The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-76), as the Cultural Revolution was officially known, was a movement that intended to create a new society by destroying traditional beliefs, customs and thinking, by purging "revisionist thought" and by crushing perceived enemies of the Communist Party. During the movement Mao saw knowledge as power and believed that by subverting it he could eliminate his greatest threats.
The Cultural Revolution has been described as a disastrous combination of the opposite —a command economy and anarchic politics. About 36 million people were persecuted and anywhere from 750,000 to 1.5 million killed. Cultural Revolution-era policies responded with public deprecation of schooling and expertise, including closing of all schools for a year or more and of universities for nearly a decade, exaltation of on-the-job training and of political motivation over expertise, and preferential treatment for workers and peasant youth. Educated urban youth, most of whom came from "bourgeois" families, were persuaded or coerced to settle in the countryside, often in remote frontier districts. Because there were no jobs in the cities, the party expected urban youth to apply their education in the countryside as primary school teachers, production team accountants, or barefoot doctors; many did manual labor. The policy was intensely unpopular, not only with urban parents and youth but also with peasants and was dropped soon after the fall of the Gang of Four in late 1976. [Source: Library of Congress]
The Cultural Revolution followed the failed Great Leap Forward and the ensuing Great Famine, when Mao and the Communist Party were on the defensive, looking for ways to rekindle revolutionary spirit. Instead of reshaping Chinese society and thought--its purported intention--the Cultural Revolution thrust much of China into social, political and economic chaos.
The two year period between May, 1966 and the summer of 1968 was the most active and radical period of the Cultural Revolution. The period between 1968 and 1976 was a period of recovery when members of the Red Guard were re-educated and some assemblage of order was restored. Today the Cultural Revolution is officially known in China as "Ten Years of Chaos" or "Ten Years of Calamity."
John Gittings wrote in China Beat, "Outside China there is a tendency to write off the whole affair as culminating proof that Mao was a Monster. This phrase was widely used in favorable reviews of the recent biography Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. Though the phrase does not actually appear in their book, the authors claim that Mao from his youth had taken a delight in bloodthirsty thuggery, that he had wished to terrorise the nation by unleashing the Red Guards, and that he took pleasure in watching films of torture and murder committed by them. These assertions are part of a disappointingly one-dimensional picture of Mao (it ignores, among other things, his extensive theoretical speeches and writings) but which seems to resonate with many readers. However this approach has been appraised much more critically by a number of serious scholars, both Chinese and Western: their views have been brought together in Was Mao Really a Monster?" (Routledge, 2010) edited by Gregor Benton and Lin Chun. [Source: John Gittings, China Beat, March 31, 2010]
Tania Branigan wrote in The Guardian, “Across China teachers, former landlords and intellectuals were being humiliated, beaten and murdered. They were hounded by neighbours, colleagues and pupils moved by misguided revolutionary fervour, personal grudges or little more than whim. Friends, children and spouses turned on them. In Chongqing, rival factions battled with guns and tanks. In Guangxi, there are accounts of cannibalism. Victims were condemned as "monsters and freaks" By the time the chaos subsided 10 years later, an estimated 36 million had been persecuted and at least 750,000 were dead in the countryside alone. Red Guards had smashed up temples, burned books and destroyed historical treasures. Universities had closed and pupils missed years of schooling. [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, February 24, 2012]
The theory was that creative destruction would eradicate old habits and ideas, transforming a struggling country. More urgently, the disastrous Great Leap Forward and Khrushchev's fall in the Soviet Union impelled Mao to see off rivals and critics. His heir apparent Liu Shaoqi was one of many to die in disgrace. The violence shook every strata of society and rippled out to the farthest corners of the country. Teenagers and youths were encouraged to attack fellow citizens. More than one observer has compared the anarchy to Lord Of The Flies. [Ibid]
Books About the Cultural Revolution
Books on the Cultural Revolution: Wild Swans by Jung Chang, an international bestseller; Ten Years of Madness: Oral Histories of the Cultural Revolution and One Hundred People's Ten Years by Feng Jicai. The Execution of Mayor Yin and Other Stories from the Great Cultural Revolution by Chen Jo-his; Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Chang; Enemies of the People by Anne F. Thurston.
Colors of the Mountain by Da Chen (Random House, 2000) is a coming-of-age set in the Cultural Revolution. It was described by Newsweek as "surprisingly free of cynicism or bitterness...all the more poignant by the wonder and vulnerability in the voice of their child narrator." The Lily Theater: A Novel of Modern China by Lulu Wang is an entertaining and interesting depiction of the Cultural Revolution originally written in Dutch by a Chinese woman with a strong, eccentric voice.
Voice from the Whirlwind by Feng Jicai is a collection of oral histories from the Cultural Revolution. Also worth a look is My Name is Number 4: A True Story of the Cultural revolution by Ting-Xing Ye (Thomas Dunne, 2008)
Thousands of Cultural Revolution documents that lay silent for decades, deemed state secrets by a government hardly eager to highlight Mao’s excesses, were made public when the archives of selected declassified government files from that era were opened in Beijing, Shanghai and Xi’an in 2009. The files, some nearly transparent and thin as one-ply tissue paper, include handwritten drafts of speeches, lists of production quotas, song lyrics, government regulations and minutes of groups that studied Mao’s words. The texts embrace the political rhetoric of the day, in which all problems were succinctly rendered into rhyming epithets. The files apparently have been filtered for anything dealing with deaths and imprisonment, and they describe a country still fervently Communist, and unrecognizable today. [Source: Xiyun Yang and Michael Wines, New York Times, January 25, 2010]
Websites and Resources
Good Websites and Sources: Virtual Museum of the Cultural Revolution cnd.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Morning Sun morningsun.org ; History of Cultural Revolution Think Quest ; Student Attacks of Teachers cnd.org ; Red Guards and Cannibals New York Times ; Cultural Revolution Website http://difangwenge.org/, developed by Prof. Yiching Wu and his team at University of Toronto: The website aims to collect sources about the Chinese Cultural Revolution such as memoirs, newspaper articles, photos, oral history and so on, and is a great resource for scholars and students who study contemporary Chinese history.
Death Under Mao: Uncounted Millions, Washington Post article ncafe.com ; Death Tolls erols.com ; People’s Republic of China : Timeline china-profile.com ; ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Cold War International Project wilsoncenter.org ; China Essay Series mtholyoke.edu ; Chaos Group of the University of Maryland a
Websites on Mao Zedong Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chinese Mao.com chinesemao.com ; Mao Internet Library marx2mao.com ; Paul Noll Mao site paulnoll.com/China/Mao ; Spartacus Education spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk ; Mao Quotations art-bin.com ; Mao Video biography.com ; Marxist.org marxists.org ; Propaganda Paintings of Mao artchina.free.fr ; New York Times topics.nytimes.com ; Oxford Reference oxfordreference.com ; Mao Book: Mao: the Unknown Story (Knopf. 2005) by Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans, and her husband John Halliday, a British historian, portrays Mao as villain on the level of Hitler and Stalin. The book was read by U.S. President George Bush and embraced by the American right as a condemnation of Communism. It characterizes Mao as cruel, materialistic, self-centered and a leader who used terror with the aim of ruling the world. There is also a Mao biography by Jonathon Spence.
Links in this Website: MAO, HIS EARLY LIFE, TACTICS AND REVOLUTION Factsanddetails.com/China ; COMMUNISTS TAKE OVER CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; EARLY COMMUNIST RULE UNDER MAO Factsanddetails.com/China ; COMMUNES IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; LEADERSHIP AND PROPAGANDA UNDER MAO Factsanddetails.com/China ; MAO'S PRIVATE LIFE Factsanddetails.com/China ; JIANG QING, LIN BIAO, ZHOU ENLAI Factsanddetails.com/China ; DEATH, REPRESSION AND LIFE UNDER MAO Factsanddetails.com/China ; GREAT LEAP FORWARD Factsanddetails.com/China ; CULTURAL REVOLUTION Factsanddetails.com/China ; CULTURAL REVOLUTION --ENEMIES AND HORRORS Factsanddetails.com/China ; CULTURAL REVOLUTION--THE END Factsanddetails.com/China ; MAO MEETS NIXON Factsanddetails.com/China ; MAO DIES Factsanddetails.com/China ;
Cost of the Cultural Revolution
The Cultural Revolution was a horrible period in Chinese history. Intellectuals were paraded through streets with dunce caps; Muslims were forced to slaughter pigs; and Tibetan monks were taken from their monasteries and put to work in labor camps. Confucius statues that stood for centuries were labeled as decadent and torn down; priceless Ming vases were shattered; and thousand-year-old Buddhist murals were vandalized beyond repair. At the height of the Cultural Revolution, the People's Daily ran the headline: "There is Chaos Under Heaven—the Situation Is Excellent."
Schools were closed; houses were invaded; work places became battlegrounds; mini-civil wars broke out throughout the country; and people were turned into the police by their friends, and tortured and killed for reading books in English. Entire families were massacred for being from "bad class" backgrounds.
The violence and chaos drove neighbor against neighbor, destroyed the economy, drove the country to the brink of famine and forced a generation of intellectual to work in the countryside. Nearly every Chinese city dweller today who was alive then knows of a friend or relative that have was beaten, harassed or driven to suicide during the Cultural Revolution. In Cambodia, the Cultural Revolution inspired the Khmer Rouge.
No one knows exactly how many died, but estimates range from hundreds of thousands to 20 million. Hu Yaobang, a former Communist Party chief, was quoting as saying that 1 million people died, but his figure apparently excluded deaths that resulted from fighting between Red Guard factions, which most scholars believed resulted in an additional one million deaths. Most of those who died during the Cultural Revolution died from fighting among Red Guard factions and violence caused by the collapse of government and the absence of police authority.
Between the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution
In 1961 the political tide at home began to swing to the right, as evidenced by the ascendancy of a more moderate leadership. In an effort to stabilize the economic front, for example, the party-- still under Mao's titular leadership but under the dominant influence of Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, Chen Yun, Peng Zhen, Bo Yibo, and others--initiated a series of corrective measures. Among these measures was the reorganization of the commune system, with the result that production brigades and teams had more say in their own administrative and economic planning. [Source: The Library of Congress]
“To gain more effective control from the center, the CCP reestablished its six regional bureaus and initiated steps aimed at tightening party discipline and encouraging the leading party cadres to develop populist-style leadership at all levels. The efforts were prompted by the party's realization that the arrogance of party and government functionaries had engendered only public apathy. On the industrial front, much emphasis was now placed on realistic and efficient planning; ideological fervor and mass movements were no longer the controlling themes of industrial management. Production authority was restored to factory managers. [Ibid]
“Another notable emphasis after 1961 was the party's greater interest in strengthening the defense and internal security establishment. By early 1965 the country was well on its way to recovery under the direction of the party apparatus, or, to be more specific, the Central Committee's Secretariat headed by Secretary General Deng Xiaoping. [Ibid]
Background of the Cultural Revolution
In the early 1960s, Mao was on the political sidelines and in semiseclusion. By 1962, however, he began an offensive to purify the party, having grown increasingly uneasy about what he believed were the creeping "capitalist" and antisocialist tendencies in the country. As a hardened veteran revolutionary who had overcome the severest adversities, Mao continued to believe that the material incentives that had been restored to the peasants and others were corrupting the masses and were counterrevolutionary. [Source: The Library of Congress]
“To arrest the so-called capitalist trend, Mao launched the Socialist Education Movement, in which the primary emphasis was on restoring ideological purity, reinfusing revolutionary fervor into the party and government bureaucracies, and intensifying class struggle. There were internal disagreements, however, not on the aim of the movement but on the methods of carrying it out. Opposition came mainly from the moderates represented by Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, who were unsympathetic to Mao's policies. The Socialist Education Movement was soon paired with another Mao campaign, the theme of which was "to learn from the People's Liberation Army." Minister of National Defense Lin Biao's rise to the center of power was increasingly conspicuous. It was accompanied by his call on the PLA and the CCP to accentuate Maoist thought as the guiding principle for the Socialist Education Movement and for all revolutionary undertakings in China. [Ibid]
“In connection with the Socialist Education Movement, a thorough reform of the school system, which had been planned earlier to coincide with the Great Leap Forward, went into effect. The reform was intended as a work-study program--a new xiafang movement--in which schooling was slated to accommodate the work schedule of communes and factories. It had the dual purpose of providing mass education less expensively than previously and of re-educating intellectuals and scholars to accept the need for their own participation in manual labor. The drafting of intellectuals for manual labor was part of the party's rectification campaign, publicized through the mass media as an effort to remove "bourgeois" influences from professional workers-- particularly, their tendency to have greater regard for their own specialized fields than for the goals of the party. Official propaganda accused them of being more concerned with having "expertise" than being "red". [Ibid]
“By mid-1965 Mao had gradually but systematically regained control of the party with the support of Lin Biao, Jiang Qing (Mao's fourth wife), and Chen Boda, a leading theoretician. In late 1965 a leading member of Mao's "Shanghai Mafia," Yao Wenyuan, wrote a thinly veiled attack on the deputy mayor of Beijing, Wu Han. In the next six months, under the guise of upholding ideological purity, Mao and his supporters purged or attacked a wide variety of public figures, including State Chairman Liu Shaoqi and other party and state leaders. By mid-1966 Mao's campaign had erupted into what came to be known as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, the first mass action to have emerged against the CCP apparatus itself. [Ibid]
“Considerable intraparty opposition to the Cultural Revolution was evident. On the one side was the Mao-Lin Biao group, supported by the PLA; on the other side was a faction led by Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, which had its strength in the regular party machine. Premier Zhou Enlai, while remaining personally loyal to Mao, tried to mediate or to reconcile the two factions. [Ibid] Viewed in larger perspective, the need for domestic calm and stability was occasioned perhaps even more by pressures emanating from outside China. The Chinese were alarmed in 1966-68 by steady Soviet military buildups along their common border. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 heightened Chinese apprehensions. In March 1969 Chinese and Soviet troops clashed on Zhenbao Island (known to the Soviets as Damanskiy Island) in the disputed Wusuli Jiang (Ussuri River) border area. The tension on the border had a sobering effect on the fractious Chinese political scene and provided the regime with a new and unifying rallying call. The Ninth National Party Congress to the Demise of Lin Biao, 1969-71
BEGINNING OF THE CULTURAL REVOLUTION
The origins of the Cultural Revolution are complex and even today not completely understood. In 1966, the Communist Party Congress softened the revolutionary party line and Mao saw this as a threat on his leadership. He was also upset by the popular Beijing play Dismissal of Hai Rui From Office, which was viewed as veiled attack on his leadership.
On May 16, 1966, Yao Wenyuan, a future member of the Gang of Four, wrote an article in the People’s Daily condemning Dismissal of Hai Rui From Office as a coded attack on Mao by his rivals. Yao wrote the article under orders from Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife, and was rewarded with a position in the Politburo. Also on that day Mao authorized the release of circular establishing the Cultural Revolution Group, with his wife Jiang as the center of power in the Chinese government, and urged supporters to attack "all representatives of the bourgeoisie, who infiltrated the party, government, army an cultural world."
On May 25, 1966, Nie Yuanzi, the radical party secretary of Peking University’s philosophy department, was inspired by Yao’s article to put up a large character poster attacking the university's administration, charging that they and the university were under the control of the bourgeoisie. Mao ordered that the poster be read over the radio, effectively giving his approval on attacks on those in positions of authority. Nie later told the Times of London. “Chairman Mao used what I wrote to set alight the whole Cultural Revolution, but I never knew I would play such a huge role. I was very happy at the time, but I did not understand the deeper significance.
On June 1, Mao appealed directly to the people for support in a newspaper article and urged them to "sweep away all demons and monsters." One Chinese man later told the New York Times, “I was excited like everyone else. The happiness was real. We felt lucky to be living the moment. Mao had said it should be repeated every seven years and we thought we’d be lucky enough to live several cultural revolutions. We all believed in Mao.”
Mao and the Red Guard
Mao felt that he could no longer depend on the formal party organization, convinced that it had been permeated with the "capitalist" and bourgeois obstructionists. He turned to Lin Biao and the PLA to counteract the influence of those who were allegedly "`left' in form but `right' in essence." The PLA was widely extolled as a "great school" for the training of a new generation of revolutionary fighters and leaders. Maoists also turned to middle-school students for political demonstrations on their behalf. These students, joined also by some university students, came to be known as the Red Guards. Millions of Red Guards were encouraged by the Cultural Revolution group to become a "shock force" and to "bombard" with criticism both the regular party headquarters in Beijing and those at the regional and provincial levels. [Source: The Library of Congress]
“Red Guard activities were promoted as a reflection of Mao's policy of rekindling revolutionary enthusiasm and destroying "outdated," "counterrevolutionary" symbols and values. Mao's ideas, popularized in the Quotations from Chairman Mao, became the standard by which all revolutionary efforts were to be judged. The "four big rights"--speaking out freely, airing views fully, holding great debates, and writing big-character posters --became an important factor in encouraging Mao's youthful followers to criticize his intraparty rivals. The "four big rights" became such a major feature during the period that they were later institutionalized in the state constitution of 1975. The result of the unfettered criticism of established organs of control by China's exuberant youth was massive civil disorder, punctuated also by clashes among rival Red Guard gangs and between the gangs and local security authorities. The party organization was shattered from top to bottom. (The Central Committee's Secretariat ceased functioning in late 1966.)
The resources of the public security organs were severely strained. Faced with imminent anarchy, the PLA--the only organization whose ranks for the most part had not been radicalized by Red Guard-style activities--emerged as the principal guarantor of law and order and the de facto political authority. And although the PLA was under Mao's rallying call to "support the left," PLA regional military commanders ordered their forces to restrain the leftist radicals, thus restoring order throughout much of China. The PLA also was responsible for the appearance in early 1967 of the revolutionary committees, a new form of local control that replaced local party committees and administrative bodies. The revolutionary committees were staffed with Cultural Revolution activists, trusted cadres, and military commanders, the latter frequently holding the greatest power. [Ibid]
“The radical tide receded somewhat beginning in late 1967, but it was not until after mid-1968 that Mao came to realize the uselessness of further revolutionary violence. Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, and their fellow "revisionists" and "capitalist roaders" had been purged from public life by early 1967, and the Maoist group had since been in full command of the political scene. [Ibid]
Cultural Revolution Picks Up Momentum
The rebellious students had emerged seemingly from nowhere in June 1966, encouraged by Mao and radical leaders close to him to denounce their academic staff and their curriculum as bourgeois scholars and authorities. Mao deliberately stayed away from Beijing in a countryside retreat, leaving his ultimate target — the Head of State Liu Shaoqi and other senior leaders — bemused and unsure how to handle the student movement. The mistakes which Liu and the others made (or which Mao claimed that they made) in sending in work teams to keep the movement under control would provide the pretext for broadening the attack against Liu’s alleged bourgeois headquarters. By August Mao had returned to Beijing, praising the revolutionary spirit of the first Red Guard groups. [Source: John Gittings, China Beat, March 31, 2010]
On August 5, the movement took hold when announcements were made over the radio that Mao wanted the people to rise up and “bombard the headquarters” to rid the party of his rivals and enemies. An emergency Party plenum clipped Liu’s power, and set up a new Central Cultural Revolution Group (CCRG) to run the Cultural Revolution, dominated by Jiang Qing (Madame Mao) and other ultra-leftists who would in retrospect be labelled loosely as adherents of her Gang of Four. Bypassing the Party authorities, the Red Guards received guidance from this new Group on which human targets to attack, and also sought its backing in their factional disputes. On August 18 Mao reviewed the first Red Guard rally in Tiananmen Square. [Source: John Gittings, China Beat, March 31, 2010]
After the rebels had successfully carried out Mao’s aim of dislodging Liu Shaoqi and the Party bureaucrats from power, they split into new factions which carried on fighting against one-other for a year and half; this was not because of genuine ideological differences but because there was now a well-established history of violence between the two sides: for the activists who led the campaigns, the alternative to victory was a possibly life-threatening defeat. The issue of violence, Walder concludes, even more serious than the issue of class origin, went to the very identity and aims of the red guard movement. [Source: John Gittings, China Beat, March 31, 2010]
Jiang Qing, Mao and the Cultural Revolution
JIang Qing poster Jiang Qing—a former Shanghai movie actress, Gang of Four member and Chairman Mao's forth wife—is believed to have been one of the masterminds of the Cultural Revolution. According to some scholars the whole ordeal grew out of an attempt to extrapolate her radical ideas about the arts to society as a whole and became an experiment that went out of control.
Others disagree and say Mao was the mastermind. One bodyguard said: “Jiang Qing could only make suggestions not decisions.” Some believe that she made a kind of deal with Mao in that she would look the other towards his philandering—she once caught him in bed with one of her nurses and for a while was only allowed to speak to him through his mistress— if he gave her radical leftist political ideas support.
Mao is now widely regarded not only as the inspiration for the Cultural revolution but was also the instigator of it and micro-manager of many of its events. Mao felt that revolutionary spirit had disappeared and the government had become ruled by a new class of mandarins--engineers, scientists, scholars and factory managers--and these people were a threat to his power and something had to be done to undermine them.
Gang of Four
The Cultural Revolution was blamed almost entirely on the Gang of Four, a group of Communist leaders, with their power base in Shanghai, made up of Mao's wife Jiang Qing and her three allies—Yao Wenyuan, Zhang Chunqiao and Wang Hongwen. When the Chinese refer to the Gang of Four today they sometimes hold up five fingers—the fifth being a reference to Mao himself.
The Gang of Four directed the purge against moderate party officials and intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution. Jiang was leader. Yao, dubbed killer with a pen, was the group’s propagandist. On Jiang’s order Yao wrote the review condemning the popular Beijing play that triggered the Cultural Revolution. A diary entry revealed during his trial read: “Why can’t we shoot a few counterrevolutionary elements? Afer all, dictatorship is not like embroidering flowers.”
Beginning of the Red Guard Movement
Young Red Guard Radical violence associated with the Cultural Revolution began in the universities and secondary schools of Beijing, where fanatical students, calling themselves Red Guards, responded literally to Mao's call to "bombard the headquarters." Brainwashed by the Communist system and encouraged by Mao, they attacked certain teachers and administrators who they believed were hostile to Mao and his ideals.
The May 1966, poster by the philosophy professor Nie Yuanzi is credited with launching the Red Guard Movement. Many students, whose "suspect" revolutionary background denied them opportunities, embraced the Red Guard movement as a way of showing "they could be as revolutionary as their parents" and as a means of exacting revenge against party members who had discriminated against them.
In August 1966, Mao stood in Tiananmen Square before one million Red Guards, many of them waving Little Red Books and chanting slogans like "Down with the Four Olds!, Up with the Four News!, New Thinking! New Customs! New Habits." In February 1967, Red Guards led 3 million peasants into Shanghai for a pro-Mao rally. Mao met with hundreds of thousands of young people in Tiananmen Square in Beijing 8 times during the Cultural Revolution.
Later the Red Guard movement spread to provinces and villages across China where local committees, encouraged by Red Guards imprisoned, tortured and murdered a surprisingly large number of "class enemies," tried by "peasant juries" in kangaroo courts. The Red Guard movement ousted municipal party members in Shanghai in January 1967 and eventually shut down the entire Chinese educational system. Many of the "class enemies" were simply victims of violent score-settling in the absence of an impartial police force or an independent legal system.
Members of the Red Guard
The Red Guard was made up mainly of high-school- and university-age youths. They wore red armbands that read: “Red-Color New Soldier.” In her book Wild Swans, former Red Guard Jung Chang wrote, Mao wanted to establish "absolute loyalty and obedience to himself alone," and to do this he needed terror. "He saw boys and girls in their early teens and early twenties as his ideal agents" because they were easy to manipulate.
One woman, now an editor of a magazine in Hong Kong, told the Washington Post, she joined the Red Guard when she was 18 "because I felt it was a glorious thing to do...In the beginning I had no independent thoughts. I thought what the Communist Party asked me to think. I did what the Communist Party asked me to do. But I saw close friends who could kill or be killed in a very inhuman way. I began to have doubts about our system and our government. I learned that very kind and even gentle people can change personality in such a situation. Some of the gentlest people became very cruel."
People joined the Red Guards because there wasn’t much else to do and participated in the rallies because if they didn’t they could be accused of being class enemies. The photographer Li Zhensheng told U.S. News and World Report, “If the crowd chanted, I chanted; if everyone raised their fists, I raised my first...If you didn’t follow the crowd they could easily turn on you.”
Yu Xiangzhen, a Former Red Guard, Recalls Her Experience
Tania Branigan wrote in The Guardian, “Yu Xiangzhen was an idealistic 14-year-old when the Cultural Revolution broke out, and among the first to form a Red Guards group. "We were taught that Chairman Mao was closer to us than our parents — he was like a god to me," she says. From the first, she had doubts: when she saw fellow students berating and humiliating teachers, hacking off their hair and pouring glue over them; when she watched her peers assaulting "capitalists" and "rightists". It felt wrong, and yet, "I still thought it was right because everything I was hearing was that we needed to break the old world to build a new one...I didn't think these people deserved to be beaten up....[But in refusing to take part] I felt I was, indeed, not brave enough. It was a loss of face." [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, February 24, 2012]
Then, she says, came "something so horrifying I will never be able to forget it as long as I live". There is no doubt she is still traumatised, and her voice rises to a shriek as she describes it. "It was dark — I was standing by the side of a road, waiting for my friends. I heard someone whispering for water and saw a man crawling towards me from the basketball court," she says. "He was covered in blood. The blood on his head had congealed already. I was terrified. Then I saw the court — it was almost covered by dead bodies." All, she believes, beaten to death by Red Guards.
Yet, for these teenagers, it was a heady as well as a frightening time. Hours after witnessing the atrocity, Yu was on a train to Shanghai. They were travelling first to spread the cause — bearing leaflets titled "Long live the red terror" — but then "it just became travel and leisure". Trains were free to Red Guards; food and lodgings awaited them. "There were no plans, no destinations— I was just very happy."
"The Red Guards who were most active had [political] problems in their family and tried to prove they were different," she suggests. "Every time we get together, I look for the people who were most brutal. One told me it was exciting to go to people's houses and smash things and beat them up. You felt you could do whatever you wanted — that you were in control— And you thought it was the right thing to do."
Initiatives of the Cultural Revolution
During the Cultural Revolution, the Communist Party encouraged young members of the Red Guard to destroy the "Eight Antis" and knockdown the "Four Olds" (thinking, habits, culture and customs). In an effort to wipe out the "Four Olds," the Red Guards destroyed ancient treasures, attacked historical buildings, humiliated college professors, professionals and doctors and even attacked people on the streets for having cuffs that were too narrow and hair that was too long. Posters read, “Suspend classes to make revolution!”
Senior leaders accused of taking "the capitalist road” were purged. Paranoid about plots against him within the Communist Party, Mao ousted moderates and liberals in the party such as Liu Shaoqui, the No. 2 leader and State President, and Peng Zhen, the mayor of Beijing. The purge later expanded to an attack on all "enemies" of the Communist Party.
The Cultural Revolution coincided with the anti-Vietnam demonstrations in the United States. American Sinologists and leftists wrote glowing accounts of the Cultural Revolution, heralding it as a great revolution transformation.
Daily Life During the Cultural Revolution
Books were hard to come by during the Cultural Revolution, or they would circulate in mutilated form, The writer Yu Hua said he read the middle of a torn copy of a novel by Guy de Maupassant (I remember it had a lot of sex, he said) without knowing its title or author. His formative reading experience was provided by the big character posters of the Cultural Revolution, in which people denounced their neighbors with violent inventiveness. [Source:Pankaj Mishra, New York Times, January 23, 2009]
“The writer Liao Yiwu was born in Sichuan Province in 1958. At the outset of the Cultural Revolution, in 1966, his late father, a small landlord, was jailed as a ‘class enemy.’ In fact, the family had been targeted for persecution since 1959 when his mother, a music teacher, was fired from her primary school job for ‘bourgeois thinking.’ After being caught trading ration coupons for food, Liao's mother ran away with her son and a younger sister to Chengdu, Sichuan's big provincial capital, where they lived a precarious life without a residence permit. Liao left home two years later, at age 10, hoping to find his father and eventually making a living through a succession of small hard-knock jobs, hauling rocks or rolling cigarettes. In the early 1970s, his father was released from jail and allowed to teach at a rural middle school. Schools had been closed throughout the country amid the political chaos, and Liao, already in his early teens, went to primary school in the same town where his father worked.” [Source: Howard W. French, The Nation, August 4, 2008]
The selling pigeons at an impromptu street market was seen as an obstacle to the triumph of socialism. According to a report filed by an official in 1966, crowds of 500 or more, corrupted by dreams of profit, were gathering every Sunday on a street in the city’s embassy district to ply a shameful trade. They were learning how to do business and raise money, the city official wrote. This is seriously harmful to the healthy growth of the successors of the proletariat revolution, the official said, and a waste of bird feed, too. [Source: Xiyun Yang and Michael Wines, New York Times, January 25, 2010]
Records from 1972, taken at a grade school outside Beijing, show that math students were made to sing two revolutionary songs and study and discuss six Mao quotations for 25 minutes of each class. The remaining few minutes were spent doing math. “ [Ibid]
During the Cultural Revolution people in Beijing burned their own books and smash heirlooms. People were so afraid that the Red Guards would find antiques in their home, they would toss them into the river at night so no one would see.
In 1967, a report urged forming special groups at the provincial and city levels to use every conceivable means to guarantee production each year of 13,000 tons of specially formulated red plastic required for the covers of Mao’s Little Red Book of quotations. The Conference on the Situation of the Special Plastic Used by the Works of Chairman Mao proclaimed that producing the plastic was our glorious political responsibility. “ [Ibid]
Often the biggest event was when a criminal was executed, when the whole town would become as lively as festival time. The writer Yu Hua told the New York Times he remembers the executions as the most thrilling scenes of his childhood, seeing the criminal kneeling on the ground, a soldier aiming a rifle at the back of his head and firing. [Source: Pankaj Mishra, New York Times, January 23, 2009]
Artist Xu Weixin Recalls the Cultural Revolution
Xu Weixin is an artist who specializes in creating immense black-and-white Cultural Revolution portraits. Tania Branigan wrote in The Guardian, “ Each standing 2.5m tall, they are both personal and powerful, demanding attention. The monochrome oils are in stark contrast to the garish colours of 60s propaganda. Some of Xu's subjects were victims, some perpetrators. Many were both. Mao is there, as is his infamous wife Jiang Qing; so are unknown scholars and Red Guards. It has taken the artist five years to complete this series of just over 100 paintings. [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, February 24, 2012]
No portrait is more important to Xu Weixin than his first. It was 1966; the artist was eight; and he had learned, to his shock, that his kindly young teacher was the daughter of a landlord — an enemy of the people. Outraged, he drew a hideous caricature and pinned it to the blackboard. When Miss Liu entered the classroom, "She turned pale but didn't say a word," he said. She had good reason to be frightened. The Cultural Revolution was at its height. Xu says. "I feel guilty [about my teacher]; but it also helps me to understand— People who were close to you — who were friendly and kind — could suddenly turn upon you."
"It's very, very vivid," Xu says. "I remember all the demonstrations and public denunciations; people breaking pictures and smashing Buddhas. At the beginning, people were using bricks or wooden rods and metal bars to hurt people. We could hear gunshots at night and people were beaten to death."
As a child he, too, believed the Cultural Revolution was "a great thing, a right thing, and something we must do". "Most people think the Cultural Revolution was the Gang of Four's fault, but actually everyone should be responsible." That includes the eight-year-old who scrawled his teacher's picture. That Miss Liu survived the decade largely unscathed is some comfort, Xu says, but, "Of course, I was responsible. It's only a question of how great or small my responsibility was."
REVOLUTIONARY ENTHUSIASM IN THE CULTURAL REVOLUTION
During the Cultural Revolution tens of millions of Chinese wore Mao badges churned out by an estimated 20,000 button-making factories. Men, women, boys and girls wore baggy Mao suits and ran around quoting sayings from The Little Red Book. Chinese workers were regularly called upon to express their "boundless loyalty to Mao."
The photographer Li Zhensheng told the Los Angeles Times, “When Mao made his famous declaration to ‘destroy the old and establish the new’ everyone was thrilled at the prospect of a revolution, including myself.’ Born in in the old society but grown up under the Red Flag, “my generation was too young to have shared the excitement of the country’s founding in 1949. But now Chairman Mao said that we should have a revolution every seven or eight years, so I thought I could experience several of them during my lifetime.”
Zhensheng told the New York Times as time went on, “Things...were more and more foolish. Everyone was cold, and someone would shout, ‘Anybody cold? And we replied, ‘No, because we have a red sun in our hearts that is very warm.’ Is the work difficult? Someone else would shout. ‘No, not at all,. It was far worse than this on the Long March.”
According to Chinese dissident Liu Binyan, "When Mao Zedong coined the slogan 'To rebel is justified,' everyone became a 'revolutionary' overnight...Mao ideology was pushed to such an extreme that chaos resulted. Both Mao's authority and ideology went bankrupt. The idealist illusions he had thrust upon the Chinese people turned to nihilism and cynicism." [Source: Newsweek, May 6, 1996]
Cultural Revolution Projects and Reforms
During the Cultural Revolution, Mao ordered millions of urban people into the fields to help with the harvest; and millions more were conscripted to build railroads and dams. In Shanghai everyone was ordered to build bomb shelters in preparation "for the coming war." Today these shelters are used mainly as rendezvous for young lovers.
An attempt was made to replace Chinese characters with Latin alphabet because Cultural Revolution leaders believed that the old writing system "retards education and hampers communication." But many aspects of the Cultural Revolution simply defied logic. According to one saying, "a socialist train running late is better than a revisionist train running on time."
Cultural Revolution and the Arts
Mao’s wife Jiang was put in charge of the arts during the Cultural Revolution. She and her group of loyalist intellectuals and artists controlled everything: film studios, operas, theatrical companies and radio stations. They destroyed old movies and replaced them with new ones which were allowed to depict only eight revolution-related themes. Worker committees took over the studios and many administrators and actors were labeled as "devils and monsters" and dismissed and harangued. Even children's puppet theaters were closed down for being counter-revolutionary.
One of the objectives of the Cultural Revolution was to "socially purify" the arts.The popular play that many scholars say triggered the entire Cultural Revolution --The Dismissal of Hai Rui from Office--was a drama by historian Wu Han about an obscure Song dynasty official. The play was widely seen as as a traitorous critique of Mao's dismissal of Peng Dehuai, a military leader who criticized the Great Leap Forward.
Poets, artists and opera singers were imprisoned and exiled. Pop music was banned for being capitalist "poison" and Beijing Opera troupes were disbanded because they fit into the category of the "Four Olds." Among the banned writers were Aristotle, Plato, Shakespeare, Balzac, Jonathan Swift, Victor Hugo, Dickens and Mark Twain.
The most widely read book was The Little Red Book. See Little Red Book
Cultural Revolution Entertainment
Revolutionary opera Jiang reviewed more than 1,000 operas and concluded that nearly all of them were unacceptable because they dealt with "emperors, officials, scholars and concubines." She commissioned a series of "revolutionary modern model operas” with heroic figured that displayed socialist virtues. These operas were based on Peking opera but featured Western devises that were deemed appropriate for furthering revolutionary goals.
Among the eight operas authorized by Jiang were The Girl with White Hair (about a woman who loses her natural coloring because of an evil landowner), Red Women's Detachment and Songs of the Long March. The operas were adapted for symphony orchestras, dance troupes, piano music and even ethnic minority songs. In the 1960s, Chinese teenagers listened to songs form these operas while Americans were listening to the Beatles and the Supremes.
The Cultural Revolution also went abroad. In 1968, writer Paul Theroux observed a play in Africa by a group of Red Guard acrobats and actors about drilling for oil in Manchuria. "In the heat of the Ugandan night," he wrote, "they mimicked frostbite and hypothermia as they danced and drilled through layers of ice and rock. They dropped with exhaustion and were on the point of giving up altogether—no oil...Then after being inspired by some saying by Mao they went back to work and finally hit a gusher." [Source: Riding the Iron Rooster by Paul Theroux]
“Loyalty dances”were performed by grandmothers with bound feet. A typical Cultural Revolution song went something like this:
I love Beijing Tiananmen,
The sun rises on Tiananmen,
Our Great leader Chairman Mao
Consequences of Lack of Revolutionary Enthusiasm
The photographer Li Zhensheng told the Los Angeles Times, “Within several months...the true nature of the revolution revealed itself. Books were being burned, temples and churches sacked, and anyone not chanting with the crowd instantly became suspect. Despite the posters condemning 'counterrevolutionaries' and 'capitalists,' the main aim of the rallies was to humiliate and demean anyone with wealth, power or knowledge.”
Anyone perceived as not being sufficiently devoted to Mao and the revolution was persecuted. Club-wielding Red Guards beat to death thousands of people, including their friends, small children and babies for not being committed enough.
Slight offense against Mao or the revolution sometimes produced terrible consequences. In 1970, a 19-year-old student was sentenced to five years of prison and two more years of hard labor because he accidently used a picture of Chairman Mao to mop up some wine he accidently knocked over while he was drunk. He was arrested by a Communist official who trying to meet his quota of arresting class enemies. During his interrogation, handcuffs were clamped so tightly around his wrists that he still had scars 25 years later.
Image Sources: Posters, Landsberger Posters http://www.iisg.nl/~landsberger/; photos, Ohio State University; Wiki Commons; History in Pictures blog
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated August 2012