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The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-76), as the Cultural Revolution was officially known, was a 10-year social political movement initiated to strengthen Maoism in China by eliminating capitalist, feudalistic and cultural elements through an ideological campaign aimed at reviving revolutionary spirit and purging the country of "impure" elements. An internal power struggle quickly spilled over into all facets of the society. Destruction and violence of unspeakable proportions ensued. Young Chinese people were sent to the countryside to learn from the hard life of the peasants. Millions of people were persecuted and killed during Mao's rule

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]

Benjamin Carlson of AFP wrote: Launched by Mao in 1966 to topple his political enemies after the failure of the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution saw a decade of violence and destruction nationwide as party-led class conflict devolved into social chaos. Teenage Red Guards beat teachers to death for being "counter-revolutionaries" and family members denounced one another while factions clashed bitterly for control across the country. But the Communist Party -- which long ago decided that Mao was "70 percent right and 30 percent wrong" -- does not allow full discussion of events and responsibility.” [Source: Benjamin Carlson, AFP, May 11, 2016]

Mao launched the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” as a way of attacking his enemies within the Party leadership, most notably President Liu Shaoqi (1898-1969) and Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997).On May 16, 1966, the Chinese Communist Party released a document expressing concern that bourgeoisie and counterrevolutionaries were trying to hijack the party. The May 16 Notification, as it became known, is cited by many as the spark the Cultural Revolution. 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."

Books About the Cultural Revolution

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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:

According to the New York Times: "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 Xian 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 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

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)

Ideas and Forces Behind the Cultural Revolution

The Cultural Revolution 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.

In 1966 Mao had called on the student Red Guards to rebel against "reactionary" authorities. His aim was to reshape society by purging it of bourgeois elements and traditional ways of thinking. Millions of people were arrested and terrorized by the Red Guards, the Cultural Revolution’s paramilitary youth organization. Those arrested were forced to endure brutal “struggle sessions,” where they were tortured and humiliated in public. By the summer of 1968 the country had become engulfed in fighting, as Red Guard factions competed for power. By the time the revolution ended in 1976, possibly as many as three million people had been killed. The violence and persecution during the revolution was catastrophic, and the decade arguably ranks as one of China’s darkest periods.

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 <=>]

“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.” <=>

Causes of the Cultural Revolution

backyard furnaces from the Great Leap Forward

Nicholas Haggerty wrote in Commonwealth: “The two theories on the origins taught in American college classrooms are that: 1) the Cultural Revolution was Mao's Machiavellian scheme to regain the power he had lost after the Great Leap Forward by mobilizing the populations with which he was popular; and 2) the result of Mao’s sincere concern that the revolution was dying. [Source:Nicholas Haggerty, Commonwealth, May 9, 2016 ^/^]

On these theories, Professor Yiju Huang at Fordham University said: “These two accounts are not contradictory. The latter though is more of a political understanding that can be traced back to the intense global interest in the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 70s. The Parisian intelligentsia’s profound infatuation with Maoism comes to mind here. Maoism represented an alternative path not only from the universality of the capitalist mode of history but also from the ossified fate of Stalinist Russia.

“Some historians, like Maurice Meisner, take the "long view" towards the Chinese revolution, and place their analytical focus on 1949 rather than events of the 1960s. Between 1949, when the Communists took power, and 1976, when Mao died, life expectancy rose tremendously, literacy rates rose tremendously, which these historians argue provided the groundwork for China’s economic miracle.” ^/^

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."

Looting of church by Red Guards

Adrian Brown of Al Jazeera wrote: “You would be hard pressed to find someone in China who has family, friends or relatives who were not touched in some way by the Cultural Revolution. The father of China's President Xi Jinping was persecuted and the young Xi was forced into hiding in the countryside. It was a mass brainwashing - collective madness in which those with the most sadistic streaks flourished - and many did. No wonder so few people are prepared to really talk about what happened; to admit their guilt, to express their sorrow. It is as if one is trying to talk to Cambodians about life under the Khmer Rouge. “There are still no official figures on how many people were killed or purged in China during the Cultural Revolution. But some historians say the number of dead could be as high as two million - still less than the millions who died during the famines blamed on Chairman Mao's disastrous policies in the late 1950s. [Source: Adrian Brown, Al Jazeera, May 13, 2016]

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.

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: By the time the Cultural Revolution sputtered to a halt, there were many ways to tally its effects: about two hundred million people in the countryside suffered from chronic malnutrition, because the economy had been crippled; up to twenty million people had been uprooted and sent to the countryside; and up to one and a half million had been executed or driven to suicide. The taint of foreign ideas, real or imagined, was often the basis for an accusation; libraries of foreign texts were destroyed, and the British embassy was burned. When Xi Zhongxun—the father of China’s current President, Xi Jinping—was dragged before a crowd, he was accused, among other things, of having gazed at West Berlin through binoculars during a visit to East Germany.” [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, May 6, 2016]

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.

Wang Youqin, who graduated from the Chinese Department at Peking University and who teaches at the University of Chicago, has been searching for victims of the Cultural Revolution for the last two decades. Her record is still extremely limited. [Source: Wu Renhua, Yaxue Cao, China Change, June 4, 2016 ++]

Background of the Cultural Revolution

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.

Mao at a April 1960 Politburo meeting

David McKenzie and Steven Jiang of CNN wrote: “In one sense,” the Cultural Revolution “began with the bruised ego of Mao Zedong. In the early 1960s, China's great revolutionary hero was still smarting from the catastrophic failure of the Great Leap Forward, a policy of collective farming and industry that directly and indirectly caused the deaths of millions of Chinese. Mao called on a new revolution to stamp out what he called bourgeois and counter-revolutionary influences. Conveniently, for Mao, the ensuing chaos helped shore up his personality cult and get rid of his political opponents.[Source: David McKenzie and Steven Jiang, CNN, June 5, 2014]

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong had lost a substantial degree of power in the aftermath of the disastrous Great Leap Forward (1959-1961). As a result, the Communist Party pursued a number of social and economic policies, of which Mao did not approve. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, <|>]

Moderates Threaten Mao After the Great Leap Forward

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. *

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. *

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Mao and Liu Shaoqi

Mao's Effort to Reassert His Power in the 1960s

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]

In his book “On the Cultural Revolution in Tibet,” Melvyn Goldstein wrote: “In 1966, Mao unleashed the Cultural Revolution to eliminate his enemies and reshape relations within the party. Unlike the standard Chinese Communist Party purges that took place entirely within the rarified air of the party itself, in the Cultural Revolution, the driving forces of the cleanup— Red Guards and revolutionary workers—were outside the party. Mao sought to mobilize the masses to discover and attack what he called bourgeois and capitalist elements who had insinuated themselves into the party and, in his view, were trying to subvert the revolution. [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]

Four Clean-Ups (Socialist Education Movement)

The Four Cleanups — often called the Socialist Education Movement — was a purge of top-level Communist Party officials meant to remove “reactionary” elements from Chinese politics and disguised somewhat as a crackdown on corruption. Regarded by some as the true beginning of the Cultural Revolution or at least a precursor to the Cultural Revolution, it started in 1963 but really took off in 1964. One Chinese academic said: “Without quite knowing what I was doing, I joined the ranks of the persecutors.” Some have compared the sweeping anti-corruption campaign launched by Chinese president Xi Jinping in early 2013 with the Four Cleanups.

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. [Source: The Library of Congress *]

Four Clean-Ups

“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". *

Jeremy Brown, a history professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, told the New York Times: “This was the aftermath of the Great Leap Famine [considered one of the worst famines in history, with around 30 million deaths]. Mao blamed the famine on bad officials in local areas who were corrupted by remnant Nationalist forces and by landlords. He said some places didn’t do land reform well and that’s why the famine happened. It’s because of impurity in local village organization — that was Mao’s rationalization. Around this time, the early 1960s, there was a resurgence of religious practices and economic activity — things that look like capitalist buying and selling of goods. Villages are making money on the side outside the socialist economic plan.So Mao declared “we can never forget class struggle” and started the Four Cleanups. It was traumatic. Outside work teams went to villages, investigated local officials and violently punished people they considered class enemies. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Times, May 10, 2016]

China at the Time the Cultural Revolution Began

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. [Source: The Library of Congress *]

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. *

Four Clean Ups

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. *

Early Events in the Cultural Revolution

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. \^/

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.\^/

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.

“Destroy the Four Olds”

Destruction of Buddhist statues

Driven by Mao’s edict to attack the “four olds,” gangs of Red Guards smashed up temples, destroyed artwork, and demolished libraries and cemeteries. The Communist Party cheered on the destruction, with the People’s Daily publishing a June 1 editorial exhorting cadres to “sweep away all monsters and demons!” A Red Guard leader who led raids on temples and other cultural treasures told the Christian Science Monitor: “Chairman Mao called for us to ‘Destroy the Four Olds’… and whatever Chairman Mao said, we did it right away.” [Source: Stuart Leavenworth, Christian Science Monitor, May 31, 2016 |~|]

Zehao Zhou wrote in USA Today: “Waves of violence swept across the country: Foreign embassies were sacked. Political untouchables were summarily deported from the city or even buried alive. Suicides became widespread. Among the most atrocious events that occurred during the tumultuous summer of 1966 was the “Destroy the Four Olds Campaign.” Anything that expressed old ideas, old habits, old customs and old culture was subject to the wrath of the Red Guards. [Source: Zehao Zhou, USA Today Network, May 14, 2016 ^*^]

“In just a few weeks, the material representation of 5,000 years of Chinese civilization was summarily destroyed or irrevocably damaged — the equivalent of the eradication of all material symbols of the Greek, Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions. The numbers are mind-boggling: Almost 90 percent of Tibet’s monasteries and temples were razed and roughly 74 percent of the historic sites in the birthplace of Confucius, China’s Jerusalem, were obliterated. ^*^

“In my own Shanghai neighborhood, what I will always remember is when a pack of Red Guards attacked our community church, brought out all of its Bibles into the middle of the street and set them on fire. That horrific moment — seeing the sky darkened with the floating ashes of burned Bibles — remains seared in my memory even now.” ^*^

Destruction of Art and Temples during the Cultural Revolution

left In their attempt to wipe out China's past and create a new society, Red Guards destroyed any precious painting, vase, pottery, calligraphy, embroidery, statue, book or works of art they could their hands on. Owners destroyed their own stuff to avoid getting caught with it. One man told the Washington Post that he watched his mother destroy a valuable old painting. "She was afraid the Red Guard would come and find it, and then they would kill us," he said.

The Red Guard and supporters of the Cultural Revolution also destroyed temples and historical buildings. Between 1970 and 1974 an army unit stationed at Gubeikou tore down two miles of the Great Wall and used the stone blocks to construct army barracks. In Tibet the Red Guard turned thousand-year-old monasteries into factories and pigsties. At the Shanghai Art Museum, curators slept in the museum to fend off Red Guard attacks.

A Mao portrait painter and loyal communist was shipped away to a framing factory. His crime: painting portraits of Mao at a slight tilt so that only one ear showed, implying that Great Helmsman listened only to a select few not every one. “How many ears I painted was not up to me. It was decided by the central government,” the artists told the Los Angeles Times.

Crackdown on Religion during the Cultural Revolution

Red Guards did not discriminate against particular religions, they were against them all. They ripped crosses from church steeples, forced Catholic priests into labor camps, tortured Buddhist monks in Tibet and turned Muslim schools into pig slaughterhouses. Taoists, Buddhists and Confucians were singled out as vestiges of the Old China that needed to be changed.

One Chinese man told Theroux about an effort by the Red Guard to tear down a cross from the largest church in Qindao: "The Red Guards held a meeting, and then they passed a motion to destroy the crosses. They marched to the church and climbed up to the roof. They pulled up bamboos and tied them into a scaffold. It took a few days “naturally they worked at night and they sang the Mao songs. When the crowd gathered they put up ladders and they climbed up and threw a rope around the Christian crosses and they pulled them down. It was very exciting!"

Cultural Revolution in Tibet

The Cultural Revolution arrived in Lhasa in July 1966. Red Guards entered Jokhang Temple two months later and destroyed or desecrated everything they could. Over the next few years, monasteries were destroyed with dynamite and artillery, libraries were looted and rare books and painting were burned. Buddhist scriptures were used as wrapping paper and to make shoe soles. Monks were forced to wear blue suits instead of their reddish brown robes and some were forced to work for years on communes digging vegetables.

Buddha was declared a reactionary and the Dalai Lama was called a criminal. Festivals, pilgrimages and partying were banned. Some Tibetans were forced to cut their hair. Others had to learn a new "friendship language" that incorporated Chinese and Tibetan words in weird ways. By the time it was over 99 percent of Tibet's 6,000 religious monasteries, temples and shrines were looted or totally destroyed and hundreds of thousands of sacred Buddhist scriptures were destroyed.

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"When the order went out, Smash the feudalistic nests of monks!," Paul Theroux wrote, "the soldiers, Red Guards and assorted vandals made chalk marks all over the monasteries’save these timbers, stack these beams, pike the bricks, and so forth. Brick by brick, timber by timber, the monasteries were taken down. The frugal, strong-saving, clothes-patching, shoe-mending Chinese saved each reusable brick. In this way the monasteries were made into barns and barracks.”

Many of teh Red Guards in Tibet were Tibetans. One former Tibetan member of the Red Guards told the Washington Post, "At the time, I didn't really think about it because we were young. Now as I get older I have regrets."

Foreigners and the Cultural Revolution

In August 1967, during an anti-foreigner phase of the Cultural Revolution, the British embassy was gutted and burned. All 23 people who were inside the embassy at the time felt lucky to escape with their lives.

A British diplomat later told the Times of London that at 10:30am a flare lit the sky and a crowd began climbing over the walls. The occupants of the embassy withdrew into a barred room while the crowd shouted "kill, kill, kill” and set the building on fire. The occupants had hoped to sit out the attack but the room grew hotter and hotter and they fled the building by a concealed concrete door.

The diplomat told the Times: “As we went out we fell into the arms of the mob. Hands went up women’s skirts. The men has their testicles screwed.” Somehow they managed to make it out of the compound, where they were rescued by PLA soldiers and taken to their diplomatic housing."

Chinese were also harangued for their associations with foreigners. People with Canadian-made alarm clocks were accused of worshiping foreign enemies and forced to endure "struggle sessions."

Jiang Qing, Mao and the Gang of Four

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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.

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.”

Qi Benyu: Cultural Revolution Propagandist

Young Jiang Qing and Mao

Qi Benyu (1931-2016) was a Communist Party theorist and propagandist who played a significant role in the Cultural Revolution. Cary Huang wrote in the South China Morning Post: “Qi was the last member of the ultra-left Cultural Revolution Group (CRG), which had superseded the party’s top decision-making Politburo and Secretariat to emerge as the de facto top power organ of the country at the height of the political turmoil between 1966 and 1976. Qi was a Shandong resident born in Shanghai. [Source: Cary Huang, South China Morning Post, April 21, 2016 +\+]

“Once the late leader Mao Zedong’s right-hand man for propaganda, Qi is said to have played a role that led to the purge of President Liu Shaoqi. Until recently, Qi continued to air his ultra-left views, with radical calls to relaunch the Cultural Revolution in the country. Qi’s political career was associated with Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife. He was made a staff member at Mao’s personal office in 1950 after graduating from the Youth League school. The office was led by Jiang. Qi had been elevated to become the acting director of the general office of the party’s Central Committee and the deputy editor of Red Flag, the ruling party’s theoretical journal and a key source of Maoist ideological inspiration and guidance during the Cultural Revolution. It was replaced by a magazine called Qiushi, or Seeking Truth, in 1988. Lessons from 1966: why we should never forget the disastrous consequences of the Cultural Revolution. +\+

“Qi and Yao Wenyuan, a member of the notorious “Gang of Four” led by Jiang, played the crucial role in a campaign to denounce a historic Beijing opera called Hai Rui Dismissed from Office, which was seen as a prelude to the launch of the Cultural Revolution. As a secretary at Mao’s office and a closeaide of Jiang, Qi had also played a key role in the draft of the so-called “May 16 Notification”, which, formalised by “an expanded Politburo” meeting, announced the establishment of the CRG and also declared the launch of the Cultural Revolution by announcing the overthrow of a group of moderates, including Beijing party boss Peng Zhen and police chief Luo Ruiqing.” +\+

Unpublicized Side of the Cultural Revolution

Jeremy Brown, a history professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, told the New York Times: The heart of the Cultural Revolution “was really a three-year period. The Red Guards were part of it, but there was more violence in 1968-69, when Mao sent the army and tried to restore order by setting up Revolutionary Committees. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Times, May 10, 2016 ^|^]

“We don’t hear too much about the “rebels.” They were workers in factories, not Red Guards, and they got a seat at the table when the Revolutionary Committees were set up in 1968. They ran factories and many workplaces along with the army. They were the ones who got scapegoated at the end of the Cultural Revolution. They’re not super literate or well-connected enough to get their stories out, and their stories are embarrassing to the officials who used them and survived and did well after the Cultural Revolution. They’re called “Gang of Four elements.” We don’t know much about them at all. ^|^

“Policies didn’t take effect simultaneously across China. Things were happening at a different timeline in villages and factories. People also didn’t understand the policies — they were confusing and contradictory — and did what made sense to them. They were reading the newspaper or listening to the broadcast and figuring out what the policy was going to be, but it didn’t translate into what happened in a village.” ^|^

We often have images of mass rallies, but many people opted out. Don’t forget, most people didn’t go. It’s interesting to think of that — most did not participate. And the economy kept going. There were no widespread famines. People still went to school in unprecedented numbers. When you look at the Mao cult and the way that people were performing rituals to the “great leader” — doing the loyalty dance, for example — they seem like absurd rituals. But it was a limited period of time. There were a few cities where the Mao cult was intense. But if you look at the whole period from the mid-60s to mid-70s, you have all sorts of people detaching themselves from politics and focusing on their work. You have a Mao picture in the workplace, and campaigns, but it’s background noise for many people. That political narrative was not first on their minds when they went about their lives. ^|^

“Sometimes you can’t get around it, like the chapter on the young fellow in Tianjin trying to avoid being sent down to a village as part of a massive social engineering project. It’s based on excerpts from the young man’s diary and reads like any teenager’s diary. He’s worried about what people think of him, what’s next in his life.” ^|^

Could the Cultural Revolution Have Been Stopped

"There were at least two points where (Party officials) could have done something," Dikotter told CNN. Following the Great Leap Forward, "Mao's star is very much at its lowest, at that point they could have hemmed him in, but the Chairman manages to very astutely talk his way out of that predicament.” By taking partial blame for the disaster, Mao forced other high-ranking officials to admit their own complicity, undermining their authority and strengthening his position. [Source: James Griffiths, CNN, May 13, 2016 /^\]

"The second point is probably in February 1967 when several veteran marshals openly rebel against the Cultural Revolution group presided over by Madame Mao," Dikotter says. "Mao realizes that if these veteran marshals push their criticisms through, it would have dire consequences and he might end up being at the losing end.” But Mao, the "master of corridor politics" was able to keep Premier Zhou Enlai and other key officials on side, and eventually the generals were denounced and purged. /^\

“Ultimately, any attempt to stop the Cultural Revolution was hamstrung by the same reason today's China has been unable to properly reckon with its history: the primacy of Mao. "When Kruschev started de-Stalinization he knew full well you can drag Stalin's body out of the mausoleum because there is another body there, Lenin's," says Dikotter. "In the case of China this would be impossible, the entire history of the Chinese Communist Party revolves around the personality of Mao... which is why the Party will never, ever promote a critical examination of its own history.”“ /^\

Responsibility for the Cultural Revolution

Yang Jisheng, a historian, was a student at Tsinghua University High School in 1966. He told the New York Times: “People who didn’t experience the Cultural Revolution only know that a large number of officials were persecuted, but they don’t know that the numbers of ordinary people who suffered were 10 times, a hundred times, more. [Source: “Voices from China’s Cultural Revolution”, Chris Buckley, Didi Kirsten Tatlow, Jane Perlez and Amy Qin, New York Times, May 16, 2016 ~~]

“They only know that the rebels were the culprits in the Cultural Revolution, and don’t know that the rebels were active for only two years. The main culprits were the power holders in different periods. They only know that the Gang of Four and the rebels supported the Cultural Revolution, and don’t know that a large number of senior officials also supported the Cultural Revolution for some time. ~~

“Unfortunately, now there are some people doing everything in their power to cover up the mistakes of history. They treat one-sidedly extolling the achievements of the past as a “positive energy” to be exalted, and they treat exposing and reflecting on the mistakes of history as a “negative energy” to be beaten down.” ~~

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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