Humiliation in Tibet

Christopher Bodeen of Associated Press wrote: “Veteran journalist Gao Yu, who was a university student in 1966. said her initial enthusiasm for the Cultural Revolution faded after fanatical young Red Guards raided her home and accused her father, a former ranking party cadre, of disloyalty to Mao. The violence of the era was impossible to avoid, she said. "I saw so many respected teachers in universities and high schools get beaten up," Gao said. "The movement wasn't so much a high-profile political struggle as a massive campaign against humanity." [Source: Christopher Bodeen, Associated Press, May 16, 2016]

According to Associated Press: Mao Zedong began the Cultural Revolution “by purging officials considered insufficiently loyal. Over its course longstanding party officials, intellectuals and teachers came under violent attack, while traditional Chinese thought and culture were condemned along with foreign influences. The violence largely abated in 1968 when the People's Liberation Army was brought in to impose order, but normal government functions were not restored until after Mao's death in September 1976. [Source: Associated Press, June 2, 2016]

Zhang Lifan, a businessman who previously worked as an academic researcher and still writes history, was a student at Tsinghua University High School. He told the New York Times: “Violence became widespread after August 18, 1966, and everywhere on the streets you could see people surrounded by crowds, bowed over and being beaten and struggled against. There were no standards. I saw a university student being beaten by a female Red Guard, and the people around told her to stop. And then this Red Guard said self-righteously, “Chairman Mao told me to beat him!” [Source: “Voices from China’s Cultural Revolution”, Chris Buckley, Didi Kirsten Tatlow, Jane Perlez and Amy Qin, New York Times, May 16, 2016 ~~]

“At Tsinghua High School I also saw students and teachers who were beaten up, or had their hair shaved off. At that time, all this was done by those who were “born red.” If you came from a bad family background, you didn’t qualify to join the Red Guards. ~~ My father was also beaten up by them, and he was covered in injuries, and they were afraid that if someone of his standing died that would be bad, so they sent him to Peking Union Medical College Hospital. But the hospital said they didn’t treat this kind of cow demon and snake spirit, so he wrote a note to Premier Zhou Enlai explaining that he’d been beaten up and the hospital wouldn’t treat him. Later he was taken into the emergency section for treatment, so it looks like Premier Zhou did send instructions.” Zhang Lifan’s father was Zhang Naiqi, a democratic politician who stayed in China after 1949 and was persecuted as a “Rightist” in 1957. He was again persecuted during the Cultural Revolution and died in a hospital in 1977. ~~

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 's multimedia report on the Cultural Revolution. Cultural Revolution posters 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 ; Communist Party History Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Illustrated History of Communist Party ; Posters Landsberger Communist China Posters ; People’s Republic of China: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; China Essay Series ; Everyday Life in Maoist; Mao Zedong Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Mao Internet Library ; Paul Noll Mao site ; Mao Quotations; ; New York Times

Books: “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).

Evolution of Violence During the Cultural Revolution


According to a commentary in “Mao urged youngsters to rebel against the authorities but counseled (via his wife) “attack with words and defend with force” (wengong wuwei). The Red Guards began their offensives with the so-called “big character posters” and mass debates. But all too quickly, these verbal battles degenerated into violent skirmishes, sometimes with weapons pilfered from militia organizations and even the military. Why did these ardent apostles of Mao so readily ignore his dictum? Because once you make yourself invulnerable with conviction and force, it’s hard to put up with disagreements and criticisms. And you don’t have to either—you can simply compel agreement, compliance, or acquiescence through force. And in the process you also get a kick out of the subjugation of another will and the attendant exultation of mastery. [Source:]

“The political campaigns that armed individual Chinese citizens with “the spiritual atom bomb of Mao Zedong Thought” and the license to violence only ended up rendering everyone vulnerable, breaking up families and communities by sowing apprehension, suspicion, mistrust and fear. As atomization took hold, institutions crumbled, society disintegrated, and the powers that be (Mao and his co-instigators of the Cultural Revolution) grew more autocratic.”

Hundreds of thousands of people were killed as the country fell into what Dikotter describes as civil war, with different Red Guard and People's Liberation Army (PLA) factions fighting each other, and millions more were displaced and traumatized as society broke down around them. [Source: James Griffiths, CNN, May 13, 2016 /^]

Murder Of Bian Zhongyun, Principal at a Prestigious Beijing School

Tristan Shaw wrote in Listverse: “One of the earliest victims of the Cultural Revolution was Bian Zhongyun, a 50-year-old vice principal at the prestigious Beijing Normal University Girls High School. In June 1966, some of the school’s students began to criticize school officials and organize revolutionary meetings. Bian’s college degree and bourgeois background made her a natural target for the revolutionaries, although many of them were ironically from privileged families themselves. Over the next two months, Bian was repeatedly harassed by her students and even beaten during a meeting. [Source: Tristan Shaw, Listverse, June 24, 2016 -]

“On August 4 of that summer, Bian was tortured and warned not to come to school the next day. But she decided to come in that morning anyway. It was a courageous decision that would cost Bian her life. First, her teenage students beat and kicked her. Then they whacked her with nailed-filled table legs. The attack was so terrible that Bian soiled herself and was knocked unconscious before dying of her wounds. Nobody was ever punished for her murder, and even today, the perpetrators have yet to step forward.-

“In January 2014, Song Binbin, a famous Red Guard and one of Bian’s students at the time she was killed, made a public apology for her death. Although Song claimed that she had no direct part in Bian’s beating, she felt guilty for not being able to stop it. Some critics, however, felt the apology was insincere and that Song had a larger role than she was willing to admit. Bian’s husband, Wang Jingyao, was also not impressed with the apology. In one interview, he said that Song was a “bad person,” although he believed that the Communist Party and Mao Tse-tung were also responsible.”

Red Guards Attacks on People

Karoline Kan wrote in Foreign Policy Magazine: Over time, Red Guards turned from attacking physical objects to attacking people. My uncle says he could feel the turn happening, but he could not stop it, or stop himself. Whenever the Red Guards and the “people’s militias” chanted slogans outside, the young children of my family would run out and see what was going on. Then one day, the chanting stopped outside a nearby house, home to a lady who was more than 60 years old. Her husband used to do business when they were young, so the woman became “old white hair,” a target. The Red Guards found a pair of golden earrings hidden behind some photos frames. The old woman was dragged out and beaten by wooden sticks as thick as arms. [Source: Karoline Kan, Foreign Policy Magazine, May 16, 2016 \=]

That same winter, my grandmother told me, a man surnamed Fu, one of the few landlords in the village, was found to have engaged in conduct before the founding of the People’s Republic of China that was “extremely guilty and evil.” So Red Guards dug a hole in the frozen river, tied Fu to a big stone, and pushed him into the hole. At first there was a cry and the sound of struggling in the water. Then everything was quiet except for the wind. \=\

“My great-grandfather, Lishui’s grandfather, was afraid for himself. Although he had already gambled away his property, it felt like hundreds of pairs of eyes were staring at his past: that of a young master, educated in Confucianism, who kept a concubine and was the village head during the nationalist Kuomingtang’s pre-Communist regime. He had negotiated with the occupying Japanese army when they passed through his village, giving them nice food and gifts in exchange for their mercy. \=\

“My mother once had a conversation with my great-grandfather. “They did not kill anyone when they lived in our village; isn’t that the result of my hard work?” she said he told her. “They killed so many people in our neighboring village. I don’t think I was wrong.” None of that mattered during the Cultural Revolution. My great-grandfather was forced to step on stage and accept criticism, wearing a “high hat,” which looked like a dunce cap, enumerating his crimes. Lishui worried about further retaliation against my grandfather, so Lishui visited his grandfather’s house to help him write self criticisms. \=\

“He was old and his eyes were diseased, so he told me his stories, and I wrote them down,” Lishui told me. “I also guided him to write what the Red Guards would like to hear. I remember a few lines: ‘I was born in 1899; at eight years old I started studying the Four Books and Five Classics taught by private teachers. I will reflect deeply and profoundly on my past.” But Lishui won’t blame Red Guards for his grandfather’s torment. “We were loyal, and we were following Chairman Mao’s guidelines,” Lishui said, “and what’s more important, we believed we were doing things that were good and meaningful.” He added that Chinese socialism was “facing great challenges from counterrevolutionists back then.” \=\

Violence by Red Guards

Red Guards ransack church

Yu Xiangzhen, a Red Guard, told CNN: “Our homeroom teacher Zhang Jilan was sent to the cowshed -- a makeshift prison for intellectuals and other "bourgeois elements" -- and suffered all kinds of humiliation and abuse. It wasn't until 1990 that I saw her again. During a class trip to the Great Wall, we made a formal apology to Ms. Zhang -- then in her 80s -- for what we had subjected her to. We asked what had happened to her in the cowshed. "It wasn't too bad," she said. "I was made to crawl like a dog on the ground." Hearing this, I burst into tears. I was not yet 14, and I had made her life a misery. She died two years after our apology. [Source: Yu Xiangzhen, CNN, May 16, 2016 ~~]

“At the height of the movement in 1968, people were publicly beaten to death every day during struggle sessions; others who had been persecuted threw themselves off tall buildings. Nobody was safe and the fear of being reported by others -- in many cases our closest friends and family members -- haunted us. At first, I was determined to be a good little revolutionary guard. But something bothered me. When I saw a student pour a bucket of rotten paste over our school principal in 1966, I sensed something wasn't right. I headed back to my dorm quietly, full of discomfort and guilt, thinking I wasn't revolutionary enough. ~~

“Later, when I was given a belt and told to whip an "enemy of the revolution", I ran away and was called a deserter by my fellow Red Guards. That same summer I caught a glimpse of Chairman Mao -- our Red Sun -- at Tiananmen Square, along with a million of other equally enthusiastic kids. I remember overwhelming feelings of joy. It wasn't until much later that I realized by blind idolization of Mao was a kind of worship even more fanatic than a cult. My father, a former war correspondent with state news agency Xinhua, was framed as a spy and denounced. But behind closed doors he warned my brother and I to "use our brains before taking action." "Don't do anything you will regret for the rest of your lives," he said. Slowly I began to Mao's wife Jiang Qing, who was a key leader of the Revolution, and I bowed grudgingly when my work unit had our mandatory daily worship ritual in front of the Chairman's image.” ~~

Targets of Red Guard Violence

Wu Qing, a human rights activist and retired professor, was teaching at a university in Beijing when the movement began. Her parents were prominent intellectuals. She told the New York Times: “I knew I would become a target because of my parents. My daddy served in the Kuomintang government and later was labeled a rightist. My mom had been labeled a reactionary writer, an unpunished rightist, and a running dog of the imperialists. [Source: “Voices from China’s Cultural Revolution”, Chris Buckley, Didi Kirsten Tatlow, Jane Perlez and Amy Qin, New York Times, May 16, 2016 ~~]

“But nothing happened to my parents until July or August 1966, when the Red Guards went to my home. My parents were forced to kneel on the ground for over three hours. At the time, my sister’s son was only a little over 2 months. The auntie was carrying him and she had to kneel down. It was feeding time, and they refused to let him be fed. They searched our home and took everything away. They were like robbers, they went in and took whatever they wanted. Then they locked the rooms. My parents stayed in a room smaller than 10 square meters. The students took away the cutting knives. They were afraid that my parents would commit suicide. ~~

“Then Minzu University held an exhibition. The Red Guards put all the things they had collected from the different families together and said they were all my parents’ stuff. They called it: “Exhibition of the Bourgeois Life of Wu Wenzao and Xie Bingxin.” There were pieces of gold, jade, silver and a lot of stuff. My parents had to stand outside of the exhibition every day for 10 days carrying a blackboard around their neck. ~~

“At the time, I was at my school. I couldn’t leave because there were struggle sessions against me. [Struggle sessions, when people were accused of political crimes, publicly humiliated and subject to verbal and physical abuse by a crowd, were a frequent occurrence during the Cultural Revolution] There were close to 80 in total. They said that because of my family background I could never love socialism and the Communist Party. The students couldn’t support me in public. But sometimes after the struggle sessions, they would come up to me when there was no one else around and apologize and say they were forced to do it. I never told my parents what happened to me. We never talked about it.” ~~

Cowsheds and Targets of Red Guard Violence

James Griffiths of CNN wrote: “ Party officials were by no means the only ones targeted by Red Guards and the newly empowered citizenry. Thousands of ordinary people — denounced as class enemies and counter revolutionaries — were abused, tortured and killed. Many were forced into "cowsheds” makeshift detention centers in which they were forced to perform manual labor and recite Maoist tracts and were regularly subject to beatings. "After a few months in the cowshed, I could feel my emotions being dulled and my thoughts growing more stupid by the day," writes Peking University professor Ji Xianlin in his memoir "The Cowshed.” [Source: James Griffiths, CNN, May 13, 2016 /^]


“His experiences during that time were a "dizzying descent into hell," Ji writes. But they were not uncommon. Ji and other, sometimes very elderly, professors and teachers were beaten, spat upon and tortured in rallies and criticism sessions that could last hours. In Daxing county, on the outskirts of Beijing, cadres ordered the extermination of all landlords and "other bad elements," Dikotter recounts. "Some were clubbed to death, others stabbed with chaff cutters or strangled with wire. Several were electrocuted. Children were hung by their feet and whipped.” More than 300 people were killed, with their bodies thrown into disused wells and mass graves./^\

“As the country plunged into chaos, Mao's fervor increased. "It's a game that Mao is playing," Dikotter says. "He incites students to attack teachers, then unleashes the population on the Party itself, then asks the army to step in, before you know it people are literally fighting each other.” According to Dikotter, Mao created a frenzied cycle "where people are endlessly trying to prove their allegiance to the Chairman.” /^\

In a review of “The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution” by Ji Xianlin, Zha Jianying wrote in the New York Review of Books: “At the center of the book is the cowshed, the popular term for makeshift detention centers that had sprung up in many Chinese cities at the time. This one was set up at the heart of the Peking University campus, where the author was locked up for nine months with throngs of other fallen professors and school officials, doing manual labor and reciting tracts of Mao’s writing. [Source: Zha Jianying, New York Review of Books, January 26, 2016 *]

“The inferno atmosphere of the place, the chilling variety of physical and psychological violence the guards daily inflicted on the convicts with sadistic pleasure, the starvation and human degeneration—all are vividly described. Indeed, of all the memoirs of the Cultural Revolution, I cannot think of another one that offers such a devastatingly direct and detailed testimony on the physical and mental abuse an entire imprisoned intellectual community suffered. After reading the book, a Chinese intellectual friend summed it up to me: “This is our Auschwitz.” *\

Confessions of Violence and Killing by a Red Guard

Adrian Brown of Al Jazeera wrote: “For many Chinese people, the Cultural Revolution remains a taboo subject, especially among those of 65 years of age or older. But occasionally - just occasionally - you come across someone who is prepared to confess to the very worst of crimes.For the past three decades Wang Yiju has run a successful riding school and stud farm outside Beijing. But it is his life in the previous two decades that he has agreed to discuss on this bright spring day. [Source: Adrian Brown, Al Jazeera, May 13, 2016]

In clinical dispassionate language he describes how he became sucked into the anarchy going on all around him. "At first we were reluctant to beat others, but someone would criticise us … Finally we loved to beat others. Killing became very common at the time when people treated fighting as fun. It was natural to kill people in such circumstances," said Wang.

On August 5, 1967, Wang became a killer. His victim was another student from a rival faction. "I beat the back of his head with a rod. The rod was thick and hard, very long about 1.6 meters long, similar to the handle of a big hoe … I beat his head and broke the back of his skull. The police later told me that one blow was enough to kill a person with such a rod and with my power." Wang was arrested, but later freed after the family of the dead student forgave him. He finally made a full apology in 2008 and is urging others who killed to confess.

"Few people will understand what the Cultural Revolution was if we all hold back the truth," said Wang. "I think the true nature of that time is made up of memories and stories of the participants who clearly know what happened. Someone has to tell the truth, or our generation will have failed. That is why I spoke out."

Red Guards Attack My Sister and Father

Red Gaurds in Beijing

Zehao Zhou wrote in USA Today: “Two enemies of the state lived under the same roof as me: my sister and my father. My sister’s crime was being a school principal, which qualified her as a “capitalist roader.” My father’s crime was his experience as a World War II veteran who served with the Flying Tigers in China, which qualified him as a “historical counterrevolutionary.” [Source: Zehao Zhou, USA Today Network, May 14, 2016]

My sister initially went into hiding, only to return to Shanghai on a day slated as a citywide "humiliation parade" for school principals. The Red Guards herded my sister, who was disabled, and hundreds of other school principals for miles on foot in downtown Shanghai. No evidence was necessary. Educators deserved the iron fists of the Red Guards and proletarian dictatorship, according to the Red Guards. Zehao Zhou of Manchester Township, Pa., is an assistant

My father’s wartime service with the Americans made him an easy target for Red Guards. Yet, despite being gravely ill and defenseless, he somehow managed to turn aside the assault. As the Red Guards approached his sick bed, my father said in a calm voice, “I am sick with tuberculosis. It is contagious.” Hearing that, the Red Guards, who recited “Fear neither hardship nor death” from Mao’s Little Red Book every day, turned tail and fled. While Dad dodged that assault, the cumulative effect of years of persecution caught up with him. He died shortly after that at age 49, and we were not even allowed to mourn this “enemy of the state.”

Reigning in the Violence During the Cultural Revolution

Yiching Wu told the Los Angeles Review of Books: “The disorder caused by mass insurgencies from below and paralyzing power conflicts at the top created a crisis. The nation was on the brink of anarchy. For example, some young radicals, invoking the historical example of the Paris Commune, claimed that China’s “bureaucratic bourgeoisie” would have to be toppled in order to establish a society in which the people can self-govern. Mao decided the crisis would have to be resolved. Quashing the restless rebels, the revolution cannibalized its own children and exhausted its once explosive energy. The demobilization of freewheeling mass politics in the late 1960s helped to restore the authority of the party-state, but also became the starting point for a series of crisis-coping maneuvers which eventually led to the historic changes in Chinese society and economy a decade later. [Source: “Conversation with Denise Ho, Fabio Lanza, Yiching Wu, and Daniel Leese on the Cultural Revolution” by Alexander C. Cook, Los Angeles Review of Books, March 2, 2016]

Christopher Bodeen of Associated Press wrote: “Rising violence later compelled party leaders to send in the People's Liberation Army to reassert control as many government functions were suspended and long-standing party leaders sent to work in farms and factories or detained in makeshift jails. To put a stop to the violence and chaos, millions of students were dispatched to the countryside to live and work with the peasantry, among them current President Xi Jinping, who lived in a cave dwelling for several years in his family's ancestral province of Sha'anxi. [Source: Christopher Bodeen, Associated Press, May 16, 2016 =]

“Much of the country was on a wartime footing during the period, with Mao growing increasingly feeble and tense relations with former ally the Soviet Union breaking out into border clashes. Radicals allied with the so-called "Gang of Four," consisting of Mao's wife Jiang Qing and her confederates, battled with those representing the party's old guard, who were desperate to end the chaos in the economy, schools and government institutions.” =

Image Sources: Poster, Landsberger Posters photos: Everyday Life in Maoist , Ohio State University ; Wiki Commons, History in Pictures ; YouTube; Rong Guotuan: China Daily; Bian: CNN; Deng Pufang: China Digital Times.

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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