Smash the old world / Establish a new world

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China’s Cultural Revolution

Chinese poster saying: "Smash the old world / Establish a new world." Classical example of the Red art from the early Cultural Revolution. A worker (or possibly Red Guard) crushes the crucifix, Buddha, and classical Chinese texts with his hammer; 1967

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (simplified Chinese: 无产阶级文化大革命; traditional Chinese: 無產階級文化大革命; pinyin: Wúchǎn Jiējí Wénhuà Dà Gémìng; literally "Proletarian Cultural Great Revolution"; or simply Cultural Revolution; abbreviated in Chinese as 文化大革命 or 文革) was a period of widespread social and political upheaval in the People’s Republic of China between 1966 and 1976, resulting in nation-wide chaos and economic disarray.

It was launched by Mao Zedong, the chairman of the Communist Party of China, on May 16, 1966, who alleged that "liberal bourgeois" elements were permeating the party and society at large who wanted to restore Capitalism. He insisted that these elements be removed through post-revolutionary class struggle by mobilizing the thoughts and actions of China’s youth, who formed Red Guards groups around the country. The movement subsequently spread into the military, urban workers, and the party leadership itself. Although Mao himself officially declared the Cultural Revolution to have ended in 1969, the power struggles and political instability between 1969 and the arrest of the Gang of Four in 1976 are now also widely regarded as part of the Revolution.

After Mao's death, the forces within Communist Party of China that were antagonistic to the Cultural Revolution, led by Deng Xiaoping, gained prominence. The political, economic, and educational reforms associated with the Cultural Revolution were terminated. The Cultural Revolution has been treated officially as a negative phenomenon ever since. The people involved in instituting the policies of the Cultural Revolution were persecuted. In its official historical judgment of the Cultural Revolution in 1981, the Party assigned chief responsibility to Mao Zedong, but also laid significant blame on Lin Biao and the Gang of Four (most prominently its leader, Jiang Qing) for causing its worst excesses.



  • 1 Background

    • 1.1 Social background

    • 1.2 Great Leap Forward

    • 1.3 Increasing conflict between Mao Zedong and Liu Shaoqi

    • 1.4 Immediate influences

  • 2 Beginning

    • 2.1 1966

    • 2.2 1967

    • 2.3 1968

  • 3 Lin Biao

    • 3.1 Transition of power in the party

    • 3.2 Lin's attempts at expanding his power base

    • 3.3 Attempted coup

  • 4 The "Gang of Four" and their downfall

    • 4.1 Antagonism towards Zhou and Deng

    • 4.2 1976

  • 5 Aftermath

    • 5.1 Official historical assessment

  • 6 Effect

    • 6.1 Destruction of antiques, historical sites and culture

    • 6.2 Persecution

    • 6.3 World reaction

    • 6.4 Thinking

    • 6.5 Historical views

  • 7 See also

  • 8 Notes

  • 9 Further reading

    • 9.1 General

    • 9.2 Specific topics

    • 9.3 Commentaries

    • 9.4 Fictional treatments

    • 9.5 Memoirs by Chinese participants

  • 10 Internet video

  • 11 External links

Social background

Prior to the Cultural Revolution, most of the intimidation tactics were already established from the earlier Yan'an Rectification Movement (Chinese: 延安整风运动). The political changes after the 1949 Communist takeover also resulted in sweeping social changes, particularly the labeling of much of the former ruling class and intelligentsia as rightists and “revisionists,” “black elements”, or “black gang elements.” Their houses were confiscated, and any items that did not conform to Mao’s values were smashed. Hardly any family with a problematic record against the system could escape the turmoil.[1]

In the initial preparation, the “Central Press and Broadcasting Bureau” was the driver in pushing all schools, army units, and public organizations at all levels to install public loudspeakers and radio receivers. The Central People’s Broadcasting Station was the main instrument established as part of the “Politics on Demand” concept. By the 1960s, over 70 million speakers would reach the rural population of 400 million.[2]

Great Leap Forward

Main article: Great Leap Forward

In 1957, after China’s first Five-Year Plan, Mao Zedong called for an increase in the speed of the growth of “actual socialism” in China (as opposed to “dictatorial socialism”), as the first step in making the country into a self-sufficient Communist society. To accomplish this goal, Mao began the Great Leap Forward, establishing special communes (Cultural nexus of power) in the countryside through the usage of collective labour and mass mobilization. The Great Leap Forward was intended to increase the production of steel and to raise agricultural production to twice the 1957 levels.[3]

However, industries went into turmoil because peasants were producing too much low-quality steel while other areas were neglected. Furthermore, the peasantry, as agriculturalists, were poorly equipped and ill-trained to produce steel, partially relying on such mechanisms as backyard furnaces to achieve production goals, which had been mandated by the local cadres. Meanwhile, farming implements like rakes were melted down for steel, impeding agricultural production. This led to a decline in the production of most goods other than steel. To make matters worse, in order to avoid punishment, local authorities frequently reported grossly unrealistic production numbers, which hid the problem for years, intensifying it. Having barely recovered from decades of war, the Chinese economy was again in shambles. Steel production did show significant growth, to over 14 million tons of steel a year, from the previous 5.2 million. The original goal was to produce an overly optimistic and, in hindsight, unrealistic 30 million tons of steel, though that was later revised down to twenty million. However, much of the steel produced was impure and useless. In the meantime, chaos in the collectives and unfortunate climatic conditions resulted in widespread famine, while Mao continued to export grain to “save face” with the outside world. According to various sources,[4] the death toll due to famine may have been as high as 20 to 30 million[citation needed].

In the 1959 Lushan meeting of the Central Committee (庐山会议), Marshal Peng Dehuai criticized Mao’s policies on the Great Leap in a private letter. Peng wrote that the Great Leap was plagued by mismanagement and “petty-bourgeois fanaticism.” Although Mao made repeated self-criticisms in speeches for the Great Leap Forward and called for the dismantling of the communes in 1959, he insisted that the Great Leap was 70% correct overall. Also in 1959, Mao resigned as chairman of the PRC, and the government was then run by other leaders such as the new chairman Liu Shaoqi, Premier Zhou Enlai and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) general secretary Deng Xiaoping. Mao remained Chairman of the Party. Politically, Mao formed an alliance with Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, in which he granted them day-to-day control over the country, in return for framing Peng and accusing him of being a "right-opportunist".

Among Liu’s and Deng’s reforms were a partial retreat from collectivism, seen as more pragmatic and more effective. Liu Shaoqi declared famously, “buying is better than manufacturing, and renting is better than buying," opening a new economic frontier in China that contradicted Mao's self-sufficiency ideals.[5]

Increasing conflict between Mao Zedong and Liu Shaoqi

In China, the three years beginning with 1959 were known as the Three Years of Natural Disasters (三年自然灾害). Food was in desperate shortage, and production fell dramatically. By the end of the Three Years of Natural Disasters, which was the direct result of the failed Great Leap Forward campaign, an estimated 20 million people had died from widespread famine.

Liu Shaoqi decided to end many Leap policies, such as rural communes, and to restore the economic policies used before the Great Leap Forward.

Because of the success of his economic reforms, Liu had won prestige in the eyes of many party members both in the central government and among the masses[citation needed]. Together with Deng Xiaoping, Liu began planning to gradually retire Mao from any real power, and to turn him into a figurehead. To restore his political base, and to eliminate his opposition, Mao initiated the Socialist Education Movement, in 1963.

Mao later admitted to some general mistakes, while strongly defending the Great Leap Forward in its principles. One great irony of the Socialist Education Movement is that it called for grassroots action, yet was directed by Mao himself. This movement, aimed primarily at schoolchildren, did not have any immediate effect on Chinese politics, but it did influence a generation of youths, from whom Mao could draw support in the future.[citation needed]

In 1963, Mao began attacking Liu Shaoqi openly, stating that the idealism of “the struggle of the classes” must always be fully understood and applied; "yearly, monthly, and daily". By 1964, the Socialist Education Movement had become the new “Four Cleanups Movement”, with the stated goal of the cleansing of politics, economics, ideas, and organization. The Movement was directed politically against Liu Shaoqi.

Immediate influences
In late 1959, historian and Beijing Deputy Mayor Wu Han published the first version of a historical drama entitled “Hai Rui Dismissed from Office” (pinyin: Hai Rui Ba Guan, Chinese: 《海瑞罢官》). In the play, a virtuous official, (Hai Rui), was dismissed by a corrupt emperor.

The play initially received praise from Mao. In 1965, Mao Zedong's wife Jiang Qing and her protégé Yao Wenyuan—who at the time was a little-known editor of a prominent newspaper in Shanghai—published an article criticising the play. They labeled it a "poisonous weed" (毒草 dúcăo)and an attack on Mao, using the allegory of Mao Zedong as the corrupt emperor and Peng Dehuai as the virtuous official.

The Shanghai newspaper article received much publicity nationwide, with many other prominent newspapers asking for publication rights. Beijing Mayor Péng Zhēn, a supporter of Wu Han, established a committee studying the recent publication and emphasized that the criticism had gone too far. On February 12, 1966, this committee, called the "Group of Five in Charge of the Cultural Revolution," issued an "Outline Report on the Current Academic Discussion", which later became known as the "February Outline". In this document the group emphasized that the dispute over Hai Rui Dismissed From Office was academic rather than political.

In May 1966, Jiang Qing and Yao Wenyuan once again published various articles with content denouncing both Wu Han and Peng Zhen. On May 16, following Mao's lead, the Politburo issued a formal notice representing figuratively the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. In this document, titled "Notification from the Central Committee of Communist Party of China," Peng Zhen was sharply criticized, and the "Group of Five" was disbanded. "Completely penetrated with double-dealing, the thesis furiously attacked the Great cultural revolution, personally developed and managed by comrade Mao Zedong, the instructions of comrade Mao Zedong concerning criticism of Wu Han," stated the "Notification." One year later, on May 18, 1967 this "Notification" was called "a great historical document developed under the direct management of our great leader comrade Mao Zedong" in the editorial section of People's Daily.

Chinese poster showing Jiang Qing, saying: "Let the new socialistic performing arts occupy every stage.", 1967. (This poster is unique in that it uses both unsimplified Chinese characters-佔 as opposed to 占- and Second-round simplified Chinese characters-午 as opposed to 舞.)

In a later meeting of the Politburo in 1966, the new Cultural Revolution Group (CRG) (文革小组)was formed. On May 18, Lin Biao said in a speech that "Chairman Mao is a genius, everything the Chairman says is truly great; one of the Chairman's words will override the meaning of tens of thousands of ours." Thus started the first phase of Mao's cult of personality led by Jiang Qing, Lin Biao, and others. At this time, Jiang and Lin had already seized some actual power. On May 25, a young teacher of philosophy at Peking University, Nie Yuanzi, wrote a dazibao (大字报)("big-character poster") where the rector of the university and other professors were labeled "black anti-Party gangsters". Some days later, Mao Zedong ordered the text of this big-character poster to be broadcast nationwide and called it "the first Marxist dazibao in China." On May 29, 1966, at the Secondary School attached to Tsinghua University, the first organization of Red Guards was formed. It was aimed at punishing and neutralizing both intellectuals and Mao's political enemies.

On June 1, 1966, the People's Daily, the official newspaper of the CCP, stated that all "imperialists", "people with affiliations with imperialists", "imperialistic intellectuals", et al., must be purged. Soon a movement began, that was aimed at purging university presidents and other prominent intellectuals. On July 28, 1966, representatives of the Red Guards wrote a formal letter to Mao, stating that mass purges and all such related social and political phenomena were justified and right. Mao responded with his full support in an article entitled "Bombard the Headquarters"; thus began the Cultural Revolution.[3]


On August 8, 1966, the Central Committee of the CCP passed its "Decision Concerning the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution" (also known as "the 16 Points").[6] This decision defined the GPCR 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":

Although the bourgeoisie has been overthrown, it is still trying to use the old ideas, culture, customs, and habits of the exploiting classes to corrupt the masses, capture their minds, and endeavor to stage a comeback. The proletariat must do just the opposite: It must meet head-on every challenge of the bourgeoisie in the ideological field and use the new ideas, culture, customs, and habits of the proletariat to change the mental outlook of the whole of society. At present, our objective is to struggle against and crush those persons in authority who are taking the capitalist road, to criticize and repudiate the reactionary bourgeois academic "authorities" and the ideology of the bourgeoisie and all other exploiting classes and to transform education, literature and art, and all other parts of the superstructure that do not correspond to the socialist economic base, so as to facilitate the consolidation and development of the socialist system.

The decision thus took the already 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." One of the main focuses of the Cultural Revolution was the abolishment of the Four Olds: Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas. The decision granted people the most extensive freedom of speech the People's Republic has ever seen, but this was a freedom severely determined by the Maoist ideological climate and, ultimately, by the People's Liberation Army and Mao's authority over the Army, as points 15 and 16 already made clear. The freedoms granted in the 16 Points were later written into the PRC constitution as "the four great rights (四大自由)" of "great democracy (大民主)": the right to speak out freely, to air one's views fully, to write big-character posters, and to hold great debates (大鸣、大放、大字报、大辩论 - the first two are basically synonyms). (In other contexts the second was sometimes replaced by 大串联 - 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 deleted from the constitution after Deng's government suppressed the Democracy Wall movement in 1979.

On August 16, 1966, millions of Red Guards from all over the country gathered in Beijing for a peek at the Chairman. On top of the Tiananmen Square gate, Mao and Lin Biao made frequent appearances to approximately 11 million Red Guards, receiving cheers each time. Mao praised their actions in the recent campaigns to develop socialism and democracy.

During the Destruction of Four Olds campaign, religious affairs of all types were persecuted and discouraged by the Red Guards. Many religious buildings such as temples, churches, mosques, monasteries, and cemeteries were closed down and sometimes looted and destroyed.[7] The most gruesome aspects of the campaign were the numerous incidents of torture and killing, and the suicides that were the final option of many who suffered beatings and humiliation. In August and September, there were 1,772 people murdered in Beijing alone. In Shanghai in September there were 704 suicides and 534 deaths related to the Cultural Revolution. In Wuhan during this time there were 62 suicides and 32 murders.[8] The authorities were discouraged from stopping the violence of the Red Guards. Said Xie Fuzhi, national police chief: "Don't say it is wrong of them to beat up bad persons: if in anger they beat someone to death, then so be it."[9] Mao himself had no scruples about the taking of human life, and went so far as to suggest that the sign of a true revolutionary was his desire to kill: "This man Hitler was even more ferocious. The more ferocious the better, don't you think? The more people you kill, the more revolutionary you are."[10]

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." Although the 16 Points and other pronouncements of the central Maoist leaders forbade "physical struggle (武斗)" in favor of "verbal struggle" (文斗), 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 weapons seizures did they begin to suppress the mass movement.

Liu Shaoqi was sent to a detention camp, where he later died in 1969. Deng Xiaoping, who was himself sent away for a period of re-education three times, was eventually sent to work in an engine factory, until he was brought back years later by Zhou Enlai. But most of those accused were not so lucky, and many of them never returned.

The work of the Red Guards was praised by Mao Zedong. On August 22, 1966, Mao issued a public notice, which stopped "all police intervention in Red Guard tactics and actions." Those in the police force who dared to defy this notice, were labeled "counter-revolutionaries."

On September 5, 1966, yet another notice was issued, encouraging all Red Guards to come to Beijing over a stretch of time. All fees, 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 displayed and ridiculed.


On January 3, 1967, Lin Biao and Jiang Qing used 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.[11] 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" as the paranoia spread.

On January 8, Mao praised these actions through party-run newspaper 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, He Long, 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" (Chinese: 二月逆流). They were all eventually purged by Red Guards. 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, 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.

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