsed Nie's dazibao as "the first Marxist big-character poster in China." Nie's call-to-arms, now sealed with Mao's personal stamp of approval, had a lasting ripple effect across all educational institutions in China. Students everywhere began to revolt against their respective schools' party establishment. Classes were promptly cancelled in Beijing primary and secondary schools, followed by a decision on June 13 to expand the class suspension nationwide. [28] By early June, throngs of young demonstrators lined the capital's major thoroughfares holding giant portraits of Mao, beating drums, and shouting slogans against his perceived enemies. [28]

When the dismissal of Peng Zhen and the municipal party leadership became public in early June, widespread confusion ensued. The public and foreign missions were kept in the dark on the reason for Peng Zhen's ousting. [29] Even the top Party leadership was caught off guard by the sudden anti-establishment wave of protest, and struggled with what to do next. [29] After seeking Mao's guidance in Hangzhou, Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping decided to send in "work teams" (Chinese :工作组; pinyin :Gōngzuò zǔ)—effectively 'ideological-guidance' squads of cadres—to the city's schools and People's Daily to restore some semblance of order and re-establish party control. [29]

The work teams were hastily dispatched and had a poor understanding of student sentiment. Unlike the political movement of the 1950s that squarely targeted intellectuals, the new movement was focused on established party cadres, many of whom were part of the work teams. As a result, the work teams came under increasing suspicion for being yet another group aimed at thwarting revolutionary fervour. [30] The party leadership subsequently became divided over whether or not work teams should remain in place. Liu Shaoqi insisted on continuing work-team involvement and suppressing the movement's most radical elements, fearing that the movement would spin out of control. [31]

"Bombard the headquarters"

Mao-Liu conflict
Mao Zedong portrait.jpg
LiuShaoqi Colour.jpg
In 1966, Mao broke with Liu Shaoqi (right), then serving as titular head of state, over the work-teams issue. Mao's polemic Bombard the Headquarters was widely recognized as targeting Liu, the purported "bourgeois headquarters" of the party.

On July 16, the 72-year-old Chairman Mao took to the Yangtze River in Wuhan, with the press in tow, in what became an iconic "swim across the Yangtze" to demonstrate his battle-readiness. He subsequently returned to Beijing on a mission to criticize the party leadership for its handling of the work-teams issue. Mao accused the work teams of undermining the student movement, calling for their full withdrawal on July 24. Several days later a rally was held at the Great Hall of the People to announce the decision and set the new tone of the movement to university and high school teachers and students. At the rally, Party leaders told the masses assembled to 'not be afraid' and bravely take charge of the movement themselves, free of Party interference. [32]

The work-teams issue marked a decisive defeat for President Liu Shaoqi politically; it also signaled that disagreement over how to handle the unfolding events of the Cultural Revolution would break Mao from the established party leadership irreversibly. On August 1, the Eleventh Plenum of the Eighth Central Committee was hastily convened to advance Mao's now decidedly radical agenda. At the plenum, Mao showed outright disdain for Liu, repeatedly interrupting Liu as he delivered his opening day speech. [33] For several days, Mao repeatedly insinuated that the Party's leadership had contravened his revolutionary vision. Mao's line of thinking received a lukewarm reception from the conference attendees. Sensing that the largely obstructive party elite was unwilling to fully embrace his revolutionary ideology, Mao went on the offensive.[ citation needed ]

Red Guards in Beijing
1967-11 1967Nian Bei Jing Shi Fan Da Xue Da Zi Bao Pi Ping Liu Shao Qi .jpg
1967-11 1967Nian Bei Jing Da Xue Da Zi Bao .jpg
1968-02 1967Nian Bei Jing Er Shi San Zhong Fu Ke Nao Ge Ming 2.jpg
From left: (1) Students at Beijing Normal University writing big-character posters denouncing Liu Shaoqi; (2) Big-characters posted on the campus of Peking University; (3) Red guards at No. 23 Middle School wave the Little Red Book of the Quotations of Chairman Mao in a classroom revolution rally. All photos from China Pictorial

On July 28, Red Guard representatives wrote to Mao, calling for rebellion and upheaval to safeguard the revolution. Mao then responded to the letters by writing his own big-character poster entitled Bombard the Headquarters , rallying people to target the "command centre (i.e., Headquarters) of counterrevolution". Mao wrote that despite having undergone a Communist revolution, a "bourgeois" elite was still thriving in "positions of authority" in the government and Communist Party. [3]

Although no names were mentioned, this provocative statement by Mao has been interpreted as a direct indictment of the party establishment under Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping—the purported "bourgeois headquarters" of China. The personnel changes at the Plenum reflected a radical re-design of the party's hierarchy to suit this new ideological landscape. Liu and Deng kept their seats on the Politburo Standing Committee but were in fact sidelined from day-to-day party affairs. Lin Biao was elevated to become the Party's number-two figure; Liu Shaoqi's rank went from second to eighth, and was no longer Mao's heir apparent. [3]

Coinciding with the top leadership being thrown out of positions of power was the thorough undoing of the entire national bureaucracy of the Communist Party. The extensive Organization Department, in charge of party personnel, essentially ceased to exist. The Cultural Revolution Group (CRG), Mao's ideological 'Praetorian Guard', was catapulted to prominence to propagate his ideology and rally popular support. The top officials in the Propaganda Department were sacked, with many of its functions folding into the CRG. [34]

Red Guards and the destruction of the "Four Olds"

On August 8, 1966, the party's Central Committee passed its "Decision Concerning the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution", later to be known as the "Sixteen Points". [35] This decision defined the Cultural Revolution as "a great revolution that touches people to their very souls and constitutes a deeper and more extensive stage in the development of the socialist revolution in our country.":[ citation needed ]

Although the bourgeoisie has been overthrown, it is still trying to use the old ideas, culture, customs, and habits of the exploiting classes to corrupt the masses, capture their minds, and stage a comeback. The proletariat must do just the opposite: It must meet head-on every challenge of the bourgeoisie [...] to change the outlook of society. Currently, our objective is to struggle against and crush those people in authority who are taking the capitalist road, to criticize and repudiate the reactionary bourgeois academic "authorities" and the ideology of the bourgeoisie and all other exploiting classes and to transform education, literature and art, and all other parts of the superstructure that do not correspond to the socialist economic base, so as to facilitate the consolidation and development of the socialist system.

Mao Zedong and Lin Biao surrounded by rallying Red Guards in Beijing. Source: China Pictorial 1966-11 1966Nian Mao Ze Dong Lin Biao Yu Hong Wei Bing .jpg
Mao Zedong and Lin Biao surrounded by rallying Red Guards in Beijing. Source: China Pictorial
Tiananmen Square on September 15, 1966 the occasion of Chairman Mao's third of eight mass rallies with Red Guards in 1966. Source: China Pictorial 1966-11 1966Nian 9Yue 15Ri Tian An Men You Xing -Ba Jie Shi Yi Zhong .jpg
Tiananmen Square on September 15, 1966 the occasion of Chairman Mao's third of eight mass rallies with Red Guards in 1966. Source: China Pictorial

The implications of the Sixteen Points were far-reaching. It elevated what was previously a student movement to a nationwide mass campaign that would galvanize workers, farmers, soldiers and lower-level party functionaries to rise up, challenge authority, and re-shape the "superstructure" of society. On August 18, 1966, over a million Red Guards from all over the country gathered in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing for a personal audience with the Chairman. [37] Lin Biao took centre stage at the August 18 rally, vociferously denouncing all manner of perceived enemies in Chinese society that were impeding the "progress of the revolution." [38]

Mao personally mingled with Red Guards and threw his weight behind their cause, donning a Red Guard armband himself. [38] Between August and November 1966, eight mass rallies were held in which over 12 million people from all over the country, most of whom were Red Guards, participated. [37] The government bore the expenses of Red Guards travelling around the country exchanging "revolutionary experiences." [39]

At the Red Guard rallies, Lin Biao also called for the destruction of the "Four Olds"; namely, old customs, culture, habits, and ideas. [38] Revolutionary fever swept the country by storm, with Red Guards acting as its most prominent warriors. Some changes associated with the "Four Olds" campaign were largely benign, such as assigning new names to city streets, places, and even people; millions of babies were born with "revolutionary"-sounding names during this period.[ citation needed ] Other aspects of Red Guard activities were more destructive, particularly in the realms of culture and religion. Various historical sites throughout the country were destroyed. The damage was particularly pronounced in the capital, Beijing. Red Guards also laid siege to the Temple of Confucius in Shandong province, [40] and numerous other historically significant tombs and artifacts. [41]

The remains of Ming Dynasty Wanli Emperor at the Ming tombs. Red Guards dragged the remains of the Wanli Emperor and Empresses to the front of the tomb, where they were posthumously "denounced" and burned. Wanlitod.jpg
The remains of Ming Dynasty Wanli Emperor at the Ming tombs. Red Guards dragged the remains of the Wanli Emperor and Empresses to the front of the tomb, where they were posthumously "denounced" and burned.
The Cemetery of Confucius was attacked by Red Guards in November 1966. Kong Yanjin - looking north - P1060200.JPG
The Cemetery of Confucius was attacked by Red Guards in November 1966.

Libraries full of historical and foreign texts were destroyed; books were burned. Temples, churches, mosques, monasteries, and cemeteries were closed down and sometimes converted to other uses, looted, and destroyed. [44] Marxist propaganda depicted Buddhism as superstition, and religion was looked upon as a means of hostile foreign infiltration, as well as an instrument of the ruling class. [45] Clergy were arrested and sent to camps; many Tibetan Buddhists were forced to participate in the destruction of their monasteries at gunpoint. [45]

One of many quotations in the Little Red Book (Mao's Quotations) that the Red Guards would later follow as a guide, provided by Mao, was "The world is yours, as well as ours, but in the last analysis, it is yours. You young people, full of vigor and vitality, are in the bloom of life, like the sun at eight or nine in the morning. Our hope is placed on you ... The world belongs to you. China's future belongs to you." 350 million copies of the book had been printed by December 1967. [46] It was the mechanism that led the Red Guards to commit to their objective as the future for China. These quotes directly from Mao led to other actions by the Red Guards in the views of other Maoist leaders. [47]

On August 22, 1966, a central directive was issued to stop police intervention in Red Guard activities, and those in the police force who defied this notice were labeled counter-revolutionaries. [48] Mao's praise for rebellion encouraged actions of the Red Guards. [49] Central officials lifted restraints on violent behavior in support of the revolution. [50] Xie Fuzhi, the national police chief, often pardoned Red Guards for their "crimes". [51] In the course of about two weeks, the violence left some one hundred officials of the ruling and middle class dead in Beijing's western district alone. The number injured exceeded that. [50]

The most violent aspects of the campaign included incidents of torture, murder, and public humiliation. Many people who were indicted as counter-revolutionaries died by suicide. In August and September 1966, there were 1,772 people murdered in Beijing alone. In Shanghai there were 704 suicides and 534 deaths related to the Cultural Revolution in September. In Wuhan there were 62 suicides and 32 murders during the same period. [52] Peng Dehuai was brought to Beijing to be publicly ridiculed.

In October, Mao convened a "Central Work Conference", essentially to convince those in the party leadership who had not yet adopted revolutionary ideology. Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping were prosecuted as part of a bourgeois reactionary line (zichanjieji fandong luxian) and begrudgingly gave self-criticisms. [53] After the conference, Liu, once a powerful moderate pundit of the ruling class, was placed under house arrest in Beijing, then sent to a detention camp, where he was denied medical treatment and died in 1969. Deng Xiaoping was sent away for a period of re-education three times, and was eventually sent to work in a Jiangxi engine factory.

Radicals expand power (1967)

Anti-Liu Shaoqi rally SZ Shen Zhen Bo Wu Guan Shenzhen Museum Shen Zhen Gai Ge Kai Fang Qian Li Shi Zhan Ting Before Reform and Opening-up History IX1 Anti-Liu Shaoqi.jpg
Anti-Liu Shaoqi rally

Mass organisations in China coalesced into two hostile factions, the radicals who backed Mao's purge of the Communist party, and the conservatives who backed the moderate party establishment. At his birthday party on 26 December 1966, Mao declared an "All-round civil war" to resolve the standoff, and asked the military forces of People's Liberation Army to support "the Left", which was however not clearly defined. As the PLA commanders had developed close working relations with the party establishment, many military units worked instead to repress Mao's radicals. A total of 18.77 million firearms, 14,828 artillery pieces, 2,719,545 grenades ended up in civilian hands and used in the course of the fighting; in the cities of Chongqing, Xiamen, and Changchun, tanks, armoured vehicles and even warships were deployed in combat. [54]

Spurred by the events in Beijing, "power seizure" (duoquan) groups formed all over the country and began expanding into factories and the countryside. In Shanghai, a young factory worker named Wang Hongwen organized a far-reaching revolutionary coalition, one that galvanized and displaced existing Red Guard groups. On January 3, 1967, with support from CRG heavyweights Zhang Chunqiao and Yao Wenyuan, the group of firebrand activists overthrew the Shanghai municipal government under Chen Pixian in what became known as the "January Storm," and formed in its place the Shanghai People's Commune. [55]

The events in Shanghai were praised by Mao, who encouraged similar activities across China. Provincial governments and many parts of the state and party bureaucracy were affected, with power seizures taking place in remarkably varied fashion. For example, in Beijing, three separate revolutionary groups declared power seizures on the same day, while in Heilongjiang, the local party secretary Pan Fusheng managed to "seize power" from the party organization under his own leadership. Some leaders even wrote the CRG asking to be overthrown. [56]

In Beijing, Jiang Qing and Zhang Chunqiao made a target out of Vice-Premier Tao Zhu. The power-seizure movement was rearing its head in the military as well. In February, prominent generals Ye Jianying and Chen Yi as well as Vice-Premier Tan Zhenlin vocally asserted their opposition to the more extreme aspects of the movement, with some party elders insinuating that the CRG's real motives were to remove the revolutionary old guard. Mao, initially ambivalent, took to the Politburo floor on February 18 to denounce the opposition directly, giving a full throated endorsement to the radicals' activities. This short-lived resistance was branded the "February Countercurrent" [57] - effectively silencing critics of the movement within the party in the years to come. [58]

While revolutionaries dismantled ruling government and party organizations all over the country, because power seizures lacked centralized leadership, it was no longer clear who truly believed in Mao's revolutionary vision and who was opportunistically exploiting the chaos for their own gain. The formation of rival revolutionary groups, some manifestations of long-established local feuds, led to factional violence across the country. Tension grew between mass organizations and the military as well. In response, Lin Biao issued a directive for the army to aid the radicals. At the same time, the army took control of some provinces and locales that were deemed incapable of sorting out their own power transitions. [59]

In the central city of Wuhan, like in many other cities, two major revolutionary organizations emerged, one supporting the conservative establishment and the other opposed to it. The groups fought over the control of the city. Chen Zaidao, the Army general in charge of the area, forcibly repressed the anti-establishment demonstrators who were backed by Mao. However, in the midst of the commotion, Mao himself flew to Wuhan with a large entourage of central officials in an attempt to secure military loyalty in the area. In response, local agitators kidnapped Mao's emissary Wang Li in what became known as the Wuhan Incident. Subsequently, Gen. Chen Zaidao was sent to Beijing and tried by Jiang Qing and the rest of the Cultural Revolution Group. Chen's resistance was the last major open display of opposition to the movement within the army. [60]


In the spring of 1968, a massive campaign began, aimed at enhancing Mao's reputation. On July 27, 1968, the Red Guards' power over the Army was officially ended, and the establishment government sent in units to besiege areas that remained untouched by the Guards. A year later, the Red Guard factions were dismantled entirely; Mao predicted that the chaos might begin running its own agenda and be tempted to turn against revolutionary ideology. Their purpose had been largely fulfilled; Mao and his radical colleagues had largely overturned establishment power.[ citation needed ]

In early October, Mao began a campaign to purge ruling officials. Many were sent to the countryside to work in reeducation camps. Liu was expelled from the Communist Party at the 12th Plenum of the Eighth Central Committee in September 1968, and labelled the "headquarters of the bourgeoisie", seemingly alluding to Mao's Bombard the Headquarters dazibao written two years earlier.[ citation needed ]

In December 1968, Mao began the "Down to the Countryside Movement". During this movement, which lasted for the next decade, young bourgeoisie living in cities were ordered to go to the countryside to experience working life. The term "young intellectuals" was used to refer to recently graduated college students. In the late 1970s, these students returned to their home cities. Many students who were previously Red Guard members supported the movement and Mao's vision. This movement was thus in part a means of moving Red Guards from the cities to the countryside, where they would cause less social disruption. It also served to spread revolutionary ideology across China geographically. [61]

Lin Biao phase

Transition of power

The Ninth Party Congress was held in April 1969, and served as a means to "revitalize" the party with fresh thinking and new cadres after much of the old guard had been destroyed in the struggles of preceding years. [62] The institutional framework of the Party established two decades earlier had broken down almost entirely: delegates for this Congress were effectively selected by Revolutionary Committees rather than through election by party members. [63] Representation of the military increased by a large margin from the previous Congress (28% of the delegates were PLA members), and the election of more PLA members to the new Central Committee reflected this increase. [64] Many military officers elevated to senior positions were loyal to PLA Marshal Lin Biao, opening a new factional divide between the military and civilian leadership. [65]

We do not only feel boundless joy because we have as our great leader the greatest Marxist-Leninist of our era, Chairman Mao, but also great joy because we have Vice Chairman Lin as Chairman Mao's universally recognized successor.

– Premier Zhou Enlai at the Ninth Party Congress [66]

Lin Biao was officially elevated to become the Party's number-two figure, with his name written into the Communist Party's Constitution as Mao's "closest comrade-in-arms" and "universally recognized successor". [67] Lin delivered the keynote address at the Congress: a document drafted by hardliner leftists Yao Wenyuan and Zhang Chunqiao under Mao's guidance. [68] The report was heavily critical of Liu Shaoqi and other "counter-revolutionaries", and drew extensively from quotations in the Little Red Book. The Congress solidified the central role of Maoism within the party psyche, re-introducing Maoism as an official guiding ideology of the party in the party constitution. Lastly, the Congress elected a new Politburo with Mao Zedong, Lin Biao, Chen Boda, Zhou Enlai, and Kang Sheng as the members of the new Politburo Standing Committee. Lin, Chen, and Kang were all beneficiaries of the Cultural Revolution. Zhou, who was demoted in rank, voiced his unequivocal support for Lin at the Congress. [69] Mao also restored the function of some formal party institutions, such as the operations of the party's Politburo, which ceased functioning between 1966 and 1968 because the Central Cultural Revolution Group held de facto control of the country. [70]

PLA gains pre-eminent role

Marshal Lin Biao was constitutionally confirmed as Mao's successor in 1969. Lin Biao.jpg
Marshal Lin Biao was constitutionally confirmed as Mao's successor in 1969.

Mao's efforts at re-organizing party and state institutions generated mixed results. Many far-flung provinces remained volatile as the political situation in Beijing stabilized. Factional struggles, many of which were violent, continued at the local level despite the declaration that the Ninth Congress marked a temporary "victory" for the Cultural Revolution. [71] Furthermore, despite Mao's efforts to put on a show of unity at the Congress, the factional divide between Lin Biao's PLA camp and the Jiang Qing–led radical camp was intensifying. Indeed, a personal dislike of Jiang Qing drew many civilian leaders, including prominent theoretician Chen Boda, closer to Lin Biao. [72]

Between 1966 and 1968, China was isolated internationally, having declared its enmity towards both the Soviet Union and the United States. The friction with the Soviet Union intensified after border clashes on the Ussuri River in March 1969 as the Chinese leadership prepared for all-out war. [73] In October, senior leaders were evacuated from Beijing. [73] Amidst the tension, Lin Biao issued what appeared to be an executive order to prepare for war to the PLA's eleven Military Regions on October 18 without passing through Mao. This drew the ire of the Chairman, who saw it as evidence that his authority was prematurely usurped by his declared successor. [73]

The prospect of war elevated the PLA to greater prominence in domestic politics, increasing the stature of Lin Biao at the expense of Mao. [74] There is some evidence to suggest that Mao was pushed to seek closer relations with the United States as a means to avoid PLA dominance in domestic affairs that would result from a military confrontation with the Soviet Union. [74] During his meeting with U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1972, Mao hinted that Lin had opposed seeking better relations with the U.S. [75]

After Lin was confirmed as Mao's successor, his supporters focused on the restoration of the position of State Chairman (President), [76] which had been abolished by Mao after the purge of Liu Shaoqi. They hoped that by allowing Lin to ease into a constitutionally sanctioned role, whether Chairman or Vice-Chairman, Lin's succession would be institutionalized. The consensus within the Politburo was that Mao should assume the office with Lin becoming Vice-Chairman; but for unknown reasons, Mao had voiced his explicit opposition to the recreation of the position and his assuming it. [77]

Factional rivalries intensified at the Second Plenum of the Ninth Congress in Lushan held in late August 1970. Chen Boda, now aligned with the PLA faction loyal to Lin, galvanized support for the restoration of the office of President of China, despite Mao's wishes to the contrary. [78] Moreover, Chen launched an assault on Zhang Chunqiao, a staunch Maoist who embodied the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, over the evaluation of Mao's legacy. [79]

The attacks on Zhang found favour with many attendees at the Plenum, and may have been construed by Mao as an indirect attack on the Cultural Revolution itself. Mao confronted Chen openly, denouncing him as a "false Marxist", [80] and removed him from the Politburo Standing Committee. In addition to the purge of Chen, Mao asked Lin's principal generals to write self-criticisms on their political positions as a warning to Lin. Mao also inducted several of his supporters to the Central Military Commission, and placed his loyalists in leadership roles of the Beijing Military Region. [80]

Flight of Lin Biao

Graffiti with Lin Biao's foreword to Mao's Little Red Book, Lin's name (lower right) was later scratched out, presumably after his death. Huayangpalace layers 2007 09.jpg
Graffiti with Lin Biao's foreword to Mao's Little Red Book, Lin's name (lower right) was later scratched out, presumably after his death.

By 1971, diverging interests between the civilian and military wings of the leadership were apparent. Mao was troubled by the PLA's newfound prominence, and the purge of Chen Boda marked the beginning of a gradual scaling-down of the PLA's political involvement. [81] According to official sources, sensing the reduction of Lin's power base and his declining health, Lin's supporters plotted to use the military power still at their disposal to oust Mao in a coup. [82]

Lin's son, Lin Liguo, and other high-ranking military conspirators formed a coup apparatus in Shanghai, and dubbed the plan to oust Mao by force Outline for Project 571 , which sounds similar to "Military Uprising" in Mandarin. It is disputed whether Lin Biao was involved in this process. While official sources maintain that Lin planned and executed the alleged coup attempt, scholars such as Jin Qiu portray Lin as a passive character manipulated by members of his family and his supporters. [82] Qiu contests that Lin Biao was never personally involved in drafting the Outline and evidence suggests that Lin Liguo drafted the coup. [82]

The Outline allegedly consisted mainly of plans for aerial bombardments through use of the Air Force. It initially targeted Zhang Chunqiao and Yao Wenyuan, but would later involve Mao himself. Were the plan to succeed, Lin would arrest his political rivals and assume power. Assassination attempts were alleged to have been made against Mao in Shanghai, from September 8 to September 10, 1971. Perceived risks to Mao's safety were allegedly relayed to the Chairman. One internal report alleged that Lin had planned to bomb a bridge that Mao was to cross to reach Beijing; Mao reportedly avoided this bridge after receiving intelligence reports.

In the official narrative, on September 13, 1971, Lin Biao, his wife Ye Qun, Lin Liguo, and members of his staff attempted to flee to the Soviet Union ostensibly to seek asylum. En route, Lin's plane crashed in Mongolia, killing all on board. The plane apparently ran out of fuel en route to the Soviet Union. A Soviet team investigating the incident was not able to determine the cause of the crash, but hypothesized that the pilot was flying low to evade radar and misjudged the plane's altitude.

The official account has been put to question by foreign scholars, who have raised doubts over Lin's choice of the Soviet Union as a destination, the plane's route, the identity of the passengers, and whether or not a coup was actually taking place. [82] [83]

On September 13, the Politburo met in an emergency session to discuss Lin Biao. Only on September 30 was Lin's death confirmed in Beijing, which led to the cancellation of the National Day celebration events the following day. The Central Committee kept information under wraps, and news of Lin's death was not released to the public until two months following the incident. [82] Many of Lin's supporters sought refuge in Hong Kong; those who remained on the mainland were purged. The event caught the party leadership off guard: the concept that Lin could betray Mao de-legitimized a vast body of Cultural Revolution political rhetoric, as Lin was already enshrined into the Party Constitution as Mao's "closest comrade-in-arms" and "successor". For several months following the incident, the party information apparatus struggled to find a "correct way" to frame the incident for public consumption. [82]

"Gang of Four" and their downfall

Antagonism towards Zhou and Deng

Mao became depressed and reclusive after the Lin Biao incident. With Lin gone, Mao had no ready answers for who would succeed him. Sensing a sudden loss of direction, Mao attempted reaching out to old comrades whom he had denounced in the past. Meanwhile, in September 1972, Mao transferred a thirty-eight-year-old cadre from Shanghai, Wang Hongwen, to Beijing and made him Vice-Chairman of the Party. [84] Wang, a former factory worker from a peasant background, [84] was seemingly being groomed for succession. [85] Jiang Qing's position also strengthened after Lin's flight. She held tremendous influence with the radical camp. With Mao's health on the decline, it was clear that Jiang Qing had political ambitions of her own. She allied herself with Wang Hongwen and propaganda specialists Zhang Chunqiao and Yao Wenyuan, forming a political clique later pejoratively dubbed as the "Gang of Four".[ citation needed ]

By 1973, round after round of political struggles had left many lower-level institutions, including local government, factories, and railways, short of competent staff needed to carry out basic functions. [86] The country's economy had fallen into disarray, which necessitated the rehabilitation of purged lower level officials. However, the party's core became heavily dominated by Cultural Revolution beneficiaries and leftist radicals, whose focus remained upholding ideological purity over economic productivity. The economy remained largely the domain of Zhou Enlai, one of the few moderates 'left standing'. Zhou attempted to restore a viable economy, but was resented by the Gang of Four, who identified him as their main political threat in post-Mao era succession.[ citation needed ]

In late 1973, to weaken Zhou's political position and to distance themselves from Lin's apparent betrayal, the "Criticize Lin, Criticize Confucius" campaign began under Jiang Qing's leadership. [87] Its stated goals were to purge China of new Confucianist thinking and denounce Lin Biao's actions as traitorous and regressive. [88] Reminiscent of the first years of the Cultural Revolution, the battle was carried out through historical allegory, and although Zhou Enlai's name was never mentioned during this campaign, the Premier's historical namesake, the Duke of Zhou, was a frequent target.[ citation needed ]

With a fragile economy and Zhou falling ill to cancer, Deng Xiaoping returned to the political scene, taking up the post of Vice-Premier in March 1973, in the first of a series of promotions approved by Mao. After Zhou withdrew from active politics in January 1975, Deng was effectively put in charge of the government, party, and military, earning the additional titles of PLA General Chief of Staff, Vice-Chairman of the Communist Party, and Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission in a short time span. [89]

The speed of Deng's rehabilitation took the radical camp, who saw themselves as Mao's 'rightful' political and ideological heirs, by surprise. Mao wanted to use Deng as a counterweight to the military faction in government to suppress any remaining influence of those formerly loyal to Lin Biao. In addition, Mao had also lost confidence in the ability of the Gang of Four to manage the economy and saw Deng as a competent and effective leader. Leaving the country in grinding poverty would do no favours to the positive legacy of the Cultural Revolution, which Mao worked hard to protect. Deng's return set the scene for a protracted factional struggle between the radical Gang of Four and moderates led by Zhou and Deng.[ citation needed ]

At the time, Jiang Qing and associates held effective control of mass media and the party's propaganda network, while Zhou and Deng held control of most government organs. On some decisions, Mao sought to mitigate the Gang's influence, but on others, he acquiesced to their demands. The Gang of Four's heavy hand in political and media control did not prevent Deng from reinstating his economic policies. Deng emphatically opposed Party factionalism, and his policies aimed to promote unity as the first step to restoring economic productivity. [90]

Much like the post-Great Leap restructuring led by Liu Shaoqi, Deng streamlined the railway system, steel production, and other key areas of the economy. By late 1975 however, Mao saw that Deng's economic restructuring might negate the legacy of the Cultural Revolution, and launched a campaign to oppose "rehabilitating the case for the rightists", alluding to Deng as the country's foremost "rightist". Mao directed Deng to write self-criticisms in November 1975, a move lauded by the Gang of Four. [90]

Death of Zhou Enlai

On January 8, 1976, Zhou Enlai died of bladder cancer. On January 15 Deng Xiaoping delivered Zhou's official eulogy in a funeral attended by all of China's most senior leaders with the notable absence of Mao himself, who had grown increasingly critical of Zhou. [91] [92] Curiously, after Zhou's death, Mao selected neither a member of the Gang of Four nor Deng Xiaoping to become Premier, instead choosing the relatively unknown Hua Guofeng.[ citation needed ]

The Gang of Four grew apprehensive that spontaneous, large-scale popular support for Zhou could turn the political tide against them. They acted through the media to impose a set of restrictions on overt public displays of mourning for Zhou. Years of resentment over the Cultural Revolution, the public persecution of Deng Xiaoping (seen as Zhou's ally), and the prohibition against public mourning led to a rise in popular discontent against Mao and the Gang of Four. [93]

Official attempts to enforce the mourning restrictions included removing public memorials and tearing down posters commemorating Zhou's achievements. On March 25, 1976, Shanghai's Wen Hui Bao published an article calling Zhou "the capitalist roader inside the Party [who] wanted to help the unrepentant capitalist roader [Deng] regain his power". These propaganda efforts at smearing Zhou's image, however, only strengthened public attachment to Zhou's memory. [94]

Tiananmen Incident

On April 4, 1976, on the eve of China's annual Qingming Festival, a traditional day of mourning, thousands of people gathered around the Monument to the People's Heroes in Tiananmen Square to commemorate Zhou Enlai. The people of Beijing honored Zhou by laying wreaths, banners, poems, placards, and flowers at the foot of the Monument. [95] The most obvious purpose of this memorial was to eulogize Zhou, but the Gang of Four were also attacked for their actions against the Premier. A small number of slogans left at Tiananmen even attacked Mao himself, and his Cultural Revolution. [96]

Up to two million people may have visited Tiananmen Square on April 4. [96] All levels of society, from the poorest peasants to high-ranking PLA officers and the children of high-ranking cadres, were represented in the activities. Those who participated were motivated by a mixture of anger over the treatment of Zhou, revolt against the Cultural Revolution and apprehension for China's future. The event did not appear to have coordinated leadership but rather seemed to be a reflection of public sentiment. [97]

The Central Committee, under the leadership of Jiang Qing, labelled the event 'counter-revolutionary', and cleared the square of memorial items shortly after midnight on April 6. Attempts to suppress the mourners led to a violent riot. Police cars were set on fire and a crowd of over 100,000 people forced its way into several government buildings surrounding the square. [95] Many of those arrested were later sentenced to prison work camps. Similar incidents occurred in other major cities. Jiang Qing and her allies pinned Deng Xiaoping as the incident's 'mastermind', and issued reports on official media to that effect. Deng was formally stripped of all positions "inside and outside the Party" on April 7. This marked Deng's second purge in ten years. [95]

Death of Mao and Arrest of the Gang of Four

On September 9, 1976, Mao Zedong died. To Mao's supporters, his death symbolized the loss of the revolutionary foundation of Communist China. When his death was announced on the afternoon of September 9, in a press release entitled "A Notice from the Central Committee, the NPC, State Council, and the CMC to the whole Party, the whole Army and to the people of all nationalities throughout the country", [98] the nation descended into grief and mourning, with people weeping in the streets and public institutions closing for over a week. Hua Guofeng chaired the Funeral Committee.[ citation needed ]

Shortly before dying, Mao had allegedly written the message "With you in charge, I'm at ease", to Hua. Hua used this message to substantiate his position as successor. Hua had been widely considered to be lacking in political skill and ambitions, and seemingly posed no serious threat to the Gang of Four in the race for succession. However, the Gang's radical ideas also clashed with influential elders and a large segment of party reformers. With army backing and the support of Marshal Ye Jianying, on October 6, the Special Unit 8341 had all members of the Gang of Four arrested in a bloodless coup. [99]


Although Hua Guofeng publicly denounced the Gang of Four in 1976, he continued to invoke Mao's name to justify Mao-era policies. Hua spearheaded what became known as the Two Whatevers, [100] namely, "Whatever policy originated from Chairman Mao, we must continue to support," and "Whatever directions were given to us from Chairman Mao, we must continue to follow." Like Deng, Hua wanted to reverse the damage of the Cultural Revolution; but unlike Deng, who wanted to propose new economic models for China, Hua intended to move the Chinese economic and political system towards Soviet-style planning of the early 1950s.[ citation needed ]

It became increasingly clear to Hua that, without Deng Xiaoping, it was difficult to continue daily affairs of state. On October 10, Deng Xiaoping personally wrote a letter to Hua asking to be transferred back to state and party affairs; party elders also called for Deng's return. With increasing pressure from all sides, Hua named Deng Vice-Premier in July 1977, and later promoted him to various other positions, effectively catapulting Deng to China's second-most powerful figure. In August, the Party's Eleventh Congress was held in Beijing, officially naming (in ranking order) Hua Guofeng, Ye Jianying, Deng Xiaoping, Li Xiannian, and Wang Dongxing as new members of the Politburo Standing Committee. [101]

In May 1978, Deng seized the opportunity to elevate his protégé Hu Yaobang to power. Hu published an article in the Guangming Daily , making clever use of Mao's quotations while lauding Deng's ideas. Following this article, Hua began to shift his tone in support of Deng. On July 1, Deng publicized Mao's self-criticism report of 1962 regarding the failure of the Great Leap Forward. With an expanding power base, in September 1978, Deng began openly attacking Hua Guofeng's "Two Whatevers". [100]

On December 18, 1978, the pivotal Third Plenum of the 11th Central Committee was held. At the congress Deng called for "a liberation of thoughts" and urged the party to "seek truth from facts" and abandon ideological dogma. The Plenum officially marked the beginning of the economic reform era. Hua Guofeng engaged in self-criticism and called his "Two Whatevers" a mistake. Wang Dongxing, a trusted ally of Mao, was also criticized. At the Plenum, the Party reversed its verdict on the Tiananmen Incident. Disgraced former leader Liu Shaoqi was allowed a belated state funeral. [102]

At the Fifth Plenum held in 1980, Peng Zhen, He Long and other leaders who had been purged during the Cultural Revolution were politically rehabilitated. Hu Yaobang became head of the party as its General-Secretary. In September, Hua Guofeng resigned, and Zhao Ziyang, another Deng ally, was named Premier. Deng remained the Chairman of the Central Military Commission, but formal power was transferred to a new generation of pragmatic reformers, who reversed Cultural Revolution policies almost in their entirety.[ citation needed ]

Policy and effect

A 1968 map of Beijing showing streets and landmarks renamed during the Cultural Revolution. Andingmen Inner Street became "Great Leap Forward Road", Taijichang Street became the "Road for Eternal Revolution", Dongjiaominxiang was renamed "Anti-Imperialist Road", Beihai Park was renamed "Worker-Peasant-Soldier Park" and Jingshan Park became "Red Guard Park." Most of the Cultural Revolution-era name changes were later reversed. Beijing 1968 I.jpg
A 1968 map of Beijing showing streets and landmarks renamed during the Cultural Revolution. Andingmen Inner Street became "Great Leap Forward Road", Taijichang Street became the "Road for Eternal Revolution", Dongjiaominxiang was renamed "Anti-Imperialist Road", Beihai Park was renamed "Worker-Peasant-Soldier Park" and Jingshan Park became "Red Guard Park." Most of the Cultural Revolution-era name changes were later reversed.

The effects of the Cultural Revolution directly or indirectly touched essentially all of China's population. During the Cultural Revolution, much economic activity was halted, with "revolution", regardless of interpretation, being the primary objective of the country. Mao Zedong Thought became the central operative guide to all things in China. The authority of the Red Guards surpassed that of the army, local police authorities, and the law in general. Chinese traditional arts and ideas were ignored and publicly attacked, with praise for Mao being practiced in their place. People were encouraged to criticize cultural institutions and to question their parents and teachers, which had been strictly forbidden in traditional Chinese culture.[ citation needed ]

The start of the Cultural Revolution brought huge numbers of Red Guards to Beijing, with all expenses paid by the government, and the railway system was in turmoil. The revolution aimed to destroy the "Four Olds" (old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas) and establish the corresponding "Four News", which could range from changing of names and cutting of hair, to the ransacking of homes, vandalizing cultural treasures, and desecrating temples. [103] In a few years, countless ancient buildings, artifacts, antiques, books, and paintings were destroyed by Red Guards. The status of traditional Chinese culture and institutions within China was also severely damaged as a result of the Cultural Revolution, and the practice of many traditional customs weakened.

The revolution also aimed to "sweep away" all "cow demons and snake spirits", that is, all the class enemy who promoted bourgeois ideas within the party, the government, the army, among the intellectuals, as well as those from an exploitative family background or who belonged to one of the Five Black Categories. Large numbers of people perceived to be "monsters and demons" regardless of guilt or innocence were publicly denounced, humiliated, and beaten. In their revolutionary fervor, students denounced their teachers, and children denounced their parents. [104] Many died through their ill-treatment or committed suicide. In 1968, youths were mobilized to go to the countryside in the Down to the Countryside Movement so they may learn from the peasantry, and the departure of millions from the cities helped end the most violent phase of the Cultural Revolution. [105]

Though the effect of the Cultural Revolution was disastrous for millions of people in China, there were positive outcomes for some sections of the population, such as those in the rural areas. For example, the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution and the hostility to the intellectual elite is widely accepted to have damaged the quality of education in China, especially at the upper end of education system. However, the radical policies also provided many in the rural communities with middle school education for the first time, which is thought to have facilitated the rural economic development in the 70s and 80s. [106] Similarly, a large number of health personnel were deployed to the countryside as barefoot doctors during the Cultural Revolution. Some farmers were given informal medical training, and health-care centers were established in rural communities. This process led to a marked improvement in the health and the life expectancy of the general population. [107]

After the most violent phase of the 1960s ended, the attack on traditional culture continued in 1973 with the Anti-Lin Biao, Anti-Confucius Campaign as part of the struggle against the moderate elements in the party. The Cultural Revolution brought to the forefront numerous internal power struggles within the Communist party, many of which had little to do with the larger battles between Party leaders, but resulted instead from local factionalism and petty rivalries that were usually unrelated to the "revolution" itself. Because of the chaotic political environment, local governments lacked organization and stability, if they existed at all. Members of different factions often fought on the streets, and political assassinations, particularly in predominantly rural provinces, were common. The masses spontaneously involved themselves in factions, and took part in open warfare against other factions. The ideology that drove these factions was vague and sometimes non-existent, with the struggle for local authority being the only motivation for mass involvement.[ citation needed ]


The Cultural Revolution brought China's education system to a virtual halt for some time. In the early months of the Cultural Revolution, schools and universities were closed. Primary and middle schools later gradually reopened, but all colleges and universities were closed until 1970, and most universities did not reopen until 1972. [108] The university entrance exams were cancelled after 1966, to be replaced later by a system whereby students were recommended by factories, villages and military units, and entrance exams were not restored until 1977 under Deng Xiaoping. Values taught in traditional education were abandoned, [109] while academics and intellectuals were persecuted and sent to rural labor camps. According to the documents for the prosecution of the Gang of Four, 142,000 cadres and teachers in the education circles were persecuted, and noted academics, scientists, and educators who died included Xiong Qinglai, Jian Bozan, Rao Yutai, Wu Dingliang and Zhao Jiuzhang. [110]

During the Cultural Revolution, basic education was emphasized and rapidly expanded. While the years of schooling were reduced and education standard fell, the proportion of Chinese children who had completed primary education increased from less than half before the Cultural Revolution to almost all after the Cultural Revolution, and those who completed junior middle school rose from 15% to over two-third. The educational opportunities for rural children expanded considerably, while those of the children of the urban elite became restricted by the anti-elitist policies. [111]

The impact of the Cultural Revolution on popular education varied among regions, and formal measurements of literacy did not resume until the 1980s. [112] Some counties in Zhanjiang had illiteracy rates as high as 41% some 20 years after the revolution. The leaders of China at the time denied that there were any illiteracy problems from the start. This effect was amplified by the elimination of qualified teachers—many districts were forced to rely on selected students to educate the next generation. [112]

In 1968, the Communist Party instituted the Down to the Countryside Movement, in which "Educated Youths" (zhishi qingnian or simply zhiqing) in urban areas were sent to live and work in agrarian areas to be re-educated by the peasantry and to better understand the role of manual agrarian labor in Chinese society. In the initial stages, most of the youth who took part volunteered, although later on the government resorted to forcing many of them to move. Between 1968 and 1979, 17 millions of China's urban youths left for the countryside, and being in the rural areas also deprived them the opportunity of higher education. [105] The entire generation of tormented and inadequately educated individuals is often referred to in the West as well as in China as the 'lost generation'. [109] [113] [114] In the post-Mao period, many of those forcibly moved attacked the policy as a violation of their human rights." [115]

Slogans and rhetoric

Remnants of a banner containing slogans from the Cultural Revolution in Anhui. Cultural revolution anhui.jpg
Remnants of a banner containing slogans from the Cultural Revolution in Anhui.

According to Shaorong Huang, the fact that the Cultural Revolution had such massive effects on Chinese society is the result of extensive use of political slogans. [116] In Huang's view, rhetoric played a central role in rallying both the Party leadership and people at large during the Cultural Revolution. For example, the slogan "to rebel is justified" (造反有理, zàofǎn yǒulǐ) became a unitary theme. [116]

Huang asserts that political slogans were ubiquitous in every aspect of people's lives, being printed onto ordinary items such as bus tickets, cigarette packets, and mirror tables. [117] Workers were supposed to "grasp revolution and promote productions", while peasants were supposed to raise more pigs because "more pigs means more manure, and more manure means more grain". Even a casual remark by Mao, "Sweet potato tastes good; I like it" became a slogan everywhere in the countryside. [116]

Political slogans of the time had three sources: Mao, official Party media such as People's Daily , and the Red Guards. [116] Mao often offered vague, yet powerful directives that led to the factionalization of the Red Guards. [118] These directives could be interpreted to suit personal interests, in turn aiding factions' goals in being most loyal to Mao Zedong. Red Guard slogans were of the most violent nature, such as "Strike the enemy down on the floor and step on him with a foot", "Long live the red terror!" and "Those who are against Chairman Mao will have their dog skulls smashed into pieces". [116]

Sinologists Lowell Dittmer and Chen Ruoxi point out that the Chinese language had historically been defined by subtlety, delicacy, moderation, and honesty, as well as the "cultivation of a refined and elegant literary style". [119] This changed during the Cultural Revolution. Since Mao wanted an army of bellicose people in his crusade, rhetoric at the time was reduced to militant and violent vocabulary. [116] These slogans were a powerful and effective method of "thought reform", mobilizing millions of people in a concerted attack upon the subjective world, "while at the same time reforming their objective world." [116] [120]

Dittmer and Chen argue that the emphasis on politics made language a very effective form of propaganda, but "also transformed it into a jargon of stereotypes—pompous, repetitive, and boring". [120] To distance itself from the era, Deng Xiaoping's government cut back heavily on the use of political slogans. The practice of sloganeering saw a mild resurgence in the late 1990s under Jiang Zemin.[ citation needed ]

Arts and literature

The ballet The Red Detachment of Women, one of the Model Dramas promoted during the Cultural Revolution. Revolutionary opera.jpg
The ballet The Red Detachment of Women , one of the Model Dramas promoted during the Cultural Revolution.

Before the Cultural Revolution, in the years 1958–1966, theatre became part of the struggles in the political arena as plays were used as to criticize or support particular members of the party leadership. An opera by Wu Han, Hai Rui Dismissed from Office , was interpreted as a veiled criticism of Mao. It produced an attack by Yao Wenyuan on the opera, an attack often considered the opening shot of Cultural Revolution. [121] It led to the persecution and death of its writer Wu Han, as well as others involved in theatre, such as Tian Han, Sun Weishi, and Zhou Xinfang. [122] [123]

During the Cultural Revolution, Jiang Qing took control of the stage and introduced the revolutionary model operas under her direct supervision. Traditional operas were banned as they were considered feudalistic and bourgeois, but revolutionary opera, which is based on Peking opera but modified in both content and form, was promoted. [124] Starting in 1967, eight Model Dramas (6 operas and 2 ballets) were produced in the first three years, and the most notable of the operas was The Legend of the Red Lantern . These operas were the only approved opera form and other opera troupes were required to adopt or change their repertoire. [125] The model operas were also broadcast on the radio, made into films, blared from public loudspeakers, taught to students in schools and workers in factories, and became ubiquitous as a form of popular entertainment and the only theatrical entertainment for millions in China. [126] [127]

In 1966, Jiang Qing put forward the Theory of the Dictatorship of the Black Line in Literature and Arts where those perceived to be bourgeois, anti-socialist or anti-Mao "black line" should be cast aside, and called for the creation of a new literature and arts. [128] Writers, artists and intellectuals who were the recipients and disseminators of the "old culture" would be comprehensively eradicated. The majority of writers and artists were seen as "black line figures" and "reactionary literati", and therefore persecuted, many were subjected to "criticism and denunciation" where they may be publicly humiliated and ravaged, and they may also be imprisoned or sent to be reformed through hard labour. [129] For instance, Mei Zhi and her husband were sent to a tea farm in Lushan County, Sichuan, and she did not resume writing until the 1980s. [130]

In the documents for the prosecution of the Gang of Four released in 1980, more than 2,600 people in the field of arts and literature were revealed to have been persecuted by the Ministry of Culture and units under it alone. [110] Many died as a result of their ordeal and humiliation—the names of 200 well-known writers and artists who were persecuted to death during the Cultural Revolution were commemorated in 1979, these include writers such as Lao She, Fu Lei, Deng Tuo, Baren, Li Guangtian, Yang Shuo, and Zhao Shuli. [129]

During the Cultural Revolution, only a few writers who gained permission or requalification under the new system, such as Hao Ran and some writers of worker or farmer background, can have had their work published or reprinted. The permissible subject matter of proletarian and socialist literature would be strictly defined, and all the literary periodicals in the country ceased publication by 1968. The situation eased after 1972, more writers were allowed to write and many provincial literary periodicals resumed publication, but the majority of writers still could not work. [129] [131]

The effect is similar in the film industry. A booklet titled "Four Hundred Films to be Criticized" was distributed, and film directors and actors/actresses were criticized with some tortured and imprisoned. [126] These included many of Jiang Qing's rivals and former friends in the film industry, and those who died in the period included Cai Chusheng, Zheng Junli, Shangguan Yunzhu, Wang Ying, and Xu Lai. [132] No feature films were produced in mainland China for seven years apart from the few approved "Model dramas" and highly ideological films, [133] a notable example of the handful of films made and permitted to be shown in this period is Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy . [134] [135]

After the communist takeover in China, much of the popular music from Shanghai was condemned as Yellow Music and banned, and during the Cultural Revolution, composers of such popular music such as Li Jinhui were persecuted. [136] Revolution-themed songs instead were promoted, and songs such as "Ode to the Motherland", "Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman", "The East Is Red" and "Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No New China" were either written or became extremely popular during this period. "The East Is Red", especially, became popular; it de facto supplanted "The March of the Volunteers" as the national anthem of China, though the latter was restored to its previous place after the Cultural Revolution ended.[ citation needed ]

Propaganda art

Posters from the Cultural Revolution period SZ Shen Zhen Bo Wu Guan Shenzhen Museum Shen Zhen Gai Ge Kai Fang Qian Li Shi Zhan Ting Before Reform and Opening-up History Exhibition Hall Wen Ge Shi Dai Hong Se Si Xiang Xuan Chuan Hai Bu political posters IX1 03.jpg
Posters from the Cultural Revolution period

Some of the most enduring images of Cultural Revolution come from the poster art. Propaganda art in posters was used as a campaigning tool and mass communication device, and often served as the main source of information for the people. They were produced in large number and widely disseminated, and were used by the government and Red Guards to educate the public the ideological value as defined by the party state. [137] There were many types of posters, the two main genres being the dazibao (大字报, big character poster) and "commercial" propapanda poster (宣传画, xuanchuanhua). [138]

The dazibao may be slogans, poems, commentary and graphics often freely created and posted on walls in public spaces, factories and communes. They were vital to Mao's struggle in the Cultural Revolution, and Mao himself wrote his own dazibao at Beijing University on August 5, 1966, calling on the people to "Bombard the Headquarters". [139] The "commercial" propaganda posters were artworks produced by the government and sold cheaply in store to be displayed in homes. The artists for these posters may be amateurs or uncredited professionals, and the posters were largely in a Socialist Realist visual style with certain conventions—for example, images of Mao should be depicted as "red, smooth, and luminescent". [138] [140]

Traditional themes in art were sidelined the Cultural Revolution, and artists such as Feng Zikai, Shi Lu, and Pan Tianshou were persecuted. [141] Many of the artists have been assigned to manual labour, and artists were expected to depict subjects that glorified the Cultural Revolution related to their labour. [142] In 1971, in part to alleviate their suffering, a number of leading artists were recalled from manual labour or free from captivity under the initiative of Zhou Enlai to decorate hotels and railway stations defaced by Red Guards slogans. Zhou said that the artworks were for meant for foreigners, therefore were "outer" art not be under the obligations and restrictions placed on "inner" art meant for Chinese citizens. To him, landscape paintings should also not be considered one of the "Four Olds". However, Zhou was weakened by cancer and in 1974, the Jiang Qing faction seized these and other paintings and mounted exhibitions in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities denouncing the artworks as "Black Paintings". [143]

Historical relics

Faces of Buddhas were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Trip to Ningxia and Gansu.jpg
Faces of Buddhas were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.

China's historical sites, artifacts and archives suffered devastating damage, as they were thought to be at the root of "old ways of thinking." Artifacts were seized, museums and private homes ransacked, and any item found that was thought to represent bourgeois or feudal ideas was destroyed. There are few records of exactly how much was destroyed—Western observers suggest that much of China's thousands of years of history was in effect destroyed, or, later, smuggled abroad for sale, during the short ten years of the Cultural Revolution. Chinese historians compare the cultural suppression during the Cultural Revolution to Qin Shihuang's great Confucian purge. Religious persecution intensified during this period, as a result of religion being viewed in opposition to Marxist–Leninist and Maoist thinking. [144]

Although being undertaken by some of the Revolution's enthusiastic followers, the destruction of historical relics was never formally sanctioned by the Communist Party, whose official policy was instead to protect such items. On May 14, 1967, the CCP central committee issued a document entitled Several suggestions for the protection of cultural relics and books during the Cultural Revolution. [145] Nevertheless, enormous damage was inflicted on China's cultural heritage. For example, a survey in 1972 in Beijing of 18 key spots of cultural heritage, including the Temple of Heaven and Ming Tombs, showed extensive damage. Of the 80 cultural heritage sites in Beijing under municipal protection, 30 were destroyed, and of the 6,843 cultural sites under protection by Beijing government decision in 1958, 4,922 were damaged or destroyed. [146] [147] Numerous valuable old books, paintings, and other cultural relics were also burnt to ashes. [147]

Later archaeological excavation and preservation after the destructive period in the 1960s, however, were protected, and several major discoveries, such as that of the Terracotta Army and the Mawangdui, occurred after the peak of the Revolution. [145] Nevertheless, the most prominent symbol of academic research in archaeology, the journal Kaogu , did not publish during the Cultural Revolution. [148]

Struggle sessions and purges

Millions of people in China were violently persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. Those identified as spies, "running dogs", "revisionists", or coming from a suspect class (including those related to former landlords or rich peasants) were subject to beating, imprisonment, rape, torture, sustained and systematic harassment and abuse, seizure of property, denial of medical attention, and erasure of social identity. Intellectuals were also targeted; many survivors and observers suggest that almost anyone with skills over that of the average person was made the target of political "struggle" in some way. At least hundreds of thousands of people were murdered, starved, or worked to death. Millions more were forcibly displaced. Young people from the cities were forcibly moved to the countryside, where they were forced to abandon all forms of standard education in place of the propaganda teachings of the Communist Party of China. [100]

Some people were not able to stand the torture and, losing hope for the future, committed suicide. One of the most famous cases of attempted suicide due to political persecution involved Deng Xiaoping's son, Deng Pufang, who jumped (or was thrown) from a four-story building after being "interrogated" by Red Guards. Instead of dying, he became paraplegic. In the trial of the so-called Gang of Four, a Chinese court stated that 729,511 people had been persecuted, of whom 34,800 were said to have died. [149]

According to Mao: The Unknown Story , an estimated 100,000 people died in one of the worst factional struggles in Guangxi in January–April 1968, before Premier Zhou sent the PLA to intervene. [150] Zheng Yi's Scarlet Memorial: Tales of Cannibalism in Modern China alleged "systematic killing and cannibalization of individuals in the name of political revolution and 'class struggle'" among the Zhuang people in Wuxuan County, Guangxi, during that period. [151] Zheng was criticized in China for reliance on unpublished interviews and for negative portrayal of a Chinese ethnic minority, [152] although senior party historians corroborated allegations of cannibalism. [153] Sinologist Gang Yue questioned how "systematic" the cannibalism could have been, given the inherent factionalism of the Cultural Revolution. [154] In Mao's Last Revolution (2006), MacFarquhar and Schoenhals also dispute that it was communism that compelled the Zhuang in this area towards cannibalism, noting that similar incidents occurred under pressure from the Kuomintang secret police in the republican period. [153]

Death toll

Estimates of the death toll, including civilians and Red Guards, vary greatly. [155] They range upwards to several millions, but an estimate of around 400,000 deaths is a widely accepted minimum figure, according to Maurice Meisner. [156] MacFarquhar and Schoenhals assert that in rural China alone some 36 million people were persecuted, of whom between 750,000 and 1.5 million were killed, with roughly the same number permanently injured. [157] In Mao: The Unknown Story , Jung Chang and Jon Halliday claim that as many as 3 million people died in the violence of the Cultural Revolution. [158] The Holocaust memorial museum puts the death toll between 5 and 10 million. [159] The true figure of those who were persecuted or died during the Cultural Revolution however may never be known, since many deaths went unreported or were actively covered up by the police or local authorities. The state of Chinese demographics records at the time was also very poor, and the PRC has been hesitant to allow formal research into the period. [160]

Ethnic minorities

The Tibetan Panchen Lama during a struggle session. Panchen Lama during the struggle (thamzing) session 1964.jpg
The Tibetan Panchen Lama during a struggle session.

The Cultural Revolution wreaked much havoc on minority cultures and ethnicities in China. In Inner Mongolia, some 790,000 people were persecuted. Of these, 22,900 were beaten to death and 120,000 were maimed, [161] during a witch hunt to find members of the alleged separatist New Inner Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party. In Xinjiang, copies of the Qur'an and other books of the Uyghur people were apparently burned. Muslim imams were reportedly paraded around with paint splashed on their bodies. In the ethnic Korean areas of northeast China, language schools were destroyed. In Yunnan Province, the palace of the Dai people's king was torched, and a massacre of Muslim Hui people at the hands of the People's Liberation Army in Yunnan, known as the Shadian incident, reportedly claimed over 1,600 lives in 1975. [162] After the Cultural Revolution was over, the government gave reparations for the Shadian Incident, including the erection of a Martyr's Memorial in Shadian. [163]

Concessions given to minorities were abolished during the Cultural Revolution as part of the Red Guards' attack on the "Four Olds". People's communes, previously only established in parts of Tibet, were established throughout Tibetan Autonomous Region in 1966, [164] removing Tibet's exemption from China's period of land reform, and reimposed in other minority areas. The effect on Tibet had been particularly severe as it came following the repression after the 1959 Tibetan uprising. [165] [166] The destruction of nearly all of its over 6,000 monasteries, which began before the Cultural Revolution, were often conducted with the complicity of local ethnic Tibetan Red Guards. [167] Only eight were left intact by the end of 1970s. [168]

Many monks and nuns were killed, and the general population were subjected to physical and psychological torture. [167] There were an estimated 600,000 monks and nuns in Tibet in 1950, and by 1979, most of them were dead, imprisoned or had disappeared. [169] The Tibetan government in exile claimed that a large number of Tibetans also died from famines in 1961–1964 and 1968–1973 as a result of forced collectivization, [166] [170] [171] however the number of Tibetan deaths or whether famines in fact took place in these periods is disputed. [172] [173] [174] Despite official persecution, some local leaders and minority ethnic practices survived in remote regions. [175]

The overall failure of the Red Guards' and radical assimilationists' goals was largely due to two factors. It was felt that pushing minority groups too hard would compromise China's border defences. This was especially important as minorities make up a large percentage of the population that live along China's borders. In the late 1960s China experienced a period of strained relations with a number of its neighbours, notably with the Soviet Union and India. [176] Many of the Cultural Revolution's goals in minority areas were simply too unreasonable to be implemented. The return to pluralism, and therefore the end of the worst of the effects of the Cultural Revolution to ethnic minorities in China, coincides closely with Lin Biao's removal from power. [177]



Communist Party opinions

The central section of this wall shows the faint remnant marks of a propaganda slogan that was added during the Cultural Revolution, but has since been removed. The slogan reads "Boundless faith in Chairman Mao." Propaganda slogan removed - Wuhan University.JPG
The central section of this wall shows the faint remnant marks of a propaganda slogan that was added during the Cultural Revolution, but has since been removed. The slogan reads "Boundless faith in Chairman Mao."

To make sense of the mass chaos caused by Mao's leadership in the Cultural Revolution while preserving the Party's authority and legitimacy, Mao's successors needed to lend the event a "proper" historical judgment. On June 27, 1981, the Central Committee adopted the "Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party Since the Founding of the People's Republic of China," an official assessment of major historical events since 1949. [178]

The Resolution frankly noted Mao's leadership role in the movement, stating that "chief responsibility for the grave 'Left' error of the 'Cultural Revolution,' an error comprehensive in magnitude and protracted in duration, does indeed lie with Comrade Mao Zedong." It diluted blame on Mao himself by asserting that the movement was "manipulated by the counterrevolutionary groups of Lin Biao and Jiang Qing," who caused its worst excesses. The Resolution affirmed that the Cultural Revolution "brought serious disaster and turmoil to the Communist Party and the Chinese people." [178]

The official view aimed to separate Mao's actions during the Cultural Revolution from his "heroic" revolutionary activities during the Chinese Civil War and the Second Sino-Japanese War. It also separated Mao's personal mistakes from the correctness of the theory that he created, going as far as to rationalize that the Cultural Revolution contravened the spirit of Mao Zedong Thought, which remains an official guiding ideology of the Party. Deng Xiaoping famously summed this up with the phrase "Mao was 70% good, 30% bad." [179] After the Cultural Revolution, Deng affirmed that Maoist ideology was responsible for the revolutionary success of the Communist Party, but abandoned it in practice to favour "Socialism with Chinese characteristics", a very different model of state-directed market economics.[ citation needed ]

In Mainland China, the official view of the party now serves as the dominant framework for Chinese historiography of the time period; alternative views (see below) are discouraged. Following the Cultural Revolution, a new genre of literature known as "Scar literature" (Shanghen Wenxue) emerged, being encouraged by the post-Mao government. Largely written by educated youth such as Liu Xinhua, Zhang Xianliang, and Liu Xinwu, scar literature depicted the Revolution from a negative viewpoint, using their own perspectives and experiences as a basis. [180]

After the suppression of the Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989, both liberals and conservatives within the Party accused each other of excesses that they claimed were reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution. Li Peng, who promoted the use of military force, cited that the student movement had taken inspiration from the grassroots populism of the Cultural Revolution, and that if it is left unchecked, would eventually lead to a similar degree of mass chaos. [181] Zhao Ziyang, who was sympathetic to the protestors, later accused his political opponents of illegally removing him from office by using "Cultural Revolution-style" tactics, including "reversing black and white, exaggerating personal offenses, taking quotes out of context, issuing slander and lies... innundating the newspapers with critical articles making me out to be an enemy, and casual disregard for my personal freedoms." [182]

Alternative opinions

Although the Chinese Communist Party officially condemns the Cultural Revolution, there are many Chinese people who hold more positive views of it, particularly amongst the working class, who benefited most from its policies. [183] Since Deng's ascendancy to power, the government has arrested and imprisoned figures who have taken a strongly pro-Cultural Revolution stance. For instance, in 1985, a young shoe-factory worker put up a poster on a factory wall in Xianyang, Shaanxi, which declared that "The Cultural Revolution was Good" and led to achievements such as "the building of the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge, the creation of hybrid rice crops and the rise of people's consciousness." The factory worker was eventually sentenced to ten years in prison, where he died soon after "without any apparent cause." [184]

One of the student leaders of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, Shen Tong, author of Almost a Revolution, has a positive view of some aspects of the Cultural Revolution. According to Shen, the trigger for the famous Tiananmen hunger-strikes of 1989 was a big-character poster ( dazibao ), a form of public political discussion that gained prominence during the Cultural Revolution. Shen remarked that the congregation of students from across the country to Beijing on trains and the hospitality they received from residents was reminiscent of the experiences of Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution. [3]

Since the advent of the Internet, people inside and outside China have argued online that the Cultural Revolution had many beneficial qualities for China that have been denied by both the post-Mao Chinese Communist Party and Western media. Some hold that the Cultural Revolution 'cleansed' China from superstitions, religious dogma, and outdated traditions in a 'modernist transformation' that later made Deng's economic reforms possible. These sentiments increased following the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, when a segment of the population began to associate anti-Maoist viewpoints with the United States. [185]

Contemporary Maoists have also become more organized in the internet era, partially as a response to criticisms of Mao from academics and scholars. One Maoist website managed to collect thousands of signatures demanding punishment for those who publicly criticize Mao. Along with the call for legal action, this movement demands the establishment of agencies similar to Cultural Revolution-era "neighborhood committees", in which "citizens" would report anti-Maoists to local public security bureaus. Maoist rhetoric and mass mobilization methods were resurgent in the interior city of Chongqing during the political career of Bo Xilai. [186]

Contemporary China

Public discussion of the Cultural Revolution is still limited in China. The Chinese government continues to prohibit news organizations from mentioning details of the Cultural Revolution, and online discussions and books about the topic are subject to official scrutiny. Textbooks on the subject continue to abide by the "official view" (see above) of the events. Many government documents from the 1960s on remain classified, and are not open to formal inspection by private academics. [187] At the National Museum of China in Beijing, the Cultural Revolution is barely mentioned in its historical exhibits. [188] Despite inroads made by numerous prominent sinologists, independent scholarly research of the Cultural Revolution is discouraged by the Chinese government. [187] There is concern that as witnesses age and die, the opportunity to research the event thoroughly within China may be lost. [189]

That the government still displays such heightened sensitivities around the Cultural Revolution is an indicator that it still considers itself, at least in part, an inheritor of its legacy. The government is apprehensive that academic probing and popular discussions will lead to ideological conflict and increase social instability. It may threaten the foundations of Communist rule. The focus of the Chinese government on maintaining political and social stability has been a top priority since the Tiananmen crackdown on reformers on June 4, 1989, and the current government has no interest in re-evaluating any issue that might lead to a split in the Chinese leadership, or which might polarize the Party on ideological grounds. [187] In 2018, it was reported that one practice typical of the Cultural Revolution, Fengqiao, or public criticism of supposed counter-revolutionaries by a whole village, was experiencing an unexpected revival: but it is unclear whether this was an isolated incident or a sign of a renewed interest for cultural styles typical of the Revolution. [190]

Outside mainland China

In Hong Kong a pro-Communist anti-colonial strike inspired by the Cultural Revolution was launched in 1967. Its excesses damaged the credibility of these activists for more than a generation in the eyes of Hong Kong residents. [191] In Taiwan, Chiang Kai-shek initiated the Chinese Cultural Renaissance to counter what he regarded as destruction of traditional Chinese values by the Communists on the mainland. In Albania, Communist leader and Chinese ally Enver Hoxha began a "Cultural and Ideological Revolution" organized along the same lines as the Cultural Revolution. [192]

In the world at large, Mao Zedong emerged as a symbol of the anti-establishment, grassroots populism, and self-determination. His revolutionary philosophies found adherents in the Shining Path of Peru, the Naxalite insurgency in India, various political movements in Nepal, the U.S.-based Black Panther Party, [193] and the 1960s counterculture movement in general [ according to whom? ]. In 2007 Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang remarked that the Cultural Revolution represented the 'dangers of democracy', remarking "People can go to the extreme like what we saw during the Cultural Revolution [...], when people take everything into their own hands, then you cannot govern the place". [194] The remarks caused controversy in Hong Kong and were later retracted with an accompanying apology. [194]

Academic debate

Various schools of thought have emerged surrounding several key questions surrounding the Cultural Revolution, seeking to explain why events unfolded the way they did, why it began in the first place, and what it was. The movement's complexities contain many contradictions: led by an all-powerful omnipresent leader, it was mainly driven to fruition by a series of grassroots-led popular uprisings against the Communist establishment. While Mao's leadership was pivotal at the beginning of the movement, Jin Qiu contends that as events progressed it deviated significantly from Mao's utopian vision. [195] In this sense, the Cultural Revolution was actually a much more decentralized and varied movement that gradually lost cohesion, spawning a large number of 'local revolutions' which differed in their nature and goals. [195]

Academic interest has also focused on the movement's relationship with Mao's personality. Mao had always envisioned himself as a wartime guerrilla leader, which made him wary of the bureaucratic details of peacetime governance. With the Cultural Revolution Mao was simply "returning to form", once again taking on the role of a guerrilla leader fighting against an institutionalized party bureaucracy. MacFarquhar and Schoenhals, writing in Mao's Last Revolution, paint the movement as neither a bona fide war over ideological purity nor a mere power struggle to remove Mao's political rivals. [196]

While Mao's personal motivations were certainly pivotal to the Cultural Revolution, they reasoned that a multitude of other complex factors contributed to the way events unfolded. These include China's relationship with the global Communist movement, geopolitical concerns, the ideological rift between China and the Soviet Union, Khrushchev's ouster, and the failures of the Great Leap Forward. [196] The movement was, at least in part, a legacy project to cement Mao's place in history, aimed to boost his prestige while he was alive and preserve the invulnerability of his ideas after his death. [197]

The mass hysteria surrounding the Cultural Revolution was also unprecedented. Historian Phillip Short contends that the Cultural Revolution contained elements that were akin to a form of religious worship. [198] Mao's godlike status during the period yielded him ultimate definitional power over Communist doctrine, yet the esoteric and often contradictory nature of his writings led to endless wars over its interpretation, with both conservatives and liberals drawing on Mao's teachings to achieve their divergent goals.[ according to whom? ] Many factional struggles were not unlike religious wars, with all sides claiming allegiance to the most "authentic" form of Maoism.[ citation needed ]

Virtually all English-language books paint a highly negative picture of the movement. Historian Anne F. Thurston wrote that it "led to loss of culture, and of spiritual values; loss of hope and ideals; loss of time, truth and of life". [199] Barnouin and Yu summarized the Cultural Revolution as "a political movement that produced unprecedented social divisions, mass mobilization, hysteria, upheavals, arbitrary cruelty, torture, killings, and even civil war", calling Mao "one of the most tyrannical despots of the twentieth century". [200]

In Mao: The Unknown Story , Chang and Halliday attributed all the destruction of the Cultural Revolution to Mao personally, with more sympathetic portrayals of his allies and opponents. [201] A small number of scholars have challenged the mainstream portrayals of the Cultural Revolution and attempted to understand it in a more positive light. Mobo Gao, writing in The Battle for China's Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution, [202] asserts that the movement benefited millions of Chinese citizens, particularly agricultural and industrial workers, [203] and sees it as egalitarian and genuinely populist, citing continued Maoist nostalgia in China today as remnants of its positive legacy. [204]

See also



  1. "A Brief Overview of China's Cultural Revolution". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved June 12, 2019.
  2. "Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party Since the Founding of the People's Republic of China," adopted by the Sixth Plenary Session of the Eleventh Central Committee of the Communist Party of China on June 27, 1981 Resolution on CPC History (1949–81). (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1981). p. 32.
  3. 1 2 3 4 Tang Tsou. [1986] (1986). The Cultural Revolution and Post-Mao Reforms: A Historical Perspective. University of Chicago Press. ISBN   0-226-81514-5
  4. 1 2 3 Worden, Robert (1987). "A Country Study:China". Library of Congress.
  5. Jin, Qiu (1999). The Culture of Power: Lin Biao and the Cultural Revolution. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. pp. 25–30.
  6. "Historical Atlas of the 20th century".
  7. Jin Qiu, p. 55
  8. Spence
  9. Jin Qiu, Ch. 2
  10. 1 2 MacFarquhar and Schoenhals 2006. pp. 4–7.
  11. 1 2 3 MacFarquhar and Schoenhals 2006. p. 7.
  12. MacFarquhar and Schoenhals. pp. 15–18.
  13. MacFarquhar and Schoenhals. p. 16.
  14. No relation to Peng Dehuai
  15. MacFarquhar and Schoenhals. pp. 14–19.
  16. 1 2 MacFarquhar and Schoenhals 2006. Chapter 1.
  17. MacFarquhar and Schoenhals 2006. pp. 20–27.
  18. MacFarquhar and Schoenhals. p. 24.
  19. 1 2 MacFarquhar and Schoenhals 2006 Chapter 1.
  20. MacFarquhar and Schoenhals. pp. 27–35.
  21. MacFarquhar and Schoenhals 2006. pp. 39–40.
  22. Quoted in MacFarquhar and Schoenhals 2006. p. 47.
  23. Li Xuefeng quoted in MacFarquhar and Schoenhals 2006. p. 40.
  24. 1 2 MacFarquhar and Schoenhals 2006. p. 46.
  25. Wang, Nianyi (1989). 大动乱的年代:1949–1989年的中国 [Great age of turmoil, a history of China 1949–89]. Henan Renmin Chubanshe. p. 13.
  26. MacFarquhar and Schoenhals 2006. p. 41.
  27. 1 2 MacFarquhar and Schoenhals, p. 56–58
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Liu Zihou was a Communist revolutionary leader and politician of the People's Republic of China. He served as Governor of Hubei and Hebei provinces, and as the top leader of Hebei during the Cultural Revolution, but was ousted from his positions after he opposed the reforms of Deng Xiaoping. He was a protégé of Li Xiannian, one of China's top leaders.

Liu Shaoqi 2nd President of the Peoples Republic of China

Liu Shaoqi was a Chinese revolutionary, politician, and theorist. He was Chairman of the NPC Standing Committee from 1954 to 1959, First Vice Chairman of the Communist Party of China from 1956 to 1966 and Chairman (President) of the People's Republic of China, China's de jure head of state, from 1959 to 1968, during which he implemented policies of economic reconstruction in China.

The 10th National Congress of the Communist Party of China was a significant Communist Party Congress in China following the fall of Lin Biao and the continuation of the Cultural Revolution. It profoundly elected the 10th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.


Further reading


Specific topics


Fictional treatments

Memoirs by Chinese participants

Films set in the Cultural Revolution