The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China

Instructor: Maritza Maymi

Maritza holds a Ph.D. in History and has taught Social Sciences, Humanities and History at public and private universities.

For most of the 20th century, China was in a turmoil. In this lesson, you study about one of the most somber episodes from that history: the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which occurred between 1966 and 1976.

The Cultural Revolution

Imagine living in a society where whatever you do, say or even think, could be construed as something that is a threat to the nation or the society at large. Imagine a community were children incriminate their parents or teachers; husbands accuse wives; neighbors denounce each other. At one point that society is ruled by mistruth and paranoia. Then, the criticism, incriminations, and accusations turn into beatings, imprisonment, tortures, and massacres. That was the cultural and political environment in which Chinese lived between 1966 and 1976. That decade was called the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

The Cultural Revolution was a political, social and cultural movement fueled by the cult of Mao Zedong and instigated by a group of political leaders later known as the 'Gang of Four'. The Cultural Revolution mobilized and encouraged Chinese youth to criticize and persecute all persons who were thought to be enemies of the ideals of the Chinese Communist Revolution. The Cultural Revolution began in 1966 with the purge of high ranking officials of the Communist Party of China (CPC). Although the causes of the Cultural Revolution are quite complex, there are at least two factors that contributed to it. One factor was Mao Zedong's efforts to regain his dominant position as China's policy maker. The second one was the 'Cult of Mao'.

The Challenge to Chairman Mao

At the beginning of the 1960s, Mao's unquestionable leadership within the CPC was being quickly and seriously eroded as the result of a series of political disasters of his making: a broken relationship with the Soviet Union; the massive loss of lives due to famines that resulted from failures of the economic reforms launched towards the end of the 1950s; and China's isolation from the rest of the world.

Even though Mao Zedong was still highly regarded as the maximum leader of the CPC, since 1959 the Presidency of China was in the hands of Liu Shaoqi, a high ranking revolutionary and CPC moderate leader. By 1961, Liu and other Party leaders, mainly Deng Xiaoping and Zhou Enlai (second in rank within the Party), were able to sideline Mao in matters of the State. They began an economic program that reversed some of the disastrous economic policies implemented earlier.

Mao saw their moderate economic policies as a contempt to his leadership and as a betrayal to Chinese socialist revolution. By mid-1960s Mao gathered a group of radicals, mainly his wife Jiang Qing and the Defense Minister Lin Biao (Mao's preferred successor as leader of the country), to help him attack the party's leadership and to reclaim his absolute authority. Mao's wife and other party leaders formed what is called as the Gang of Four.

Mao's Comeback: The Cultural Revolution

By May 1966, Mao and the Gang of Four were publicly suggesting that there were enemies of the Revolution within the CPC. They claimed that the only way to identify those enemies was through the use of the telescope and microscope of Mao Zedong Thought.

In August 1966 at a meeting of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, Mao launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Soon after, schools and universities were shut down. Students were called for a massive youth mobilization with the purpose to criticize party leaders who were thought to have abandoned the revolutionary spirit. In the months that followed, the movement intensified quickly as middle, high school and university students from all over the country formed the Red Guards. The Red Guards were paramilitary groups that harassed and attacked old members of the CPC, teachers, professors, other professionals and towns and village leaders.

Red Guards holding the pocket book Quotations of Chairman Mao Zedong, also known as the Little Red Book
Red guards holding

During the early phase of the Cultural Revolution (1966-68), President Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping and other Communist leaders were removed from power. Liu and his wife were publicly humiliated, tortured and imprisoned; Liu died in a prison in 1969. Deng Xiaoping was sent to a rural area in the South to work as a regular worker. Other members were purged from the CPC. It's officially estimated that about 400,000 people were killed between 1966 and 1969. During the ten years that lasted the Cultural Revolution, tenths of thousands were accused, imprisoned and tortured; thousands committed suicide.

The Cult of Mao

The Cult of Mao refers to the dynamics of idolizing Mao's political persona to the point that his words and decisions were followed without a critical examination of their consequences. Mao's words were followed blindly by the new stock of Chinese revolutionaries, called Red Guards. The fervor for Mao's persona and political doctrines was encouraged through public plays, slogans, posters, music and the distribution of the pocket book Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong (known in the West as the Little Red Book). The cult of Mao served as a galvanizing force for popular mobilization and a spearhead for the political purge executed by the Red Guards. The Red Guards claimed that they acted in the name of Mao and as defenders of the Communist Revolution.

Agricultural workers reading the Little Red Book.
Agricultural workers

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