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China - The Cultural Revolution

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The Cultural Revolution was a period of great political and social turmoil within 20th Century China. Essentially it was an internal coup staged by a political clique surrounding Communist Party Chairman Mao Tse-Tung1. They wrested power from the government by establishing a rival power base. This they achieved by encouraging and manipulating the young Chinese intelligentsia into overthrowing established authorities. All aspects of Chinese life were affected in the process; government, economic and family. The upheavals took a great personal toll on countless individuals.


Until the early 20th Century, China had been ruled for more than 2,000 years by a succession of emperors who were accorded god-like status. At times their rule was nominal rather than absolute. In the latter half of the 19th-Century economic de-stabilisation by colonial powers, notably Britain and the US, led to the disintegration of China into a patchwork of feuding territories presided over by warlords. In 1912, a revolutionary movement led by Sun Yat-Sen deposed the Emperor Pu Yi and established a republic. A period of civil war followed between the Communists, led by Mao, and the nationalist Kuonmintang, led by Chiang Kai-Shek. Following a brutal period, which also saw the occupation of parts of Northern China by Japan, the Communists finally succeeded in taking power over a united China and established a People's Republic in 1949.

After such a period of turmoil, China was naturally in disarray and many were suffering from extreme deprivation. The Communists undoubtedly did much to alleviate hardship in their early years, and in doing so won the loyalty of the Chinese population. They established the 'Iron Rice Bowl' system. All industry was put under party control. All citizens belonged to work units who were responsible for all aspects of their life; housing, allocations of food and clothing, education, medical care - even deciding who could marry. In return workers were guaranteed a secure job and future.

But this was not enough for Mao. There were tensions and rivalries with the other great Communist nation, the Soviet Union. Mao wished to build China into a beacon of modernist modernity and embarked upon a programme of radical industrial reform. His 'Great Leap Forward' was intended to bring about a four-fold increase in annual steel production. But the 'Great Helmsman' Mao was a better general than industrialist. The populace was mobilised to produce steel by any means available - even attempting to smelt ore on their stoves at home. The country was denuded of firewood and agriculture was neglected as efforts were diverted towards this quixotic2 endeavour. Food production plummeted - a fact which went ignored as farmers tried to curry favour with local party officials by declaring ludicrously inflated harvest yields. China was plunged into a desperate famine in the 'Three Bitter Years' between 1959 and 1961. Twenty million died. Mao commented, 'I see no famine'.

Following this disaster, Mao's power within the party waned. Other factions inside the Communist Party, led by Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, decided that Mao should be stripped of his executive power, retaining him merely as a figurehead, the Communist Party Chairman. Liu became President.

Mao Tse-Tung Thought: The Doctrine of a Revolution

It is worthwhile giving some attention to Mao's political thinking. Not only did conflicts between Maoism - officially known in China as 'Mao Tse-Tung Thought' - and other brands of Marxism-Leninism (both within the Chinese Communist Party and external to China) give rise to conflict, but also certain Maoist principles governed the nature of the revolution.

Mao developed his philosophy during the civil war which led to the establishment of the People's Revolution. As such, it had an integral military component which placed great emphasis on Party discipline. In common with mainstream Marxism-Leninism, the workers and peasantry were regarded as the source of revolution, enlightened and guided by a political elite. China was a rural country, and the support of the peasantry was vital to sustain Mao's People's Army within the countryside.

During the revolutionary struggle, much emphasis was placed on the constant development and improvement of guerrilla tactics. 'Self criticism' was established as an important military and political tool to enable cadres3 to learn from their mistakes4. Following the establishment of the People's Republic, this technique was continued within the party as it learnt how to reform and govern a shattered country.

Maoism also borrowed from Stalin. In the Soviet Union (initially an ally of China), Stalin placed great emphasis on the subservience of the economy, industry and the people to an authoritarian Party leadership, kept in place by strict measures of control. Stalin and Mao also took the orthodox view that industrialisation and state ownership would inevitably transform society into the communist ideal. Where Mao differed slightly was that he additionally emphasised the need for personal transformation of thought towards Party and peasant ideals5.

'Mao Tse-Tung Thought' set the stage for the Cultural Revolution. The emphasis on rapid industrialisation led to the disaster of the Great Leap Forward and to misgivings within the party. Stalin's death and Kruschev's reforms engendered a paranoia and fear of deviating from the one true path. The combination of Party discipline, the mechanism of self-criticism and a belief that one's own thoughts must be brought within party lines provided the motor that would drive the revolution. It is debatable whether the Cultural Revolution arose from a sincere political philosophy - or whether Mao and his clique developed the philosophy to support their ambitions. Either way, Mao must bear the historical and moral responsibility for what occurred.

The Cultural Revolution Dawns

Jealous of his successors, Mao and his coterie launched a comeback. They were in the delicate position of needing to retain Communist Party authority while overthrowing its hierarchy. Their manoeuvre was a brilliant flanking attack which, in effect, founded a parallel powerbase, outwith government control: a de facto coup which left the government nominally intact.

The initial causus belli which launched the cultural revolution was a play. Mao was fond of Chinese theatre. In early 1960, Beijing Deputy Mayor Wu Han published a historical drama, 'Hai Rui Dismissed From Office about a virtuous official who is dismissed by a corrupt emperor. While Mao initially praised the play, his wife Jiang Qing, herself a failed actress, and her protégé, Shanghai newspaper editor Yao Wenyuan, published an article decrying the play as 'poisonous weeds', claiming that it portrayed Mao himself as the corrupt emperor. Various recriminations and denunciations followed from Jiang's clique, who formed a 'Group of Five in Charge of Cultural Revolution'.

Meantime, Mao was also active. He formed the Social Education Movement to weed out 'reactionary' and 'bourgeois' elements from the Party. Within the central Party, he also began to openly attack Liu and Deng and formed an alliance with their rival, Lin Biao. A cult of personality was deliberately created around Mao, with declarations such as:

'Chairman Mao is a genius, everything the Chairman says is greatly true; one of the Chairman's words will override the meaning of ten thousands of ours'.

From within the party hierarchy, the children of officials were put to work in support of their beloved Chairman, rooting out the families of officials who were believed to be loyal to the status quo. In this they were aided by well-established party mechanisms for denunciation and 'self-criticism' which were already widely used to fuel petty jealousies and settle scores. In 1966, the first units of Red Guards were formed, teenage volunteers summoned by Mao to defend Chinese socialism from 'evil forces'.

The Red Guards Advance

The Red Guards provided Mao with a powerful vigilante force which could be turned at a whim against whoever was out of favour. The targets for attacks were those who would naturally see through Mao's folly and machinations; the established party officials, intellectuals... and teachers, who often suffered brutal, physical attacks. The teenagers of 1960s China became known as 'The Lost Generation'. In place of schooling, Red Guards were encouraged to travel long distances across China to places of pilgrimage associated with Mao, such as his birthplace, and especially to Beijing where they might hope to get a glimpse of their Chairman at one of the many mass parades and rallies in Tiananmen Square. The transport system was in chaos as it struggled to convey these pilgrims. Agricultural resources were diverted towards providing free meals at accommodation sites run by volunteers. In all towns and cities, crowds of frenzied youths could be seen, dressed in 'peasant like' garb of Peoples' Army cast-offs, holding aloft their Little Red Books6 in uniform postures as they yelled its slogans.

Red Guards were whipped up into a frenzy of zealotry and excess. If no intellectuals could be found to purge, they might turn on random households for carelessly discarding a copy of The Peoples' Daily showing Mao's picture, or on each other for not owning a second set of his complete works. Beatings were commonplace. Miscreants might be paraded naked through the town, made to kneel on broken glass or forced for several hours to adopt the 'jetliner' posture - kneeling and bent forward with the arms swept back. It was a time of intense suspicion and paranoia when every move was under scrutiny and positions might be reversed at any minute.

It was also a time of lawlessness and cultural destruction. The police lost all authority. Temples, mosques and churches were looted and destroyed, as were many of China's other glorious and ancient monuments and works of art. Even flowers were declared to be bourgeois. Gardens were destroyed and even grass; a typical Red Guard punishment involved pulling out lawns on one's hands and knees.

The Revolution Intensifies: "Imperialism and all reactionaries are paper tigers!"

By 1966, the Red Guards were the leading force in China. Mao was able to start purges against his political enemies, who were declared to be 'counterrevolutionaries' and 'capitalist roaders'. Liu Shaoqui was sent to a detention camp where he died of starvation. Deng Xiaping was sent to work in an engine factory. Countless officials and petty-officials were imprisoned or sent into forced labour. Many committed suicide or suffered mental breakdowns.

Then, in 1967, the heat was turned up a notch further. Lin Biao and Jiang Qing launched the 'January Storm', in which many prominent Shanghai municipal government leaders were heavily criticised and purged. Purges spread to other areas, and in Beijing rivalries began to show between competing political factions. Mao declared that the only way to avoid purge was to engage in some sort of 'political activity'.

Yet as the same time, splits developed amongst the Red Guards. Mao had created a monster which became increasingly difficult to direct or control. Fairly early on, the Guards had themselves distinguished between the 'loyalists' - children from good party families loyal to the established leadership of Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, and 'blacks' whose families were suspected of less than perfect political histories. As purges intensified, loyalties were further divided as 'radicals' emerged, loyal to Jiang Qing. With Jiang's endorsement, the rebels started to accept members from 'bad' backgrounds. But such was the anarchist fervour that the rebels themselves split into pro-Jiang and anti-Jiang factions, some of the latter even denouncing Mao as a 'red capitalist'.

The monster had to be tamed. In 1968, Mao instituted the 'Down to the Countryside' movement. For the next decade, young intellectuals would be dispersed into rural areas to gain 're-education' by working alongside peasants. This disruption to normal life essentially neutralised the possibility of an opposition emerging as the political classes were, in effect, sent into internal exile. Over this period, many intellectuals died from malnutrition, disease or from simple over-work. The Red Guards were disbanded in 1969.

The Rise and Fall of Lin Biao

As the disruption receded, Mao consolidated his power. Previously he had been held in check by premier Zhou Enlai. But now a Party Congress7 anointed Lin Biao as Mao's chosen successor. A new Politburo8 was formed, still with Zhou in a weaker position, but packed with and led by Mao loyalists, Lin Biao, Chen Boda, and Kang Sheng, all of whom had risen during the Cultural Revolution.

However, political tensions were still present. The post of President had been abolished with Liu Shaoqi's purge. A split emerged first between Lin, who aimed to make Mao president and himself Vice-President, and Chen, who Mao suspected of wanting the presidency for himself. As Mao denounced Chen, Lin was the clear winner. But Mao became suspicious of the ambitious Lin, who repeatedly asked for further promotion. He also feared for his safety, given that Lin as Vice-President would gain supreme power after the President's death.

Lin was angered by Mao's refusal to advance him. As his power waned, he decided to act by using his military power9 to stage a putsch against Mao. However, assassination attempts against Mao failed. Members of the coup were arrested or escaped to Hong Kong. On 13 September, 1971, Lin and his family were killed when, attempting to flee to the Soviet Union, their plane crashed in Mongolia.

The End of the Revolution: Down with The Gang of Four

By now, Mao's invincibility had been dented, and he was aging physically. Under Zhou Enlai's influence, Deng Xiaping was brought back from exile. A Maoist faction, later to be named 'The Gang of Four'10 led by Jiang Qing continued their machinations. Nevertheless, as Zhou Enlai became gravely ill, Deng was appointed in charge of daily government business as Zhou's deputy. A semblance of normality was maintained. With Mao out of the picture, rumours of his death occasionally surfaced, and these would be countered by filmed publicity stunts showing a vigorous Mao swimming the Yangtze-Kiang river.

In 1976, all was overturned. Premier Zhou Enlai died of bladder cancer on 8 January. His eulogy - a very important event for Communist Party members, amounting to an official political verdict - was delivered by Deng Xiaoping. Mao demoted Deng following criticism by the Gang of Four, but did not appoint one of their members to replace Zhou, preferring the relatively unknown Hua Guofeng. In the following months, protests emerged against the Gang of Four. On 5 April, two million people gathered in Beijing's Tiananmen Square and were dispersed on the Gang's orders11.

Then, on 9 September, 1976, Mao Tse-Tung died, possibly from Motor Neurone Disease. Before dying he was said to have written a message to Hua Guofeng saying 'With you in charge, I am at ease.' Although this was thought by some to mean that the inexperienced Hua would pose no barrier to the Gang of Four, nevertheless under the influence of Deng and the military leaders, the Gang was arrested. The Cultural Revolution was at an end.

Mao's legacy: '70% good, 30% bad'

Hua denounced the Gang of Four. Deng rose increasingly to power, becoming the prominent figure in Chinese government until the early 1990s and instituting many economic reforms. Nevertheless, the Communist Party recognised the importance of stability and unity. Mao had been the leading government figure, and to denigrate him would be to admit the Party's failure. Mao remains a revered figure, entombed in prominent position on Tiananmen Square. The official verdict on him remains that he was '70% good, 30% bad' - a phrase first used to describe The Great Leap Forward which killed twenty million for no significant gain.

Debate remains over whether Mao can be held entirely responsible for the full excesses of the Cultural Revolution, stoked as it was by other members of his coterie. However, the whole aim was to deliver supreme power to Mao in the face of rivalry and opposition. In the course of this, individual lives were adversely affected across the whole of Chinese society. The upheaval also stunted China's industrial and economic growth, and the mindsets of paranoia and rigid compliance it engendered continue to infect parts of the Chinese body politic. Perhaps the greatest legacy of the Cultural Revolution is as an object lesson in the political use of mass delusion and hysteria.

Further Reading

Wild Swans by Jung Chang, herself a former Red Guard, is a highly readable account which deals, in part, with the effects of the Cultural Revolution on individual lives.


Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse Tung: An English translation of The Little Red Book.

Morning Sun: A web archive providing a wealth of information on the origins and history of The Cultural Revolution.

Chinese Holocaust Memorial: Eyewitness accounts commemorating victims of The Cultural Revolution.

Maoist Art: Examples of propaganda artefacts from The Great Leap Forward and The Cultural Revolution.

1A note on spellings: There are two widely used spelling systems for rendering Chinese; Wade-Giles and pinyin (the latter now being the official method). In pinyin, 'Mao Tse-Tung' is rendered Mao Zedong. However, in many cases, well-known names will be unfamiliar to readers in one or other or even both systems. For convenience this entry has used common, if inaccurate, English versions.2Quixotic - Impractical, motivated by idealism that overlooked practical considerations.3Cadres - A group of professionals at the core of the military organisation.4This approach has been adopted by various revolutionaries since, most notably by Che Guevara.5The peasantry remained the political ideal: party members were encouraged to learn from them and would later be forcibly sent into the countryside to do so. In reality, the Chinese agricultural economy remained subservient to Party and industrial needs, with the bulk of rural production being sequestered for cities.6Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung - a vinyl-bound book about the size of a cigarette packet containing choice aphorisms from Mao. Mao's portrait near the front of the book was always carefully protected beneath a special insert of tissue paper. In excess of a billion copies were published - a total dwarfed only by The Bible and the Ikea catalogue.7Chinese Communist Party Congresses are held every five years. Nominally they are the venue at which party delegates determine policy, although in reality decisions are made in advance.8Essentially the cabinet. It is controlled centrally by a smaller Standing Committee.9Note that The People's Army was a distinct entity to the Red Guards. It had remained aloof during the upheavals, under control of Premier Zhou Enlai.10Jiang Qing, Yao Wenyuan, Zhang Chunqiao and Wang Honqwen.11This became known as 'the Qingming Tiananmen Square incident' (not to be confused with the Tiananmen Massacre of 4th-5th June, 1989).

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