The Cultural Revolution Overview(文化大革命)

After the disaster of the Great Leap Forward and the purge of many innocent intellectuals following the anti-rightist campaign, Chairman Mao was compelled to take a step back from front line politics, resigning as state chairman in April 1959 to be replaced by Liu Shaoqi. Notwithstanding, he retained his position as party chairman of the CCP. Mao successfully reasserted his authority during the Lushan Conference in July 1959 where Peng Dehuai was ousted due to his criticisms of the Great Leap Forward’s failure to avert a cataclysmic famine. Despite this small victory, Mao’s authority remained diminished throughout the early 1960s whilst Chen Yun (China’s leading economist), Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping were tasked with revitalising the Chinese economy and putting an end to the abhorrent famine. All three men agreed that the only solution was to allow an element of private farming to take place. This did not sit well with Mao who took it as an abandonment of collectivist principles and a personal affront.

In 1963, the ‘Socialist Education Movement’ was instigated by Mao. To contribute to the movement, Liu Shaoqi and his wife clandestinely infiltrated peasant life, discovering endemic corruption amongst party cadres which clearly contributed to the Great Famine. Mao insisted that this conclusion ignored ‘peasant capitalists’, complaining that party members should not be attacked in this way. Mao’s sense of inertia was deepened by the excellent economic recovery causd by the policies of Liu, Deng and Chen. In light of this, the only weapon available to Mao to stage a comeback was that of ideology. Mao accused both Liu and Deng of pragmatism and abandonment of socialist principles. They would soon be dismissed from office.

Ideological tensions between different factions of the CCP reached their peak in 1965 over a play by the writer Wu Han entitled ‘Hai Rui is dismissed from office’. Hai Rui was a heroic Ming dynasty official who stood up to a despotic emperor and was hence discharged from his duties. As such, the play was widely received as an allegory for Mao’s treatment of Peng Dehuai. Mao’s allies, known as the Gang of Four, attacked Wu Han and he killed himself two years later.  The Gang of Four was based in Shanghai and led by Mao’s wife Jiang Qing. Jiang, a former movie actress, presided over a Shanghai-based forum on the arts and literature. To counter the influence of Wu Han, she advocated for the production of:

“eight officially approved “model” theatrical performances, which were meant to “revolutionize” Chinese traditional Peking opera and European classic ballet and symphonic music by telling stories about Chinese revolutionary struggles against foreign and class enemies […] the content and form of these new performances exemplified how to apply the Chairman’s cultural ideas to existing cultural practices.’ (Zhou and Shi:2017).

Jiang was an amateur photographer and this photograph (Source 1) was taken by her during a model play. The photograph depicts a dancer en pointe in a balletic extension dressed in military attire, brandishing a knife, a clear appropriation of classical European dance to meet revolutionary purposes. The other three members of the Gang of Four were Zhang Chunqiao, who was a propagandist for Mao in Yan’an, Wang Hongwen, a Shanghai trade union leader and Yao Wenyuan another party propagandist. Over the course of the next ten years, the Gang of Four would become the dominant faction of the CCP, exerting far-reaching control over the everyday lives of Chinese Citizens.

Source 1 Jiang Qing (1966) The Captain (Photograph)

Source 1 Jiang Qing (1966) The Captain (Photograph)

It soon became clear that the gang intended to weaponize culture to re-instil Mao’s idea of continuous revolution. The Cultural Revolution would ensure Mao’s role as leader until his death. Mao officially launched the Cultural Revolution in August 1966 during a party conference, it was here that they party approved the ’16 points’ (Source 2) as guidelines for the enactment of the Cultural Revolution. Notably, the document states that the Cultural Revolution intends to: ‘struggle against and overthrow those persons in authority who are taking the capitalist road.’ Emphasis is placed on the role of ‘the younger generation’ and the rehabilitation of those who admit to their errors.  The document heralds the establishment of cultural revolution groups, committees and congresses where general elections were held, the candidates of course, necessarily Maoist. The education system was critiqued as being ‘dominated by bourgeois intellectuals’ whilst Mao’s work was to be studied in depth.

Indeed, a compilation incorporating 427 of the Chairman’s quotations known as The Little Red Book was published. It was compiled by Lin Biao, the replacement defence minister for Peng Dehuai. According to Leese (2014: 23) ‘It was printed over 1 billion times between 1966 and 1971 and in terms of print circulation ranks second only to the bible.’ The book became the defining text of the Cultural Revolution, and consists of daily quotes of Mao designed to provide a basic understanding of Mao Zedong thought. As Leese summarises (2014:31), the quotes ‘were devoid of concrete political analysis, and instead stated moral truths that were supposed to be learned by heart and applied in everyday life.’ Because of the uncontentious, simplistic nature of the quotations, the cult of Mao grew to greater heights. Source 3 is a propaganda poster calling for greater production of reed, a raw material used to produce the book at the height of Mao’s cult-like status. The Little Red Book became one of the compulsory study materials with group sessions regularly held. It also became mandatory to carry around a copy at all times whilst many of the quotes became used in everyday conversation.

Source 3 Anon (1968) Enthusiastically develop the production of reed to safeguard the supply of raw materials needed to publish the writings of Chairman Mao (Propaganda Poster)

Source 3 Anon (1968) Enthusiastically develop the production of reed to safeguard the supply of raw materials needed to publish the writings of Chairman Mao (Propaganda Poster)

The role of Lin Biao’s People’s Liberation Army in the Cultural Revolution did not stop at the dissemination of the Little Red Book. Both himself and Mao felt that revolutionary activity lay in the hands of the younger generation, who were organised into a quasi-military faction called the Red Guards. Chiu-Sam (1967:202) comments:

‘The Red Guards first appeared on the scene at the first of a series of mass rallies in Peking on August 18, 1966. The Peking Review spoke of a revolutionary mass organization by the capital's college and middle school students in the great proletarian cultural revolution. The most noticeable sign of the Red Guards is the red armband with the words Hung Wei Ping (Red Guards) printed in black. They always carry Mao's book, Quotations from Chairman Mao in their hands, and wave it in the parades. The Red Guards are recruited from youngsters who are activists by disposition and proletarian in family status, that is, who are children of the workers, peasants and soldiers. Those who are qualified in all other ways except parental status have become targets of reproach. The fact that the pattern is so uniform shows that it was not a spontaneous mass movement of youth, but one engineered, organized and directed by a group which has the power to let them go ahead without interference. The total number of the 'Red Guards' who went to Peking was reported to be 11,000,000 up to the end of November 1966. They went from all parts of China and were reviewed by their leader, Mao Tse-tung, in a total of about eleven rallies. They were given free transportation to the capital to pay homage to their great leader, whose life and whose thoughts they are supposed to guard.’

The Red Guards were given specific targets to either destroy or overhaul, be it political leaders, cultural heritage or university institutions. University lecturers were a particular target. Source 4 depicts a team of Red Guards targeting the Soviet embassy by symbolically renaming the street it is situated on as ‘revisionism road’, hence accusing its leader Khrushchev of abandoning revolutionary principles and allowing for the existence of capitalist elements in society. Further to this, the following BBC interview relates the story of a Chinese man who joined the Red Guards during his time at middle school. He comments he believed that Mao was a god at the time. Indeed, school classes were halted for around one and a half years at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution and many Red Guards saw this as an opportunity to travel the country and ‘preach’ Mao’s word.

Source 4 : Anon (1966) Red Guards Rename the Street in Front of the Soviet Embassy Anti-Revisionism Road

Source 4 : Anon (1966) Red Guards Rename the Street in Front of the Soviet Embassy Anti-Revisionism Road

Red Guards were heavily involved in Mao’s campaign of cultural suppression known as the ‘Four Olds’: Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, Old Ideas.  As Ho (2011:690) states: ‘Believing that they were fulfilling Chairman Mao's directive, Red Guards set about ransacking personal collections and destroying historic sites and temples.’  The violence began in Shanghai but quickly spread throughout the country. In Tianjin, Red Guards ransacked the St Joseph’s cathedral in the city’s former French concession and replaced all religious iconography with that of Mao (Source 5).  Many important Buddhist sites across China were also damaged. Despite these violent waves of destruction, Ho has ascertained from archival research that several museum-based staff managed to salvage several important antiquities by negotiating with the Red Guards that these should serve as objects of criticism.

Source 5: Anon (1966) Red Guards ransack St Joseph’s Cathedral in Tianjin.

Source 5: Anon (1966) Red Guards ransack St Joseph’s Cathedral in Tianjin.

By 1967, it was widely acknowledged, even by government officials, that the Red Guards behaviour was out of control with in-fighting leading to many needless deaths. Lin Biao’s People’s Liberation Army stepped in to curb the violence by forming Revolutionary Committees. It was decided that Red Guards should be sent ‘down to the countryside’ to work with the peasantry. Some 16 million people forcibly participated in this campaign from 1968 onwards. This dispersal of red guards avoided inciting unrest in urban areas. Yang (2017:104) explains that the fate of former Red Guards in the countryside very much depended on their assignment: ‘The destination of rustication was mainly of two kinds: villages and the so-called production and construction corps. The corps were state farms with a paramilitary organisation. Because construction corps were state enterprises, the sent-down youth there earned salaries […] students sent to the villages were only provided for in their first year. Afterwards they would have to make their own living.’ This caused unspeakable hardship with many resorting to consumption of wild plants for nourishment. Of course, the machinations of propaganda made life in the countryside appear mutually beneficial, urban youth receiving education from peasants, whilst the peasants would benefit from new knowledge and technologies brought by the former Red Guards. Many posters portray urban youth receiving a warm welcome from the peasant population (Source 6) but in fact many peasants actually resented the arrival of the urban youth, fearing their inexperience would mean they would contribute little to agricultural production.

 

Source 6: Revolutionary Committee of Sichuan Art Academy (1969) Educated youth must go to the countryside to receive re-education from poor and lower middle peasants (propaganda poster)

Source 6: Revolutionary Committee of Sichuan Art Academy (1969) Educated youth must go to the countryside to receive re-education from poor and lower middle peasants (propaganda poster)

As Lin Biao’s influence grew during the Cultural Revolution as the head of the PLA, Mao began to grow increasingly suspicious of his designs to gain power. He may have felt that Lin coveted the role of state chairman which Mao abolished after denouncing Liu Shaoqi. Jiang Qing was also resentful of his position. As Qiu notes: ‘Mao came to believe that Lin wanted to be chairman himself, despite his protestations to the contrary {…} In August 1971 {..} Mao began to accuse Lin and his lieutenants of plotting an ‘unaccomplished coup.’ Through revolutionary committees, the military was an omnipresent force in daily life with many soldiers carrying out administrative duties. Perhaps Mao was worried that such a sizeable group could turn against him. As such, Lin Biao began to fall from favour. In 1971, Lin Biao mysteriously died in a plane crash in Mongolia. The official line was that Lin had concocted a failed assassination attempt and was fleeing to the Soviet Union. Posthumously, Lin Biao was criticised at the request of Mao and Jiang Qing’s Gang of Four along with Confucius. This campaign ‘Criticise Lin Biao and Confucius’ (Source 7) was highly metaphorical in nature with Mao being reimagined as China’s first emperor Qin Shihuang, a ‘progressive’ thinker, and Zhou Enlai, the premier and foreign minister as Confucius, guilty of ‘reactionary’ thinking. Zhou’s temperance of many excesses during the Cultural Revolution and overwhelming public support meant that he avoided a purge although his family members would be brutally murdered at the behest of Jiang Qing.

Source 7: Zhou Ruichang (1974) Study the historical struggle between Confucians and Legalists , deepen the criticism of Lin and Confucius (Propaganda Poster)

Source 7: Zhou Ruichang (1974) Study the historical struggle between Confucians and Legalists , deepen the criticism of Lin and Confucius (Propaganda Poster)

In the latter part of the Cultural Revolution, Zhou Enlai had been trying to establish international relations to ease China’s isolation. Through Edgar Snow, Mao stated he would be willing to invite US President Nixon to the PRC. Zhou sent a formal invitation and Nixon would spend a momentous week in the country in 1972.  Trade barriers between the two nations were lifted as were travel bans. Ahead of the trip, the PRC also entered the United Nations. The Shanghai Communique was signed by the two nations at the end of the trip with the US stating they did not seek ‘hegemony’ (dominance) in Asia and committing to cut back their military presence in Taiwan. The visit was opposed by the Gang of Four who gradually appeared to be losing favour with Mao, who was by this point suffering ill-health. In 1975, Mao allowed Zhou Enlai to instigate the ‘Four Modernisations’ of agriculture, industry, science and technology in order to rejuvenate China’s economy. The Cultural Revolution was beginning to wind down. Zhou and Mao both passed away in 1976 and Mao’s successor Hua Guafeng had the Gang of Four arrested and publicly tried for their role in the Cultural Revolution under Deng Xiaoping.  The four modernisations would gradually lead to China’s opening up to the wider world. Source 8 depicts Jiang Qing during the trial of the Gang of Four In 1980. The trial provided an opportunity for the nation to redress injustices committed during the Cultural Revolution

Source 8 Anon (1980) Trial of the Gang of Four and Jiang Qing (Photograph)

Source 8 Anon (1980) Trial of the Gang of Four and Jiang Qing (Photograph)

In sum, the Cultural Revolution was engendered by a power struggle between Mao and so-called ‘revisionists’ whereby a strong economy with commercial elements was ditched in favour of a pure communist ideology. The fervour carrying forth the cultural revolution waned after Nixon’s visit which led to the gradual establishment of foreign relations and trade agreements. By the time of Mao’s death, it became clear that the ideological purity espoused by the chairman had created unrelenting hardship for vast numbers of everyday innocent Chinese from the sent down youth, university professors, cultural workers, religious worshippers and party members accused of rightism. The Cultural Revolution was ended by a reaffirmation of China’s impetus for economic development and the imprisonment of strict Maoist ideologues.

Bibliography

Chiu-Sam, T. (1967) 'The Red Guards and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution'. Comparative Education 3 (3), 195-205.

Daniel Leese (2014) ‘A Single Spark:origins and spread of the Little Red Book in China’ in Cook, Alexander C.Mao's Little Red Book : A Global History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dengyan Zhou, (2017) ‘Photography and the Appropriation of Kodak Dye Transfer in Socialist China’ Trans-Asia Photography Review(University of Michigan) Available online at: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/t/tap/7977573.0007.202/--photography-and-the-appropriation-of-kodak-dye-transfer?rgn=main;view=fulltext.

Ho, D. Y. (2011) 'Revolutionizing Antiquity: The Shanghai Cultural Bureaucracy in the Cultural Revolution, 1966-1968'. The China Quarterly (207), 687-705.

Jin, Q. (1999) Culture of Power the Lin Biao Incident in the Cultural Revolution. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Yang, Guobin (2017) The Red Guard Generation and Political Activism in China (New York: Colomnia University Press).

The Cultural Revolution Overview