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Cultural Revolution

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, commonly known as the Cultural Revolution (), was a socio-political movement that took place in the People's Republic of China from 1966 through 1976. Set into motion by Mao Zedong, then Chairman of the Communist Party of China, its stated goal was to enforce socialism in the country by removing capitalist, traditional and cultural elements from Chinese society, and to impose Maoist orthodoxy within the Party. The revolution marked the return of Mao Zedong to a position of absolute power after the failed Great Leap Forward. The movement politically paralyzed the country and significantly affected the country economically and socially.

The Revolution was launched in May 1966. Mao alleged that bourgeois elements were entering the government and society at large, aiming to restore capitalism. He insisted that these "revisionists" be removed through violent class struggle. China's youth responded to Mao's appeal by forming Red Guard groups around the country. The movement spread into the military, urban workers, and the Communist Party leadership itself. It resulted in widespread factional struggles in all walks of life. In the top leadership, it led to a mass purge of senior officials who were accused of deviating from the socialist path, most notably Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. During the same period Mao's personality cult grew to immense proportions.

Millions of people were persecuted in the violent factional struggles that ensued across the country, and suffered a wide range of abuses including torture, rape, imprisonment, sustained harassment, and seizure of property. A large segment of the population was forcibly displaced, most notably the transfer of urban youth to rural regions during the Down to the Countryside Movement. Historical relics and artifacts were destroyed. Cultural and religious sites were ransacked.

Mao officially declared the Cultural Revolution to have ended in 1969, but its active phase lasted until the death of the military leader Lin Biao in 1971. The political instability between 1971 and the arrest of the Gang of Four in 1976 is now also widely regarded as part of the Revolution. After Mao's death in 1976, reformers led by Deng Xiaoping gained prominence. Most of the Maoist reforms associated with the Cultural Revolution were abandoned by 1978. The Cultural Revolution has been treated officially as a negative phenomenon ever since.



Great Leap Forward

In 1958, after China's first Five-Year Plan, Mao called for "grassroots socialism" in order to accelerate his plans for turning China into a modern industrialized state. In this spirit, Mao launched the Great Leap Forward, established People's Communes in the countryside, and began the mass mobilization of the people into collectives. Many communities were assigned production of a single commodity steel. Mao vowed to increase agricultural production to twice 1957 levels.[1]

The Great Leap was an economic failure. Uneducated farmers attempted to produce steel on a massive scale, partially relying on backyard furnaces to achieve the production targets set by local cadres. The steel produced was low quality and largely useless. The Great Leap reduced harvest sizes and led to a decline in the production of most goods except substandard pig iron and steel. Furthermore, local authorities frequently exaggerated production numbers, hiding and intensifying the problem for several years.[2][3] In the meantime, chaos in the collectives, bad weather, and exports of food necessary to secure hard currency resulted in the Great Chinese Famine. Food was in desperate shortage, and production fell dramatically. The famine caused the deaths of millions of people, particularly in poorer inland regions.[4]

The Great Leap's failure reduced Mao's prestige within the Party. Forced to take major responsibility, in 1959, Mao resigned as the State Chairman, China's head of state, and was succeeded by Liu Shaoqi. In July, senior Party leaders convened at the scenic Mount Lu to discuss policy. At the conference, Marshal Peng Dehuai, the Minister of Defence, criticized Great-Leap policies in a private letter to Mao, writing that it was plagued by mismanagement and cautioning against elevating political dogma over the laws of economics.[2] Despite the moderate tone of Peng's letter, Mao took it as a personal attack against his leadership.[5] Following the Conference, Mao had Peng removed from his posts, and accused him of being a "right-opportunist". Peng was replaced by Lin Biao, another revolutionary army general who became a more staunch Mao supporter later in his career. While the Lushan Conference served as a death knell for Peng, Mao's most vocal critic, it led to a shift of power to moderates led by Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, who took effective control of the economy following 1959.[2]

By the early 1960s, many of the Great Leap's economic policies were reversed by initiatives spearheaded by Liu, Deng, and Zhou Enlai. This moderate group of pragmatists were unenthusiastic about Mao's utopian visions. Owing to his loss of esteem within the party, Mao developed a decadent and eccentric lifestyle.[6] By 1962, while Zhou, Liu and Deng managed affairs of state and the economy, Mao had effectively withdrawn from economic decision-making, and focused much of his time on further contemplating his contributions to Marxist-Leninist social theory, including the idea of "continuous revolution".[7] This theory's ultimate aim was to set the stage for Mao to restore his brand of Communism and his personal prestige within the Party.

Sino-Soviet Split and anti-revisionism

In the early 1950s, the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union were the two largest Communist states in the world. While they had initially been mutually supportive, issues arose following the ascendancy of Nikita Khrushchev to power in the Soviet Union after the death of Joseph Stalin. In 1956, Khrushchev denounced both Stalin and his policies and subsequently set about implementing post-Stalinist economic reforms. Mao and many members of the Chinese Communist Party were opposed to these changes, believing that it would have negative repercussions for the worldwide Marxist movement, among whom Stalin was still viewed as a hero.[8] Mao believed that Khrushchev was not adhering to Marxism-Leninism, but was instead a revisionist, altering his policies from basic Marxist concepts, something Mao feared would allow capitalists to eventually regain control of the country. Relations between the two governments subsequently soured, with the Soviets refusing to support China's case for joining the United Nations and going back on their pledge to supply China with a nuclear weapon.[8]

Mao went on to publicly denounce revisionism in April 1960. Without pointing fingers at the Soviet Union, Mao criticized their ideological ally, the League of Communists of Yugoslavia, while the Soviets returned the favour by proxy via criticizing the Party of Labour of Albania, a Chinese ally.[9] In 1963, the Chinese Communist Party began to openly denounce the Soviet Union, publishing a series of nine polemics against its Marxist revisionism, with one of them being titled On Khrushchev's Phoney Communism and Historical Lessons for the World, in which Mao charged that Khrushchev was not only a revisionist but also increased the danger of capitalist restoration.[9] Khrushchev's downfall from an internal coup d' tat in 1964 also contributed to Mao's fears of political vulnerability, particularly because of his dwindling prestige amongst his colleagues following the Great Leap Forward.[9]


General Luo Ruiqing was one of the senior Party members purged from his post prior to the Cultural Revolution. Mao set the scene for the Cultural Revolution by "cleansing" powerful officials of questionable loyalty who were based in Beijing. His approach was less than transparent, achieving this purge through newspaper articles, internal meetings, and skillfully employing his network of political allies.

In late 1959, historian and Beijing Deputy Mayor Wu Han published a historical drama entitled Hai Rui Dismissed from Office. In the play, an honest civil servant, Hai Rui, is dismissed by a corrupt emperor. While Mao initially praised the play, in February 1965 he secretly commissioned his wife Jiang Qing and Shanghai propagandist Yao Wenyuan to publish an article criticizing it. Yao boldly alleged that Hai Rui was really an allegory attacking Mao; that is, Mao was the corrupt emperor and Peng Dehuai was the honest civil servant.

Beijing Mayor Peng Zhen,[10] a powerful official and Wu Han's direct superior, spearheaded a committee to refute Yao's claims. Yao's article was initially syndicated by several municipal dailies. Peng Zhen, aware that he would be implicated if it were established that Wu wrote an "anti-Mao" play, forbid Yao's article from being published on the nationally distributed People's Daily.[11] In November, Premier Zhou Enlai urged Peng Zhen to publish the article nationally to avoid contradicting Mao's wishes. Peng Zhen refused, instructing newspapers under his control to focus exclusively on "academic discussion", not politics.[12] While the "literary battle" against Peng raged, Mao fired Yang Shangkun, director of the Party's General Office, an organ that controlled internal communications, installing in his stead staunch loyalist Wang Dongxing, head of Mao's security detail. Yang was accused of "bugging Mao's office" among a series of other unsubstantiated charges.[12]

Yang's dismissal likely emboldened Mao's allies to move against their factional rivals.[12] In December, Defence Minister and Mao loyalist Lin Biao accused General Luo Ruiqing, the chief of staff of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), of being anti-Mao, alleging that Luo put too much emphasis on military training rather than Maoist "political discussion". In December, Mao called an enlarged Politburo meeting to discuss the charges against Luo. While the Politburo initially received the charges with skepticism, Mao pushed for an investigation into Luo's conduct, after which Luo was denounced, dismissed, and forced to deliver a self-criticism. Stress from the events led Luo to attempt suicide.[13] Luo's removal solidified Lin's leadership in the PLA, securing the military command's loyalty to Mao.

Having ousted Luo and Yang, Mao reverted his attention to Peng Zhen. On February 12, 1966, Peng Zhen's committee, the "Five Man Group", issued a report known as the February Outline (, ryu T g ng). The Outline, sanctioned by the Party centre, defined Hai Rui as healthy "academic discussion", and aimed to formally distance Peng Zhen from any political implications. However, Jiang Qing and Yao Wenyuan continued their denunciation of Wu Han and Peng Zhen. Meanwhile, Mao targeted Propaganda Department director Lu Dingyi, an ally of Peng Zhen who had occasionally made skeptical remarks about Mao Zedong Thought. Lu's removal gave Maoists unrestricted access to the press. Mao delivered his final blow to Peng Zhen by proxy through hardline supporters Kang Sheng and Chen Boda in May. At an enlarged Politburo session in Beijing, Kang and Chen accused Peng Zhen of opposing Mao, labeled the February Outline "evidence of Peng Zhen's revisionism", and grouped him with three other disgraced officials as part of the "Peng-Luo-Lu-Yang Anti-Party Clique".[14] The decisions were made with the support of Zhou Enlai and Liu Shaoqi; Zhou called it a "great victory for Mao Zedong Thought". On May 16, the Politburo formalized the decisions by releasing a party-wide notification, condemning Peng Zhen and his "anti-party allies" in the strongest terms, disbanding his "Five Man Group", and replacing it with the Maoist Cultural Revolution Group (CRG).[15]

Early Stage: Mass Movement

The May 16 Notification

In early 1966, the Politburo issued six Central Documents regarding the dismissal of Peng, Luo, Lu and Yang in which they declared that the "Great Cultural Revolution" had been launched. One of these documents, released on May 16, was prepared with Mao's personal supervision and particularly damning:[16]

Those representatives of the bourgeoisie who have sneaked into the Party, the government, the army, and various spheres of culture are a bunch of counter-revolutionary revisionists. Once conditions are ripe, they will seize political power and turn the dictatorship of the proletariat into a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Some of them we have already seen through; others we have not. Some are still trusted by us and are being trained as our successors, persons like Khruschev for example, who are still nestling beside us. Party committees at all levels must pay full attention to this matter.[17]

This text, known as the "May 16 Notification," summarized Mao's ideological justification of the Cultural Revolution.[18] Effectively it implied that there are enemies of the Communist cause within the Party itself: class enemies who "wave the red flag to oppose the red flag."[19] The only way to identify these people was through "the telescope and microscope of Mao Zedong Thought."[19] The party leadership was relatively united in approving the general direction of Mao's agenda, but the Notification and charges against esteemed party leaders like Peng Zhen rang alarm bells in China's intellectual community and among the eight non-Communist parties.[20]

Early mass rallies

On May 25, a young philosophy lecturer at Peking University, Nie Yuanzi, wrote a big-character poster and taped it onto a public bulletin. Nie attacked the university party administration and cadres from Beijing party authorities as "black anti-Party gangsters," implying that there were forces at work in government and at the university who wished to betray the progress of the revolution. Several days later, Mao ordered Nie's message to be broadcast nationwide and called it "the first Marxist big-character poster in China." On May 29, at the High School attached to Tsinghua University, the first organization of Red Guards was formed with the aim of punishing and neutralising both intellectuals and Mao's political enemies.

On June 1, 1966, the People's Daily launched an attack on "reactionary" forces in the intellectual community. Subsequently, various university presidents and other prominent intellectuals were purged. On July 28, 1966, Red Guard representatives wrote to Mao, stating that mass purges and all such related social and political phenomena were justified and correct. Mao responded with his full support with his own big-character poster entitled Bombard the Headquarters. Mao wrote that despite having undergone a Communist revolution, China's political hierarchy was still dominated by "bourgeoisie" elitist elements, capitalists, and revisionists, and that these counter-revolutionary elements were indeed still present at the top ranks of the party leadership itself. This was, in effect, an open call-to-arms against Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, and their allies.[1]


Chinese propaganda poster: "Destroy the old world; Forge the new world." A worker (or possibly Red Guard) crushes the crucifix, Buddha, and classical Chinese texts with his hammer; 1967. On August 8, 1966, the party's Central Committee passed its "Decision Concerning the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution" (a.k.a. "the 16 Points").[21] This decision defined the Cultural Revolution as "a great revolution that touches people to their very souls and constitutes a new stage in the development of the socialist revolution in our country, a deeper and more extensive stage":

The Decision took the existing student movement and elevated it to the level of a nationwide mass campaign, calling on not only students but also "the masses of the workers, peasants, soldiers, revolutionary intellectuals, and revolutionary cadres" to carry out the task of "transforming the superstructure" by writing big-character posters and holding "great debates."

The freedoms granted in the 16 Points were later written into the PRC constitution as "the four great rights" of "great democracy ( , D m nzh )": the right to speak out freely, to air one's views fully, to write big-character posters, and to hold great debates ( d m ng d f ng d z b o d bi nl n the first two are basically synonyms). (In other contexts the second was sometimes replaced by d chu nli n the right to "link up," meaning for students to cut class and travel across the country to meet other young activists and propagate Mao Zedong Thought.)

Those who had anything other than a Communist background were challenged and often charged for corruption and sent to prison. These freedoms were supplemented by the right to strike, although this right was severely attenuated by the Army's entrance onto the stage of civilian mass politics in February 1967. All of these rights were removed from the constitution after Deng's government suppressed the Democracy Wall movement in 1979.

On August 18, 1966, millions of Red Guards from all over the country gathered in Beijing for an audience with the Chairman. Atop Tiananmen Gate, Mao and Lin Biao made frequent appearances to greet approximately 11 million Red Guards, receiving cheers each time. Mao praised their actions in the recent campaigns to develop socialism and democracy.

Marxist-Leninist ideology was opposed to religion, and people were told to become atheists from the early days of Communist rule. During the Destruction of Four Olds campaign, religious affairs of all types were discouraged by Red Guards, and practitioners persecuted. Temples, churches, mosques, monasteries, and cemeteries were closed down and sometimes converted to other uses, looted, and destroyed.[22] Marxist propaganda depicted Buddhism as superstition, and religion was looked upon as a means of hostile foreign infiltration, as well as an instrument of the 'ruling class'.[23] Chinese Marxists declared 'the death of God', and considered religion a defilement of the Chinese communist vision. Clergy were arrested and sent to camps; many Tibetan Buddhists were forced to participate in the destruction of their monasteries at gunpoint.[23]

For two years, until July 1968 (and in some places for much longer), student activists such as the Red Guards expanded their areas of authority, and accelerated their efforts at socialist reconstruction. They began by passing out leaflets explaining their actions to develop and strengthen socialism, and posting the names of suspected "counter-revolutionaries" on bulletin boards. They assembled in large groups, held "great debates," and wrote educational plays. They held public meetings to criticize and solicit self-criticisms from suspected "counter-revolutionaries." This was one of many quotations in the Little Red Book that the Red Guards would later follow as a guide, provided by Mao. It was the mechanism that led the Red Guards to commit to their objective as the future for China. These quotes directly from Mao led to other actions by the Red Guards in the views of other Maoist leaders.[24] Although the 16 Points and other pronouncements of the central Maoist leaders forbade "physical struggle ( , w d u)" in favor of "verbal struggle" ( , w nd u), these struggle sessions often led to physical violence. Initially verbal struggles among activist groups became even more violent, especially when activists began to seize weapons from the Army in 1967. The central Maoist leaders limited their intervention in activist violence to verbal criticism, sometimes even appearing to encourage "physical struggle," and only after the PLA began to intervene in 1969 did authorities begin to suppress the mass movement.

During the Cultural Revolution, all politicians who had any history of being anything other than dogmatically Maoist were almost immediately purged. Liu Shaoqi, once the most powerful man in China after Mao, was sent to a detention camp, where he later died in 1969. Deng Xiaoping was himself sent away for a period of re-education three times, and was eventually sent to work in an engine factory until he was brought back years later by Zhou Enlai. Many of those accused were not lucky enough to survive their persecution, and were only rehabilitated posthumously, after Deng succeeded Hua Guofeng as the paramount leader of China.

On August 22, 1966, Mao issued a notice to stop "all police intervention in Red Guard tactics and actions." Those in the police force who defied this notice were labeled "counter-revolutionaries." Mao, drawing on his experiences from prior to 1949, suggested that "the sign of a true revolutionary was his desire to kill." Mao's praise for rebellion was effectively an endorsement for the actions of the Red Guards, which grew increasingly violent.[25] Public security in China deteriorated rapidly as a result of central officials lifting restraints on violent behavior.[26] Xie Fuzhi, the national police chief, said it was "no big deal" if Red Guards were beating "bad people" to death.[27]

The police relayed Xie's remarks to the Red Guards and they acted accordingly.[27] In the course of about two weeks, the violence left some one hundred teachers, school officials, and educated cadres dead in Beijing's western district alone. The number injured was "too large to be calculated."[26]

The most gruesome aspects of the campaign included numerous incidents of torture, murder, and public humiliation. Many people who were targets of 'struggle' could no longer bear the stress and committed suicide. In August and September 1966, there were 1,772 people murdered in Beijing alone. In Shanghai there were 704 suicides and 534 deaths related to the Cultural Revolution in September. In Wuhan there were 62 suicides and 32 murders during the same period.[28]

On September 5, 1966, another notice was issued from the party leadership, encouraging all Red Guards to come to Beijing over a stretch of time. All costs, including accommodation and transportation, were to be paid by the government. On October 10, 1966, Mao's ally, General Lin Biao, publicly criticized Liu and Deng as "capitalist roaders" and threats. Later, Peng Dehuai was brought to Beijing to be publicly ridiculed.


1967 mass rally in Shenyang against cadres of the Chinese Communist Party Northeast Bureau, Yu Ping, organization department chief, and Gu Zhuoxin, secretary of the secretariat. Yu Ping was accused of being a "capitalist roader" and Gu, a traitor to revolution. Both men survived the Cultural Revolution. On January 3, 1967, Lin Biao and Jiang Qing employed local media and cadres to generate the so-called "January Storm", in which many prominent Shanghai municipal government leaders were heavily criticized and purged.[29] This paved the way for Wang Hongwen to take charge of the city as leader of its Municipal Revolutionary Committee. The Municipal government was thus abolished. In Beijing, Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping were once again the targets of criticism, but others also pointed at the wrongdoings of the Vice Premier, Tao Zhu. Separate political struggles ensued among central government officials and local party cadres, who seized the Cultural Revolution as an opportunity to accuse rivals of "counter-revolutionary activity."

On January 8, Mao praised these actions through the party-run People's Daily, urging all local government leaders to rise in self-criticism, or the criticism and purging of others suspected of "counterrevolutionary activity". This led to massive power struggles which took the form of purge after purge among local governments, many of which stopped functioning altogether. Involvement in some sort of "revolutionary" activity was the only way to avoid being purged, but it was no guarantee.

In February, Jiang Qing and Lin Biao, with support from Mao, insisted that the "class struggles" be extended to the military. Many prominent generals of the People's Liberation Army who were instrumental in the founding of the PRC voiced their concern and opposition to the Cultural Revolution, calling it a "mistake". Former Foreign Minister Chen Yi, angered at a Politburo meeting, said factionalism was going to completely destroy the military, and in turn the party.

Other generals, including Nie Rongzhen and Xu Xiangqian also expressed their discontent. They were subsequently denounced on national media, controlled by Zhang Chunqiao and Yao Wenyuan, as the "February Counter-current forces" (, ryu N li ). They were all eventually purged. At the same time, many large and prominent Red Guard organizations rose in protest against other Red Guard organizations who ran dissimilar revolutionary messages, further complicating the situation and exacerbating the chaos.

This led to a notice to stop all unhealthy activity within the Red Guards from Jiang Qing. On April 6, 1967, Liu Shaoqi was openly and widely denounced by a Zhongnanhai faction whose members included Jiang Qing and Kang Sheng, and ultimately, Mao himself. This was followed by a protest and mass demonstrations, most notably in Wuhan on July 20, where Jiang openly denounced any "counter-revolutionary activity"; she later personally flew to Wuhan to criticize Chen Zaidao, the general in charge of the Wuhan area.

On July 22, Jiang Qing directed the Red Guards to replace the People's Liberation Army if necessary, and thereby to render the existing forces powerless. After the initial praise by Jiang Qing, the Red Guards began to steal and loot from barracks and other army buildings. This activity, which could not be stopped by army generals, continued until the autumn of 1968.


Elements of the Communist party and People's Liberation Army resisted Mao's supporters and the Red Guards with violent force. In Qinghai, a military officer toppled his commander and exterminated 200 Maoists, 100,000 people against Mao and several PLA troops smashed a Red Guard Newspaper station to pieces and an attempted assassination was plotted against the Sichuan military district deputy commander.[30]


In the spring of 1968, a massive campaign began, aimed at promoting the already-adored Mao Zedong to god-like status. On July 27, 1968, the Red Guards' power over the army was officially ended and the central government sent in units to protect many areas that remained targets for the Red Guards. Mao had supported and promoted the idea by allowing one of his "Highest Directions" to be heard by the masses. A year later, the Red Guard factions were dismantled entirely; Mao feared that the chaos they caused and could still cause might harm the very foundation of the Communist Party of China. In any case, their purpose had been largely fulfilled, and Mao had largely consolidated his political power.

In early October, Mao began a campaign to purge officials disloyal to him. They were sent to the countryside to work in labor camps. In the same month, at the 12th Plenum of the 8th Party Congress, Liu Shaoqi was "forever expelled from the Party", and Lin Biao was made the Party's Vice-Chairman, Mao's "comrade-in-arms" and "designated successor", his status and fame in the country was second only to Mao.

In December 1968, Mao began the "Down to the Countryside Movement". During this movement, which lasted for the next decade, young intellectuals living in cities were ordered to go to the countryside. The term "intellectuals" was actually used in the broadest sense to refer to recently graduated middle school students. In the late 1970s, these "young intellectuals" were finally allowed to return to their home cities. This movement was in part a means of moving Red Guards from the cities to the countryside, where they would cause less social disruption.

Lin Biao

Graffiti with Lin Biao's foreword to Mao's Little Red Book, Lin's name (lower right) was later scratched out, presumably after his death

Transition of power in the party

The Ninth Party Congress was held in April 1969, and served as a means to 'revitalize' the party leadership with fresh thinking and new cadres.[31] The institutional framework of the Party established two decades earlier had broken down almost entirely: delegates for this Congress were effectively selected by Revolutionary Committees rather than through election by party members.[32] The Congress was meant to solidify the role of Maoism within the party psyche. Representation of the military increased by a large margin from the previous Congress, and the election of PLA members to the new Central Committee reflected this increase.[31] Many military officers elevated to senior positions were loyal Lin supporters, opening a new factional divide between the military and civilian leadership, the latter led by Jiang Qing.[33]

Lin delivered the keynote address at the Congress, a document drafted by hardliner leftists Yao Wenyuan and Zhang Chunqiao. The report levied criticism on Liu Shaoqi and other "counter-revolutionaries", and drew extensively from quotations in the Little Red Book. The Congress passed the new Party constitution, which re-introduced Mao Zedong Thought as an official guiding ideology of the party and officially designated Lin as Mao's successor. Lastly, the Congress elected a new Politburo with Mao Zedong, Lin Biao, Chen Boda, Zhou Enlai, and Kang Sheng being the five new members of the Politburo Standing Committee. Lin, Chen, and Kang were all beneficiaries of the Cultural Revolution. Zhou Enlai was demoted in rank.[31]

Expansion of Lin's power base

After being confirmed as Mao's successor, Lin's supporters focused on the restoration of the position of State President, which had been abolished by Mao after Liu Shaoqi's dismissal. They hoped that by allowing Lin to ease into a constitutionally sanctioned role, whether President or Vice-President, Lin's succession would be entrenched and institutionalized. The consensus on the Politburo was that Mao should assume the office with Lin becoming Vice-President; but Mao had explicitly voiced his opposition to the recreation of the position and his assuming it.

On August 23, 1970, the Second Plenum of the CCP's Ninth Congress was held in Lushan. Chen Boda, now aligned with the Lin camp, was the first to speak. Chen praised Mao using flowery language, but to Mao's ire called again for the restoration of the position of State President. Moreover, Chen attacked Zhang Chunqiao, a staunch Maoist, over whether or not a line glorifying Mao should be inserted into the Party constitution. Mao was deeply critical of Chen's speeches and removed him from the Politburo Standing Committee.[34] This marked the beginning of a series of criticism sessions across the nation for people who used "deceit" for gains, who were called "Liu Shaoqi's representatives for Marxism and political liars."

In addition to the purge of Chen Boda, Mao also asked Lin's principal generals to write a self-criticism on their political positions as a warning to Lin. Mao's doubts about Lin's loyalty gave Mao the determination to remove Lin from power. Mao started to take strong actions against the state's second man, but these efforts went slowly and were noticed by Lin.

Attempted coup and Lin's flight

By 1971, diverging interests between the civilian and military wings of the party leadership was beginning to create a personal rift between Mao and Lin. Mao was troubled that he was losing control of Lin and his supporters. After the removal of Chen Boda, Lin's power base began to shrink within the Party, and his health began to suffer. Lin's supporters plotted to use the military power still at their disposal to oust Mao Zedong in a coup d'etat. Lin's son, Lin Liguo, and other high-ranking military conspirators formed a coup apparatus in Shanghai aimed solely at ousting Mao from power by the use of force, and dubbed the plan Outline for Project 571, which sounds similar to "Military Uprising" in Mandarin. It is disputed whether Lin Biao was involved in this process. Skeptics have questioned why Lin, who was one of the most successful and respected Communist generals who commanded much support within the military and still had the Red Guards at his disposal, would suddenly attempt a poorly planned and abortive coup. While official sources maintain that Lin planned and executed of the alleged coup attempt, scholars such as Jin Qiu portray Lin as a passive character manipulated by members of his family and his supporters.[35] Jin contests that Lin Biao was never personally involved in drafting the Outline and evidence suggests that Lin Liguo was the one who actually drafted the coup.[35]

According to the official account of the events, the Outline consisted mainly of plans for aerial bombardments and the widespread use of the Air Force. Were the plan to succeed, his father could successfully arrest all of his political rivals and gain supreme power. Assassination attempts were alleged to have been made against Mao in Shanghai, from September 8 to September 10, 1971. It was learned that before these attacks there was initial knowledge of Lin's activities among the local police, who stated that Lin Biao had been coordinating a political plot, and that Lin's loyal backers were receiving special training in the military. One internal report alleged that Lin had planned to bomb a bridge that Mao was to cross to reach Beijing; Mao reportedly avoided this bridge because intelligence reports caused him to change routes. Guards were placed every 10 20 meters on the railway tracks of Mao's route, facing outwards from the train, to prevent attempts at assassination.

On September 13, 1971, Lin Biao, his wife Ye Qun, Lin Liguo, and members of his staff attempted to flee to the Soviet Union. En route, Lin's plane crashed in Mongolia, killing all on board. The exact cause of the plane crash remains a mystery and his destination remains unclear. The official PRC narrative claims that the plane ran out of fuel en route to the USSR. However in 1992, declassified KGB documents revealed that in 1972, a secret Soviet team investigated the wreckage. They later took possession of the bodies of those on board and later confirmed that the bodies were that of Lin and Ye (one of the bodies had Tuberculosis in the lungs, which Lin had suffered from), disproving theories that Lin was not on the flight or was possibly in prison somewhere. The Soviet team was not able to determine the cause of the crash, but hypothesized that the pilot was flying low to evade radar and misjudged the plane's altitude. Judging from the fires that burnt after the plane crashed, the Soviets estimated that it had enough fuel to fly to the Soviet cities of Irkutsk or Chita. The plane was also found to be flying away from the USSR, making the exact sequence of events before Lin's death more confusing and casting doubt on the possibility that Lin was attempting to seek asylum in the USSR. Foreign scholars have questioned why Lin, who frequently lambasted the Soviet Union and was widely disliked by the Soviet establishment due to his involvement in the Zhenbao Island incident (Romanian defector Ion Mihai Pacepa would claim that the KGB had tried to assassinate him on several occasions) would chose to flee there when other countries, such as Taiwan or South Korea would have offered better alternatives for asylum. Theories have also arisen that he may have been actually trying to return back to China in order to flee to Taiwan or South Korea, but the exact intended destination remains unknown.[36]

On the same day, the Politburo met in an emergency session to discuss matters pertaining to Lin Biao. Only on September 30 was Lin's death confirmed in Beijing, which led to the cancellation of the National Day celebration events the following day. The Central Committee under Mao's direction kept information under wraps, and news of Lin's death was only released to the public two months following the incident.[35] Many of Lin's supporters sought refuge in Hong Kong; those who remained on the mainland were purged. The event caught the party leadership off guard: that Lin already enshrined into the Party Constitution as Mao's "closest comrade-in-arms" and "successor" could betray Mao de-legitimized a vast body of Cultural Revolution political rhetoric. For several months following the incident, the party information apparatus attempted to find a "correct way" to frame the incident for public consumption. Scholars have identified some gaps in the official version of the events.[35]

Gang of Four and their downfall

Antagonism towards Zhou and Deng

In the political aftermath of Lin Biao's flight, another void opened with the question of succession. In the absence of fitting candidates, in September 1972, a young cadre from Shanghai, Wang Hongwen, was transferred to work in Beijing for the Central Government, and was elevated to become the Communist Party's Vice-Chairman in the following year, seemingly groomed for succession. Jiang Qing's position and undisputed leadership status over the radical camp was solidified following the death of Lin Biao. While Jiang Qing was at the forefront of carrying out Mao's policies in the earlier stages of the Cultural Revolution, it was clear by 1972 that she had political ambitions of her own. She allied herself with propaganda specialists Zhang Chunqiao and Yao Wenyuan, and the politically favoured Wang Hongwen, and formed a political clique later dubbed as the "Gang of Four".

The Gang identified Zhou Enlai as the main political threat in post-Mao era succession. In late 1973, to weaken Zhou's political position and to distance themselves from Lin's apparent betrayal, the "Criticize Lin, Criticize Confucius" campaign began under Jiang Qing's leadership. Its stated goals were to eradicate China of neo-Confucianist thinking and denounce Lin Biao's actions as traitorous and regressive. Reminiscent of the first years of the Cultural Revolution, the political battle was carried out through historical allegory, and although Zhou Enlai's name was never mentioned during this campaign, the Premier's historical namesake, the Duke of Zhou, was a frequent target. The public had become weary of protracted political campaigns that seemed to have no practical value, and did not participate enthusiastically. The campaign failed to achieve its goals.

With much of the moderate faction purged, and factional struggles continuing in the country's factories, railways, and local government, the country's economy had fallen into disarray. In October 1974, to prevent further deterioration of production in the country, Mao approved Deng Xiaoping to be transferred back to work in Beijing as Executive Vice-Premier, directing "day-to-day government affairs" while Zhou Enlai was in hospital receiving cancer treatment. Meanwhile Mao issued a series of rebukes on the Gang of Four, criticizing their ability to manage the economy. Deng's return set the scene for a protracted factional struggle between the radical Gang of Four and moderates led by Zhou and Deng.

At the time, Jiang Qing's clique held effective control of the media and China's propaganda network and were antagonistic towards Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, who held much control of government organs. On some decisions, Mao sought to mitigate the Gang's influence, but on others, he acquiesced to their demands. The Gang of Four's heavy hand in political and media control, however, did not prevent Deng from reinstating progressive economic policies. Deng held a clear stance against Party factionalism, and his policies were aimed at promoting unity as the first step to reimplementing effective production. Much like the post-Great Leap restructuring led by Liu Shaoqi, Deng streamlined the railway system, steel production, and other key areas of the economy. By late 1975, however, Mao saw that Deng's economic restructuring might negate the legacy of the Cultural Revolution, and launched a campaign to oppose "rehabilitating the case for the rightists", alluding to Deng as the country's foremost "rightist". Mao directed Deng to write self-criticisms in November 1975, a move lauded by the Gang of Four.[37]

Death of Zhou Enlai

On January 8, 1976, Zhou Enlai died of bladder cancer. On January 15 Deng Xiaoping delivered Zhou's official eulogy in a funeral attended by all of China's most senior leaders with the notable absence of Mao himself, who had grown increasingly critical of Zhou.[38][39] Curiously, after Zhou's death, Mao selected neither a member of the Gang of Four nor Deng Xiaoping to become Premier, instead choosing the relatively unknown Hua Guofeng.

The Gang of Four grew apprehensive that spontaneous, large-scale popular support for Zhou could turn the political tide against them. They acted through the media to impose a set of restrictions known as the "five nos": no wearing black armbands, no mourning wreaths, no mourning halls, no memorial activities, and no handing out photos of Zhou. Years of resentment over the Cultural Revolution, the public persecution of Deng Xiaoping (who was seen as Zhou's ally), and the prohibition against publicly mourning Zhou became associated with each other shortly after Zhou's death, leading to popular discontent against Mao and the Gang of Four.[40]

Official attempts to enforce the "five nos" included removing public memorials and tearing down posters commemorating Zhou's achievements. On March 25, 1976, Shanghai's Wen Hui Bao published an article calling Zhou "the capitalist roader inside the Party [who] wanted to help the unrepentant capitalist roader [Deng] regain his power". Such propaganda efforts to attack Zhou's image only strengthened the public's attachment to Zhou's memory.[41]

Tiananmen Incident

On April 4, 1976, at the eve of China's annual Qingming Festival, a traditional day of mourning, thousands of people gathered around the Monument to the People's Heroes in Tiananmen Square to commemorate Zhou Enlai. The people of Beijing honored Zhou by laying wreaths, banners, poems, placards, and flowers at the foot of the Monument.[42] The most obvious purpose of this memorial was to eulogize Zhou, but the Gang of Four were also attacked for their actions against the Premier. A small number of slogans left at Tiananmen even attacked Mao himself, and his Cultural Revolution.[43]

Up to two million people may have visited Tiananmen Square on April 4.[43] All levels of society, from the poorest peasants to high-ranking PLA officers and the children of high-ranking cadres, were represented in the activities. Those who participated were motivated by a mixture of anger over the treatment of Zhou, revolt against the Cultural Revolution, apprehension for China's future. The events did not appear to have coordinated leadership and was a reflection of public sentiment.[44]

The Central Committee, under the leadership of Jiang Qing, labelled the event 'counter-revolutionary', and cleared the square of memorial items shortly after midnight on April 6. Attempts to suppress the mourners led to a violent riot. Police cars were set on fire and a crowd of over 100,000 people forced its way into several government buildings surrounding the square.[42] Many of those arrested were later sentenced to prison work camps. Similar incidents occurred in other major cities. Jiang Qing and her allies pinned Deng Xiaoping as the incident's 'mastermind', and issued reports on official media to that effect. Deng was formally stripped of all positions "inside and outside the Party" on April 7. This marked Deng's second purge in ten years.[42]

Death of Mao and Arrest of the Gang of Four

On September 9, 1976, Mao Zedong died. To Mao's supporters, his death symbolized the loss of the revolutionary foundation of Communist China. When his death was announced on the afternoon of September 9, in a press release entitled A Notice from the Central Committee, the NPC, State Council, and the CMC to the whole Party, the whole Army and to the people of all nationalities throughout the country ,[45] the nation descended into grief and mourning, with people weeping in the streets and public institutions closing for over a week. Hua Guofeng chaired the Funeral Committee.

Before dying, Mao had allegedly written the message With you in charge, I'm at ease , to Hua. Hua used this message to substantiate his position as successor. Hua had been widely considered to be lacking in political skill and ambitions, and seemingly posed no serious threat to the Gang of Four in the race for succession. However, the Gang's radical ideas also clashed with influential elders and a large segment of party reformers. With army backing and the support of Marshal Ye Jianying, on October 10, the Special Unit 8341 had all members of the Gang of Four arrested in a bloodless coup.


Although Hua Guofeng publicly denounced the Gang of Four in 1976, he continued to invoke Mao's name to justify Mao-era policies. Hua spearheaded what became known as the Two Whatevers,[46] namely, Whatever policy originated from Chairman Mao, we must continue to support, and Whatever directions were given to us from Chairman Mao, we must continue to follow. Like Deng, Hua wanted to reverse the damage of the Cultural Revolution; but unlike Deng, who wanted to propose new economic models for China, Hua intended to move the Chinese economic and political system towards Soviet-style planning of the early 1950s.

It became increasingly clear to Hua that, without Deng Xiaoping, it was difficult to continue daily affairs of state. On October 10, Deng Xiaoping personally wrote a letter to Hua asking to be transferred back to state and party affairs; party elders also called for Deng's return. With increasing pressure from all sides, Hua named Deng Vice-Premier in July 1977, and later promoted him to various other positions, effectively catapulting Deng to China's second-most powerful figure. In August, the Party's Eleventh Congress was held in Beijing, officially naming (in ranking order) Hua Guofeng, Ye Jianying, Deng Xiaoping, Li Xiannian, and Wang Dongxing as new members of the Politburo Standing Committee.[47]

In May 1978, Deng seized the opportunity to elevate his prot g Hu Yaobang to power. Hu published an article on Guangming Daily, making clever use of Mao's quotations while lauding Deng's ideas. Following this article, Hua began to shift his tone in support of Deng. On July 1, Deng publicized Mao's self-criticism report of 1962 regarding the failure of the Great Leap Forward. With an expanding power base, in September 1978, Deng began openly attacking Hua Guofeng's Two Whatevers .[46]

On December 18, 1978, the pivotal Third Plenum of the Eleventh CCP Congress was held. At the congress Deng remarked that a liberation of thoughts was necessary and the leadership must seek truth from facts . The Plenum officially marked the beginning of the economic reform era. Hua Guofeng engaged in self-criticism and called his Two Whatevers a mistake. Wang Dongxing, a trusted ally of Mao, was also criticized. At the Plenum, the Party reversed its verdict on the Tiananmen Incident. Disgraced former leader Liu Shaoqi was allowed a belated state funeral.[48]

At the Fifth Plenum held in 1980, Peng Zhen, He Long and other leaders who had been purged during the Cultural Revolution were politically rehabilitated. Hu Yaobang head of the party as its General-Secretary. In September, Hua Guofeng resigned, and Zhao Ziyang, another Deng ally, was named Premier. Deng remained the Chairman of the Central Military Commission, but formal power was transferred to a new generation of pragmatic reformers, who reversed Cultural Revolution policies almost in their entirety.

Policy and effect

The effects of the Cultural Revolution directly or indirectly touched essentially all of China's population. During the Cultural Revolution, much economic activity was halted, with revolution , regardless of interpretation, being the primary objective of the country. The start of the Cultural Revolution brought huge numbers of Red Guards to Beijing, with all expenses paid by the government, and the railway system was in turmoil. Countless ancient buildings, artifacts, antiques, books, and paintings were destroyed by Red Guards. By December 1967, 350 million copies of Mao's Quotations had been printed.[49]

The ten years of the Cultural Revolution brought China's education system to a virtual halt. The university entrance exams were cancelled after 1966, and were not restored until 1977 under Deng Xiaoping. Many intellectuals were sent to rural labour camps, and many of those who survived left China shortly after the revolution ended. Many survivors and observers suggest that almost anyone with skills over that of the average person was made the target of political struggle in some way. According to most Western observers as well as followers of Deng Xiaoping, this led to almost an entire generation of inadequately educated individuals. The impact of the Cultural Revolution on popular education varied among regions, and formal measurements of literacy did not resume until the 1980s.[50] Some counties in Zhanjiang had illiteracy rates as high as 41% some 20 years after the revolution. The leaders of China at the time denied any illiteracy problems from the start. This effect was amplified by the elimination of qualified teachers many of the districts were forced to rely upon chosen students to re-educate the next generation.[50]

As the bureaucracy in the Ministry of Health was marginalized, a large number of health personnel were deployed to the countryside. Some farmers were given informal medical training, and health-care centers were established in rural communities. This process led to a marked improvement in the health and the life expectancy of the general population.[51]

Mao Zedong Thought became the central operative guide to all things in China. The authority of the Red Guards surpassed that of the army, local police authorities, and the law in general. Chinese traditional arts and ideas were ignored and publicly attacked, with praise for Mao being practiced in their place. People were encouraged to criticize cultural institutions and to question their parents and teachers, which had been strictly forbidden in traditional Chinese culture. The persecution of traditional Chinese cultural institutions was emphasized even more during the Anti-Lin Biao, Anti-Confucius Campaign. Slogans such as Parents may love me, but not as much as Chairman Mao were common.

The Cultural Revolution also brought to the forefront numerous internal power struggles within the Communist party, many of which had little to do with the larger battles between Party leaders, but resulted instead from local factionalism and petty rivalries that were usually unrelated to the revolution itself. Because of the chaotic political environment, local governments lacked organization and stability, if they existed at all. Members of different factions often fought on the streets, and political assassinations, particularly in predominantly rural provinces, were common. The masses spontaneously involved themselves in factions, and took part in open warfare against other factions. The ideology that drove these factions was vague and sometimes nonexistent, with the struggle for local authority being the only motivation for mass involvement.

Population restructuring

Members of the Down to the Countryside Movement in Shenyang, 1968. During the Cultural Revolution, the Communist Party instituted a policy known as the Down to the Countryside Movement, in which educated youths living in the urban areas were sent to live and work in agrarian areas, in order that they might better understand the role of manual agrarian labour in Chinese society. In the initial stages of this policy, most of the youth who took part in it volunteered, although later on the government resorted to forcing many of them to move.[52]

In the post-Mao period, many of those forcibly moved attacked the policy as a violation of their human rights. Historian Mobo Gao went as far to criticise such attitudes, suggesting that from the perspectives of the rural residents, the educated youth had a good life. They did not have to work as hard as the local farmers and they had state and family subsidies. They would frequently go back home to visit their parents in the cities, and they had money to spend and wore fashionable clothes. [53] Gao also claimed that during the Revolution, Mao sent his daughter, Li Na, to work on a farm in Jiangxi.[54]

Slogans and rhetoric

Remnants of a banner containing slogans from the Cultural Revolution in Anhui.
Remnants of a banner containing slogans from the Cultural Revolution in Anhui.
According to Shaorong Huang, the fact that the Cultural Revolution had such massive effects on Chinese society is the result of extensive use of political slogans.[55] In Huang's view, rhetoric played a central role in rallying both the Party leadership and people at large during the Cultural Revolution. For example, the slogan to rebel is justified ( , z of n y ul ) became a unitary theme.[55]

Huang asserts that political slogans were ubiquitous in every aspect of people's lives, being printed onto ordinary items such as bus tickets, cigarette packets, and mirror tables.[56] Workers were supposed to grasp revolution and promote productions , while peasants were supposed to raise more pigs because more pigs means more manure, and more manure means more grain. Even a casual remark by Mao, Sweet potato tastes good; I like it became a slogan everywhere in the countryside.[55]

Political slogans of the time had three sources: Mao, official Party media such as People's Daily, and the Red Guards.[55] Mao often offered vague, yet powerful directives that led to the factionalization of the Red Guards.[57] These directives could be interpreted to suit personal interests, in turn aiding factions' goals in being most loyal to Mao Zedong. Red Guard slogans were the most violent in nature, such as Strike the enemy down on the floor and step on him with a foot , Long live the red terror! and Those who are against Chairman Mao will have their dog skulls smashed into pieces .[55]

Sinologists Lowell Dittmer and Chen Ruoxi point out that the Chinese language had historically been defined by subtlety, delicacy, moderation, and honesty, as well as the cultivation of a refined and elegant literary style. [58] This changed during the Cultural Revolution. Since Mao wanted an army of bellicose people in his crusade, rhetoric at the time was reduced to militant and violent vocabulary.[55] These slogans were a powerful and effective method of thought reform , mobilizing millions of people in a concerted attack upon the subjective world, while at the same time reforming their objective world. [55][59]

Dittmer and Chen argue that the emphasis on politics made language a very effective form of propaganda, but also transformed it into a jargon of stereotypes pompous, repetitive, and boring. [59] To distance itself from the era, Deng Xiaoping's government cut back heavily on the use of political slogans. The practice of sloganeering saw a mild resurgence in the late 1990s under Jiang Zemin.


During the Cultural Revolution, there was an overhaul of many of the arts, with the intention of producing new and innovative art that reflected the benefits of a socialist society. As a part of this, many artists whose work was deemed to be bourgeoise or anti-socialist were persecuted and prevented from working.[60]

At the same time, other art forms flourished in the People's Republic during the Revolution. One of the most notable examples of this was the Peking opera, which saw some amazing achievements in those years under the leadership of such figures as Yu Huiyong.[60] One of China's most important playwrights and directors of the late twentieth century, Zhang Guangtian, has argued that during the Cultural Revolution, the innovations that were encouraged in the Peking Opera which primarily involved the formalism and style of simplification and concision led it into one of its greatest periods.[61]

Historical relics

China's historical sites, artifacts and archives suffered devastating damage as they were thought to be at the root of old ways of thinking . Many artifacts were seized from private homes and museums and often destroyed on the spot. There are no records of exactly how much was destroyed. Western observers suggest that much of China's thousands of years of history was in effect destroyed or, later, smuggled abroad for sale, during the short ten years of the Cultural Revolution. Such destruction and sale of historical artifacts is unmatched at any time or place in human history. Chinese historians compare the cultural suppression during the Cultural Revolution to Qin Shihuang's great Confucian purge. Religious persecution intensified during this period, because religion was seen as being opposed to Marxist-Leninist and Maoist thinking.[62]

Although being undertaken by some of the Revolution's enthusiastic followers, the destruction of historical relics was never formally sanctioned by the Communist Party, whose official policy was instead to protect such items. Indeed, on May 14, 1967, the CCP central committee issued a document entitled Several suggestions for the protection of cultural relics and books during the Cultural Revolution.[63] Archaeological excavation and preservation also continued successfully in this period, and several major discoveries, such as that of the Terracotta Army and the Mawangdui tombs occurred during the Revolution, and were duly protected from any potential damage.[63] The most prominent symbol of academic research in archaeology, the journal Kaogu, did not publish during the Cultural Revolution.[64]

The status of traditional Chinese culture within China was also severely damaged as a result of the Cultural Revolution. Many traditional customs, such as fortune telling, paper art, feng shui consultations,[65] wearing traditional Chinese dresses for weddings, the use of the traditional Chinese calendar, scholarship in classical Chinese literature and the practice of referring to the Chinese New Year as the New Year rather than the Spring Festival have been weakened in mainland China.

Struggle sessions and purges

Mao-era propaganda for struggle sessions Millions of people in China were violently persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. Those identified as spies, running dogs , revisionists , or coming from a suspect class (including those related to former landlords or rich peasants) were subject to beating, imprisonment, rape, torture, sustained and systematic harassment and abuse, seizure of property, denial of medical attention, and erasure of social identity. At least hundreds of thousands of people were murdered, starved, or worked to death. Millions more were forcibly displaced. Young people from the cities were forcibly moved to the countryside, where they were forced to abandon all forms of standard education in place of the propaganda teachings of the Communist Party of China.[46]

Estimates of the death toll, including both civilians and Red Guards, from various sources[4] are about 500,000 between 1966 and 1969. Some people were not able to stand the torture and, losing hope for the future, committed suicide. One of the most famous cases of attempted suicide due to political persecution involved Deng Xiaoping's son, Deng Pufang, who jumped (or was thrown) from a four-story building after being interrogated by Red Guards. Instead of dying, he became a paraplegic. In the trial of the so-called Gang of Four, a Chinese court stated that 729,511 people had been persecuted, of which 34,800 were said to have died.[66]

According to Mao: The Unknown Story, an estimated 100,000 people died in one of the worst factional struggles in Guangxi in January April 1968, before Premier Zhou sent the PLA to intervene.[67][68] In 1993, erotic fiction author[69] Zheng Yi wrote the controversial book Scarlet Memorial: Tales Of Cannibalism In Modern China, alleging systematic killing and cannibalization of individuals in the name of political revolution and 'class struggle' among the Zhuang people in Wuxuan County, Guangxi, during that period.[67][70] The book was roundly criticized in China for its reliance on unpublished interviews and for its negative portrayal of a Chinese ethnic minority,[69] although senior party historians have corroborated some allegations of cannibalism.[71] Sinologist Gang Yue has questioned how systematic the cannibalism could have been, given the inherent factionalism of the Cultural Revolution.[68] MacFarquhar and Schoenhals also dispute that it was communism that compelled the Zhuang in this area towards cannibalism, noting that similar incidents occurred under pressure from the Kuomintang secret police in the republican period.[71]

The true figure of those who were persecuted or died during the Cultural Revolution may never be known, since many deaths went unreported or were actively covered up by the police or local authorities. The state of Chinese demographics at the time was very poor, and the PRC has been hesitant to allow formal research into the period.[72] In their book Mao's Last Revolution (2006), the Sinologists Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals assert that in rural China alone some 36 million people were persecuted, of whom between 750,000 and 1.5 million were killed, with roughly the same number permanently injured.[73] In Mao: The Unknown Story, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday claim that as many as 3 million people died in the violence of the Cultural Revolution.[74] Sociologist Daniel Chirot claims that around 100 million people suffered and at least one million people, and perhaps as many as 20 million, died in the Cultural Revolution.[75]

Ethnic minorities

The Cultural Revolution wreaked much havoc on minority cultures in China. In Tibet, over 6,000 monasteries were destroyed, often with the complicity of local ethnic Tibetan Red Guards. In Inner Mongolia, some 790,000 people were persecuted. Of these, 22,900 were beaten to death and 120,000 were maimed,[76] during a ruthless witchhunt to find members of the alleged separatist New Inner Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party. In Xinjiang, copies of the Qu'ran and other books of the Uyghur people were apparently burned. Muslim imams were reportedly paraded around with paint splashed on their bodies. In the ethnic Korean areas of northeast China, language schools were destroyed. In Yunnan Province, the palace of the Dai people's king was torched, and an infamous massacre of Hui Muslim people at the hands of the People's Liberation Army in Yunnan, known as the Shadian incident , reportedly claimed over 1,600 lives in 1975.[77]

Concessions given to minorities were abolished as part of the Red Guards' attack on the Four Olds : old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas. Communes were established in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (Tibet had previously been exempt from China's period of land reform) and reimposed in other minority areas. Despite official persecution, some local leaders and minority ethnic practices survived in remote regions.

The overall failure of the Red Guards' and radical assimilationists' goals was largely due to two factors. It was felt that pushing minority groups too hard would compromise China's border defences. This was especially important as minorities make up a large percentage of the population that live along China's borders. In the late 1960s China experienced a period of strained relations with a number of its neighbours, notably with the Soviet Union and India. Many of the Cultural Revolution's goals in minority areas were simply too unreasonable to be implemented. The return to pluralism, and therefore the end of the worst of the effects of the Cultural Revolution to ethnic minorities in China, coincides closely with Lin Biao's removal from power.[78]


The central section of this wall shows the faint remnant marks of a propaganda slogan that was added during the Cultural Revolution, but has since been removed. The slogan reads
The central section of this wall shows the faint remnant marks of a propaganda slogan that was added during the Cultural Revolution, but has since been removed. The slogan reads "Boundless faith in Chairman Mao."


Chinese Communist Party opinions

To make sense of the mass chaos caused by Mao's leadership in the Cultural Revolution while preserving the Party's authority and legitimacy, Mao's successors needed to lend the event a "proper" historical judgment. On June 27, 1981, the Central Committee adopted the "Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party Since the Founding of the People's Republic of China" (The Resolution), an official assessment of major historical events since 1949.[79] The Resolution boldly noted Mao's leadership role in the movement, stating that "chief responsibility for the grave 'Left' error of the 'Cultural Revolution,' an error comprehensive in magnitude and protracted in duration, does indeed lie with Comrade Mao Zedong". But it diluted blame on Mao himself by asserting that the movement was "manipulated by the counterrevolutionary groups of Lin Biao and Jiang Qing", who caused its worst excesses. The Resolution affirmed that the Cultural Revolution "brought serious disaster and turmoil to the Communist Party and the Chinese people."[79]

The official view aimed to separate Mao's actions during the Cultural Revolution from his "heroic" revolutionary activities during the Chinese Civil War and the Second Sino-Japanese War. It also separates Mao's personal mistakes from the correctness of the theory that he created, which remains an official guiding ideology in the Party. Deng Xiaoping famously summed this up with the phrase "Mao was 70% good, 30% bad."[80] In rhetoric, Deng affirmed that Maoist ideology was responsible for the revolutionary success of the Communist Party, but abandoned it in practice to favour "Socialism with Chinese characteristics", a very different model of state-directed market economics.

In Mainland China, the official Party view now serves as the dominant framework for Chinese historiography of the time period; alternative views (see below) are discouraged. Following the Cultural Revolution, a new genre of literature known as "scar literature" (shangen wenxue) emerged, being encouraged by the post-Mao government. Largely written by educated youths such as Liu Xinhua, Zhang Xianliang, and Liu Xinwu, scar literature depicted the Revolution from a negative viewpoint, using their own perspectives and experiences as a basis.[81]

After the suppression of the Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989, both liberals and conservatives within the Party accused each other of excesses that they claimed were reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution. Li Peng, who promoted the use of military force, cited that the student movement had taken inspiration from the grassroots populism of the Cultural Revolution, and that if it is left unchecked, would eventually lead to a similar degree of mass chaos.[82] Zhao Ziyang, who was sympathetic to the protestors, later accused his political opponents of illegally removing him from office by using "Cultural Revolution-style" tactics, including "reversing black and white, exaggerating personal offenses, taking quotes out of context, issuing slander and lies... innundating the newspapers with critical articles making me out to be an enemy, and casual disregard for my personal freedoms."[83]

Alternative opinions

Although the Chinese Communist Party officially condemns the Cultural Revolution, there are many Chinese people who hold more positive views of it, particularly amongst the working class, who benefited most from its policies.[84] Since Deng's ascendancy to power, the government has arrested and imprisoned figures who have taken a strongly pro-Cultural Revolution stance. For instance, in 1985, a young worker at a shoe factory put up a poster on the wall of a factory in Xianyang, Shaanxi, which declared that "The Cultural Revolution was Good" and led to achievements such as "the building of the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge, the creation of hybrid rice crops and the rise of people's consciousness." The factory worker was eventually sentenced to ten years in prison, where he died soon after "without any apparent cause."[85]

One of the student leaders of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, Shen Tong, author of Almost a Revolution, has a positive view of some aspects of the Cultural Revolution. According to Shen, the trigger for the famous Tiananmen hunger-strikes of 1989 was a big-character poster (dazibao), a form of public political discussion that gained prominence during the Cultural Revolution. Shen remarked that the congregation of students from across the country to Beijing on trains and the hospitality they received from residents was reminiscent of the experiences of Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution.[1]

Since the advent of the internet, various people in both China and abroad have begun to argue online that the Cultural Revolution had many beneficial qualities for China that have been denied by both the post-Mao Chinese Communist Party and the Western media. Some hold that the Revolution 'cleansed' China from superstitions, religious dogma, and outdated traditions in a 'modernist transformation' that later made Deng's economic reforms possible. These sentiments increased following the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, when a segment of the population began to associate anti-Maoist viewpoints with the United States.[86]

Maoist apologists, otherwise known as the "far left", have also become more organized in the internet era. One Maoist website has collected thousands of signatures demanding punishment for those who publicly criticize Mao. Along with the call for legal action, this movement demands the establishment of agencies similar to Cultural Revolution-era "neighborhood committees", in which "citizens" would report anti-Maoists to local public security bureaus. The recent movement in defense of Mao was sparked by an online column written by Mao Yushi (no relation), an economist, who provocatively wrote that Mao Zedong "was not a god". The move to have Mao's image publicly protected is correlated with the recent political career of Bo Xilai, whose term as party chief in Chongqing has been characterized by the use of Maoist propaganda not popular in China since the end of the Cultural Revolution.[87]

Contemporary China

Public discussion of the Cultural Revolution is still limited in China. The Chinese government continues to prohibit news organizations from mentioning details of the Cultural Revolution, and online discussions and books about the topic are subject to official scrutiny. Textbooks on the subject continue to abide by the "official view" (see above) of the events. Many government documents from the 1960s on remain classified, and are not open to formal inspection by private academics.[88] At the National Museum of China in Beijing, the Cultural Revolution is barely mentioned in its historical exhibits.[89] Despite inroads made by numerous prominent sinologists, independent scholarly research of the Cultural Revolution is discouraged by the Chinese government.[88] There is concern that as witnesses age and die, the opportunity to research the event thoroughly within China may be lost.[90]

That the government still displays such heightened sensitivities around the Cultural Revolution is an indicator that it still considers itself, at least in part, an inheritor of its legacy. The government is apprehensive that academic probing and popular discussions will lead to ideological conflict and increase social instability. It may threaten the foundations of Communist rule. The focus of the Chinese government on maintaining political and social stability has been a top priority since the Tiananmen crackdown on reformers on June 4, 1989, and the current government has no interest in re-evaluating any issue that might lead to a split in the Chinese leadership, or which might polarize the Party on ideological grounds.[88]

Outside mainland China

In Hong Kong a pro-Communist anti-colonial strike inspired by the Cultural Revolution was launched in 1967. Its excesses damaged the credibility of these activists for more than a generation in the eyes of Hong Kong residents.[91] In Taiwan, Chiang Kai-shek initiated the Chinese Culture Renaissance Movement to counter what he regarded as destruction of traditional Chinese values by the Communists on the mainland. In Albania, Communist leader and Chinese ally Enver Hoxha began a "Cultural and Social Revolution" organized along the same lines as the Cultural Revolution. In the world at large, Mao Zedong emerged as a symbol of the anti-establishment, grassroots populism, and self-determination. His revolutionary philosophies found unlikely adherents in the Shining Path of Peru, the U.S.-based Black Panther Party,[92] and the 1960s counterculture movement in general. In 2007 Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang remarked that the Cultural Revolution represented the 'dangers of democracy', remarking "People can go to the extreme like what we saw during the Cultural Revolution [...], when people take everything into their own hands, then you cannot govern the place".[93] The remarks caused controversy in Hong Kong and was later retracted with an accompanying apology.[93]

Academic debate

Various schools of thought have emerged surrounding the nature of the Cultural Revolution. The movement's complexities contain many contradictions: led by an all-powerful omnipresent leader, it was mainly driven to fruition by a series of grassroots-led popular uprisings against the Communist establishment. While Mao's leadership was pivotal at the start of the movement, Jin Qiu contends that as events progressed it deviated significantly from Mao's utopian vision.[94] In this sense, the Cultural Revolution was actually a much more decentralized and varied movement that gradually lost cohesion, spawning itself into a large number of 'local revolutions' which differed in their nature and goals.[94]

Academic interest has also focused on the movement's relationship with Mao's personality. Mao had always envisioned himself as a wartime guerrilla leader, which made him wary of the bureaucratic details of peacetime governance. With the Cultural Revolution Mao was simply "returning to form," once again taking on the role of a guerrilla leader fighting against an institutionalized Party bureaucracy. MacFarquhar and Schoenhals, writing in Mao's Last Revolution, paint the movement as neither a bona fide war over ideological purity nor a mere power struggle to remove Mao's political rivals.[95] They reason that the Cultural Revolution happened due to a series of complex factors: China's relationship with the global Communist movement, geopolitical concerns, the ideological rift between China and the Soviet Union, and the failures of the Great Leap Forward.[95] The movement was, at least in part, a legacy project to cement Mao's place in history, aimed to boost his prestige while he was alive and preserve the invulnerability of his ideas after his death.[96]

The mass hysteria surrounding the Cultural Revolution was also unprecedented. Historian Phillip Short contends that the Cultural Revolution contained elements that was akin to a form of religious worship.[97] Mao's godlike status during the period yielded him ultimate definitional power over Communist doctrine, yet the esoteric nature of his writings led to endless wars over its interpretation, with both conservatives and liberals drawing on Mao's teachings to achieve their divergent goals. Many factional struggles were not unlike religious wars, with all sides claiming allegiance to the most "authentic" form of Maoism.

Virtually all English-language books paint a highly negative picture of the movement. Historian Anne F. Thurston wrote that it "led to loss of culture, and of spiritual values; loss of hope and ideals; loss of time, truth and of life..."[98] Barnouin and Yu summarized the Cultural Revolution as "a political movement that produced unprecedented social divisions, mass mobilization, hysteria, upheavals, arbitrary cruelty, torture, killings, and even civil war...", calling Mao "one of the most tyrannical despots of the twentieth century."[99] In Mao: The Unknown Story, Chang and Halliday attributed all the destruction of the Cultural Revolution to Mao personally, with more sympathetic portrayals of his allies and opponents.[100] A small number of scholars continue to hold positive views about the Cultural Revolution. Mobo Gao, writing in The Battle for China's Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution,[101] asserts that the movement benefited millions of Chinese citizens, particularly agricultural and industrial workers,[102] and sees it as egalitarian and genuinely populist, citing continued Maoist nostalgia in China today as remnants of its positive legacy.[103]

See also

  • Morning Sun (documentary)...(Chinese: , B -Ji Di nzh ng De T iy ng W ng J l pi n)
  • Red Scarf Girl
  • Albanian Cultural and Ideological Revolution inspired by the Cultural Revolution
  • Born Red



  • "Li Peng, the 'Butcher of Tiananmen,' was 'Ready to Die' to Stop the Student Turmoil". 2003. Retrieved August 21, 2011.
  • Barnouin, Barbara and Yu Changgen. ''Zhou Enlai: A Political Life''. Hong Kong: Chinese University of Hong Kong, 2006. ISBN 962-996-280-2. Retrieved on March 12, 2011.
  • Chan, A; Children of Mao: Personality Development and Political Activism in the Red Guard Generation; University of Washington Press (1985)
  • Ewing, Kent. (2011, June 4). "Mao's Army on the Attack". Asia Times Online. Asia Times Online (Holdings). Retrieved at> on June 16, 2011.
  • Fong Tak-ho. (2006, May 19). "Cultural Revolution? What Revolution?" Asia Times Online. Asia Times Online (Holdings). Retrieved at> on June 15, 2011.
  • Spence, Jonathan D. (1999). The Search for Modern China, New York: W.W. Norton and Company. ISBN 0-393-97351-4.
  • Teiwes, Frederick C. & Sun, Warren. (2004). "The First Tiananmen Incident Revisited: Elite Politics and Crisis Management at the End of the Maoist Era". Pacific Affairs. Vol. 77, No. 2, Summer. 211 235. Retrieved from> on March 11, 2011.
  • Zhao Ziyang. Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang. Trans & Ed. Bao Pu, Renee Chiang, and Adi Ignatius. New York: Simon and Schuster. 2009. ISBN 1-4391-4938-0

Further reading


  • Michael Schoenhals, ed., China's Cultural Revolution, 1966 1969: Not a Dinner Party (Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1996. An East Gate Reader). xix, 400p. ISBN 1-56324-736-4.
  • MacFarquhar, Roderick and Schoenhals, Michael. Mao's Last Revolution. Harvard University Press, 2006. ISBN 0-674-02332-3
  • Morning Sun, "Bibliography," Books and articles of General Readings and Selected Personal Narratives on the Cultural Revolution.

Specific topics

  • Chan, Anita. 1985. Children of Mao: Personality Development and Political Activism in the Red Guard Generation. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
  • Chan, Che Po. 1991. From Idealism to Pragmatism: The Change of Political Thinking among the Red Guard Generation in China. PhD diss., University of California, Santa Barbara.
  • Zheng Yi. Scarlet Memorial: Tales Of Cannibalism In Modern China. Westview Press, 1998. ISBN 0-8133-2616-8
  • Yang, Guobin. 2000. China's Red Guard Generation: The Ritual Process of Identity Transformation, 1966 1999. PhD diss., New York University.
  • Fox Butterfield, China: Alive in the Bitter Sea, (1982, revised 2000), ISBN 0-553-34219-3, an oral history of some Chinese people's experience during the Cultural Revolution.
  • Chang, Jung and Halliday, Jon. Mao: The Unknown Story. Jonathan Cape, London, 2005. ISBN 0-224-07126-2
  • The White-Boned Demon: A Biography of Madame Mao Zedong written by Ross Terrill, Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-2922-0


Fictional treatments

  • Sijie Dai, translated by Ina Rilke, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (New York: Knopf: Distributed by Random House, 2001). 197p. ISBN 2-00-102986-5
  • Xingjian Gao, translated by Mabel Lee, One Man's Bible: A Novel (New York: HarperCollins, 2002). 450p.
  • Hua Gu, A Small Town Called Hibiscus (Beijing, China: Chinese Literature: distributed by China Publications Centre, 1st, 1983. Panda Books). Translated by Gladys Yang. 260p. Reprinted: San Francisco: China Books.
  • Hua Yu, To Live: A Novel (New York: Anchor Books, 2003). Translated by Michael Berry. 250p.

Memoirs by Chinese participants

  • Nien Cheng, Life and Death in Shanghai (Grove, May 1987). 547 pages ISBN 0-394-55548-1
  • Jung Chang, Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991). 524 p. ISBN 91020696
  • Heng Liang Judith Shapiro, Son of the Revolution (New York: Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 1983).
  • Yuan Gao, with Judith Polumbaum, Born Red: A Chronicle of the Cultural Revolution (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987).
  • Jiang Yang Chu translated and annotated by Djang Chu, Six Chapters of Life in a Cadre School: Memoirs from China's Cultural Revolution [Translation of Ganxiao Liu Ji] (Boulder: Westview Press, 1986).
  • Bo Ma, Blood Red Sunset: A Memoir of the Chinese Cultural Revolution (New York: Viking, 1995). Translated by Howard Goldblatt.
  • Guanlong Cao, The Attic: Memoir of a Chinese Landlord's Son (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).
  • Ji-li Jiang, Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution (New York: HarperCollins, 1997).
  • Anchee Min, Red Azalea (New York: Pantheon Books, 1994). ISBN 1-4000-9698-7.
  • Rae Yang, Spider Eaters : A Memoir (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).
  • Weili Ye, Xiaodong Ma, Growing up in the People's Republic: Conversations between Two Daughters of China's Revolution (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).
  • Lijia Zhang, "Socialism Is Great": A Worker's Memoir of the New China (New York: Atlas & Co, Distributed by Norton, 2007).
  • Emily Wu, Feather in the Storm (Pantheon, 2006). ISBN 978-0-375-42428-1.
  • Xinran Xue, The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices (Chatto & Windus, 2002). Translated by Esther Tyldesley. ISBN 0-7011-7345-9
  • Ting-Xing Ye, Leaf In A Bitter Wind (England, Bantam Books, 2000)
  • Zhang Xianliang, Grass Soup, ISBN 0-7493-9774-8

External links

Internet video

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