rightDenise Y. Ho told the Los Angeles Review of Books: “In the past, Cultural Revolution culture has been easy to dismiss. Despite Western fascination will objects that we might call “Mao kitsch” — buttons, statues, and posters — and Chinese nostalgia for Cultural Revolution music or plays, we have written off these cultural products as “just propaganda,” or not really culture at all. Recent scholarship has tried to change this view. One historian has suggested that the Communist Party created its own political culture, and that this was a key source of its legitimacy. Others have examined the art and music to show how Cultural Revolution culture was a modernization of both Chinese and Western traditions, part of a much longer project. Still others have focused on audience reception of these works, which could produce meanings beyond their propaganda messages. [Source: “Conversation with Denise Ho, Fabio Lanza, Yiching Wu, and Daniel Leese on the Cultural Revolution” by Alexander C. Cook,Los Angeles Review of Books, March 2, 2016 *~*]

“My own research offers an illustration. I examine the use of exhibitions as part of political campaigns conducted before, during, and after the Cultural Revolution. I show that exhibits were a political and cultural practice that taught people how to make revolution. For example, during one campaign in the years before the Cultural Revolution, officials displayed individuals’ personal possessions along with posterboards explaining why they were political enemies. Then, when the Cultural Revolution broke out, Red Guards invaded people’s homes and confiscated their belongings, putting objects on display along with posters describing their crimes. So political culture provided ordinary people with a repertoire, with an idea of how to act and how to describe their actions. This kind of evidence helps us understand where the Cultural Revolution came from, and how such propaganda was deeply powerful — sometimes producing tragic consequences.” *~*

Yiching Wu said: “This issue of how ordinary people were provided with political repertoires to be acted on helps account for the characteristically dispersed and explosive character of the Cultural Revolution. While the rebels looked to the Maoist leadership for political guidance, the relationships between Mao and those who responded to his call were tenuous and fragile. With the breakdown of the party hierarchy, political messages transmitted from above were interpreted in different ways by different agents. People responded to their own immediate circumstances, giving expression to a myriad of social grievances and antagonisms. The forces unleashed by Mao took on lives of their own.” *~*

Websites and Books on the Cultural Revolution

Good Websites and Sources on the Cultural Revolution Virtual Museum of the Cultural Revolution ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Morning Sun ; Red Guards and Cannibals New York Times ; The South China Morning Post has produced a wonderful multimedia report on the Cultural Revolution. Posters: Cultural Revolution posters at The Ohio State University online exhibition Picturing Power: Posters of the Cultural Revolution and the University of Westminster Chinese Poster Collection ]

Great Leap Forward: University of Chicago Chronicle ; Mt. Holyoke China Essay Series ; Wikipedia ; Industrial Planning Video You Tube Death Under Mao: Uncounted Millions, Washington Post article ; Death Tolls People’s Republic of China : Timeline ; ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Cold War International Project ; China Essay Series ; Everyday Life in Maoist; Wikipedia article on propaganda Wikipedia ; Cultural Revolution; Communist China Posters Landsberger Posters ; More Posters ; Yet more posters Ann Tompkins and Lincoln Cushing Collection Mao Zedong Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chinese ; Mao Internet Library ; Paul Noll Mao site ; Mao Quotations; ; Propaganda Paintings of Mao ; New York Times; Communist Party History Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Illustrated History of Communist Party

Books on the Cultural Revolution: "The Cultural Revolution: A People's History” by Frank Dikotter (Bloomsbury 2016); “The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution” by Ji Xianlin (New York Review Books, 2016); "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.

The human costs of the Cultural Revolution have been best captured by Simon Leys (the pen-name of the Belgian sinologist and literary critic Pierre Ryckmans) in his books "Chinese Shadows" (1974) and "The Burning Forest" (1987). "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). Li Zhensheng’s photographs of the Cultural Revolution can be found in “Red Color News Soldier: A Chinese Photographer’s Odyssey Through the Cultural Revolution,” edited by Robert Pledge and published by Phaidon Press in 2016. You can help this site a little by ordering your Amazon books through this link:

Revolutionary Enthusiasm in the Cultural Revolution

left 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

right 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.

Little Red Book

left The most widely read book was The Little Red Book. Mao's Selected Thoughts, a collection of sayings better known as The Little Red Book, was put together by Lin Biao in the Cultural Revolution. According to Time magazine, "No other book has had such a profound impact on so many people at the same time...If you read it enough it was supposed to change your brain.” Some of the passages of the Little Red Book were set to music and slogans like "Reactionaries are Paper Tigers" and "We Should Support Whatever the Enemy Opposes"! were painted everywhere on billboards and walls.

John Gray of the New Statesman wrote: “Originally the book was conceived for internal use by the army. In 1961, the minister of defence Lin Biao – appointed by Mao after the previous holder of the post had been sacked for voicing criticism of the disastrous Great Leap Forward – instructed the army journal the PLA Daily to publish a daily quotation from Mao. Bringing together hundreds of excerpts from his published writings and speeches and presenting them under thematic rubrics, the first official edition was printed in 1964 by the general political department of the People’s Liberation Army in the water-resistant red vinyl design that would become iconic. [Source: John Gray, New Statesman, Cultural Capital Blog, May 24, 2014]

“By the time the Red Guard publication appeared, Mao’s Little Red Book had been published in numbers sufficient to supply a copy to every Chinese citizen in a population of more than 740 million. At the peak of its popularity from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, it was the most printed book in the world. In the years between 1966 and 1971, well over a billion copies of the official version were published and translations were issued in three dozen languages. There were many local reprints, illicit editions and unauthorised translations. Though exact figures are not possible, the text must count among the most widely distributed in all history.” In the view of historian Daniel Leese, the volume “ranks second only to the Bible” in terms of print circulation. \=\

Making Little Red Books

Tania Branigan wrote in The Guardian, The book "was a keystone of Mao's personality cult. The population pored over it in daily study sessions; illiterate farmers memorised chunks by heart. In the west, translations were brandished by radicals. Many knew the text well enough to cite quotes by page number; they became ideological weapons to be wielded in any political struggle. Under siege by Red Guards, the then foreign minister reportedly retorted: "On page [X] it says Comrade Chen Yi is a good cadre …" But they also coloured even commonplace exchanges, as described by one historian: "Serve the people. Comrade, could I have two pounds of pork, please?" [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, September 27, 2013 ***]

“But the political frenzy ebbed, and production of the Little Red Book had mostly stopped long before Mao's death; afterwards, as China embarked on reform and opening up, officials began to pulp copies. Later, in a more relaxed age, commercial reprints and introductions to his thought appeared, but no new editions of his works: "This has been a very sensitive topic," said Daniel Leese, author of Mao Cult and an expert on the era at the University of Freiburg.” ***

Gray wrote: "It was not long before the Little Red Book and anyone connected with it fell out of favour with the Chinese authorities. In September 1971, Lin Biao – who had first promoted the use of Mao’s quotations in the army – died in a plane crash in circumstances that have never been properly explained. Condemned as distorting Mao’s ideas and exerting a “widespread and pernicious influence”, the book was withdrawn from circulation in February 1979 and a hundred million copies pulped.”

Little Red Book Sayings

The three main "Rules for Discipline" for soldiers and party workers in the Little Read Book were: "Obey orders in all your actions; Do not take a single needle or thread from the masses; and Turn in everything captured." Loyal Communists were also urged to "speak politely; return everything you borrow; don't swear at people; and do not take liberties with women."

On the topic of violence and revolution: 1) "Power grows out of the barrel of a gun." 2) "In order to get rid of the gun, it is necessary to take up the gun." 3) "Politics is war without bloodshed, while war is politics with bloodshed." 4) "When human society advances to the point where classes and states are eliminated, there will be no more wars." 5) “Fight no battle you are not sure of winning.”

Other famous sayings from the Little Red Book include, 1) "Modesty helps one go forward, whereas conceit makes one lag behind;" 2) "Investigation may be likened to the long months of pregnancy, and solving a problem to the day of birth. To investigate a problem is, indeed, to solve." And, 3) "People of the world, unite and defeat the U.S. aggressors and all the running dogs...Monsters of all kinds shall be destroyed."

Studying the Little Red Book

John Gray of the New Statesman wrote: “In 1968 a Red Guard publication instructed that scientists must follow Mao Zedong’s injunction: “Be resolute, fear no sacrifice and surmount every difficulty to win victory.” Expert knowledge was not valid, and might be dangerously misleading, without the great leader’s guidance. Examples of revolutionary science abounded at the time. In one account, a soldier training to be a veterinarian found it difficult to castrate pigs. Studying Mao’s words enabled him to overcome this selfish reaction and gave him courage to perform the task. In another inspirational tale, Mao’s thoughts inspired a new method of protecting their crops from bad weather: making rockets and shooting them into the sky, peasants were able to disperse the clouds and prevent hailstorms. [Source: John Gray, New Statesman, Cultural Capital Blog, May 24, 2014 \=\]

“With its words intended to be recited in groups, the correct interpretation of Mao’s thoughts being determined by political commissars, the book became what Leese describes as “the only criterion of truth” during the Cultural Revolution. After a period of “anarchic quotation wars”, when it was deployed as a weapon in a variety of political conflicts, Mao put the lid on the book’s uncontrolled use. Beginning in late 1967, military rule was imposed and the PLA was designated “the great school” for Chinese society. Ritual citation from the book became common as a way of displaying ideological conformity; customers in shops interspersed their orders with citations as they made their purchases...Studying the book was believed to have enabled peasants to control the weather... Long terms of imprisonment were handed out to anyone convicted of damaging or destroying a copy of what had become a sacred text. \=\

“During the Cultural Revolution study sessions were an unavoidable part of everyday life for people in China. Involving “ritualistic confessions of one’s errant thoughts and nightly diary-writing aimed at self-criticism”, historian Ban Wang writes, “may be seen as a form of text-based indoctrination that resembles religious hermeneutics and catechism” – a “quasi-religious practice of canonical texts”. \=\

Cultural Revolution Entertainment

20080218-Revolutionary Opera4.jpg
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

left 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.

Golden Mangoes

20111123-aisa obscura mango2-300x214.jpg
Mao and mangoes
In the Mao era mangoes were greatly treasured. After Mao received a box of them as a gift from the foreign minister of Pakistan he had some distributed among groups of Communist Party workers. The fruit were received as proof of Mao’s godlike love of his subjects and were treated with religious awe. Some of the mangoes were boiled down and made into a precious elixir; others were pickled in formaldehyde and preserved on altars. Afterwards copies of mangoes were preserved in cases like the bones of saints. A multitude of objects with images of them were created.

At the height of the Cultural Revolution,Benjamin Ramm of BBC wrote, “To quell the forces that he had unleashed, Mao sent 30,000 workers to Qinghua University in Beijing, armed only with their talisman, the Little Red Book. The students attacked them with spears and sulphuric acid, killing five and injuring more than 700, before finally surrendering. Mao thanked the workers with a gift of approximately 40 mangoes, which he had been given the previous day by Pakistan's foreign minister."No-one in northern China at that point knew what mangoes were. So the workers stayed up all night looking at them, smelling them, caressing them, wondering what this magical fruit was," says art historian Freda Murck, who has chronicled this story in detail. "At the same time, they had received a 'high directive' from Chairman Mao - saying that henceforth, 'The Working Class Must Exercise Leadership In Everything'. It was very exciting to be given this kind of recognition." “This power shift — from the zealous students to the workers and peasants — offered respite from the anarchy. "Some people in Beijing told me that they perceived that Mao had finally intervened in the chaotic random violence, and that the mangoes symbolised the end of the Cultural Revolution," Murck says. == [Source: Benjamin Ramm, BBC, February 11, 2016 ==]

The mango craze began In 1968, when Mao decided to bring the Cultural Revolution movement back under the control of the Party. But officially he pronounced that from now on the working class should be leaders in everything. It was at precisely this time that Mao received a box of mangoes as a gift from the visiting foreign minister of Pakistan. The very same night Mao ordered that these exotic fruits should be presented to the workers. The mangoes were quickly seen as a symbol of Mao’s benevolence and devotion to the masses, and became the focus of cult admiration. The symbol soon entered popular culture, with mangoes decorating cups, bowls, cigarette packets, badges, blankets and other everyday objects. For more than a year China was gripped by mango fever. And then the mango vanished from the propaganda repertoire, as quickly as it had come.

Cult of the Mango During the Cultural Revolution

Benjamin Ramm of BBC wrote, “Zhang Kui, a worker who occupied Qinghua, says that the arrival of one of Mao's mangoes at his workplace prompted intense debate. "The military representative came into our factory with the mango raised in both hands. We discussed what to do with it: whether to split it among us and eat it, or preserve it. We finally decided to preserve it," he says. "We found a hospital that put it in formaldehyde. We made it a specimen. That was the first decision. The second decision was to make wax mangoes - wax mangoes each with a glass cover. After we made the wax replicas, we gave one to each of the Revolutionary Workers." [Source: Benjamin Ramm, BBC, February 11, 2016 ==]

“China has a long history of symbolic associations with food, which may have encouraged extravagant interpretations of Mao's gift. The mangoes were compared to Mushrooms of Immortality and the Longevity Peach of Chinese mythology. The workers surmised that Mao's gift was an act of selflessness, in which he sacrificed his longevity for theirs. Little did they know that he disliked fruit. Nor were they concerned to learn that Mao was simply passing on a gift he had already received. There is a tradition in China of zhuansong, or re-gifting. It may be regarded as vulgar in the West, but in China re-gifting is widely seen as a compliment, enhancing the status of both the giver and the recipient. ==

“The mangoes also proved to be a gift to the propaganda department of the Communist Party, which quickly manufactured mango-themed household items, such as bed sheets, vanity stands, enamel trays and washbasins, as well as mango-scented soap and mango-flavoured cigarettes. Massive papier-mache mangoes appeared on the central float during the National Day Parade in Beijing in October 1968. Far away in Guizhou province, thousands of armed peasants fought over a black and white photocopy of a mango.” ==

Mango Poems and Mango Tours

Benjamin Ramm of BBC wrote, “Workers were expected to hold the sacred fruit solemnly and reverently, and were admonished if they failed to do so. Wang Xiaoping, an employee at the Beijing No 1 Machine Tool Plant, received a wax replica. The fruit itself was destined for higher things. "The real mango was driven by a worker representative through a procession of beating drums and people lining the streets, from the factory to the airport," says Wang. The workers had chartered a plane to fly a single mango to a factory in Shanghai. When one of the mangoes began to rot, workers peeled it and boiled the flesh in a vat of water, which then became "holy" - each worker sipped a spoonful. (Mao is said to have chuckled on hearing this particular detail.) "From the very beginning, the mango gift took on a relic-like quality - to be revered and even worshipped," Cambridge University lecturer Adam Yuet Chau told the BBC. "Not only was the mango a gift from the Chairman, it was the Chairman."[Source: Benjamin Ramm, BBC, February 11, 2016 ==]

This association is reflected in a poem from the period.
Seeing that golden mango
Was as if seeing the Great Leader Chairman Mao!
Standing before that golden mango
Was just like standing beside Chairman Mao!
Again and again touching that golden mango:
the golden mango was so warm!
Again and again smelling the mango:
that golden mango was so fragrant! ==

“The mangoes toured the length and breadth of the country, and were hosted in a series of sacred processions. Red Guards had wrecked temples and shrines, but destroying artefacts is easier than erasing religious behaviour, and soon the mangoes became the object of intense devotion. Some of the rituals imitated centuries of Buddhist and Daoist traditions, and the mangoes were even placed on an altar to which factory workers would bow.” ==

Mango-Skeptics, Imelda Marcos and the End of Mangomania

Benjamin Ramm of BBC wrote, “But not everybody was so enthusiastic about the fruit. The artist Zhang Hongtu told me of his scepticism. "When the mango story was published in the newspaper, I thought it was funny, stupid, ridiculous! I'd never had a mango, but I knew it was a fruit, and any fruit will rot." Those who expressed their doubts, however, were severely punished. A village dentist was publicly humiliated and executed after comparing a "touring" mango to a sweet potato. The mango fever fizzled out after 18 months, and soon discarded wax replicas were being used as candles during electrical outages. [Source: Benjamin Ramm, BBC, February 11, 2016 ==]

“On a visit to Beijing in 1974, Imelda Marcos took a case of the Philippine national fruit - mangoes - as a gift for her hosts. Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, known as "Madame Mao" in the West, tried to replicate the earlier enthusiasm, sending the mangoes to workers. They dutifully held a ceremony and gave thanks, but Jiang Qing lacked her husband's sense of political timing. The following year, as Mao lay ill and with no clear successor in sight, she commissioned a new film, Song of the Mango, to enhance her credibility. But within a week of its release, Jiang was arrested and the film was taken out of circulation. It was the final chapter in the mango story. ==

“Now mangoes are a common fruit in Beijing, and Wang Xiaoping can buy "golden mango" juice whenever she likes. "The mystery of the mango is gone," she tells me. "It's no longer a sacred icon as before - it's become another consumer good. Young people don't know the history, but for those of us who lived through it, every time you think of mangoes your heart has a special feeling." ==

“Mao, like the mangoes he gave the workers, now lies preserved in wax in a crystal glass case. Historians have tended to regard the mango craze as a bizarre fad, but it is one of the few occasions when culture was created spontaneously from the bottom-up, initiated and interpreted by the workers. During a period of great cruelty, the mangoes represented for people an emblem of peace and generosity. They wanted to believe the promise written on the enamel trays: "With each mango, profound kindness." ==

Image Sources: Posters, Landsberger Posters; photos, Ohio State University; Wiki Commons; History in Pictures blog; Everyday Life in Maoist

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.

Last updated November 2016

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