Evaluating the Cultural Revolution in China and its Legacy for the Future



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F. The Achievements of the Cultural Revolution

The many practical achievements of the Cultural Revolution deserve recognition as

the most advanced forms of socialist transformation achieved in the world to date.58 Below we describe these “socialist new things” in education, healthcare, culture, foreign policy, industry and agriculture. We also discuss in greater detail the advances in combating patriarchal authority and inequalities between women and men.

(1) Revolution in the Superstructure of Socialist Society
The Cultural Revolution was first and foremost a revolution in the political and ideological superstructure of Chinese society. One of the most important parts of this superstructure under socialism is the Communist Party. According to the “16 Point Decision” that became the political charter of the Cultural Revolution, its principal task was to overthrow “those within the Party who are in authority and taking the capitalist road.”59

The Cultural Revolution moved into high gear in January 1967 with a seizure of power from below in Shanghai. In the plants, neighborhoods and at the city-wide level in Shanghai and many other cities, rebel workers criticized and replaced revisionist party officials with their own representatives. Through revolutionary committees, made up of representatives of the mass organizations of workers, revolutionary party cadre and political cadre of the People’s Liberation Army, millions of people began to play a more direct role in economic and state affairs. Likewise, revolutionary committees were established in many areas of the countryside based on self-organized mass associations of peasants and workers in local factories and shops.

Mao and the revolutionary forces in the party advanced other methods for overcoming the power inequalities between full-time government officials and party cadre and the masses of workers and peasants. While increasing numbers of peasants attended universities and agricultural colleges, May 7 Cadre Schools were set up in the countryside. All government officials and full-time party cadre were to be rotated through these schools, where they would do manual labor, live simply, and engage in intensive political study. Cadre returned to their work units after completing courses lasting six months to one year. According to one estimate, more than three million cadre attended these schools in their first year of existence.60 Despite the wide availability of cadre schools, there were often more applicants than accommodations.61

As important as the political tasks of the Cultural Revolution were, the ideological objective—transformations in people’s thinking about the world and themselves—was even more fundamental. As Mao explained:


The struggle against the capitalist roaders in the Party is the principal task, but not the object. The object is to solve the problem of world outlook and eradicate revisionism…

If world outlook is not reformed, although two thousand capitalist roaders are removed in the current great cultural revolution, four thousand may appear next time.62



Revolutionary Culture
Because it springs from people’s hearts, minds and imaginations and reaches people in ways that politics does not, culture is a powerful weapon for maintaining the status quo or for transforming society. Thus, the call of the Cultural Revolution to criticize the “Four Olds”—Confucian and bourgeois ideology, culture, customs and habits--cleared the way for a multi-media explosion of music, plays, ballets, paintings, short stories and poetry that served the building of socialism. These new cultural works were based on the rich life experiences of China’s workers and peasants, the “laobaixing,” and extolled work for the common good.

In order to reach an audience of several hundred million semi-literate workers and peasants, the emphasis was on the visual arts, especially cinematic and theatrical productions. In addition, the new encouragement given to nonliterary culture led to a revival of folk arts, especially in the minority nationality areas.

Referring to the state of culture prior to the Cultural Revolution, especially the Beijing Operas based on imperial court dramas that exalted the wealthy and powerful, Mao made the comment that “the Ministry of Culture should be renamed the Ministry of Emperors, Kings, Generals and Ministers, the Ministry of Talents and Beauties or the Ministry of Foreign Mummies.”

In order to create new dramas with socialist content, artists developed “8 Model Works,” operas and ballets of high quality that in many cases used Western wind and string instruments. These musical works portrayed scenes from the period of the Chinese revolution, featuring heroic characters many of who were literally breaking their chains. One of these model works was the hugely popular ballet “The Red Detachment of Women,” in which a slave girl runs away to join a newly organized women’s detachment of the Red Army. Many of these revolutionary operas and ballets had strong, independent leading women characters who challenged sexist stereotypes of what they could accomplish.

The concept of “model works” in the performing arts has been a controversial one. While they limited artistic creativity and variety in some ways, these model works served to set a new direction in the performing arts by their class stand--putting workers and peasants on center stage. 63 A Chinese scholar who was living in Gao Village in Jiangxi Province during the Cultural Revolution writes:
The rural villagers, for the first time, organized theater troupes and put on performances that incorporated the contents and structure of the eight model Peking operas with local language and music. The villagers not only entertained themselves but also learned how to read and write by getting into the texts and plays. And they organized sports meets and held matches with other villages. All these activities gave the villagers an opportunity to meet, communicate, fall in love. These activities gave them a sense of discipline and organization and created a public sphere where meetings and communications went beyond the traditional household and village clans. This had never happened before and it has never happened since.64
Professional performers from the cities also formed troupes that traveled widely, learning more about their countrymen and women than they had at any other time in their lives. A woman describes the tours of her parents—who came from a renowned national theatre--to factories, mines and remote villages:
My parents’ passionate belief in ordinary people, and their sincere efforts to reform themselves into revolutionary artists, deserving of the working class’s trust, remain among my most prized impressions from the time I spent with them at the dinner table…. It was the responsibility of socialist artists to be accepted by the ordinary folk, for only this approval could qualify them to depict the latter’s revolutionary acts on stage.65
In the fine arts, China held four national exhibitions between 1972 and 1975.

In Beijing they attracted an audience of 7.8 million, a scale never reached before the Cultural Revolution. Sixty five per cent of the exhibited works were created by workers, peasants and other amateurs from all over China. They included oil painting, watercolor painting, sculpture, picture storybook painting, charcoal painting and paper cuts.66

Myriad forms of journalism, official and unofficial alike, sprouted during the Cultural Revolution. There were 542 official magazines and journals and 182 newspapers in circulation throughout China. More than 10,000 unofficial newspapers and pamphlets were published by the “laobaixing,” with 900 publications in Beijing alone.67 The dazibaos that were plastered on the walls of streets, factories and schools were the antithesis of a tightly state-controlled media. They allowed millions to debate and express themselves on an unprecedented scale.

Common Western characterizations of the struggle against the “Four Olds” during the Cultural Revolution rely on photographs of Red Guards burning old books and destroying religious temples and historical relics. While incidents such as these took place in some cities, the government stepped in to try to protect cultural relics from destruction.68 According to a woman who lived in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution, her neighborhood library had a variety of literature from the West. Recent editions of books had brief introductions which provided a political context and discussion of the author’s viewpoint. Feudal literature was on the shelves in order to help readers learn about the old society. 69

There are also widespread misconceptions about the destruction of monasteries in Tibet during the Cultural Revolution. These monasteries were run by lamas who,

with feudal landlords, exploited millions of serfs chained to the land. It was ex-serfs themselves who destroyed idols, prayer wheels, drums made of human skin and other symbols of their oppression that were housed in the monasteries. Later in the Cultural Revolution, some monasteries were restored so they could serve as religious shrines and museums that exhibited relics from the bitter past.

During the Cultural Revolution, archaeological excavations produced new discoveries of Lantian Man and Peking Man (c. 600,000-400, 000 years ago) and bronzes, ceramics and other artifacts from ancient dynasties.70 When foreign visitors saw such discoveries or the Ming Tombs outside Beijing, they were told that these great artistic achievements were built with the sweat of the common people, and now the common people finally had the right to enjoy them.


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