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.

Christopher Bodeen of Associated Press wrote: “On May 16, 1966, the ruling Communist Party's Politburo met to purge a quartet of top officials who had fallen out of favor with Mao. It also produced a document announcing the start of the decade-long Cultural Revolution to pursue class warfare and enlist the population in mass political movements. [Source: Christopher Bodeen, Associated Press,May 16, 2016 *=*]

“The start of the Cultural Revolution was not widely known or understood at the time, but soon took on an agenda characterized by extreme violence, leading to the downfall of leading officials, factional battles, mass rallies and the exile of educated youths to the countryside. It wound up severely threatening the Communist Party's legitimacy to rule. *=*

“Egged on by vague pronouncements from Mao, students and young workers clutching their leader's famed "Little Red Book" of sayings formed rival Red Guard factions starting in 1966 that battled each other over ideological purity, sometimes using heavy weapons taken from the military. Few sought to oppose them given Mao's approval and the popularity of slogans such as "to revolt is justified," and "revolution is not a crime." On May 16, 1966, a circular was sent out on the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”."*=*

Websites and Books on the Cultural Revolution and Chinese History

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

Good Chinese History Websites: 1) Chaos Group of University of Maryland ; 2) WWW VL: History China ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia 4) China Knowledge; 5) e-book ; Links in this Website: Main China Page (Click History)

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.

Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62 (Walker & Co, 2010) by Frank Dikotter is an excellent book. Tombstone by Yang Jisheng, a Xinhua reporter and Communist party member, is the first proper history of the Great Leap Forward and the famine of 1959 and 1961. Life and Death Are Wearing me Out by Mo Yan (Arcade,2008) is narrated by a series of animals that witnessed the Land Reform Movement and Great Leap Forward. The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution, 1945-1957" by Frank Dikotter described the Anti-Rightist period. China Witness, Voices from a Silent Generation by Xinran (Pantheon Books, 2009) is collection of oral histories from Chinese who survived the Mao period. Mao; the Untold Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday (Knopf. 2005). 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. Also check out: Mao's New World: Political Culture in the Early People's Republic by Chang-tai Hung (Cornell University Press, 2011) and The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Dr. Li Zhisui (1994). Other books: The Penguin History of Modern China by Jonathan Fenby 3) . Red Star Over China by Edgar Snow; 4) China: A New History by John K. Fairbank; 5) In Search of Modern China by Jonathan D. Spence; 6) Cambridge History of China multiple volumes (Cambridge University Press). You can help this site a little by ordering your Amazon books through this link:

Early Events in the Cultural Revolution

Hai Rui

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."

May 16, 1966: An expanded meeting of the Communist Party's decision-making Politburo is called at which four leading officials are purged and a document issued announcing the start of what was formally known as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.[Source: Associated Press, June 2, 2016 \^/]

May 25, 1966: "Big character" posters denouncing all those who would oppose Mao and his revolution begin appearing, opening the flood gates to mass political movements at college campuses throughout the country. Soon after, classes in schools nationwide are suspended indefinitely. \^/

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.”

June 16, 1966: After swimming in the mighty Yangtze River to signal his readiness for ideological battle, Mao defeats an attempt to introduce work teams to calm the growing chaos in schools and factories.\^/

August 5, 1966: Mao issues his own big character poster proclaiming: "Bombard the headquarters," prompting the youthful Red Guards at the vanguard of the Cultural Revolution to step up their attacks on officials and rival factions.\^/

January 3, 1967: Mao's supporters led by his wife, Jiang Qing, overthrow the party apparatus in Shanghai, setting off similar uprisings in other cities and rising violence as rival Red Guard factions battle using weapons seized from People's Liberation Army armories.\^/

May 16th Notice.

Big posters

The Cultural Revolution is generally considered to have begun in 1966 when the Politburo issued Mao’s so-called May 16th Notice. Widely called the first official document of the Cultural Revolution, it read: “The “Notice” . . . [declares] that “the representatives of the bourgeoisie who have sneaked into the party, government, army, and literary and art circles are counterrevolutionary revisionists. Once they obtain the opportunity, they will seize power and transform the proletarian dictatorship into a bourgeois dictatorship.” [Source: Melvyn Goldstein, “ On the Cultural Revolution in Tibet: The Nyemo Incident of 1969,” University of California Press, 2009. Goldstein is a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Case Western Reserve University <<>>]

The “Notice” requests people to “hold the red flag of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution high and completely expose the reactionary bourgeois position of those so-called academic authorities who oppose the party and socialism. We should completely criticize the reactionary bourgeois thought in academic circles, educational circles, press circles, literary-art circles, and publishing circles and seize the leading power in these areas. To do this, we must simultaneously criticize the representatives of the bourgeoisie who sneaked into the party, government, army, and all cultural circles.” <<>>

Some say the May 16th Notice should not necessarily be recognized as the beginning of the Cultural Revolution: Jeremy Brown, a history professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, told the New York Times: “Only top-level officials knew about that notice in 1966. The general public did not learn about it until a full year later. Perhaps you can make the case that for elite politics in Beijing and a few big cities, May 1966 was the key. Clearly something big was happening in 1966 in Beijing, but elsewhere there were other important events.” [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Times, May 10, 2016]

Article by Yao Wenyuan and the Beginning of the the Cultural Revolution

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.

The Sixteen Points: Guidelines for the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966)

“The Sixteen Points: Guidelines for the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” (1966) — an early statement of Mao’s goals as articulated in a decision of the Party Central Committee — reads: “1. A New Stage in the Socialist Revolution The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution now unfolding is a great revolution that touches people to their very soul and constitutes a new stage in the development of the socialist revolution in our country, a deeper and more extensive stage. Although the bourgeoisie has been overthrown, it is still trying to use the old ideas culture and customs, and habits of the exploiting classes to corrupt the masses, capture their minds, and endeavor to stage a comeback. The proletariat must do just the opposite: it must meet head.on every challenge of the bourgeoisie in the ideological field and use the new ideas culture, customs, and habits of the proletariat to change the mental outlook of the whole of society. At present our objective is to struggle against and crush those persons 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 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. [Source: from “Sources of Chinese Tradition: From 1600 Through the Twentieth Century”, compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Richard Lufrano, 2nd ed., vol. 2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 474-475; Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, <|>].

“2. The Main Current and the Zigzags The masses of the workers, peasants, soldiers, revolutionary intellectuals, and revolutionary cadres form the main force in this Great Cultural Revolution. Large numbers of revolutionary young people, previously unknown, have become courageous and daring pathbreakers. They are vigorous in action and intelligent. Through the media of big character posters and great debates, they argue things out, expose and criticize thoroughly, and launch resolute attacks on the open and hidden representatives of the bourgeoisie. Since the Cultural Revolution is a revolution, it inevitably meets with resistance. This resistance comes chiefly from those in authority who have wormed their way into the party and are taking the capitalist road. It also comes from the old force of habit in society. At present, this resistance is still fairly strong and stubborn. However, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution is, after all, an irresistible general trend. There is abundant evidence that such resistance will crumble fast once the masses become fully aroused. <|>

“9. Cultural Revolutionary Groups, Committees, and Congresses Many new things have begun to emerge in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. The cultural revolutionary groups, committees, and other organizational forms created by the masses in many schools and units are something new and of great historic importance. These cultural revolutionary groups, committees, and congresses are excellent new forms of organization whereby under the leadership of the Communist Party the masses are educating themselves. They are an excellent bridge to keep our party in close contact with the masses. They are organs of power of the Proletarian Cultural Revolution. The cultural revolutionary groups, committees, and congresses should not be temporary organizations but permanent, standing mass organizations. They are suitable not only for colleges, schools, government, and other organizations but generally also for factories, mines and other enterprises, urban districts, and villages. It is necessary to institute a system of general elections, like that of the Paris Commune for electing members to the cultural revolutionary groups and committees and delegates to the cultural revolutionary congress.” <|>

Mao and the Beginning of the Cultural Revolution

Mao launched the Cultural Revolution to purify itself of saboteurs and apostates, to find the “representatives of the bourgeoisie who have sneaked into the Party, the government, the army, and various spheres of culture” and drive them out with “the telescope and microscope of Mao Zedong Thought.” [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, May 6, 2016]

Chris Buckley wrote in in the New York Times: “Mao started the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” in the belief that the Communist Party had become corrupt and compromised, and that a scorching mass political movement was needed to cleanse and reinvigorate the revolution. At a meeting on May 16, 1966, leaders approved a notice laying out his belief that the revolution was menaced from within. The full document did not become public until a year later, but its repercussions were quickly felt. Many of the officials who approved it were later pushed from office, accused of resisting Mao’s will, and they were often grievously abused by Red Guards and radical officials.” [Source: Chris Buckley, New York Times. May 16, 2016]

James Griffiths of CNN wrote: “On May 16, 1966, Mao Zedong issued the first ideological salvo of the Cultural Revolution— a declaration that condemned the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the army and the government for having been infiltrated by "representatives of the bourgeoisie" and "counter-revolutionary revisionists.” "It was a social explosion of an unprecedented scale," says Frank Dikotter, author of the book "The Cultural Revolution: A People's History.” [Source: James Griffiths, CNN, May 13, 2016 /^\]

“Following the unmitigated disaster of the Great Leap Forward — in which tens of millions of ordinary Chinese died as a result of Mao's policies — the Chairman was at perhaps his most vulnerable point since the end of the Second World War. With his May 16 declaration, Mao sought to unleash the power of the people against his enemies in government. What began in the universities of Beijing soon spread to wider society, with Mao personally writing a big-character poster entitled "Bombard the Headquarters" calling for an attack on the "command center of counter-revolution.” "He pretty much asked the people to attack the Party, which we've never seen before or since," says Dikotter. "Stalin, Pol Pot, Kim Jong Un, none of them would ever think of asking ordinary people to attack the very machinery they themselves built up." /^\

“On August 18, 1966, more than a million Red Guards gathered from all over the country in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. At the rally, Mao loyalist and defense chief Lin Biao told those assembled to attack "counter revolutionaries" and destroy the Four Olds of customs, culture, habits and ideas. "There were endless numbers of people, who when they are asked by Mao to criticize Party members, simply can't wait," says Dikotter. "There were so many pent up grievances caused by years of Communist rule. All those who suffered in the Great Leap Forward, workers in factories living in appalling conditions, victims of early campaigns and purges, and they really do denounce many of these Party leaders.” Throughout this period, Dikotter says, Mao was "trying to create chaos in order to keep pretty much everyone on their toes.” Even those who hated Communism, and knew they were being manipulated by Mao, embraced the opportunity to attack local cadres and Party officials...From Mao's perspective, the Cultural Revolution was a great success. Insubordinate Party higher-ups were replaced by his allies, particularly the so-called Gang of Four, led by Mao's wife Jiang Qing.” /^\

Sergey Radchenko wrote in China File:“Long live Chairman Mao! Love live Chairman Mao Zedong! Long, long live Chairman Mao!” Adulating worshippers crowded Tiananmen Square in the center of Beijing, hoping for a glimpse of Mao’s friendly and imperious face. By launching the Cultural Revolution in 1966, Mao wanted to tap into the Chinese people’s enthusiasm for him to feed the fading vigor of Communist revolution and to transform the ruling Chinese Communist Party – which he felt had grown rotten on the inside. Mao delighted in the storm he unleashed. “All under the heaven is great chaos,” he told an Australian Communist visitor in 1968, linking unrest in China with student demonstrations in Europe and in the United States. China, Mao felt, was at the center of a new global revolution.” [Source: Sergey Radchenko, China File, Foreign Policy, September 8, 2016 ||*||]

Cultural Revolution Picks Up Momentum

John Gittings wrote in China Beat: "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.

"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." |=|

Formal Start of the Cultural Revolution at the Eleventh Plenum

On August 8, 1966, the Central Committee of the CCP issued the decision of starting the Great Cultural Revolution. On that day the Eleventh Plenum of the Eighth Central Committee (over which Mao presided) promulgated its famous “Decision concerning the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”: “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 endeavor to stage a comeback. The proletariat must do just the opposite: it must meet head-on every challenge of the bourgeoisie in the ideological field and use the new ideas, culture, customs, and habits of the proletariat to change the mental outlook of the whole of society. At present, our objective is to struggle against and crush those persons 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.”

Melvyn Goldstein wrote: “The implementation of the Cultural Revolution was now shifting to the masses in the persons of Red Guards, other young students, and workers operating outside the direct control of the party leadership in schools, factories, and offices. Mao’s approval of them carrying the so-called spearhead of the Cultural Revolution was symbolized by his presiding over massive meetings of as many as several million young Red Guards and masses from all over the country in Tiananmen Square. At the first of these, on 18 August, Lin Biao addressed the gathering and explicitly called on the Red Guards to “destroy all the old thoughts, culture, customs, and habits of the exploitative class” and called on the people of the whole country to support the “proletarian revolutionary spirit of the Red Guards, who are the ones who dare to act, dare to break, dare to carry the revolution, and dare to rebel.” [Source:Melvyn Goldstein, “ On the Cultural Revolution in Tibet: The Nyemo Incident of 1969,” University of California Press, 2009. Goldstein is a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Case Western Reserve University =/=]

“The next day, 19 August, Lin Biao, Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, and other pro-Mao leftists met with Red Guards from the Second Middle School of Beijing and urged them to put up big-character posters to “wage a war against the old society.” The following day, 20 August, Red Guards in Beijing and other big cities went to the streets and started to “destroy the four olds and establish the four news.”13 Three days later, the People’s Daily published an editorial approving this, proclaiming in its title, “It is very good.”14 Mao’s Cultural Revolution ideology was now actively being implemented. =/=

“Mao’s instructions to destroy the four olds and attack the bad classes were easy to fathom and operationalize, but his call to root out the revisionists and counter revolutionaries in high places was more enigmatic and open to widely differing interpretations. Consequently, although all the revolutionary factions believed they were following Mao’s instructions, they disagreed about which specific officials were bourgeois capitalist-roaders. Interfactional tension and conflict, therefore, now divided the revolutionary organizations and their followers

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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