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According to some estimates 400,000 were killed in the Cultural Revolutions. Others say the true death toll is in the millions. Barbara Demick wrote in The Atlantic: “An estimated 1.5 million people were killed during the Cultural Revolution. The death toll pales in comparison to that of the Great Leap Forward, but in some ways it was worse: When people consumed human flesh during the Cultural Revolution, they were motivated by cruelty, not starvation. Stepping back from the grim details to situate the upheaval in China’s broader history, Yang sees an inexorable dynamic at work. “Anarchism endures because the state machine produces class oppression and bureaucratic privilege,” he writes. “The state machinery is indispensable because people dread the destructive power of anarchism. The process of the Cultural Revolution was one of repeated struggle between anarchism and state power. [Source: Barbara Demick, The Atlantic, November 16, 2020] ’’

According to Song Yongyi's, "Chronology of Mass Killings during the Chinese Cultural Revolution: The total number of victims of the Cultural Revolution and especially the death toll of mass killings still remain a mystery both in China and overseas. For the Chinese communist government, it is a highly classified ‘state secret,” although they do maintain statistics for the so-called “abnormal death” numbers all over China. The Communist Party has consistently discounted the significance of looking back and reflecting on this important period of Chinese history. They even forbid Chinese scholars from studying it independently and discourage overseas scholars from undertaking research on this subject in China. [Source: Song Yongyi, Chronology of Mass Killings during the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, published on 25 August 2011]

Song Yongyi is a research librarian at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. He was detained in China in August 2000 while collecting documents on the Cultural Revolution. Such materials are widely available in markets and curio shops] Owing to difficulties that scholars in and outside China encounter in accessing ‘state secrets,” the exact figure of the “abnormal death” has become a recurring debate in the field of China studies. Estimates by various scholars range from one-half to eight million. According to R.J. Rummel’s 1991 analysis of, the figure should be around 7.73 million. In the following year, however, Harvard scholar John K. Fairbank arrived at a rough estimate of around one million. Several years later, Ding Shu, an overseas Chinese scholar, disagreed with Rummel’s conclusion by using diverse analyses, and estimated the figure to be around two to three million. Recently, Andrew Walder and Su Yang contributed a much more detailed analysis of the death toll in China’s rural areas based upon statistics drawn from 1,500 Chinese county annals. In their estimate, “the number killed [was] between 750,000 and 1.5 million, with roughly equal numbers permanently injured”.

In the biography of Mao Zedong by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, the estimated totality of death is discussed: “at least 3 million people died violent deaths and post-Mao leaders acknowledged that 100 million people, one-ninth of the entire population, suffered in one way or another.” Interestingly, the reporter of a Hong Kong-based political journal released the classified official statistics, according to which nearly two million Chinese were killed and another 125 million were either persecuted or “struggled against” (“subjected to “struggle sessions”) as a result of the state-sponsored killings and atrocities committed during the Cultural Revolution. The average death toll based on the aforementioned six investigators’ figures is nearly 2.95 million. Considering that the Cultural Revolution took place in China during a period when it was not invaded by other states, the number of victims estimated above is extremely high.The widespread phenomenon of mass killings in the Cultural Revolution consisted of five types: 1) mass terror or mass dictatorship encouraged by the government — victims were humiliated and then killed by mobs or forced to commit suicide on streets or other public places; 2) direct killing of unarmed civilians by armed forces; 3) pogroms against traditional “class enemies” by government-led perpetrators such as local security officers, militias and mass; 4) killings as part of political witch-hunts (a huge number of suspects of alleged conspiratorial groups were tortured to death during investigations); and 5) summary execution of captives, that is, disarmed prisoners from factional armed conflicts. The most frequent forms of massacres were the first four types, which were all state-sponsored killings. The degree of brutality in the mass killings of the Cultural Revolution was very high. Usually, the victims perished only after first being humiliated, struggled and then imprisoned for a long period of time.

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 Death Under Mao: Uncounted Millions, Washington Post article ; Death Tolls ;

“The Red Terror” (August-December 1966)

The very beginning of the Cultural Revolution in China immediately led to violent mass chaos in June 1966. As indicated by a militant editorial on June 1 in the People’s Daily, an official guideline for the Cultural Revolution, the main purpose of this unprecedented political campaign was to ‘sweep Away All Cow-Demons and Snake-Spirits,” which not only included traditional class enemies such as the “Five Black Categories” (landlords, rich peasants, counter-revolutionaries, bad elements, and rightists), but also “capitalist-roaders in the Party” (cadres) and “reactionary academics” (teachers and other intellectuals).

Mao’s strategy for the Cultural Revolution included using forces both within and outside the Party to defeat his rivals in the Party and to bolster his own primacy, all in a manner inseparably linked to his political idealism. Mao and the Party Central stirred up the passions of thousands of rebellious youth in Beijing middle schools and colleges, where students began to establish Red Guards to challenge and attack school authority and teachers. During the short period of June- July 1966, mass violence spread over campuses, where teachers and other educators were abusively subjected to ‘struggle sessions,” humiliated, and beaten by fervent students. Despite the fact that the Chinese government had received urgent requests to curtail the wave of violence that was unfolding every day, Mao and the Party Central did not want to address the issue, as they “appeared to view it as a necessary feature of rebellion, and the suffering of victims as acceptable collateral damage.”

On July 28, 1966, Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife and a key figure of the Central Cultural Revolution Group, conveyed Mao’s instruction regarding mass violence at a students’ rally: “If good people beat bad people, it serves them right; if bad people beat good people, the good people achieve glory; if good people beat good people, it is a misunderstanding; without beatings, you do not get acquainted and then no longer need to beat them.” In other words, Mao thought the government “should turn a blind eye to violence as an inevitable by-product” of the Red Guard mobilization. In August, the main target of the Red Guards’ agitation shifted from campuses to the society at large. Xie Fuzhi, the Minister of Public Security, mirrored Mao’s attitude. In an important internal meeting, he directed all police stations and other security forces to assist Red Guards in identifying “reactionary” households for searching, beating and deportations.

On August 22, at the climax of the mass terror in Beijing and other major cities, the CCP CC issued a directive entitled ‘stipulations of the Ministry of Public Security forbidding the use of police force to suppress the revolutionary student movements,” which fueled the violence and put the targets of the Red Guards, several thousand people, in a virtually defenseless position. As a result, a significantly increased mass violence was perpetrated against those residents with “bad” family backgrounds: their houses were searched, their personal properties confiscated and then the entire households were expelled from the city to the countryside. A mob of thousands of Red Guards also roamed the cities’ streets and attacked any person whom they believed to have hobbies and consumer habits associated with the bourgeois class; the targeted individuals were then subjected to violent ‘struggle sessions.” When the waves of unrestricted violence swept over major cities all over China, ruthless mass killings ensued.

Violent Events During “The Red Terror” in Beijing (August-December 1966)

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1966; August 5 : Ms. Bian Zhongyun, the deputy principal of the Beijing Normal University Female Middle School, along with four other school educators, was attacked by the Red Guards on groundless charges. Bian died after several hours of humiliating treatment and brutal beating. This was the first case of the killing of educators in China by the Red Guards and other militant students. Many more cases followed, and the brutality escalated rapidly. Thousands of educators were publicly denounced and physically abused in “struggle sessions” by the rampaging students in Beijing’s secondary schools and universities. This includes 20 documented cases of killings y the Red Guards. The mass violence soon spread off campus, as the Red Guards beat seven residents of the same middle school to death in the city’s neighborhoods. In the District where this school was located, 333 residents were killed by the Red Guards at middle schools in August 1966 alone.

1966; August 18-September 30: Spurred by the remarks of Mao Zedong and Lin Biao at the Mass Rally of August 18 on Tiananmen Square, in which the high-school militants were praised as “national models” and openly called on to “be valiant,” another major outburst of violence occurred in Beijing. As a result, 114,000 homes were invaded and ransacked, and foreign currency, gold, and other valuables worth 44.8 million Chinese yuans (dollars) were confiscated. The Red Guards burned 2.3 million books and 3.3 million paintings, art objects, and pieces of furniture. Furthermore, 4,922 of the 6,843 officially designated “places of cultural or historical interest” in Beijing were destroyed. With the help of the city’s public security officers, the Red Guards expelled 77,000 people (1.7 percent of the population of Beijing) from their homes in the urban district to the remote countryside. The mass killing crested during the last week of August, when an average of more than 200 people perished every day. The official death toll in Beijing for the month after August 18 was 1,772.

1966; August 26 - September 1: Mass killings of “class enemies” in the urban area of the capital were repeated in the form of a more severe pogrom in both Daxing County on the southern outskirts of Beijing, and in Changping County north of the city. A speech by Xie Fuzhi, the Minister of Public Security, to the municipal public security meeting was interpreted by the leaders of the County Bureau of Daxing Public Security as the qualified sanctioning of mass violence against “class enemies.” Soon afterwards, a call for immediate extermination of all “class enemies” was initiated and organized by the commune level leaders and released to all lower levels of authority on August 26. The brutal butchery was executed by local militiamen and the Party activists. In total, in all 13 communes and 48 production brigades of the County, 325 “class enemies” and their family members were killed; 22 households were wiped out entirely. Among those victims, the oldest was 80 years of age, and the youngest only 32 days. This was the first pogrom in rural areas in the Cultural Revolution.

Image Sources: Photos: Everyday Life in Maoist, Wikicommons, History in Pictures blog, Ohio State University, YouTube

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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