MAJOR EVENTS OF THE CULTURAL REVOLUTION: MAY 16TH NOTICE, RED GUARD BATTLES AND THE WUHAN INCIDENT

SUMMARY OF THE CULTURAL REVOLUTION

right According to the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations: “Increasing confrontation between Mao and the party establishment, beginning in the fall of 1965, culminated in August 1966 with the CCP Central Committee's "16 Point Decision" endorsing Mao's Cultural Revolution policy of criticizing revisionism. In response to Mao's initiative, high levels of urban protest demonstrated widespread dissatisfaction with bureaucracies and privilege. In the latter half of 1966, the Red Guard movement of radical students attacked educational and state authorities and split into competing factions. Amid the rising conflict, the party institution collapsed in major cities. [Source: Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Liu Shaoqi, second to Mao in the political hierarchy and Chairperson of the People's Republic, was ousted from power as the chief target of the Cultural Revolution. In 1968, Liu was formally dismissed from all positions and expelled from the party. He died at the end of 1969. From January 1967 through mid-1968, the discredited political establishment was replaced by Revolutionary Committees, comprised of the new radical organizations, the officials who remained in power, and representatives of the army. Finally, the army was told to restore order. In 1968 and 1969, students were sent out of the cities into the countryside. Colleges did not reopen until 1970. At the Ninth Party Congress in April 1969, the military's role was confirmed when Lin Biao, the Minister of Defense, was named Mao's successor. The remaining years of the Cultural Revolution decade, up to 1976, were marked by a legacy of struggles over policies and over political succession to the aging Mao (83 at his death in 1976).

The main chaos had subsided by 1971. After that order was reasonably restored, According to “Countries of the World and Their Leaders”: “Gradually, Red Guard and other radical activity subsided, and the Chinese political situation stabilized along complex factional lines. The leadership conflict came to a head in September 1971, when Party Vice Chairman and Defense Minister Lin Biao reportedly tried to stage a coup against Mao; Lin Biao allegedly later died in a plane crash in Mongolia. In the aftermath of the Lin Biao incident, many officials criticized and dismissed during 1966-69 were reinstated. Chief among these was Deng Xiaoping, who reemerged in 1973 and was confirmed in 1975 in the concurrent posts of Politburo Standing Committee member, PLA Chief of Staff, and Vice Premier. The ideological struggle between more pragmatic, veteran party officials and the radicals re-emerged with a vengeance in late 1975. Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, and three close Cultural Revolution associates (later dubbed the “Gang of Four”) launched a media campaign against Deng. In January 1976, Premier Zhou Enlai, a popular political figure, died of cancer. On April 5, Beijing citizens staged a spontaneous demonstration in Tiananmen Square in Zhou's memory, with strong political overtones of support for Deng. The authorities forcibly suppressed the demonstration. Deng was blamed for the disorder and stripped of all official positions, although he retained his party membership. [Source: Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook 2009, Gale]

Good Websites and Sources on the Cultural Revolution Virtual Museum of the Cultural Revolution cnd.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Morning Sun morningsun.org ; Red Guards and Cannibals New York Times ; The South China Morning Post 's multimedia report on the Cultural Revolution. multimedia.scmp.com. Cultural Revolution posters huntingtonarchive.org Great Leap Forward: University of Chicago Chronicle chronicle.uchicago.edu ; Mt. Holyoke China Essay Series mtholyoke.edu ; Wikipedia ; Industrial Planning Video You Tube ; Death Under Mao: Uncounted Millions, Washington Post article paulbogdanor.com ; Death Tolls erols.com ; Communist Party History Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Illustrated History of Communist Party china.org.cn ; Posters Landsberger Communist China Posters ; People’s Republic of China: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; China Essay Series mtholyoke.edu ; Everyday Life in Maoist China.org everydaylifeinmaoistchina.org; Mao Zedong Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Mao Internet Library marx2mao.com ; Paul Noll Mao site paulnoll.com/China/Mao ; Mao Quotations art-bin.com; Marxist.org marxists.org ; New York Times topics.nytimes.com

Cultural Revolution Books


Destruction of Buddhist statues

“The World Turned Upside Down: a History of the Chinese Cultural Revolution” by Yang Jisheng, Translated and Edited by Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020; "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" by Frank Dikotter (Walker & Co, 2010)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.

"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. 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).

Beginning of the Cultural Revolution


According to “Countries of the World and Their Leaders”: In the early 1960s, State President Liu Shaoqi and his protege, Party General Secretary Deng Xiaoping, took over direction of the party and adopted pragmatic economic policies at odds with Mao's revolutionary vision. Dissatisfied with China's new direction and his own reduced authority, Party Chairman Mao launched a massive political attack on Liu, Deng, and other pragmatists in the spring of 1966. The new movement, the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” was unprecedented in communist history. For the first time, a section of the Chinese communist leadership sought to rally popular opposition against another leadership group. China was set on a course of political and social anarchy that lasted the better part of a decade. [Source: Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook 2009, Gale]

“In the early stages of the Cultural Revolution, Mao and his “closest comrade in arms,” National Defense Minister Lin Biao, charged Liu, Deng, and other top party leaders with dragging China back toward capitalism. Radical youth organizations, called Red Guards, attacked party and state organizations at all levels, seeking out leaders who would not bend to the radical wind. In reaction to this turmoil, some local People's Liberation Army (PLA) commanders and other officials maneuvered to outwardly back Mao and the radicals while actually taking steps to rein in local radical activity.

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. 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. [Source: Christopher Bodeen, Associated Press,May 16, 2016 =]

“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”."=

Timeline and 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 \^/; Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., Columbia University Press]

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.\^/

September 13, 1971: Lin dies in a plane crash in Mongolia along with close family members and aides while apparently fleeing China. Mao is left without a successor while his wife Jiang Qing exerts ever greater influence on culture and politics as leader of the "Gang of Four."

1973: A major propaganda campaign was launched, mobilizing the masses with attacks against a wide range of targets, including Lin Biao, the teachings of Confucius, and cultural exchanges with the West. September 9, 1976: Mao dies of complications from Parkinson's disease in Beijing at the age of 82. His death sparks a power struggle in Beijing as the Gang of Four seeks to assume control, while what's left of the party establishment conspires to wrest authority back and end the turmoil of the previous decade.\^/

October 6, 1976: Jiang Qing and the Gang of Four are arrested in a bloodless revolt led by military commanders working with Mao's successor, Hua Guofeng, effectively ending the Cultural Revolution. All four were tried at a famous trial in 1980-81 and eventually sentenced to prison. They suffered the primary blame for injustices and atrocities of the Cultural Revolution that might have otherwise been attributed to Mao. At her trial, Jiang declared that she was "Chairman Mao's dog. Whomever he asked me to bite, I bit."

May 16th Notice and Dismissal of Hai Rui


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]

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, afe.easia.columbia.edu ].

“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." /^\

In June 1966 middle schools and universities throughout the country closed down as students devoted all their time to Red Guard activities. Millions of these young students were encouraged to attack "counterrevolutionaries" and criticize those in the party who appeared to have deviated from Maoist thought. 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]

Cultural Revolution Picks Up Momentum in August 1966

John Gittings wrote in China Beat: "On August 5, the movement took hold when announcements were made over the radio that Mao wanted the people to rise up and “bombard the headquarters” to rid the party of his rivals and enemies. An emergency Party plenum clipped Liu’s power, and set up a new Central Cultural Revolution Group (CCRG) to run the Cultural Revolution, dominated by Jiang Qing (Madame Mao) and other ultra-leftists who would in retrospect be labelled loosely as adherents of her Gang of Four. Bypassing the Party authorities, the Red Guards received guidance from this new Group on which human targets to attack, and also sought its backing in their factional disputes. On August 18 Mao reviewed the first Red Guard rally in Tiananmen Square. [Source: John Gittings, China Beat, March 31, 2010]


"After the rebels had successfully carried out Mao’s aim of dislodging Liu Shaoqi and the Party bureaucrats from power, they split into new factions which carried on fighting against one-other for a year and half; this was not because of genuine ideological differences but because there was now a well-established history of violence between the two sides: for the activists who led the campaigns, the alternative to victory was a possibly life-threatening defeat. The issue of violence, Walder concludes, even more serious than the issue of class origin, went to the very identity and aims of the red guard movement." |=|

“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 ||*||]

Associated Press reported: Numerous cadres, intellectuals and students labeled enemies of the party had been purged in the 17 years since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, but Mao wanted something different in 1966. On his return to Beijing from a sojourn in the south in July, two months after the start of the Cultural Revolution, Mao ordered the withdrawal of party working groups that had been guiding the campaign. In a document issued in August of that year denouncing traditional top-down purges, Beijing said “[We] must trust and rely on the people ... don’t be scared of chaos. A week after that document was issued, thousands of people in Chongqing, more than 1,400km from Beijing, staged a massive protest against the city government, something rarely seen before. Many of the protesters, including Zheng, who said he “exploded like a volcano” after hearing of the death of his principal, became the city’s first Red Guards. They named themselves after the date of the protest – 815. [Source: Associated Press, June 9, 2016]

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

“Destroy the Four Olds”

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.

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.” ^*^

Cultural Revolution Reaches 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 the 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."

Conflicts Between Factions, Government Officials and Revolutionaries

As the Cultural Revolution gained momentum in 1966, Red Guards were encouraged to oust local government leaders and replace them with Mao loyalist. Soon it became evident that local party organizations were able to resist the attacks from Red Guards. Mao finally decided that 'revolutionary committees' — alliances between the PLA, cadres, and workers — was the best form of local government. [Source: Wikipedia]

All over China during the Cultural Revolution, provincial and municipal governments were replaced by organizations known as Revolutionary Committees (alliances of cadres, soldiers and student/worker groups) to take charge of governing the country and cleansing it from "counterrevolutionary forces" and "reactionary elements". With orders from the top leadership to "find and capture those in power walking the capitalist road," almost all incumbent party and government officials became vulnerable to attacks from Red Guard organizations.

A "capitalist roader" was a nebulous label that could be liberally applied to anyone perceived to be counter to the revolutionary spirit. Various mass organizations around the country took advantage of this chaotic backdrop and seized the opportunity to overthrow incumbent power figures with whom they may have carried other, unrelated grievances. In the central industrial city of Wuhan, two groups largely coalesced around those who wanted to preserve the incumbent political order in the city and those who wanted to overthrow it.

Ivan Franceschini wrote: “After Mao launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966, vast numbers of students, workers, peasants and other ordinary people divided into hostile groups that violently fought against each other for more than a year and a half. Each group claimed it was fighting out of loyalty to Mao’s teachings. But” my research “that included a large number of in-depth interviews in the 1970s and 1980s with former participants in these conflicts revealed that the fighting between groups was actually the consequence of mounting tensions within Chinese society prior to the Cultural Revolution. The upheavals in the Cultural Revolution pitted those who had earlier been favoured by Communist Party policies against those who had been disfavoured. But the nature of grievances and antagonisms differed from group to group—be they students, workers, peasants or government office workers. As a result, there were a number of different types of upheavals, generated by different reasons, in different sectors of society. Examining these provides insights into the complex fabric of Chinese society under Mao. [Source: Ivan Franceschini, Australia National University, November 10, 2016]

Shanghai People's Commune

The Shanghai People's Commune was established in January 1967 during what is sometimess called the January Storm or January Revolution, when Red Guard activity in the Cultural Revolution was at its peak. The Commune was modeled on the 19th century Paris Commune. It lasted less than a month, [Source: Wikipedia]

As the Cultural Revolution gained momentum in 1966, it became evident that Chairman Mao Zedong and his followers in Beijing had underestimated the ability of local party organizations to resist the attacks from Red Guards. By the end of 1966 many regional party groupings had survived by paying lip service to Maoist teachings while countering the attacks of local Maoists. To break through this impasse, begun to form, Maoist leaders called for the "seizure of power by proletarian revolutionaries", as was described in the Sixteen Articles. Shanghai was chosen as the first place where this "seizure" would be attempted.

Shanghai's experience of the Cultural Revolution had begun in the summer of 1966 with the formation of Red Guard groups proclaiming their loyalty to Chairman Mao. The movement quickly became heavily factionalized (as was the norm), but also rapidly developed very radical tendencies, with attacks on the authority of the city's mayor and physical attacks on government buildings. By the autumn of the same year, the spirit of rebellion had spread from the city's schools to the factories, and there soon followed the creation of many different worker-based groups. In November, several of these groups proceeded to form an alliance (the 'Headquarters of the Revolutionary Revolt of Shanghai Workers') led by Wang Hongwen.

By this point, the Cultural Revolution in Shanghai was proceeding at a rapid pace. On November, the Worker's Headquarters presented a list of demands to the Shanghai Municipal Party Committee demanding the replacement of the old "bureaucracy" with new members that had widespread support. These demands were refused, but two days later a large number of workers seized a train to Beijing, with the intention of presenting their demands personally to Mao. The train was intercepted at Anting (several miles from Shanghai). Nearly half of the workers remained on board, refusing to return to Shanghai, turning the situation into a three-day siege. The response from the Maoist leaders in Beijing was one of caution.

On January 5, 1967, a dozen groups allied with the Worker's Headquarters grouping published a "Message to all the People of Shanghai" in the city's main newspaper, calling for unity in the workers' movement. The next day over one million people gathered in the city's main square to see a televised mass meeting, in which the city's officials were denounced and removed from their positions. This marked the fall of the old government. After a deal was truck between Beijing representatives, the Worker's Headquarters and the People's Liberation Army order was restored by the end of January.

But the unity did not to last. The Scarlet Guards (another worker faction that were rivals of the Worker's Headquarters) pledged their support to the new leadership, more radical groups involved in the January revolution opposed, arguing that new Shanghai government was of little different than the old one. These groups took up arms again and the factional fighting resumed. To secure the support of all the major groups, the new government promised the introduction of a model based on the Paris Commune, a measure that quickly gained popular approval (all the groups mutually despised dictatorships). On February 5, 1967, the Shanghai Commune was formally proclaimed. After a while, powerful people that were excluded from the government rebelled and leaders Chen Yi and Ye Jianying that openly criticized the cultural revolution were violently attacked by the Red Guards and removed from power despite the protection of Zhou Enlai.Meanwhile, in Beijing, the concept of 'revolutionary committees' (triple alliances between the PLA, cadres, and workers) had attracted Mao as the best form of local government — and such a set up was installed in Shanghai and the non-existence of the Shanghai Commune was announced in a televised speech.

Wuhan Incident

“The Wuhan incident” — named after the city in central China — occurred In July 1967. Regarded a the time as a military insurrection that could push China into all-out, it pitted one faction supported by the commander of the People’s Liberation Army forces in the region against another backed by Cultural Revolution leaders in Beijing. Mao himself personally made a secret trip to oversee a truce, but ended up hiding out in a lakeside guesthouse as violence raged all around him. Zhou Enlai, the head of the Chinese government, arranged his evacuation on an air-force jet. “Which direction are we going?” the pilot asked Mao as he boarded the plane. “Just take off first,” a panicked Mao replied. In his book "The World Turned Upside Down: a History of the Chinese Cultural Revolution”, Yang Jisheng devotes about 60 pages to the Wuhan Incident. ,[Source: Barbara Demick, The Atlantic, November 16, 2020]

The two opposing forces — the "Million Heroes" and the "Wuhan Workers' General Headquarters" — each with about 500,000 members, were fighting for control over Wuhan. "Million Heroes" was made up of mainly skilled workers, state and local party employees, and were supported by the local PLA, led by the commander of Wuhan Military Region, General Chen Zaidao. The "Wuhan Workers' General Headquarters" was comprised mostly workers and students from Red Guard organizations. [Source: Wikipedia]

Both sides engaged in an extensive propaganda war in an attempt to enlist community support. Central authorities in Beijing eventually endorsed the Worker's Headquarters faction as the "true" revolutionary group and reprimanded Chen Zaidao for his military support to Million Heroes. The event was considered a pivotal turning point in the Cultural Revolution: it marked the first time military leaders refused to carry out orders given by the central authorities and the Cultural Revolution Group in particular. Fears of a more widespread PLA revolt led Mao and his core associates to scale back the movement's most radical components.

The Workers' Headquarters arose out of a union of local Red Guard youth and various "revolutionary" workers organizations from Wuhan's numerous steel plants. On January 27, 1967, they attempted to lay siege to the Wuhan party organization and the municipal government and seize power in the city themselves, much in the fashion of the Shanghai People's Commune. However, incumbent interests rallied ordinary residents against the action and the takeover ultimately failed. It was thereafter branded it a "counterrevolutionary incident".

In March 1967, local PLA units under the command of General Chen Zaidao forcefully disbanded the Worker's Headquarters faction and detained some 500 of its leaders. At the same time, it had been funding its own "revolutionary mass organization", dubbed "The Million Heroes," drawn from a wider cross-section of conservative interests in the city. The Million Heroes, whose slogans were also broadly "revolutionary" in tone, were mainly intent on maintaining the status quo. Their position was that, in essence, the existing Wuhan political establishment was loyally adhering to the Cultural Revolution's main programme and therefore should not have been a target for struggle.

Fighting During Wuhan Incident

Tensions grew in Wuhan through April as the Worker's Headquarters faction carried out hunger strikes and conducted rallies, claiming to be the "true bearer" of the revolutionary cause; meanwhile, the Million Heroes accused the Worker's Headquarters of subverting the revolution by not properly adhering to the campaign to criticize Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. Amid the growing hostilities, the CRG felt a greater urgency to respond and extend its 'divine interpretation' of the events on the ground. Under the auspice of Zhou Enlai and with approval from Mao, the authorities in Beijing issued an order to General Chen to withdraw support to the Million Heroes. The directive asserted that the Wuhan military had made a mistake in "general orientation" in carrying out Cultural Revolution policies - that it must publicly admit that its March actions against Workers' Headquarters were incorrect. The directive also labelled the Million Heroes as a "conservative organization" and branded the Workers' Headquarters as a "revolutionary organization"; this was, in effect, the CRG throwing its weight behind the latter. [Source: Wikipedia]

Minister of Public Security Xie Fuzhi and leading propagandist Wang Li arrived on July 16 and immediately ordered General Chen to withdraw support from the Million Heroes and instead extend it to the Workers' Headquarters. The order, relayed through Xie to a gathering of the PLA leadership in Wuhan on July 19, could not be implemented; several of Chen Zaidao's units refused to carry out the order. Moreover, a significant sub-section of the city lent support to the Million Heroes, making their position a formidable one. Generally, Million Heroes supporters saw that their being labelled a "conservative" organization would have totally tarnished their leftist credentials and lent rival groups ammunition to attack them - giving them impetus to protest the order en masse. The local PLA organization, too, felt that if they were to accede to the order, it would be an implicit admission that they had committed a grave error in the course of the Cultural Revolution - something that could be used to attack them in the future.

In a last attempt to resolve the crisis, Zhou Enlai himself flew to Wuhan on July 20; for his own safety, Zhou landed at a nearby airstrip controlled by the PLA Air Force, a branch of the military loyal to Lin Biao (and therefore, the Cultural Revolution). Mao himself also made abode at the Wuhan East Lake Guest House. Chen seemed to be swayed by Mao's own presence in Wuhan and acquiesced to writing a self-criticism. Wang Li then gathered some 200 divisional officers at an impromptu conference and reprimanded them for failure to grasp the essence of the Cultural Revolution. The Wang Li speech drew particular ire with the military brass due to its condescending tone.

Mao and Zhou's presence in Wuhan having been kept a secret, for all intents and purposes, the Million Heroes regarded Xie and Wang to be the main representatives of the central authorities. On July 20, forces belonging to Chen's mutinous PLA division, disturbed with the verdict assigned to the military district and the Million Heroes, captured and physically assaulted Xie Fuzhi, while simultaneously agitators from the Million Heroes captured Wang Li. Wang Li and Xie Fuzhi were rescued by military operatives as part of a secret operation and returned to Beijing on 25 July, to a hero's welcome, supposedly having saved the city from "counter-revolutionary" rebellion.

It is estimated that about one thousand people were killed, and tens of thousands more injured, in Wuhan during the July 1967 troubles in the city.

Aftermath of the Wuhan Incident

On July 26, Chen Zaidao and his political commissar Zhong Hanhua were dragged to Beijing's PLA-controlled Jingxi Hotel to take part in what essentially amounted to a "show trial" where central authorities in Beijing accused the Wuhan military establishment of supporting the wrong group in the preceding struggles in the city. Air Force Commander Wu Faxian, a Lin Biao loyalist, and security chief Xie Fuzhi accused Chen of a litany of crimes in front a large contingent of senior military and political leaders, many of whom, incredulous at the abuse being hurled on Chen, left in disgust during the meeting. Chen was also beaten by security personnel during the session. Chen and Zhong were then summarily dismissed and replaced with figures more loyal to the Cultural Revolution-friendly central leadership. The Wuhan event was branded as a "counter-revolutionary incident". [Source: Wikipedia

Following the incident, Jiang Qing, in a speech to Red Guard organizations in Henan province, introduced the idea of "use words to attack but use arms to defend" (i.e. wen-gong wu-wei). The incendiary remarks were taken by rebel organizations around the country as an endorsement of armed struggle, and led to the escalation of violent factional clashes across the country. The ensuing violence, some of which were directed squarely at various local PLA units, led Mao and his radical supporters to dial back their support for armed rebellion, likely due to their fears of a more widespread PLA reprisal. In order to appease the PLA and calm nerves among senior military leaders, Wang Li was arrested in August 1967, then scapegoated as the main instigator of the factional violence in Wuhan and sent to prison.

The Wuhan incident was the most serious uprising against the Cultural Revolution political order until the 1976 Tiananmen Incident. It is generally characterized by historians as an uprising of the Wuhan military establishment and a broad section of Wuhan society against the Cultural Revolution leadership. Indeed, Mao himself had been warned about the possibility of a 'coup' by Chen Zaidao in response to the verdict on the Wuhan Military Region, though in reality such a coup never materialized.

Battles Between the Red Guards

Violence and death caused during the Cultural Revolution is now believed to have been more widespread than previously thought. Scholars originally thought that most of the violence ended with the suppression of the Red Guard and rebel organizations in 1968. Austin Ramzy wrote in the New York Times: Red Guards targeted the authorities on campuses, then party officials and “class enemies” in society at large. They carried out mass killings in Beijing and other cities as the violence swept across the country. They also battled one another, sometimes with heavy weapons, such as in the city of Chongqing. The military joined the conflict, adding to the factional violence and killing of civilians. The pogroms even included cannibalization of victims in the southern region of Guangxi. [Source: Austin Ramzy, New York Times, May 14, 2016

During one phase of the Cultural Revolution factory fought factory, school fought school and Red Guard factions fought each other over the honor of being the purest Maoists. One man in northeast China---who was 13 when he joined the Red Guards and said that "for a teenager" the Cultural Revolution "was very exciting”— described Red Guard factional fighting that began as a clash over ideals, escalated to struggle for local power, and ended up as a "revenge fest." "In the beginning, the two sides used sticks and clubs and spears," he told the Washington Post. "But then they grabbed hunting rifles, and it kept escalating. Our organization even used artillery." [Source: Daniel Southerland, Washington Post, July 18, 1994]

The worst clashes took place in the Sichuan, Province where rival groups of Red Guards fought "house to house street battles" with guns, rockets and tanks looted from the People's Liberation Army. Chengdu was where the first Red Guard clashes of the Cultural Revolution began, first around a cotton mill and then at a fighter-plane factory. In May 1967, conservative and radical factions in Chengdu, a center for defense industries, battled with automatic rifles, mortars recoilless rifles and rocket propelled grenade launchers. One side obtained weapons from local militias and People's Liberation Army units. in the summer of 1967, PLA troops shot dead a many as a thousand Red Guards members who protested the arrest of a faction leader. [Source: Daniel Southerland, Washington Post, July 18, 1994]

Scholars now believe that two little-known and little-studied campaigns of the Cultural Revolution---the "Purification of the Class Ranks" (1968-70) and the campaign against "May 16 Elements" (1968-69)---were among the bloodiest events of the Cultural Revolution. May Sixteenth elements were named after the so-called May Sixteenth Army Corps, an ultra-left Red Guards unit in Beijing, who targeted Zhou Enlai with the backing of Jiang Qing. The name came from a May 16, 1966 notice. Mao was concerned by the group’s radicalism and in late 1967 outlawed it on conspiracy and anarchism charges, followed by the arrest of mant of its leaders and sympathizers but not Jiang Qing. A nationwide campaign was later launched to liquidate "May Sixteenth Elements", which created more chaos and anarchy than it solved as many innocent people were accused of being "May Sixteenth elements" and ruthlessly persecuted. According to one source, in the province of Jiangsu alone, more than 130,000 "May Sixteenth elements" were "ferreted out" and more than 6000 either died or suffered permanent injuries. [Source: Wikipedia]

Image Sources: Posters, Landsberger Posters http://www.iisg.nl/~landsberger/; photos, Ohio State University; Wiki Commons; History in Pictures blog; Everyday Life in Maoist China.org everydaylifeinmaoistchina.org

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 August 2021


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