The Cultural Revolution and the Degradation of Chinese Families

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The Cultural Revolution and the Degradation of Chinese Families

The Cultural Revolution and the Degradation of Chinese Families

Brian Sheehan

Loyola Marymount University

Professor Tran

History 599

November 19, 2003

I was a teenager in high school in Beijing in 1966 when the Cultural Revolution began. I now wish I had been much older. Maybe then I would not have been so timid and would not have hurt my family the way I did.” -- Zhanmei

One must not share heaven with the murderers of one’s father and brothers” – Book of Rites


This paper will explore the following question: In a society with a heritage of parental respect, what social forces could lead youths in the Red Guards to expose their relatives, and even their own parents, to criticism, physical punishment, and even execution during the Cultural Revolution? We will explore the psychology of youths who were members of the Red Guards to show that the actions, in general, were due less to any sense of vindictiveness against their parents and relations, and more to a sense of duty: to the revolution, to the Communist Party, and very personally to Chairman Mao. We will show that, during the Cultural Revolution, the revolution, the Party, and Chairman Mao in particular, had supplanted the family as the primary sources of identity, obedience, and loyalty for Communist youth. To specifically answer the question above, this paper offers as its thesis that the Cultural Revolution was the last and most pernicious step in the gradual destruction of the ties that bound Chinese families together. This process had its nascence in the late 1800’s, became clearly defined during the Republican period, and accelerated quickly during the Communist period, reaching its culmination in the Cultural Revolution. We will explore the various stages of this process, the social and psychological factors involved, and the specific historic events that defined, and redefined, the process along the way.

The Confucian Family

To understand the breakdown of the Chinese family unit as experienced in the Cultural Revolution, we must first look at the system of values that held families together and defined them as the most basic and important building blocks of Chinese society dating back over 2,000 years. We will call this unit the Confucian Family. The Confucian Family is so named because the relationships within it, and its importance in Chinese society, were dictated by Confucian philosophy, particularly the code of filial piety. Filial piety was the primary responsibility of all Chinese individuals. To be a filial son, one was expected to give complete obedience to one’s parents, showing them deference and taking great care of them. For Chinese women, who became part of their husband’s family after marriage, filial duty meant faithful service to one’s in-laws, particularly one’s mother-in-law. A Chinese woman’s ultimate filial duty was to bear a son. As fairy tales played a didactic role for European children, so too did tales of exemplary filial behavior in China. During the Yuan dynasty, Kuo Chu-ching compiled The Twenty-Four Examples of Filial Piety. This collection, among others, was important in Chinese folklore. A good example of these short, but powerful, stories is Sacrificing His Son for the Sake of His Mother:

Kuo Chi who lived during the Han Dynasty (200 BCE-200CE) and his family were very poor. He had a three-year old son. Even though there was little food, Kuo Chi’s mother would always give part of her share to her grandson so that he did not suffer hunger. One day Kuo Chi said to his wife, “We are so poor and needy that we cannot give mother enough to eat, and on top of this our son is eating part of Mother’s share. It were better if we buried our son.” He started to dig a grave. When he had dug the hole of about three chih, he discovered a pot filled with gold and the inscription: “Officials may not take it, people may not steal it.” (Brians, Hughes, Neville, Schlesinger, Spitzer and Swan, 1999, para. 6)

As this passage shows, nothing could be more worthy of a Chinese individual -- or as pleasing to heaven -- than respect and care for one’s parents. In both fictional and non-fictional literature, numerous authors point to filial piety as being the most important factor impacting Chinese daily lives. For example, in his novel Family, Pa Chin (1972) laments the impact of filial piety on first-born son Chueh-hsin: “In the large Kao family, he was the eldest son of an eldest son, and for that reason his destiny was fixed from the moment he came into the world” (p.35). Similarly, Jung Chang (1991) in her book Wild Swans, highlights the power of filial piety over the lives of Chinese women when she recounts the story of her grandmother being “sold” as a concubine by Chang’s great-grandfather: “She hated the idea of being a concubine, but her father had already made the decision, and it was unthinkable to oppose one’s parents. To question a parental decision was considered ‘unfilial’ – and to be unfilial was tantamount to treason” (p.30). In legend as in reality, the Confucian ethic of filial piety dictated the daily lives and family relationships of all Chinese for thousands of years.

The Late Qing Period

In the 1890’s, Chinese reformers led by Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao focused on cultural and political change. Most importantly, they emphasized the idea of progress, in a direct challenge to long-standing Confucian beliefs: Confucianism focused on the past and on a future dictated by the past, through fate. The reformers’ beliefs were truly revolutionary. So revolutionary, in fact, that they could only be stifled by a coup d’etat following the period known as the “Hundred Days” in 1898. But the lasting significance of the 1890’s reform movement was the concept of “grouping,” whereby gentry would form local associations in order to discuss and study social and political issues with an eye to formulating change. These groupings were realized in 1895 as the first study societies, the most famous of which was the Southern Study Society.

The establishment of study societies was the first step in openly challenging the tenets of Confucianism, and Confucian family values, on a broad scale. For the first time, discussion of reform was no longer isolated, or monitored, in the Imperial court. Discussion of reform was now open to various groups of gentry in various cities across China. These groups took reform seriously, and in some cases even acted as local legislatures. Once reformist ideas began to spread, they would cascade quite quickly (by Chinese standards) down to other parts of the population. The key tools in the spread of this information to other groups, and other parts of the country, were journals and newspapers, the publication of which was the study societies’ greatest legacy. These early publications not only brought ideas of reform to the part of the population that could read, but also set the stage for even more influential publications to come: publications that would incite the next generation of educated youth to reject Confucianism in general and filial piety in particular. Study societies unleashed the most potent weapon for the ultimate repudiation of Confucianism and the Confucian Family: new ideas.

The late Qing period also saw the abolition of the civil service examination (1905). Without the civil service examination “there was no way to stop or even slow the tides of change” (Schoppa, 2000, p.53). This was a monumental blow to the Confucian system at large, sapping it of its driving force: the examination had stratified society going back to the Song dynasty (960CE-1279CE). The civil service examination was deeply intertwined with the hopes of many Chinese families. Families in all levels of society had dreams of their sons passing the exam and either perpetuating or vastly improving their family’s social position. Now, with the examination abolished, all Chinese were left to question the value of Confucian relationships, including family ties. If the Confucian basis of success or failure in society (i.e., the civil service examination) was invalid, then what about filial piety as the basis for Confucian families?

As the civil service examination receded into the background, what emerged in its place was a vast and varied array of new schools. Many of these schools would foster anti-Confucianism -- knowingly or unknowingly -- by the mere fact that their curricula included a number of Western ideas: ideas of progress, not ideas of the past. The words of Wu Tingfang (1842-1922), Chinese ambassador to the United States in his May 5, 1908 speech at Carnegie Hall, were illuminating -- and, as a member of the imperial government, ironic -- when he discussed the “wonderful changes” in China at the end of the Qing dynasty:

First and foremost, is the spread of education – and by this I mean the diffusion of general knowledge, knowledge of men and of affairs of the world. It is a far cry from the time when high officials in Peking, to whom the wonderful performance of the Morse telegraph apparatus was shown and explained, expressed simply their opinion that China got along without it for four thousand years….(Cheng, Leszt, & Spence, 1999, p.191)

For an educated youth in the late Qing period, ideas of progress, reinforced in schools, newspapers, and societies, combined with the collapse of Confucian societal norms as defined by the civil service examination, would have given them serious food for thought about the Confucian structures and relationships within their own homes.

The Early Republican Years

During the early days of the Republic, three key events that helped redefine the way many Chinese viewed their Confucian families were: the 1911 Revolution itself, the New Culture Movement (1915), and the May 4th Movement (1919).

When the Qing dynasty fell, with the abdication of Pu Yi on February 12, 1912, the lynchpin of Confucian societal structure was removed, not just for educated Chinese to ponder, but for all Chinese to see. According to Confucian tradition, the son revered the father as the father revered his betters (i.e. those of higher societal order), as they revered their betters, as ultimately all revered the Emperor. The 1911 Revolution did not merely replace the Emperor with another Emperor, in which case the Chinese people could believe the Emperor had been a poor Emperor who had lost the mandate of heaven; it replaced him with a President: Yuan Shikai. Now, not only had Confucianism’s most important system been removed (i.e., the civil service examination), but its most important symbol as well. The lack of an Emperor to whom ultimate homage was due undermined the credibility of Confucianism, including its most basic premise: filial piety. As an analogy, during Europe’s feudal period, Henry II, King of England, chose continually to swear fealty to his rival, Louis VII, despite controlling more of France than Louis did. Why? Because Henry realized that without recognition of Louis as his liege for his dominions in France, Henry’s vassals would question Henry’s own legitimacy as well, and rebel. In other words, if the legitimacy of the highest-ranking member of a feudal order could be undermined, the whole feudal system would be undermined. Similarly, once allegiance was no longer due the Emperor in China, it would not be long before a broad cross-section of Chinese youth would begin to question the legitimacy of their own parents’ Confucian roles. Like the liege lords of middle age Europe, the highest-ranking males in Chinese households expected loyalty, obedience, and respect, but did not always earn or deserve them.

By 1915, the newspapers and journals of the study societies found their most persuasive form in the publication of New Youth journal. New Youth, the brainchild of Chen Duxiu, was the most important of many journals and newspapers that urged the youth of China to wash away the old society and replace it with a new one. New Youth was at the vanguard of the New Culture Movement, an “awakening of students and intellectuals” (Schoppa, 1999, p.279). Chen Duxiu called on Chinese youth to be independent, aggressive, cosmopolitan, progressive, and scientific. Perhaps most importantly, he undermined centuries of Confucian beliefs when he said: “Youth is like early spring, like the rising sun, like trees and grass in the bud, like a newly sharpened blade. It is the most valuable period of life” (p.279). This directly contradicted Confucian dogma, which respected age and wisdom over youth and exuberance. If youth was now the most valuable period of life then old age by extension was the least valuable. To the Confucian mind, if Chen’s statement was true, then the whole basis of one’s family relationships (e.g., blind respect of one’s parents and older family generations) was completely unsound. As youth was exhorted to reject the old and make way for the new, a Chinese youth would naturally look first to the most basic institution of his or her life for reform: their family. They would quite literally see Chen Duxiu’s words as a call to reject -- if not outwardly, at least inwardly -- one’s parents and their beliefs. New Youth, and publications like it, tore at the fabric of Confucian families in myriad ways. They inspired parental challenges by both boys and girls regarding, among other things: parents’ decisions on arranged marriages, treatment of servants, career choices for sons, and the schooling of their daughters. It must have seemed to Chinese parents that no decision was sacred anymore. It must have seemed to youth, on the other hand, that the duties of filial piety were based on false pretenses. Pa Chin’s novel, Family, is instructive here, not so much as it reflects reality, but as it reflects the influence of journals, such as New Youth, on students and young adults during the early days of the Republic. The following scene describes not only what the brothers, Chueh-hsin, Chueh-min, and Chueh-hui, are reading; but also how avidly they devour each word:

Therefore they bought up all the progressive periodicals they could lay their hands on, including back numbers. These included the New Youth, New Tide, Weekly Critic, Weekly Review; even old issues of Youth Magazine…Every night he and his brothers would take turns reading every one of these, without skipping even the letters to the editor. Sometimes they had lively discussions on subjects raised in the periodicals. (Pa Chin, 1972, pp. 42-43)
Later in the story, Chueh-hui, influenced by his readings, tells us exactly how he feels about filial piety in particular:

That book Yeh-Yeh gave me – “On Filial Piety and the Shunning of Lewdness” – was still on the table. I picked it up and skimmed through a few pages. The whole thing is nothing but lessons on how to behave like a slave…The more I read, the angrier I became, until I got so mad I ripped the book to pieces. ( pp. 85-86)

This passage is consistent with the thoughts of the New Culture Movement and, in itself, was a key influence on youth.

The year 1919 marked a significant change in the New Culture Movement, as it was transformed into the May 4th Movement. The May 4th Movement ushered in mass demonstrations against the pro-Japan Treaty of Versailles all across China. The impact of student demonstrations, in particular, was truly enlightening to young Chinese. Student demonstrations were nothing new, but they were rarely successful in achieving tangible results. In the case of the May 4th movement, however, the results were stunning. Based largely on student protests, the Chinese delegates at Versailles refused to sign the treaty. For the first time, the youth of China saw that rebellion against injustice could actually work. If rebellion could work in the case of a treaty, why not in the case of social injustice or family-based injustice? The May 4th Movement gave the New Culture Movement its teeth, and inspired the youth of China to go beyond thinking about change; it led them to take action, both inside and outside their own homes.

The Emergence of the CCP

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was founded in 1921. The CCP was dedicated to the complete reform of the Chinese society, economy, political structure, and family life. The middle and late years of the Republic were dominated by power struggle and occasional cooperation between the CCP and the Guomindang (GMD). Most telling was the ideological polarity between the two. The CCP was dedicated to class struggle. Their goal was the realization of a true communist state, whereby workers would input according to their ability, and take according to their need. They envisioned a Marxist-Lennonist paradise that would ultimately have no class differentiation. The ideology of the CCP directly challenged all Confucian relationships. Most importantly for the purposes of this paper, the CCP was able to present these challenging ideas not just at the top of society (e.g., among intellectuals), but at the bottom of society to millions of peasants and numerous workers.

The CCP preached equality of land ownership, helping peasants redistribute land. They preached equality of the sexes. In the Communist utopia, all people were equal, and all forms of Confucianism were dead. But they did not only preach; in Communist controlled areas, the CCP took swift action, making Confucianism and filial piety a thing of the past. The GMD, on the other hand, supported the existing Confucian structure, socially and economically; and when challenged by the powerful attraction of Communist ideology to the lowest members of Chinese society -- who were also by far the most numerous -- they worked diligently to re-establish some semblance of Confucian orthodoxy among the lower classes via the New Life Movement. In the areas where the early Communist experiment was flourishing (e.g., the Northwest around Yan’an), Chinese family relationships were turned upside down, often in a matter of days or weeks. Edgar Snow (1968) in his book Red Star Over China gives numerous examples of the impact of Communist dogma on the everyday lives and relationships of families living in the Northwest Soviets. He notes that the Communists “had generally discarded much of the ceremony of traditional Chinese etiquette…and…were quite different from our old concepts of Chinese. They were also implacable enemies of the old Confucian familism” (p.355). One particular family scene that Snow witnessed is enlightening. While discussing the differences between the “Reds” and the “Whites” with a peasant family in North Shaanxi, a peasant elder speaks of the villagers’ crimes against the Whites. His grandson protests: “You call these crimes, grandfather? These are patriotic acts! …You say it is bitter, but it isn’t bitter for us young people if we can learn to read!” (p.244). In this one observation, Snow reveals a significant change in family relations, where the dogma of filial piety has been shattered. For a grandson to upbraid his grandfather (in the presence of strangers no less) is a true revolution within the Chinese family. Snow notes that the fortitude of Communist youth in the Young Vanguards “was amazing, and their loyalty to the Red Army was the intense and unquestioning loyalty of the very young” (p.324). Snow is caught up in an altruistic dream, portraying the Young Vanguards as having “heroic young lives” and “infinite possibilities,” but he fails to recognize a emergence of a disturbing trend: the Communist Party becoming not just a surrogate family for Communist youth, but their only family.

Communism Victorious

From 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was declared, up to the Cultural Revolution, Communist Party policies systematically broke the bonds that held families together. Families were separated physically as well as socially. People were now asked to consider the whole community, and China at large, as their family, and to view the Party as their new father. Some key mechanisms in the separation of family members were: the Party grade system, communal mess halls, and nurseries.

For Party members, the grade system dictated everything from the quarters one slept in to how much salary and food one was allotted. It often meant, in effect, that husbands and wives (who commonly held different grades) lived separately, traveled separately, and ate separately. Jung Chang (1991) recounts the otherwise amusing story of the family’s train ride from Yibin to Chengdu:

Because of our different status we had to split up when we got on the train. My mother was in a second-class sleeper with my sister, my grandmother had a soft seat in another carriage, and my nurse and I were in what was called the “mother’s and children’s compartment,” where she had a hard seat…. (Chang, 1991, p.189)

Communal mess halls added to the problem. The halls meant the end of the family meal. In fact, at one point, eating at home was outlawed. The family meal cannot be overestimated as an enduring symbol and process of Chinese family unity. For generations, meals were the primary occasions when the family would physically come together to recognize their mutual commitment as well as the structure of their relationships. But now, with communal mess halls, and the grade system, families often found themselves eating separately, often with complete strangers. As Schoppa (2000) points out: “Though the policy [of communal mess halls] was not directed against the family, it probably subtly eroded the closeness of the kin unit” (p.113). Nurseries were perhaps the most insidious form of family dispersal. Through nurseries, many children were put in the hands of the state for their basic care. On the surface, nurseries were the Party’s way of freeing up female labor. What they did, however, was to ensure that the emotional bonds between children and their parents would be frayed. It was not unusual for siblings to be separated from each other as well. As Chang (1991) notes of her own experience: “…none of the municipal nurseries could take more than one of us, so we had to be split up among four different institutions” (p.197).

If the nurseries, the grade system, and communal mess halls could not break the binds that held families together, the Party had yet another weapon: propaganda. The Party’s propaganda insisted on total dedication to the revolution with every waking hour. According to Chang (1991): “A Communist [mother] was supposed to give herself so completely to the revolution and the people that any demonstration of affection for her children was frowned on as a sign of divided loyalties” (p.210). The Party delivered this message via slogans that created a tremendous sense of guilt for parents trying to enjoy even the most basic family moments. Slogans were a weapon of control. Communist families dreaded accusations such as the pejorative “putting the family first” or “being too attached to one’s family.” These could be grounds for harsh criticism and even denouncement. Often the Party would insist on people “drawing a line” between themselves and loved ones who were questionable Communists. Wild Swans poignantly illustrates how adherence to the propaganda of Communist orthodoxy created resentments within families. Chang (1991) tells how her mother, De-hong, is tormented by her deep disappointment over her husband’s commitment to Communist principles, a commitment that often comes at her expense. Driven to her emotional breaking point, she screams and slaps her newborn daughter, and then goes “back to her own place…[leaving]…her daughter with Aunt Jun Ying in the family house” (p.168). Such are the stresses on Communist “families.”

Eventually all of the mechanisms mentioned above served the purpose of displacing the nuclear family as the primary unit of emotional attachment. Interviews and writings of ordinary Chinese citizens abound with the Party’s clear rhetoric: “Mao said: ‘Just think of the Party as your father, and you as his children’” (China Rising, 1992, tape II); “My mother supposed it [permission to marry] was a bit like asking permission from the head of the family, and in fact…it was: the Communist Party was the new patriarch” (Chang, 1991, p.127).

The People’s Republic of China with its first major law (i.e., the Marriage Law of 1950) portended a full-scale assault on the backward Confucian family tradition by “freeing women of the Confucian duty to obey father, husband and son” (China Rising, 1992, tape II). But in actuality, what the Party ushered in was a series of assaults on the fundamental physical and emotional ties that held families together. As Johnson (1983) points out:

[The party tried] to introduce a new vision of a reformed egalitarian family system at a time when millions who had effectively lost all meaningful family relationships, and millions more who had desperately managed to maintain some semblance of the traditional normative relationships, were in the process of reknitting their families. (p.97)
By becoming the ultimate arbiter of all moral and ethical behavior, and by perpetuating the idea that “everything personal was political” (Chang, 1991,p.134), the Party’s aim was to supplant parents and relatives as the primary focus of comfort, identity, and loyalty. This would have drastic consequences for Chinese families and even the most senior Party cadres when, during the Cultural Revolution, the figure of the patriarch would shift from the Party to Chairman Mao himself. One of these consequences would be that “class struggle” was not just to be experienced between families, but within families as well.

Even prior to the Cultural Revolution, high profile precedents were already being set for children to turn against their parents. Hu Sido’s denunciation of his famous father, Hu Shi, in 1950 is a good example. The communist processes of “thought reform,” “self criticism,” and “speaking bitterness” came together as the son of a “public enemy” gave the Party the great satisfaction of publicly renouncing all that his father stood for. Hu Sido’s statement had all the earmarkings of the Communist propaganda machine. He wrote: “I feel it is important to draw a line of demarcation between my father and myself” (Cheng, 1999, p.376). But it went deeper than the usual criticisms. The most stinging words -- words that would become all too familiar during the Cultural Revolution to come -- were: “Until my father returns to the people’s arms, he will always remain a public enemy, and an enemy of myself” (Cheng, 1999, p.376). Children were no longer to be let off so easy, by just creating distance from their parents; they had to take their vengeance personally.

The Cultural Revolution

On July, 17, 1966, Mao Zedong took his celebrated swim in the Yangtze, accompanied by 5,000 youngsters. He would tell them: “The world belongs to you; China’s future belongs to you.” These words, and many others published in the People’s Daily, helped ignite the Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution marked a period in Chinese history where the youth of China were exploited to wage a political war for Mao. In the process, Mao created a personality cult for himself among youth, purged his enemies, and almost swept away the last vestiges of personal and family loyalty. In this section, examples will be cited to show how Chinese families were often compelled to turn viciously inward on themselves, and how family units were now very aggressively separated by ideology and huge physical distances. We will also explore the psychology of the young people involved in the Red Guards. We will look at what they did, as well as what they were thinking while they did it.

Mao’s Cultural Revolution inspired millions of Chinese teenagers to join the Red Guards and empowered them to take matters of the revolution into their own hands by attacking the “Four Olds”: old ideas, old culture, old habits, and old customs. Armed with Mao’s Little Red Book, China’s youth were sent out into the streets, ostensibly to finish, once and for all, the unfinished business of the revolution: to wipe out class enemies and to create a new, truly Communist China. They were also armed with Mao’s imprimatur, which made them answerable only to the Chairman himself. They were untouchable. The Red Guards effectively became the soldiers and the police of the renewed revolution, and its judges as well. The Red Guards’ philosophy of “destruction before construction” meant that persecutions, beatings, denunciations and executions led by youngsters were now commonplace. For years, China was at the mercy of its children. This led to a reversal of the roles of parent and child in many families. Children were now in a position to interrogate and even accuse their parents of crimes. An interview from the documentary series China Rising (1992) touches a common theme, as a now grown woman remembers her teenage years in the Red Guards:

I told [my parents]: Someone has seen a wall poster about you in Tiananmen Square…Get ready in an hour. I’m going to have a meeting with you. Tell me immediately what you have done. Good things and bad things. Have you done anything to let the masses down? They sat there upright like school children facing their teacher…There I was, their young daughter, holding a meeting for them and making them write self criticisms and account for themselves right in front of me. (tape III)
As with Hu Sido almost a generation before, children found it their duty to respect the Red Guards’ right to punish their parents. What is telling is how “Mao Zedong Thought” consistently overrode any feeling of emotion towards one’s own flesh and blood. In Meanings of China’s Cultural Revolution: Memoirs of Exile, Peter Zarrow (1999) recounts part of Liang Heng’s memoir: “As horrible as the Red Guards’ treatment of my father had been, I could understand it because he had made errors and it was the Party policy that he be criticized” (p.181). Liang’s sister went farther: “She even said she wanted to renounce all family ties and let the party be her true father and mother” (p.179). With the cult of Mao growing, the slogan “father is close, mother is close, but neither is as close as Chairman Mao” (Chang, 1991, pp.262-263) was meant to be taken quite literally. As Chang (1991) notes: “We were drilled to think that anyone, including our parents, who was not totally for Mao was the enemy” (p.263).

Interrogating one’s parents or understanding a parent’s punishment at the hands of the Red Guards was a start, but it was not enough for a true young believer in Chairman Mao. Children were expected, personally, to turn over their parents to the Red Guards if they suspected them to be class enemies. Many children did, exposing their parents to ridicule, beatings, labor camps, and even execution. The definition of “class enemy” being somewhat vague made these instances particularly tragic. Chihua Wen (1995) in her book The Red Mirror, a collection of stories from the children of the Cultural Revolution, tells the story of an old friend named Zhoujing. After Zhoujing’s father and his boss are accused, at work, of being capitalists, Zhoujing berates his father: “You are a liar. You told me that you and your boss were standing on the sidewalk waving a red flag to welcome the People’s Liberation Army…[to]… Shanghai…You are just a hidden capitalist” (p.139). When his father’s old boss is invited to a meal at Zhoujing’s house, Zhoujing attacks again, saying: “Don’t you have any sense of class borders? That man was a capitalist. He exploited you. Why are you still sympathetic with him?” (p.139). When his father tries to explain, Zhoujing’s reaction, and its results, are chilling:

I was not touched or convinced by my father’s story. The next day I did something horrible: I went to the Party committee at the candy factory and told them my father had problems coping with the Revolution. Not only was he sympathetic with capitalists, but he had also treated his capitalist former boss to lunch. That afternoon the Rebels came and took my father away. My father suffered heavy physical and emotional abuse in their custody. As a result, he was left partially paralyzed. (pp. 140-141)
Zhoujing would do anything to remove the stigma of his father’s capitalist background from himself, saying: “Turning my father over to the revolutionary Rebels was only the start….The next one to suffer was my mother” (p.141). During the Cultural Revolution, a multitude of Chinese families were in complete emotional disarray. In the case of parents, Zarrow (1999) points out that having “taught the children to love Mao and the Party before all else…[they]…could not appeal to traditional family loyalties or the respect due elders when the struggle reached them” (p.185). In the case of the children, years later, after the fervor wore off, their “generation proved vulnerable to deep despondency and malaise as the Cultural Revolution unfolded and their hopes slowly died” (p.172).

Emotional disconnection was one important cause of family breakup during the Cultural Revolution, another was physical distance, often huge physical distance. It was not uncommon, for example, for a father to be in the hinterland at a labor camp, a mother to be in a thought reform camp, a teen-age son to be riding trains throughout China with his Red Guards unit, and for the family’s young children to be split up between relatives’ homes, all hundreds or even thousands of miles apart. The example of Jung Chang’s family follows just such a course. At various times through the Cultural Revolution {Example from Jung Chang). Another example is the case of a woman named Yunsha, who recounts her family’s story as follows:

My sister was the first of our family to be taken away, sent to the countryside to be “reeducated” by those illiterates. Soon afterward my mother was sent to the Mao Zedong Sixiang Xuexiban. Although this “school” was in Beijing, where we lived, my mother was not allowed to come home. At age thirteen I was left to take care of my father and my younger sister, Xiaoming. (Wen, 1995,p.78)
Later, Yunsha’s father is arrested for being a zouzipai [capitalist-roader] and sent to Hubei Province in central China.

Cynically, if we consider the destruction of the Chinese family and the transference of all family loyalties and relationships to the Party, and ultimately to Chairman Mao, as primary goals of the Communist revolution, then the Cultural Revolution did indeed almost finish the unfinished business of the revolution. It did this by undermining the basic psychology of family bonding through thought control (i.e., Mao Zedong Thought) and by physically separating family members from each other both horizontally (i.e., within generations) and vertically (i.e., between generations). The ancient Chinese goal of “five generations under one roof” would become sadly laughable as many Chinese families could not even claim two generations under one roof.

The Power of Peers

This paper’s focus is on the power of family relationships and how they were undermined by the power of ideas, the power of the Communist Party, and ultimately the power of Mao Zedong. But there was another important power at work during the Cultural Revolution that abetted the disunity of Chinese families: the power of peers.

In 1995, Judith Harris published a controversial, yet groundbreaking study in the Psychological Review regarding the powerful influence of children’s peers versus parents. The reason her findings are relevant to our review of the Cultural Revolution is because the Red Guards created an environment for children where the approval of their peers was given strong precedence over the approval of their teachers and parents. In this case, the normal role of peer influence over the psychology of individual children would be magnified, even multiplied, perhaps exponentially. According to Harris, child development can best be understood in terms of peer influence; what she calls “Group Socialization Theory.” She concludes that peer influence is more important than parent influence on cognitive and personality development; a lot more. Harris posits: “that away from our parents we can reconstruct ourselves” (Gladwell, 1998, p.58). Further, she notes that this is a lesson “that all children learn very quickly, and it is an important limitation on the power of parents: even when they do succeed in influencing their children, those influences very often don’t travel outside the home” (p.58). Harris’s conclusions are seen by many in the psychological field to be extreme. However, her observations, such as the one above, are seen by most in the field to be valid. If peers do have a strong general effect on the psychology of children vis-à-vis parents, then children of the Red Guards can be viewed as being policed in their thoughts and deeds not by Mao, but by their peers. Children during the Cultural Revolution were ultimately deciding right and wrong for all of China based on their own interpretation, as defined with their peers, of Mao’s writings. Without the traditional role of parents and teachers to temper peer influence, youth in all its ignorance was left to come to its own conclusions. As we have seen, those conclusions led to an untold number of tragedies, for Chinese society and for Chinese families.


The extreme stresses experienced within Chinese families during the Cultural Revolution were not just the result of the Red Guards or even the Cultural Revolution itself, but were part of a long process of degradation in Chinese family unity that can be dated back to the late 1800’s.

In the 1890’s, study societies began openly questioning the mores of Confucian society, the cornerstone of which was the family unit and its Confucian relationships as defined by filial piety. As the Qing dynasty declined and fell, the Confucian Family was made extremely vulnerable by the loss of the civil service examination as the core Confucian tool of societal structure and by the loss of the Emperor as its ultimate symbol. In the early years of the Republic, the Confucian Family was undermined by the persuasive and pervasive new journals and newspapers of the New Culture Movement (e.g., New Youth) that were dedicated to reforming Confucianism by inciting youth, and by the realization of youth that their actions could produce real change as exemplified by the May 4th Movement. With the emergence of the CCP all Confucian norms including filial piety were attacked as “old” and inconsistent with the Communist future. When Communism emerged victorious in China, programs were quickly set up that tore not just at old Confucian family relationships, but at basic emotional connections and feelings of togetherness by undermining the time families spent together and the quality of that time. This was accomplished via such processes as the grade system, communal mess halls, and nurseries. The final and most powerful forces wrenching Chinese families apart were seen during the Cultural Revolution. The Chinese family, once weakened, could now be controlled by the state as personified by Mao Zedong. Mao Zedong Thought got into the heads of children, while peer influences such as the Red Guards surrounded them and reinforced these thoughts constantly. Parents were openly marginalized as youth was given the mandate to turn the tables on mother and father. In the end, Mao Zedong Thought replaced traditional parent advice on behavior, morals and ethics; and peer influence was magnified, becoming not just an important source of approval, along with parents and teachers, but the only source of approval.

Within a matter of three to four generations, Chinese parents in many families went from feared and respected to total strangers and, ultimately, to implacable enemies in the eyes of their children. In a culture with an unbroken heritage of thousands of years based on the family unit as its foundation stone, the demolition of Chinese families from the1890’s through the 1970’s is perhaps the greatest single tragedy in Chinese history.


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