The Cultural Revolution


Denunciation Meeting or Struggle Session. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The Cultural Revolution was an upsurge in pro-Communist revolutionary agitation against remnants of capitalist or bourgeois thinking in China. The revolution was started in 1966 by Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Communist Party. His reasons are a matter of dispute and conjecture. Ostensibly the aim was to bring purity of ideology back to the Communist Party and the whole population of China. But some have asserted that an important motive was to re-establish Mao’s pre-eminence and power.1 Mao’s prestige had been damaged by the failure of the ‘Great Leap Forward’ which he had instigated in 1958. Farms has been collectivised and production of steel had been made a countrywide priority. This policy had led to widespread famine estimates of the resulting deaths are between 23 and 55 million.2 The Cultural Revolution enabled Mao to reassert his status and to demote or destroy political rivals, such as Deng Xiaoping, General Secretary of the Secretariat, and Liu Shaoqi, President of the People’s Republic of China.3 (For more about the senior rivals and opponents Mao purged, see the list below.)

Chairman Mao Zedong

The Cultural Revolution began in 1966, following the release of the ‘May 16 Notification’, endorsed by Mao. The ‘May 16 Notification’ stated that the Communist Party had been infiltrated by counter-revolutionaries and revisionists. Newspapers urged the masses to ‘clear away the evil habits of the old society’.4 Students and school children had been brought up to revere Mao and they responded to his call. Student groups who supported Mao became known as ‘Red Guards’ and were encouraged to model themselves on military units.5 In August 1966, Mao encouraged the Red Guards to destroy ‘old ideas, old customs, old habits and the old culture of China’.6 School classes stopped and Red Guards raided private homes and ransacked shrines, libraries and shops. Red Guards removed or destroyed anything considered bourgeois, as well as anything connected to the Kuomintang, the rival force that had been beaten by the Communist Party in the civil war (1927-1949, interrupted by the Japanese invasion during 1937-1945).

People had been divided into “Reds”, “Blacks” and “Greys” prior to the Cultural Revolution but the division was taken much more seriously once the Cultural Revolution started.7 “Reds” were people from working class backgrounds or families who had taken part in the Communist revolution. “Blacks” were from professional or bourgeois families as well as those who had sided with the Kuomintang or done anything to cast doubt on their loyalty to the Communist Party. “Greys” were in between. People could be defined as “Grey” even if they were only office staff or shop assistants.8 Children were defined as “Red” “Black” or “Grey” according to the status of their parents.

Once the Cultural Revolution was under way, “Reds” were told to shun “Blacks” even if they had previously been friends.9 If they did not, they might be accused of not being truly “Red” themselves. Homes of the “Blacks” were raided and the owners were often subjected to “denunciation meetings” (also known as “struggle sessions”) where they would be made to kneel and were kicked and beaten with belts with metal buckles at the end.

Jung Chang, whose autobiographical book Wild Swans includes chapters on her family’s experience of the Cultural Revolution reported that her mother was subjected to about 100 such denunciations, some of them in front of crowds.10 Her mother was repeatedly told to denounce her husband but refused.11 Some people died from the beatings and torture. Pressure on children to “draw a line” between them and their condemned parents was intense and many did so. Some changed their surnames. Some did not visit their parents in detention and some even took part in denunciation meetings against their own parents.12 Suicide was quite common by people who did not want further beatings and torture, especially if their families had succumbed to pressure to denounce them.13

Red Guards waved and quoted from “The Little Red Book”, a selection of quotations by Mao. Public readings of these quotations took place in squares, on buses or were even preached in the sky by air hostesses on planes.14 Mao prohibited the nation’s security forces from interfering with the violence of the Red Guards. The Cultural Revolution affected every aspect of life. Tea houses, a traditional part of Chinese life, were closed.15 All songs were banned except ones consisting of quotations from Chairman Mao or else in praise of him.16 Wearing make-up or decorative clothes could put someone in danger of denunciation.

Red Guards waving the Little Red Book in a School Class. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

After the first few months, workers joined the fray. Some revolted against the Party cadres in charge of the factories.17 In October 1966, Mao encouraged this, calling on the masses to “educate and liberate themselves”.18 Red Guards harassed embassies even including that of the USSR – a fellow Communist country. As many as million people took part in besieging embassies, unfurling giant portraits of Mao and shouting insults with loudhailers. They torched the British mission almost burning the diplomats alive.19

A new phase of the Cultural Revolution began that October when, with Mao’s endorsement, anger was turned on “capitalist roaders” and “counter-revolutionary revisionists” within the Communist Party’s own ranks.20 Those who rose up to oppose officials within the Communist Party were known as “Rebels” and those in the party who tried to resist have been referred to as “Royalists”.21 In the view of Jung Chang, “The Rebels’ basic assignment was to punish Party cadres, which is what Mao had been longing to do for years.”22 But to complicate matters, rival groups of “Rebels” formed themselves and competed for power. They fought each other using whatever weapons they get their hands on in order to control cities and regions.

Chairman Mao's third mass rally out of eight. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Another new phase began when Mao called in the army in January 1967. He had put in Lin Biao as defence minister and he did not trust the security service which had been built up by Luo Ruiqing. Luo Ruiqing was publicly vilified by Red Guards for two days on January 4th and 5th 1967, and forced into the ‘jet plane’ position in which his arms were twisted backward.23 On 11th January, soldiers with machine guns started appearing in banks and thereafter in other key places.

But in February 1967, some of the top military officers condemned the Cultural Revolution and took steps to stop the violence.24 Mao arranged for mob attacks on these military commanders and those members of the politburo who had supported them. They were subjected to house raids and denunciation meetings. The opposition was squashed. This episode has been called the “February Adverse Current”.25

Mao also found a different way to exercise control. He sent delegates to the provinces to set up “Revolutionary Committees”.26 Mao wanted the membership of the committees to have three components: the local army; representatives of the Rebels and “revolutionary officials” who were selected former administrators.27 Mao used the committees to bypass the control of the Communist Party in local areas. In the central government, Mao effectively replaced the control of the Politburo with the ‘Cultural Revolution Authority’.28 Lin Biao used the opportunity, as one of Mao’s trusted men, to purge the army of disloyal commanders, taking command of the Central Military Committee through his own personal office and controlling it through his wife. Mao’s began to exercise control through a cabal “like a medieval court, structured around wives, cousins and fawning courtiers”.29

The fighting between various factions led to mass killings in areas such as Yunnan and Hunan, with the largest number of killings in Guangxi.30 Zhou Enlai, the prime minister, and Lin Biao, First Vice Chairman of the Communist Party, each attempted to place their own men in control of the region. In the end, Mao indicated that he favoured the faction supported by Zhou Enlai. Its leader, Wei Guoqing was given permission to do what he needed to re-establish order in the province. By the end, some 80,000 people had been killed.31 According to Frank Dikötter, “So many bodies were strewn across the city [of Nanning] that corpses were tossed into coal mines and ditches.”

Denunciation Meeting/Struggle Session Sampho Tsewang Rigzin and his Wife. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Methods of torture of those who were denounced varied. Jung Chang’s mother was made to kneel in cold water in winter for hours until she passed out. Twice she was put on a “tiger bench”. This meant her thighs were tied to a narrow bench so that her legs went out along it. Her torso was tied to a pillar. Bricks were forced under her heels. “The intention was to break the knees or the hip bones.”.32 Zhang Linzhi, the Minister of Coal, who had previously criticised Mao and the Great Leap Forward, was one of the senior figures who was “jet-planed”. Another time he was pushed onto a bench and cut with small knives. Finally an iron stove was attached to his head, pulling it down to the floor and “his head was bashed in with heavy brass belt buckles”.33

Food was in short supply.34 In some areas there was famine and people ate whatever they could find, even resorting to cannibalism.35

In December 1968, another new phase began. Students were instructed to leave the cities and go to rural areas where they were told they could learn from peasants. Millions of young students left cities for the countryside over the next decade.36 Many went with great enthusiasm. Some were very disappointed by the reality of life in remote areas. Many did not have a roof over their heads.37 Others resisted going or found ways to avoid it.

Between 1971 and 1976, the intensity of the Cultural Revolution eased. In 1972, both Mao and his right-hand, Zhou Enlai had serious health problems. They agreed to bring back Deng Xiaoping who had been purged from the Communist Party earlier in the Cultural Revolution. Deng faced fierce opposition from Mao’s wife Jiang and her allies who had been at the heart of the Cultural Revolution. They became known as ‘The Gang of Four’. For three to four years, Chinese politics swayed between the two rival camps. The Gang of Four seemed to have won when Zhou Enlai died and the Gang of Four convinced Mao to purge Deng. But, in 1976, Chairman Mao died and a civil, police and military coalition pushed the ‘Gang of Four’ out of power.