Few events in China’s 4,000-year existence had left such a lasting impact on the nation’s modern identity as the Cultural Revolution. Taking place from 1966 to 1976, the Cultural Revolution was a sociopolitical movement instigated by China’s own leader, and chairman of China’s Communist Party, Mao Zedong.
At the time China was still reeling from the economic and humanitarian disaster that was the Great Leap Forward of 1958 to 1961, which Mao had orchestrated in an attempt to modernise China’s economy but instead caused a widespread famine that left millions dead. Because of the colossal failure of the Great Leap Forward, Mao was partly sidelined in his own Communist Party. This, combined with political upheavals in the communist Soviet Union, had left Mao concerned about his future as leader of a communist China.
Removed from affairs of the state and inspired by Marxist theory on ‘permanent revolution’, Mao gathered a group of radicals and launched the ‘Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution’ on the intent of removing capitalistic ‘counter-revolutionary revisionist’ ideologies and preserve ‘true’ communist ideology, though it was a power play for Mao to remove political opponents and reassert his power over the Chinese government.
One of Mao’s very first decisions was to shut down schools. He demanded a massive youth mobilisation to tackle ‘the problem of party leaders’ for their supposed lack of revolutionary spirit. In the following months, the movement grew very popular as the students formed paramilitary groups known as The Red Guards. Initially, The Red Guards were used to attack and publically humiliate targeted political enemies, however, Mao continued to use The Red Guard to further his goals of reshaping the nation and bolster his power.
One of the stated goals of the Cultural Revolution was the destruction of ‘The Four Olds’, which were Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas, to which Mao saw as a compromise to communist ideals in society. Though The Red Guard quickly took upon Mao’s decree of destroying ‘The Four Olds’, the authorities didn’t clearly define what was necessary to destroy. As a result, the group broke into homes and destroyed paintings, literature, and even the genealogy books of families. Historical sites were also desecrated and destroyed, including the remains of emperors and monks, and even the Cemetery of Confucius wasn’t spared.
During this time a cult of personality emerged around Mao, as members of the communist party were encouraged to carry a copy of Mao’s “Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung”, while images of Mao were displayed everywhere on propaganda posters and music began proclaiming his name and authority.
The Red Guards were later tasked with weeding out ‘class enemies’ in society, whereas China’s youth were encouraged to turn over people they suspected of harbouring “counter-revolutionary ideals”, which resulted in teachers, intellectuals, and elders being handed over. With little oversight, the Red Guards’ reign of terror began to spiral out of control, with some Red Guard organisations accusing the other of harbouring incorrect revolutionary ideas. This resulted in an internal power struggle, which left many Chinese cities bordering on the brink of anarchy by 1967. Seeing the chaos, Mao finally sent in the army to disband The Red Guard and restore law and order.
While the following years of the Cultural Revolution were more peaceful and stable, the effects of those tumultuous few years had left a lasting effect on the nation. Economic activity was nearly brought to a halt during the initial years while Mao was carrying out the Revolution, however, with the vast majority of intellectuals in China being either executed or banished to work in the countryside for years, China’s economic strength and potential was severely weakened. Its rich arts, history, and traditional culture were nearly all but destroyed. Figures on the Cultural Revolution’s toll on the populous varies greatly, with scholars putting the figure of somewhere between a few hundred thousand to as many as eight million lives lost, and tens of millions persecuted.
Mao himself died in 1976 at the age of 82, and with him, the Cultural Revolution came to an end as a civil, police, and military coalition quickly arrested and pushed out Maoist radicals from the government. In their place, Deng Xiaoping, an army veteran who was twice banished by Mao, first for being a reformist and the second time for being accused as the mastermind behind the Tiananmen Square student revolution, returned to power only for him to take the reigns of China in 1982.
Deng’s rise to power is a fitting close to one of China’s darkest and most controversial chapters in its history, as the man who was twice purged by the Cultural Revolution began the long road of returning China to preeminence in a world that had left them behind.
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