Cultural Revolution
Propaganda poster depicting Mao Zedong, above a group of soldiers from the People's Liberation Army. The caption reads, "The Chinese People's Liberation Army is the great school of Mao Zedong Thought".
Duration16 May 1966 – 6 October 1976 (1966-05-16 – 1976-10-06) (10 years and 143 days)
MotivePreservation of communism by purging capitalist and traditional elements, and power struggle between Maoists and pragmatists.
Organized byChinese Communist Party Politburo
OutcomeEconomic activity impaired, historical and cultural material destroyed.
DeathsEstimates vary from hundreds of thousands to millions (see § Death toll)
Property damageCemetery of Confucius, Temple of Heaven, Ming tombs
ArrestsJiang Qing, Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan, and Wang Hongwen
Cultural Revolution
Literal meaning"Great Cultural Revolution"
Formal name
Simplified Chinese无产阶级文化大革命
Traditional Chinese無產階級文化大革命
Literal meaning"Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution"

The Cultural Revolution, formally known as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, was a sociopolitical movement in the People's Republic of China (PRC). It was launched by Mao Zedong in 1966 and lasted until his death in 1976. Its stated goal was to preserve Chinese communism by purging remnants of capitalist and traditional elements from Chinese society. Though it failed to achieve its main objectives, the Cultural Revolution marked the effective return of Mao to the center of power in China after his political sidelining, in the aftermath of the Great Leap Forward and the Great Chinese Famine.

In May 1966, with the help of the Cultural Revolution Group, Mao launched the Revolution and said that bourgeois elements had infiltrated the government and society with the aim of restoring capitalism. Mao called on young people to bombard the headquarters, and proclaimed that "to rebel is justified". Mass upheaval began in Beijing with Red August in 1966. Many young people, mainly students, responded by forming cadres of Red Guards throughout the country. A selection of Mao's sayings were compiled into the Little Red Book, which became revered within his cult of personality. In 1967, emboldened radicals began seizing power from local governments and party branches, establishing new revolutionary committees in their place. These committees often split into rival factions, precipitating armed clashes among the radicals. After the fall of Lin Biao in 1971, the Gang of Four became influential in 1972, and the Revolution continued until Mao's death in 1976, soon followed by the arrest of the Gang of Four.

The Cultural Revolution was characterized by violence and chaos across Chinese society, including a massacre in Guangxi that included acts of cannibalism, as well as massacres in Beijing, Inner Mongolia, Guangdong, Yunnan, and Hunan.[1] Estimates of the death toll vary widely, typically ranging from 1–2 million. Red Guards sought to destroy the Four Olds (old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits), which often took the form of destroying historical artifacts, cultural and religious sites, and targeting others deemed to be representative of the Four Olds. Tens of millions were persecuted, including senior officials: most notably, president Liu Shaoqi, as well as Deng Xiaoping, Peng Dehuai, and He Long. Millions were persecuted for being members of the Five Black Categories. Intellectuals and scientists were considered to be the Stinking Old Ninth, and many were persecuted. The country's schools and universities were closed, and the National College Entrance Examination were cancelled. Over 10 million youth from urban areas were relocated under the Down to the Countryside Movement policy.

In December 1978, Deng Xiaoping became the new paramount leader of China, replacing Mao's successor Hua Guofeng. Deng and his allies introduced the Boluan Fanzheng program and initiated reforms and opening of China, which gradually dismantled the ideology of Cultural Revolution. In 1981, the Communist Party publicly acknowledged numerous failures of the Cultural Revolution, declaring it "responsible for the most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the people, the country, and the party since the founding of the People's Republic." Given its broad scope and social impact, memories and perspectives of the Cultural Revolution are varied and complex in contemporary China. It is often referred to as the "ten years of chaos" (十年动乱; shí nián dòngluàn) or "ten years of havoc" (十年浩劫; shí nián hàojié).[2][3]


The terminology of cultural revolution appeared in communist party discourses and newspapers prior to the founding of the People's Republic of China.[4]: 56  During this period, the term was used interchangeably with "cultural construction" and referred to eliminating illiteracy in order to widen public participation in civic matters.[4]: 56  This usage of "cultural revolution" continued through the 1950s and into the 1960s, and often involved drawing parallels to the May Fourth Movement or the Soviet cultural revolution of 1928–1931.[4]: 56 


Creation of the People's Republic

Main article: Proclamation of the People's Republic of China

On 1 October 1949, Mao Zedong declared the People's Republic of China, symbolically bringing the decades-long Chinese Civil War to a close. Remaining Republican forces fled to Taiwan, and continued to resist the People's Republic in various ways. Many soldiers of the Chinese Republicans were left in mainland China, and Mao Zedong launched the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries to eliminate these left behind soldiers, as well as elements of Chinese society viewed as potentially dangerous to Mao's new government. This was one of the earliest examples of mass arrests, detainments, and killings across all of China that would later be mirrored in the Cultural Revolution.

Great Leap Forward

Main article: Great Leap Forward

See also: Seven Thousand Cadres Conference

The Great Leap Forward, similar to the Five-year plans of the Soviet Union, was Mao Zedong's proposal to make the newly created People's Republic of China an industrial superpower. Beginning in 1958, the Great Leap Forward did produce, at least on the surface, incredible industrialization, but also caused some of the worst famines in modern history, while still falling short of projected goals. The Great Leap Forward soon came to be seen as one of Mao's greatest mistakes, eventually costing him some of his official status in the Communist Party.

Rural workers smelting iron during the nighttime in 1958
Great Leap Forward stemmed as a result of multiple factors including "the purge of intellectuals, the surge of less-educated radicals, the need to find new ways to generate domestic capital, rising enthusiasm about the potential results mass mobilization might produce, and reaction against the sociopolitical results of the Soviet's development strategy."[5] Mao ambitiously sought an increase in rural grain production and an increase in industrial activity. Mao was dismissive of technical experts and basic economic principles, which meant that industrialization of the countryside would solely be dependent on the peasants. Grain quotas were introduced with the idea of having peasants provide grains for themselves and support urban areas. Output from the industrial activities such as steel was also supposed to be used for urban growth.[5] Local officials were fearful of Anti-Rightist Campaigns and they competed to fulfill or over-fulfill quotas which were based on Mao's exaggerated claims, collecting non-existent "surpluses" and leaving farmers to starve to death. Higher officials did not dare to report the economic disaster which was being caused by these policies, and national officials, blaming bad weather for the decline in food output, took little or no action.

Impact of international tensions and anti-revisionism

Main article: Sino-Soviet split

In the early 1950s, the PRC and the Soviet Union (USSR) were the world's two largest communist states. Although initially they were mutually supportive, disagreements arose after Nikita Khrushchev took power in the USSR. In 1956, Khrushchev denounced his predecessor Josef Stalin and his policies, and began implementing economic reforms. Mao and many other CCP members opposed these changes, believing that they would damage the worldwide communist movement.[6]: 4–7 

Mao believed that Khrushchev was a revisionist, altering Marxist–Leninist concepts, which Mao claimed would give capitalists control of the USSR. Relations soured. The USSR refused to support China's case for joining the United Nations and reneged on its pledge to supply China with a nuclear weapon.[6]: 4–7 

Mao publicly denounced revisionism in April 1960. Without pointing at the USSR, Mao criticized its Balkan ally, the League of Communists of Yugoslavia. In turn, the USSR criticized China's Balkan ally, the Party of Labour of Albania.[6]: 7  In 1963, CCP began to denounce the USSR, publishing nine polemics. One was titled On Khrushchev's Phoney Communism and Historical Lessons for the World, in which Mao charged that Khrushchev was a revisionist and risked capitalist restoration.[6]: 7  Khrushchev's defeat by an internal coup d'état in 1964 contributed to Mao's fears, mainly because of his declining prestige after the Great Leap Forward.[6]: 7 

Other Soviet actions increased concerns about potential fifth columnists.[7]: 141  As a result of the tensions following the Sino-Soviet split, Soviet leaders authorized radio broadcasts into China stating that the Soviet Union would assist "genuine communists" who overthrew Mao and his "erroneous course".[7]: 141  Chinese leadership also feared the increasing military conflict between the United States and North Vietnam, concerned that China's support would lead to the United States to seek out potential Chinese assets.[7]: 141 


See also: Socialist Education Movement and Hai Rui Dismissed from Office

The purge of General Luo Ruiqing solidified the PLA's loyalty to Mao

In 1963, Mao launched the Socialist Education Movement, the Cultural Revolution's precursor.[8] Mao set the scene by "cleansing" powerful Beijing officials of questionable loyalty. His approach was not transparent, executed via newspaper articles, internal meetings, and by his network of political allies.[8]

In late 1959, historian and deputy mayor of Beijing Wu Han published a historical drama entitled Hai Rui Dismissed from Office. In the play, an honest civil servant, Hai Rui, is dismissed by a corrupt emperor. While Mao initially praised the play, in February 1965, he secretly commissioned his wife Jiang Qing and Shanghai propagandist Yao Wenyuan to publish an article criticizing it.[6]: 15–18  Yao described the play as an allegory attacking Mao; flagging Mao as the emperor, and Peng Dehuai, who had previously questioned Mao during the Lushan Conference, as the honest civil servant.[6]: 16 

Yao's article put Beijing mayor Peng Zhen[note 1] on the defensive. Peng, Wu Han's direct superior, was the head of the "Five Man Group", a committee commissioned by Mao to study the potential for a cultural revolution. Peng Zhen, aware that he would be implicated if Wu indeed wrote an "anti-Mao" play, wished to contain Yao's influence. Yao's article was initially published only in select local newspapers. Peng forbade its publication in the nationally distributed People's Daily and other major newspapers under his control, instructing them to write exclusively about "academic discussion", and not pay heed to Yao's petty politics.[6]: 14–19  While the "literary battle" against Peng raged, Mao fired Yang Shangkun—director of the party's General Office, an organ that controlled internal communications—making unsubstantiated charges. He installed loyalist Wang Dongxing, head of Mao's security detail. Yang's dismissal likely emboldened Mao's allies to move against their factional rivals.[6]: 14–19 

On 12 February 1966, the "Five Man Group" issued a report known as the February Outline. The Outline as sanctioned by the party center defined Hai Rui as a constructive academic discussion and aimed to distance Peng Zhen formally from any political implications. However, Jiang Qing and Yao Wenyuan continued their denunciations. Meanwhile, Mao sacked Propaganda Department director Lu Dingyi, a Peng ally.[6]: 20–27 

Lu's removal gave Maoists unrestricted access to the press. Mao delivered his final blow to Peng at a high-profile Politburo meeting through loyalists Kang Sheng and Chen Boda. They accused Peng of opposing Mao, labeled the February Outline "evidence of Peng Zhen's revisionism", and grouped him with three other disgraced officials as part of the "Peng-Luo-Lu-Yang Anti-Party Clique".[6]: 20–27  On 16 May, the Politburo formalized the decisions by releasing an official document condemning Peng and his "anti-party allies" in the strongest terms, disbanding his "Five Man Group", and replacing it with the Maoist Cultural Revolution Group (CRG).[6]: 27–35 

1966: Outbreak

The Cultural Revolution can be divided into two main periods:

The early phase was characterized by mass movement and political pluralization.[9] Virtually anyone could create a political organization, even without party approval.[9] Known as Red Guards, these organizations originally arose in schools and universities and later in factories and other institutions.[9] After 1968, most of these organizations ceased to exist, although their legacies were a topic of controversy later.[9]


Main article: 16 May Notification

The 16 May Notification

In May 1966, an expanded session of the Politburo was called in Beijing. The conference was laden with Maoist political rhetoric on class struggle and filled with meticulously prepared 'indictments' of recently ousted leaders such as Peng Zhen and Luo Ruiqing. One of these documents, distributed on 16 May, was prepared with Mao's personal supervision and was particularly damning:[6]: 39-40 

Those representatives of the bourgeoisie who have sneaked into the Party, the government, the army, and various spheres of culture are a bunch of counter-revolutionary revisionists. Once conditions are ripe, they will seize political power and turn the dictatorship of the proletariat into a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Some of them we have already seen through; others we have not. Some are still trusted by us and are being trained as our successors, persons like Khrushchev for example, who are still nestling beside us.[6]: 47 

Later known as the "16 May Notification", this document summarized Mao's ideological justification for CR.[6]: 40  Initially kept secret, distributed only among high-ranking party members, it was later declassified and published in People's Daily on 17 May 1967.[6]: 41  Effectively it implied that enemies of the Communist cause could be found within the Party: class enemies who "wave the red flag to oppose the red flag." The only way to identify these people was through "the telescope and microscope of Mao Zedong Thought."[6]: 46  While the party leadership was relatively united in approving Mao's agenda, many Politburo members were not enthusiastic, or simply confused about the direction.[10]: 13  The charges against party leaders such as Peng disturbed China's intellectual community and the eight non-Communist parties.[6]: 41 

Mass rallies (May–June)

"Sweep Away All Cow Demons and Snake Spirits", an editorial published on the front page of People's Daily on 1 June 1966, calling for the proletariat to "completely eradicate" the "Four Olds [...] that have poisoned the people of China for thousands of years, fostered by the exploiting classes".[11]: 50- 

After the purge of Peng Zhen, the Beijing Party Committee effectively ceased to function, paving the way for disorder in the capital. On 25 May, under the guidance of Cao Yi'ou [zh]—wife of Mao loyalist Kang Sheng—Nie Yuanzi, a philosophy lecturer at Peking University, authored a big-character poster along with other leftists and posted it to a public bulletin. Nie attacked the university's party administration and its leader Lu Ping.[6]: 56–58  Nie insinuated that the university leadership, much like Peng, were trying to contain revolutionary fervor in a "sinister" attempt to oppose the party and advance revisionism.[6]: 56–58 

Mao promptly endorsed Nie's poster as "the first Marxist big-character poster in China". Approved by Mao, the poster rippled across educational institutions. Students began to revolt against their school's party establishments. Classes were cancelled in Beijing primary and secondary schools, followed by a decision on 13 June to expand the class suspension nationwide.[6]: 59–61  By early June, throngs of young demonstrators lined the capital's major thoroughfares holding giant portraits of Mao, beating drums, and shouting slogans.[6]: 59–61 

When the dismissal of Peng and the municipal party leadership became public in early June, confusion was widespread. The public and foreign missions were kept in the dark on the reason for Peng's ousting.[6]: 62–64  Top Party leadership was caught off guard by the sudden protest wave and struggled with how to respond.[6]: 62–64  After seeking Mao's guidance in Hangzhou, Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping decided to send in 'work teams'—effectively 'ideological guidance' squads of cadres—to the city's schools and People's Daily to restore some semblance of order and re-establish party control.[6]: 62–64 

The work teams had a poor understanding of student sentiment. Unlike the political movement of the 1950s that squarely targeted intellectuals, the new movement was focused on established party cadres, many of whom were part of the work teams. As a result, the work teams came under increasing suspicion as thwarting revolutionary fervor.[6]: 71  Party leadership subsequently became divided over whether or not work teams should continue. Liu Shaoqi insisted on continuing work-team involvement and suppressing the movement's most radical elements, fearing that the movement would spin out of control.[6]: 75 

Bombard the Headquarters (July)

Mao–Liu conflict
Mao Zedong, Chairman
Liu Shaoqi, President
In 1966, Mao broke with Liu Shaoqi (right), then serving as President, over the work-teams issue. Mao's polemic Bombard the Headquarters was widely recognized as targeting Liu, the purported "bourgeois" party headquarters
Mao waves to the crowd on the banks of the Yangtze before his swim across, July 1966

In Beijing Mao criticized party leadership for its handling of the work-teams issue. Mao accused the work teams of undermining the student movement, calling for their full withdrawal on July 24. Several days later a rally was held at the Great Hall of the People to announce the decision and reveal the tone of the movement to teachers and students. At the rally, Party leaders encouraged the masses to 'not be afraid' and take charge of the movement, free of Party interference.[6]: 84 

The work-teams issue marked a decisive defeat for Liu; it also signaled that disagreement over how to handle the CR's unfolding events would irreversibly split Mao from the party leadership. On 1 August, the Eleventh Plenum of the 8th Central Committee was convened to advance Mao's radical agenda. At the plenum, Mao showed outright disdain for Liu, repeatedly interrupting him as he delivered his opening day speech.[6]: 94 

For several days, Mao repeatedly insinuated that the party's leadership had contravened his revolutionary vision. Mao's line of thinking received a lukewarm reception from conference attendees. Sensing that the largely obstructive party elite was unwilling to embrace his revolutionary ideology on a full scale, Mao went on the offensive.[citation needed]

Red Guards in Beijing
From left: (1) Students at Beijing Normal University making big-character posters denouncing Liu Shaoqi; (2) Big-characters posted at Peking University; (3) Students at No. 23 Middle School in Beijing reading People's Daily during the "Resume Classes" campaign

On July 28, Red Guard representatives wrote to Mao, calling for rebellion and upheaval to safeguard the revolution. Mao then responded to the letters by writing his own big-character poster entitled Bombard the Headquarters, rallying people to target the "command centre (i.e., Headquarters) of counterrevolution." Mao wrote that despite having undergone a communist revolution, a "bourgeois" elite was still thriving in "positions of authority" in the government and Party.[12]

Although no names were mentioned, this provocative statement has been interpreted as a direct indictment of the party establishment under Liu and Deng—the purported "bourgeois headquarters" of China. The personnel changes at the Plenum reflected a radical re-design of the party hierarchy. Liu and Deng kept their seats on the Politburo Standing Committee, but were sidelined from day-to-day party affairs. Lin Biao was elevated to become the CCP's number-two; Liu's rank went from second to eighth and was no longer Mao's heir apparent.[12]

A struggle session targeting Liu Shaoqi's wife Wang Guangmei

Along with the top leadership losing power the entire national Party bureaucracy was purged. The extensive Organization Department, in charge of party personnel, virtually ceased to exist. The Cultural Revolution Group (CRG), Mao's ideological 'Praetorian Guard', was catapulted to prominence. The top officials in the Propaganda Department were sacked, with many of its functions folded into the CRG.[6]: 96 

Red August and the Sixteen Points

Main article: Red August

Mao and Lin Biao surrounded by rallying Red Guards in Beijing, December 1966

The Little Red Book was the mechanism that led the Red Guards to commit to their objective as China's future. Quotes directly from Mao led to actions by the Red Guards in the views of other Maoist leaders.[6]: 107  By December 1967, 350 million copies had been printed.[13]: 61–64  One of these was the famous line "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." The passage continues:

Revolutionary war is an antitoxin which not only eliminates the enemy's poison but also purges us of our filth. Every just, revolutionary war is endowed with tremendous power and can transform many things or clear the way for their transformation. The Sino-Japanese war will transform both China and Japan; Provided China perseveres in the War of Resistance and in the united front, the old Japan will surely be transformed into a new Japan and the old China into a new China, and people and everything else in both China and Japan will be transformed during and after the war. The world is yours, as well as ours, but in the last analysis, it is yours. You young people, full of vigor and vitality, are in the bloom of life, like the sun at eight or nine in the morning. Our hope is placed on you ... The world belongs to you. China's future belongs to you.

During the Red August of Beijing, on August 8, 1966, the party's General Committee passed its "Decision Concerning the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution," later to be known as the "Sixteen Points". This decision defined the Cultural Revolution 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:"[14][6]: 92–93 

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 endeavour to stage a comeback. The proletariat must do the exact opposite: it must meet head-on every challenge of the bourgeoisie ... to change the mental outlook of the whole of society. At present, our objective is to struggle against and overthrow 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 not in correspondence with the socialist economic base, so as to facilitate the consolidation and development of the socialist system.

The implications of the Sixteen Points were far-reaching. It elevated what was previously a student movement to a nationwide mass campaign that would galvanize workers, farmers, soldiers and lower-level party functionaries to rise, challenge authority, and re-shape the superstructure of society.

Tiananmen Square on 15 September 1966, the occasion of Chairman Mao's third of eight mass rallies with Red Guards in 1966.[15]

On 18 August in Beijing, over a million Red Guards from across the country gathered in and around Tiananmen Square for an audience with the chairman.[6]: 106–07  Mao mingled with Red Guards and encouraged them, donning a Red Guard armband.[10]: 66  Lin also took centre stage, denouncing perceived enemies in society that were impeding the "progress of the revolution".[10]: 66  Subsequently, violence escalated in Beijing and quickly spread.[16][17] The 18 August rally was filmed and shown to approximately 100 million people in its first month of release.[18]: 53 

On 22 August, a central directive was issued to prevent police intervention in Red Guard activities, and those in the police force who defied this notice were labeled counter-revolutionaries.[6]: 124  Central officials lifted restraints on violent behavior.[6]: 126  Xie Fuzhi, the national police chief, often pardoned Red Guards for their "crimes".[6]: 125 

The campaign included incidents of torture, murder, and public humiliation. Many people who were indicted as counter-revolutionaries died by suicide. During Red August 1,772 people were murdered in Beijing; many of the victims were teachers who were attacked or killed by their own students.[19] Shanghai experienced 704 suicides and 534 deaths in September. In Wuhan, 62 suicides and 32 murders occurred during the same period.[6]: 124  Peng Dehuai was brought to Beijing to be publicly ridiculed.

Destruction of the Four Olds (August–November)

Main article: Four Olds

The remains of Wanli Emperor at the Ming tombs. Red Guards dragged the remains of the Wanli Emperor and Empresses to the front of the tomb, where they were posthumously "denounced" and burned[20]

Between August and November 1966, eight mass rallies were held, drawing in 12 million people, most of whom were Red Guards.[6]: 106  The government bore the travel expenses of Red Guards.[6]: 110 

At the rallies, Lin called for the destruction of the "Four Olds"; namely, old customs, culture, habits, and ideas.[10]: 66  Some changes associated with the "Four Olds" campaign were mainly benign, such as assigning new names to city streets, places, and even people; millions of babies were born with "revolutionary" names.[21]

Other aspects were more destructive, particularly in the realms of culture and religion. Historical sites throughout the country were destroyed. The damage was particularly pronounced in the capital, Beijing. Red Guards laid siege to the Temple of Confucius in Qufu,[6]: 119  and other historically significant tombs and artifacts.[22]

Libraries of historical and foreign texts were destroyed; books were burned. Temples, churches, mosques, monasteries, and cemeteries were closed and sometimes converted to other uses, or looted and destroyed.[23] Marxist propaganda depicted Buddhism as superstition, and religion was looked upon as a means of hostile foreign infiltration, as well as an instrument of the ruling class.[24] Clergy were arrested and sent to camps; many Tibetan Buddhists were forced to participate in the destruction of their monasteries at gunpoint.[24]

Central Work Conference (October)

In October 1966, Mao convened a "Central Work Conference", mostly to enlist party leaders who had not yet adopted the latest ideology. Liu and Deng were prosecuted and begrudgingly offered self-criticism.[6]: 137  After the conference, Liu, once a powerful moderate pundit, was placed under house arrest, then sent to a detention camp, where he was denied medical treatment and died in 1969. Deng was sent away for a period of re-education three times and was eventually sent to work in an engine factory in Jiangxi. Rebellion by party cadres accelerated after the conference.[26]

End of the year

In Macau, rioting broke out during the 12-3 incident.[27]: 84  The event was prompted by the colonial government's delays in approving a new wing for a CCP elementary school in Taipa.[27]: 84  The school board illegally began construction, but the colonial government sent police to stop the workers. Several people were injured in the resulting melee.[27]: 84  On December 3, 1966, two days of rioting occurred in which hundreds were injured and six[27]: 84  to eight were killed, leading to a total climb down by the Portuguese government.[28] The event set in motion Portugal's de facto abdication of control over Macau, putting Macau on the path to eventual absorption by China.[27]: 84–85 

1967: Seizure of power

See also: Seizure of power (Cultural Revolution), Violent struggle, and Rebel Faction (Cultural Revolution)

PLA officers and soldiers reading books for the "Three Supports and Two Militaries", 1968

Mass organizations coalesced into two hostile factions, the radicals who backed Mao's purge of the Communist party, and the conservatives who backed the moderate party establishment. The "support the left" policy was established in January 1967.[29] Mao's policy was to support the rebels in seizing power; it required the PLA to support "the broad masses of the revolutionary leftists in their struggle to seize power."[29]

In March 1967, the policy was adapted into the "Three Supports and Two Militaries" initiative, in which PLA troops were sent to schools and work units across the country to stabilize political tumult and end factional warfare.[30]: 345  The three "Supports" were to "support the left", "support the interior", "support industry". The "two Militaries" referred to "military management" and "military training".[30]: 345  The policy of supporting the left failed to define "leftists" at a time when almost all mass organizations claimed to be "leftist" or "revolutionary".[29] PLA commanders had developed close working relations with the party establishment, leading many military units to repress radicals.[31]

Spurred by the events in Beijing, "power seizure groups" formed across the country and began expanding into factories and the countryside. In Shanghai, a young factory worker named Wang Hongwen organized a far-reaching revolutionary coalition, one that displaced existing Red Guard groups. On January 3, 1967, with support from CRG heavyweights Zhang Chunqiao and Yao Wenyuan, the group of firebrand activists overthrew the Shanghai municipal government under Chen Pixian in what became known as the "January Storm", and formed in its place the Shanghai People's Commune.[32][13]: 115  Mao then expressed his approval.[33]

Rebel factions of Red Guards marching in Shanghai, 1967

Shanghai's was the first provincial level government overthrown.[33] Provincial governments and many parts of the state and party bureaucracy were affected, with power seizures taking place. In the next three weeks, 24 more province-level governments were overthrown.[33] "Revolutionary committees" were subsequently established, in place of local governments and branches of the Communist Party.[34] For example, in Beijing, three separate revolutionary groups declared power seizures on the same day. In Heilongjiang, local party secretary Pan Fusheng seized power from the party organization under his own leadership. Some leaders even wrote the CRG asking to be overthrown.[6]: 170–72 

In Beijing, Jiang Qing and Zhang Chunqiao targeted Vice-Premier Tao Zhu. The power-seizure movement was appearing in the military as well. In February, prominent generals Ye Jianying and Chen Yi, as well as Vice-Premier Tan Zhenlin, vocally asserted their opposition to the more extreme aspects of the movement, with some party elders insinuating that the CRG's real motives were to remove the revolutionary old guard. Mao, initially ambivalent, took to the Politburo floor on February 18 to denounce the opposition directly, endorsing the radicals' activities. This resistance was branded the "February Countercurrent"[6]: 195–96 —effectively silencing critics within the party.[10]: 207–09 

Red Guards marching in Guizhou, 1967. The banner in the center reads: "The People's Liberation Army firmly supports the proletarian revolutionary faction."

Although in early 1967 popular insurgencies were limited outside of the biggest cities, local governments began collapsing all across China.[35]: 21  Revolutionaries dismantled ruling government and party organizations, because power seizures lacked centralized leadership, it was no longer clear who believed in Mao's revolutionary vision and who was exploiting the chaos for their own gain. The formation of rival revolutionary groups and manifestations of long-established local feuds, led to violent struggles between factions.

Tension grew between mass organizations and the military. In response, Lin Biao issued a directive for the army to aid the radicals. At the same time, the army took control of some provinces and locales that were deemed incapable of handling the power transition.[10]: 219–21 

In Wuhan, as in many other cities, two major revolutionary organizations emerged, one supporting and one attacking the conservative establishment. Chen Zaidao, the Army general in charge of the area, forcibly repressed the anti-establishment demonstrators. Mao flew to Wuhan with a large entourage of central officials in an attempt to secure military loyalty in the area. On July 20, 1967, local agitators in response kidnapped Mao's emissary Wang Li, in what became known as the Wuhan Incident. Subsequently, Chen was sent to Beijing and tried by Jiang Qing and the rest of the CRG. Chen's resistance was the last major open display of opposition within the PLA.[6]: 214 

The Gang of Four's Zhang Chunqiao admitted that the most crucial factor in the Cultural Revolution was not the Red Guards or the CRG or the "rebel worker" organisations, but the PLA. When the PLA local garrison supported Mao's radicals, they were able to take over the local government successfully, but if they were not cooperative, the takeovers were unsuccessful.[6]: 175  Violent clashes occurred in virtually all major cities.[36]

In response to the Wuhan Incident, Mao and Jiang began establishing a "workers' armed self-defense force", a "revolutionary armed force of mass character" to counter what he saw as rightism in "75% of the PLA officer corps." Chongqing city, a center of arms manufacturing, was the site of ferocious armed clashes, with one construction site in the city estimated to involve 10,000 combatants with tanks, mobile artillery, anti-aircraft guns and "virtually every kind of conventional weapon." Ten thousand artillery shells were fired in Chongqing during August 1967.[6]: 214–15 

Nationwide, a total of 18.77 million firearms, 14,828 artillery pieces, 2,719,545 grenades ended up in civilian hands. They were used in the course of violent struggles, which mostly took place from 1967 to 1968. In Chongqing, Xiamen, and Changchun, tanks, armored vehicles and even warships were deployed in combat.[31]

1968: Purges

See also: Cleansing the Class Ranks

A rally in opposition to Liu Shaoqi

In May 1968, Mao launched a massive political purge. Many people were sent to the countryside to work in reeducation camps. Generally, the campaign targeted rebels from the CR's earlier, more populist, phase.[30]: 239 

On 27 July, the Red Guards' power over the PLA was officially ended, and the establishment sent in units to besiege areas that remained untouched by the Guards. A year later, the Red Guard factions were dismantled entirely; Mao predicted that the chaos might begin running its own agenda and be tempted to turn against revolutionary ideology. Their purpose had been largely fulfilled; Mao and his radical colleagues had largely overturned established power.[citation needed]

Liu was expelled from the CCP at the 12th Plenum of the 8th Central Committee in September, and labelled the "headquarters of the bourgeoisie".[37]

Mao meets with Red Guard leaders (July)

As the Red Guard movement had waned over the preceding year, violence by the remaining Red Guards increased on some Beijing campuses.[38] Violence was particularly pronounced at Qinghua University, where a few thousand hardliners of two factions continued to fight.[39] At Mao's initiative, on 27 July 1968, tens of thousands of workers entered the Qinghua campus shouting slogans in opposition to the violence.[39] Red Guards attacked the workers, who remained peaceful.[39] Ultimately, the workers disarmed the students and occupied the campus.[39]

On July 28, 1968, Mao and the Central Group met with the five most important remaining Beijing Red Guard leaders to address the movement's excessive violence and political exhaustion.[38] It was the only time during the Cultural Revolution that Mao met and addressed the student leaders directly. In response to a Red Guard leader's telegram sent prior to the meeting, which claimed that some "Black Hand" had maneuvered the workers against the Red Guards, Mao told the student leaders, "The Black Hand is nobody else but me! ... I asked [the workers] how to solve the armed fighting in the universities, and told them to go there to have a look."[40]

During the meeting, Mao and the Central Group for the Cultural Revolution stated, "[W]e want cultural struggle, we do not want armed struggle" and "The masses do not want civil war."[41] Mao told the student leaders:[42]

You have been involved in the Cultural Revolution for two years: struggle-criticism-transformation. Now, first, you're not struggling; second, you're not criticizing; and third, you're not transforming. Or rather, you are struggling, but it's an armed struggle. The people are not happy, the workers are not happy, city residents are not happy, most people in schools are not happy, most of the students even in your schools are not happy. Even within the faction that supports you, there are unhappy people. Is this the way to unify the world?

Mao's cult of personality and "mango fever" (August)

Main article: Mango cult

See also: Mao Zedong's cult of personality

A propaganda oil painting of Mao during the Cultural Revolution (1967)

In the spring of 1968, a massive campaign aimed at enhancing Mao's reputation began. A notable example was the "mango fever". On 4 August, Mao was presented with mangoes by the Pakistani foreign minister Syed Sharifuddin Pirzada, in an apparent diplomatic gesture.[43] Mao had his aide send the box of mangoes to his propaganda team at Tsinghua University on 5 August, who were stationed there to quiet strife among Red Guard factions.[44][43] On 7 August, an article was published in People's Daily, saying:

In the afternoon of the fifth, when the great happy news of Chairman Mao giving mangoes to the Capital Worker and Peasant Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Team reached the Tsinghua University campus, people immediately gathered around the gift given by the Great Leader Chairman Mao. They cried out enthusiastically and sang with wild abandonment. Tears swelled up in their eyes, and they again and again sincerely wished that our most beloved Great Leader lived ten thousand years without bounds ... They all made phone calls to their own work units to spread this happy news; and they also organised all kinds of celebratory activities all night long, and arrived at [the national leadership compound] Zhongnanhai despite the rain to report the good news, and to express their loyalty to the Great Leader Chairman Mao.[44]

Poster featuring mangoes, 1968

Subsequent articles also propagandized the mangoes,[45] and another poem in the People's Daily said: "Seeing that golden mango/Was as if seeing the great leader Chairman Mao ... Again and again touching that golden mango/the golden mango was so warm."[46] Few people at this time had ever seen a mango before, and a mango was seen as "a fruit of extreme rarity, like Mushrooms of Immortality."[46]

One mango was sent to the Beijing Textile Factory,[44] whose revolutionary committee organized a rally in its honor.[45] Workers read quotations from Mao and celebrated the gift. Altars prominently displayed the fruit. When the mango began to rot after a few days, the fruit was peeled and boiled. Workers then filed by and each was given a spoonful of mango water. The revolutionary committee made a wax replica and displayed it in the factory.[44]

Several months of "mango fever" followed as the fruit became a focus of a "boundless loyalty" campaign for Mao. More replica mangoes were created, and the replicas were sent on tour around Beijing and elsewhere. Many revolutionary committees visited the mangoes in Beijing from outlying provinces. Approximately half a million people greeted the replicas when they arrived in Chengdu. Badges and wall posters featuring the mangoes and Mao were produced in the millions.[44]

The fruit was shared among all institutions that had been a part of the propaganda team, and large processions were organized in support of the "precious gift", as the mangoes were known.[47] A dentist in a small town, Dr. Han, saw the mango and said it was nothing special and looked just like a sweet potato. He was put on trial for "malicious slander", found guilty, paraded publicly throughout the town, and then shot in the head.[46][48]

It has been claimed that Mao used the mangoes to express support for the workers who would go to whatever lengths necessary to end the factional fighting among students, and a "prime example of Mao's strategy of symbolic support."[45] Through early 1969, participants of Mao Zedong Thought study classes in Beijing returned with mass-produced mango facsimiles, gaining media attention in the provinces.[47]

Down to the Countryside Movement (December)

Main article: Down to the Countryside Movement

In December 1968, Mao began the Down to the Countryside Movement. During this movement, which lasted for the following decade, young bourgeoisie living in cities were ordered to go to the countryside to experience working life. The term "young intellectuals" was used to refer to recent college graduates. In the late 1970s, these students returned to their home cities. Many students who were previously Red Guard supported the movement and Mao's vision. This movement was thus in part a means of moving Red Guards from the cities to the countryside, where they would cause less social disruption. It also served to spread revolutionary ideology geographically.[49]

1969–71: Lin Biao

The 9th National Congress was held in April 1969. It served as a means to "revitalize" the party with fresh thinking—as well as new cadres, after much of the old guard had been destroyed in the struggles of the preceding years.[6]: 285  The party framework established two decades earlier broke down almost entirely: rather than through an election by party members, delegates for this Congress were effectively selected by Revolutionary Committees.[6]: 288  Representation of the military increased by a large margin from the previous Congress, reflected in the election of more PLA members to the new Central Committee—over 28%.[6]: 292  Many officers now elevated to senior positions were loyal to PLA Marshal Lin Biao, which would open a new rift between the military and civilian leadership.[6]: 292 

We do not only feel boundless joy because we have as our great leader the greatest Marxist–Leninist of our era, Chairman Mao, but also great joy because we have Vice Chairman Lin as Chairman Mao's universally recognized successor.

— Premier Zhou Enlai at the 9th Party Congress[50]

Reflecting this, Lin was officially elevated to become the Party's preeminent figure outside of Mao, with his name written into the party constitution as his "closest comrade-in-arms" and "universally recognized successor".[6]: 291  At the time, no other Communist parties or governments anywhere in the world had adopted the practice of enshrining a successor to the current leader into their constitutions. Lin delivered the keynote address at the Congress: a document drafted by hardliner leftists Yao Wenyuan and Zhang Chunqiao under Mao's guidance.[6]: 289 

The report was heavily critical of Liu Shaoqi and other "counter-revolutionaries" and drew extensively from quotations in the Little Red Book. The Congress solidified the central role of Maoism within the party, re-introducing Maoism as the official guiding ideology in the party constitution. The Congress elected a new Politburo with Mao, Lin, Chen, Zhou Enlai and Kang as the members of the new Politburo Standing Committee.[6]: 290 

Lin, Chen, and Kang were all beneficiaries of the Cultural Revolution. Zhou, who was demoted in rank, voiced his unequivocal support for Lin at the Congress.[6]: 290  Mao restored the function of some formal party institutions, such as the operations of the Politburo, which ceased functioning between 1966 and 1968 because the CCRG held de facto control.[6]: 296 

In early 1970, the nationwide "One Strike-Three Anti Campaign" was launched by Mao and the Communist Party Central, aiming to consolidate the new organs of power by targeting counterrevolutionary thoughts and actions.[1] A large number of "minor criminals" were executed or forced to commit suicide between 1970 and 1972.[51][52] According to government statistics released after the Cultural Revolution, during the campaign 1.87 million people were persecuted as traitors, spies, and counterrevolutionaries, and over 284,800 were arrested or killed from February to November 1970 alone.[1]

PLA encroachment

Mao (left) and Lin (right) in 1967, riding in the back of a vehicle during an International Workers' Day parade

Mao's efforts at re-organizing party and state institutions generated mixed results. The situation in some of the provinces remained volatile, even as the political situation in Beijing stabilized. Factional struggles, many violent, continued at a local level despite the declaration that the 9th National Congress marked a temporary victory for the CR.[6]: 316  Furthermore, despite Mao's efforts to put on a show of unity at the Congress, the factional divide between Lin's PLA camp and the Jiang-led radical camp was intensifying. Indeed, a personal dislike of Jiang drew many civilian leaders, including Chen, closer to Lin.[53]: 115 

Between 1966 and 1968, China was isolated internationally, having declared its enmity towards both the USSR and the US. The friction with the USSR intensified after border clashes on the Ussuri River in March 1969 as Chinese leaders prepared for all-out war.[6]: 317  In June 1969, the PLA's enforcement of political discipline and suppression of the factions that had emerged during the Cultural Revolution became intertwined with the central Party's efforts to accelerate Third Front work.[7]: 150  Those who did not return to work would be viewed as engaging in 'schismatic activity' which risked undermining preparations to defend China from potential invasion.[7]: 150–151 

In October 1969, the Party attempted to focus more on war preparedness and less on suppressing factions.[7]: 151  That month, senior leaders were evacuated from Beijing.[6]: 317  Amidst the tension, Lin issued what appeared to be an executive order to prepare for war to the PLA's eleven military regions on October 18 without going through Mao. This drew the ire of the chairman, who saw it as evidence that his declared successor was usurping his authority.[6]: 317 

The prospect of war elevated the PLA to greater prominence in domestic politics, increasing Lin's stature at Mao's expense.[6]: 321  Some evidence suggests that Mao was pushed to seek closer relations with the US as a means to avoid PLA dominance that would result from a military confrontation with the Soviet Union.[6]: 321  During his later meeting with Richard Nixon in 1972, Mao hinted that Lin had opposed better relations with the U.S.[6]: 322 

Restoration of State Chairman position

Liu Shaoqi on his deathbed in 1969

After Lin was confirmed as Mao's successor, his supporters focused on the restoration of the position of State Chairman,[note 2] which had been abolished by Mao after Liu's purge. They hoped that by allowing Lin to ease into a constitutionally sanctioned role, whether Chairman or vice-chairman, Lin's succession would be institutionalized. The consensus within the Politburo was that Mao should assume the office with Lin as vice-chairman; but perhaps wary of Lin's ambitions or for other unknown reasons, Mao voiced his explicit opposition.[6]: 327 

Factional rivalries intensified at the Second Plenum of the Ninth Congress in Lushan held in late August 1970. Chen, now aligned with the PLA faction loyal to Lin, galvanized support for the restoration of the office of President of China, despite Mao's wishes.[6]: 331  Moreover, Chen launched an assault on Zhang, a staunch Maoist who embodied the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, over the evaluation of Mao's legacy.[6]: 328 

The attacks on Zhang found favour with many Plenum attendees and may have been construed by Mao as an indirect attack on the CR. Mao confronted Chen openly, denouncing him as a "false Marxist",[6]: 332  and removed him from the Politburo Standing Committee. In addition to the purge of Chen, Mao asked Lin's principal generals to write self-criticisms on their political positions as a warning to Lin. Mao also inducted several of his supporters to the Central Military Commission and placed loyalists in leadership roles of the Beijing Military Region.[6]: 332 

Project 571

Main article: Project 571

By 1971, the diverging interests of the civilian and military leaders was apparent. Mao was troubled by the PLA's newfound prominence, and the purge of Chen marked the beginning of a gradual scaling-down of the PLA's political involvement.[6]: 353  According to official sources, sensing the reduction of Lin's power base and his declining health, Lin's supporters plotted to use the military power still at their disposal to oust Mao in a coup.[53]

Lin's son Lin Liguo, along with other high-ranking military conspirators, formed a coup apparatus in Shanghai and dubbed the plan to oust Mao Outline for Project 571—in the original Mandarin, the phrase sounds similar to the term for 'military uprising'. It is disputed whether Lin Biao was directly involved in this process. While official sources maintain that Lin did plan and execute the coup attempt, scholars such as Jin Qiu portray Lin as passive, cajoled by elements among his family and supporters.[53] Qiu contests that Lin Biao was ever personally involved in drafting the Outline, with evidence suggesting that Lin Liguo was directly responsible for the draft.[53]

The Outline allegedly consisted mainly of plans for aerial bombardments through use of the Air Force. It initially targeted Zhang Chunqiao and Yao Wenyuan, but evolved to include Mao. If the plan succeeded, Lin would arrest his political rivals and assume power. Assassination attempts were alleged to have been made against Mao in Shanghai, from September 8 to 10, 1971. Perceived risks to Mao's safety were allegedly relayed to the chairman. One internal report alleged that Lin had planned to bomb a bridge that Mao was to cross to reach Beijing; Mao reportedly avoided this bridge after receiving intelligence reports.[citation needed]

Lin's flight and plane crash

Main article: Lin Biao incident

Graffiti of Lin Biao's foreword to the Little Red Book, with his name (lower right) later scratched out

According to the official narrative, on 13 September Lin Biao, his wife Ye Qun, Lin Liguo, and members of his staff attempted to flee to the USSR ostensibly to seek political asylum. En route, Lin's plane crashed in Mongolia, killing all on board. The plane apparently ran out of fuel. A Soviet investigative team was not able to determine the cause of the crash but hypothesized that the pilot was flying low to evade radar and misjudged the plane's altitude.

The official account was questioned by foreign scholars, who raised doubts over Lin's choice of the USSR as a destination, the plane's route, the identity of the passengers, and whether or not a coup was actually taking place.[53][54]

On 13 September, the Politburo met in an emergency session to discuss Lin. His death was confirmed in Beijing only on 30 September, which led to the cancellation of the National Day celebration events the following day. The Central Committee did not release news of Lin's death to the public until two months later.[53] Many Lin supporters sought refuge in Hong Kong. Those who remained on the mainland were purged.[53]

The event caught the party leadership off guard: the concept that Lin could betray Mao de-legitimized a vast body of Cultural Revolution political rhetoric and by extension, Mao's absolute authority. For several months following the incident, the party information apparatus struggled to find a "correct way" to frame the incident for public consumption, but as the details came to light, the majority of the Chinese public felt disillusioned and realised they had been manipulated for political purposes.[53]

1972–76: The Gang of Four

Main article: Gang of Four

Mao became depressed and reclusive after the Lin incident. With Lin gone, Mao had no answer for who would succeed him. Sensing a sudden loss of direction, Mao reached out to old comrades whom he had denounced in the past. Meanwhile, in September 1972, Mao transferred a 38-year-old cadre from Shanghai, Wang Hongwen, to Beijing and made him Party vice-chairman.[6]: 357  Wang, a former factory worker from a peasant background,[6]: 357  was seemingly getting groomed for succession.[6]: 364 

Jiang's position strengthened after Lin's flight. She held tremendous influence with the radical camp. With Mao's health on the decline, Jiang's political ambitions began to emerge. She allied herself with Wang and propaganda specialists Zhang Chunqiao and Yao Wenyuan, forming a political clique later pejoratively dubbed as the Gang of Four.[55]

Jiang Qing (left) receiving Red Guards in Beijing with Zhou Enlai (center) and Kang Sheng, with each holding a copy of the Little Red Book

By 1973, round after round of political struggles had left many lower-level institutions, including local government, factories, and railways, short of competent staff to carry out basic functions.[6]: 340  China's economy had fallen into disarray, which led to the rehabilitation of purged lower-level officials. The party's core became heavily dominated by Cultural Revolution beneficiaries and radicals, whose focus remained ideological purity over economic productivity. The economy remained mostly Zhou's domain, one of the few remaining moderates. Zhou attempted to restore the economy, but was resented by the Gang of Four, who identified him as their primary political succession threat.[56]

In late 1973, to weaken Zhou's political position and to distance themselves from Lin's apparent betrayal, the "Criticize Lin, Criticize Confucius" campaign began under Jiang's leadership.[6]: 366  Its stated goals were to purge China of New Confucianist thinking and denounce Lin's actions as traitorous and regressive.[6]: 372 

Deng Xiaoping's rehabilitation (1975)

With a fragile economy and Zhou falling ill to cancer, Deng Xiaoping returned to the political scene, assuming the post of Vice-Premier in March 1973, in the first of a series of Mao-approved promotions. After Zhou withdrew from active politics in January 1975, Deng was effectively put in charge of the government, party, and military, then adding the additional titles of PLA General Chief of Staff, Vice Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, and vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission.[6]: 381 

The speed of Deng's rehabilitation took the radical camp by surprise. Mao wanted to use Deng as a counterweight to the military faction in government to suppress former Lin loyalists. In addition, Mao had also lost confidence in the Gang of Four and saw Deng as the alternative. Leaving the country in grinding poverty would damage the positive legacy of the CR, which Mao worked hard to protect. Deng's return set the scene for a protracted factional struggle between the radical Gang of Four and moderates led by Zhou and Deng.[citation needed]

At the time, Jiang and associates held effective control of mass media and the party's propaganda network, while Zhou and Deng held control of most government organs. On some decisions, Mao sought to mitigate the Gang's influence, but on others, he acquiesced to their demands. The Gang of Four's political and media control did not prevent Deng from enacting his economic policies. Deng emphatically opposed Party factionalism, and his policies aimed to promote unity to restore economic productivity.[6]: 381 

Much like the post-Great Leap restructuring led by Liu Shaoqi, Deng streamlined the railway system, steel production, etc. By late 1975, however, Mao saw that Deng's economic restructuring might negate the CR's legacy and launched the Counterattack the Right-Deviationist Reversal-of-Verdicts Trend, a campaign to oppose "rehabilitating the case for the rightists," alluding to Deng as the country's foremost "rightist". Mao directed Deng to write self-criticisms in November 1975, a move lauded by the Gang of Four.[6]: 381 

Death of Zhou Enlai

On 8 January 1976, Zhou Enlai died of bladder cancer. On 15 January, Deng delivered Zhou's eulogy in a funeral attended by all of China's most senior leaders with the notable absence of Mao, who had grown increasingly critical of Zhou.[57]: 217–18 [58]: 610  After Zhou's death, Mao selected the relatively unknown Hua Guofeng instead of a member of the Gang of Four or Deng to become Premier.[59]

The Gang of Four grew apprehensive that spontaneous, large-scale popular support for Zhou could turn the political tide against them. They acted through the media to impose restrictions on public displays of mourning for Zhou. Years of resentment over the CR, the public persecution of Deng (seen as Zhou's ally), and the prohibition against public mourning led to a rise in popular discontent against Mao and the Gang of Four.[57]: 213 

Official attempts to enforce the mourning restrictions included removing public memorials and tearing down posters commemorating Zhou's achievements. On March 25, 1976, Shanghai's Wen Hui Bao published an article calling Zhou "the capitalist roader inside the Party [who] wanted to help the unrepentant capitalist roader [Deng] regain his power." These propaganda efforts at smearing Zhou's image, however, only strengthened public attachment to Zhou's memory.[57]: 214 

Tiananmen incident

Main article: 1976 Tiananmen incident

On 4 April 1976, on the eve of China's annual Qingming Festival, a traditional day of mourning, thousands of people gathered around the Monument to the People's Heroes in Tiananmen Square to commemorate Zhou. They honored Zhou by laying wreaths, banners, poems, placards, and flowers at the foot of the Monument.[58]: 612  The most apparent purpose of this memorial was to eulogize Zhou, but the Gang of Four were also attacked for their actions against the Premier. A small number of slogans left at Tiananmen even attacked Mao and his Cultural Revolution.[57]: 218 

Up to two million people may have visited Tiananmen Square on 4 April.[57]: 218  All levels of society, from the most impoverished peasants to high-ranking PLA officers and the children of high-ranking cadres, were represented in the activities. Those who participated were motivated by a mixture of anger over Zhou's treatment, revolt against the Cultural Revolution and apprehension for China's future. The event did not appear to have coordinated leadership.[57]: 219–20 

The Central Committee, under the leadership of Jiang Qing, labelled the event 'counter-revolutionary' and cleared the square of memorial items shortly after midnight on April 6. Attempts to suppress the mourners led to a riot. Police cars were set on fire, and a crowd of over 100,000 people forced its way into several government buildings surrounding the square.[58]: 612  Many of those arrested were later sentenced to prison. Similar incidents occurred in other major cities. Jiang and her allies attacked Deng as the incident's 'mastermind', and issued reports on official media to that effect. Deng was formally stripped of all positions inside and outside the Party on 7 April. This marked Deng's second purge.[58]: 612 

Death of Mao Zedong and the Gang of Four's downfall

See also: Death and state funeral of Mao Zedong

On 9 September 1976, Mao Zedong died. To Mao's supporters, his death symbolized the loss of China's revolutionary foundation. His death was announced on 9 September.[60] The nation descended into grief and mourning, with people weeping in the streets and public institutions closing for over a week. Hua Guofeng chaired the Funeral Committee and delivered the memorial speech.[61][62]

Shortly before dying, Mao had allegedly written the message "With you in charge, I'm at ease," to Hua. Hua used this message to substantiate his position as successor. Hua had been widely considered to be lacking in political skill and ambitions, and seemingly posed no serious threat to the Gang of Four in the race for succession. However, the Gang's radical ideas also clashed with influential elders and many Party reformers. With army backing and the support of Marshal Ye Jianying, Director of Central Office Wang Dongxing, Vice Premier Li Xiannian and party elder Chen Yun, on October 6, the Central Security Bureau's Special Unit 8341 had all members of the Gang of Four arrested in a bloodless coup.[63]

After Mao's death, people characterized as 'beating-smashing-looting elements', who were seen as having disturbed the social order during the CR, were purged or punished.[30]: 359  "Beating-smashing-looting elements" had typically been aligned with rebel factions.[30]: 359 


Transitional period

Although Hua publicly denounced the Gang of Four in 1976, he continued to invoke Mao's name to justify Mao-era policies. Hua spearheaded what became known as the Two Whatevers,[64] namely, "Whatever policy originated from Chairman Mao, we must continue to support," and "Whatever directions were given to us from Chairman Mao, we must continue to follow." Like Deng, Hua wanted to reverse the CR's damage; but unlike Deng, who wanted new economic models for China, Hua intended to move the Chinese economic and political system towards Soviet-style planning.[65][66]

It became increasingly clear to Hua, that without Deng, it was difficult to continue daily affairs of state. On October 10, Deng wrote a letter to Hua asking to be transferred back to state and party affairs; party elders also called for Deng's return. With increasing pressure from all sides, Premier Hua named Deng Vice-Premier in July 1977, and later promoted him to various other positions, effectively elevating Deng to be China's second-most powerful figure. In August, the 11th National Congress was held in Beijing, officially naming (in ranking order) Hua Guofeng, Ye Jianying, Deng Xiaoping, Li Xiannian and Wang Dongxing as new members of the Politburo Standing Committee.[67]

Repudiation and reform under Deng

See also: Boluan Fanzheng, 1978 Truth Criterion Controversy, and Reforms and Opening Up

Deng Xiaoping became the paramount leader of China in 1978. He started the process of reform and opening up

Deng Xiaoping first proposed what he called Boluan Fanzheng in September 1977 in order to correct the mistakes of the Cultural Revolution.[68][69] In May 1978, Deng seized the opportunity to elevate his protégé Hu Yaobang to power. Hu published an article in the Guangming Daily, making clever use of Mao's quotations, while lauding Deng's ideas. Following this article, Hua began to shift his tone in support of Deng. On 1 July, Deng publicized Mao's self-criticism report of 1962 regarding the failure of the Great Leap Forward. As his power base expanded, in September Deng began openly attacking Hua Guofeng's "Two Whatevers".[64]

On 18 December 1978, Third Plenum of the 11th Central Committee was held. At the congress, Deng called for "a liberation of thoughts" and urged the party to "seek truth from facts" and abandon ideological dogma. The Plenum officially marked the beginning of the economic reform era, as Deng rose to become the #2 leader of China. Hua Guofeng engaged in self-criticism and called his "Two Whatevers" a mistake. Mao's trusted ally Wang Dongxing was also criticized. At the Plenum, the Party reversed its verdict on the Tiananmen Incident. Former Chinese president Liu Shaoqi was given a belated state funeral.[70] Peng Dehuai, one of China's ten marshals and the first Minister of National Defense, who was persecuted to death during the Cultural Revolution was rehabilitated in 1978.

At the Fifth Plenum held in 1980, Peng Zhen, He Long and other leaders who had been purged during the Cultural Revolution were rehabilitated. Hu Yaobang became head of the party secretariat as its secretary-general. In September, Hua Guofeng resigned and Zhao Ziyang, another Deng ally, was named premier. Hua remained on the Central Military Commission, but formal power was transferred to a new generation of pragmatic reformers, who reversed Cultural Revolution policies to a large extent. Within a few years, Deng and Hu helped rehabilitate over 3 million "unjust, false, erroneous" cases.[71] In particular, the trial of the Gang of Four took place in Beijing from 1980 to 1981, and the court stated that 729,511 people had been persecuted by the Gang, of whom 34,800 were said to have died.[72]

In 1981, the Chinese Communist Party passed a resolution and declared that the Cultural Revolution was "responsible for the most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the Party, the country, and the people since the founding of the People's Republic."[73][74][75]


Death toll

A struggle session in September 1967 targeting Xi Zhongxun, the father of Xi Jinping, who had been labeled an "anti-party element"[76][77][78]

Fatality estimates vary across different sources, ranging from hundreds of thousands to millions, or even tens of millions.[79][80][81][82][83][84] In addition to various regimes of secrecy and obfuscation concerning the Revolution, both top-down as perpetuated by authorities, as well as laterally among the Chinese public in the decades since, the discrepancies are due in large part to the totalistic nature of the Revolution itself: it is a significant challenge for historians to discern whether and in what ways discrete events that took place during the Cultural Revolution should be ascribed to it.[85] For example, the 1975 Banqiao Dam failure, considered by some to be the greatest technological catastrophe of the 20th century, itself resulted in between 26,600 and 240,000 deaths. The scope of the collapse, which occurred near the end of the CR, was covered up by authorities until at least 1989.[86][87]

Most deaths occurred after the mass movements ended,[88] when organized campaigns attempted to consolidate order in workplaces and communities.[89]: 172  As Walder summarizes, "The cure for factional warfare was far worse than the disease."[88]

Literature reviews of the overall death toll due to the Cultural Revolution usually include the following:[80][90][91]

Time Source Deaths (in millions) Remarks
2014 Andrew G. Walder 1.1–1.6[92] Examines the period between 1966 and 1971.[92] Walder reviewed the reported deaths in 2,213 annals from every county and interpreted the annals' vague language in the most conservative manner. For instance, "some died" and "a couple died" were interpreted as zero death, while "death in the scale of tens/hundreds/thousands" were interpreted as "ten/a hundred/a thousand died". The reported deaths underestimate the actual deaths, especially because some annals actively covered up deaths.[80][91][93] Annal editors were supervised by the CCP Propaganda Department.[80][93] In 2003, Walder and Yang Su coauthored a paper along this approach, but with fewer county annals available at the time.[90][94]
1999 Ding Shu 2[95] Ding's figures include 100,000 killed in the Red Terror during 1966, with 200,000 forced to commit suicide, plus 300,000–500,000 killed in violent struggles, 500,000 during Cleansing the Class Ranks, 200,000 during One Strike-Three Anti Campaign and the Anti-May Sixteenth Elements Campaign.[95][80][90][91]
1996 CCP History Research Center 1.728[96] The 1.728 million were counted as "unnatural deaths", among which 9.4% (162,000) were CCP party members and 252,000 were intellectuals. The figures were extracted from 《建国以来历次政治运动事实》; 'Facts on the Successive Political Movements since the Founding of the PRC', a book by the party's History Research Center, which states that "according to CCP internal investigations in 1978 and 1984 ... 21.44 million were investigated, 125 million got implicated in these investigations; [...] 4.2 million were detained (by Red Guards and other non-police), 1.3 million were arrested by police, 1.728 million of unnatural deaths; [...] 135,000 were executed for crimes of counter-revolution; [...] during violent struggles 237,000 were killed and 7.03 million became disabled".[96][97] While these internal investigations were never mentioned or published in any other official documents, the scholarly consensus found these figures very reasonable.[91] Chen Yung-fa endorsed the figures, yet he noted that peasants suffered far more in the GLF than in the CR.[98]
1991 Rudolph J. Rummel 7.731[99] Rummel included his estimate of Laogai camp deaths in this figure.[90] He estimated that 5% of the 10 million people in the Laogai camps died each year of the 12-year period, and that this amounts to roughly 6 million. He estimated that another 1.613 million were killed outright, a middle-ground figure he picked between 285,000 and 10,385,000, a range he deemed plausible.[99]
1982 Ye Jianying 3.42–20[91][82] Several sources have quoted a statement made by Marshal Ye Jianying, of "683,000 deaths in the cities, 2.5 million deaths in the countryside, plus 123,700 deaths due to violent struggles and 115,500 deaths due to struggle sessions and imprisonment, in addition to 557,000 people missing."[91][96][100] In a 2012 interview with Hong Kong's Open Magazine, an unnamed bureaucrat in Beijing claimed that Ye made the statement in a 1982 CCP meeting, while he was the party's Vice Chairman.[91][100] Several sources have also quoted that Marshal Ye estimated the death toll to be 20 million during a CCP working conference in December 1978.[81][82][83][91]
1979 Agence France Presse 0.4[101] This figure was obtained by an AFP correspondent in Beijing, citing an unnamed but "usually reliable" source.[101] In 1986, Maurice Meisner referred to this number as a "widely accepted nationwide figure", but also said "The toll may well have been higher. It is unlikely that it was less."[102] Jonathan Leightner asserted that the number is "perhaps one of the best estimates".[103]


Quotations of Mao Zedong on a street wall of Wuxuan County, one of the centers of the Guangxi Massacre

Massacres took place across China, including in Guangxi, Inner Mongolia, Guangdong, Yunnan, Hunan, and Ruijin, as well as Red August in Beijing.[1]

These massacres were mainly led and organized by local revolutionary committees, Communist Party branches, militia, and the military.[1][104][105] Most victims were members of the Five Black Categories as well as their children, or members of "rebel groups". Chinese scholars have estimated that at least 300,000 people died in these massacres.[104][106] Collective killings in Guangxi and Guangdong were among the most serious. In Guangxi, the official annals of at least 43 counties have records of massacres, with 15 of them reporting a death toll of over 1,000, while in Guangdong at least 28 county annals record massacres, with 6 of them reporting a death toll of over 1,000.[105]

In 1975, the PLA led a massacre in Yunnan around the town of Shadian, targeting Hui people, resulting in the deaths of more than 1,600 civilians, including 300 children, and the destruction of 4,400 homes.[1][107][108]

In Dao County, Hunan, a total of 7,696 people were killed from 13 August to 17 October 1967, in addition to 1,397 forced to commit suicide, and 2,146 becoming permanently disabled.[109][110] During Red August, official sources in 1980 revealed that at least 1,772 people were killed by Red Guards, including teachers and principals of many schools. 33,695 homes were ransacked and 85,196 families were forced to flee.[19][111][112] The Daxing Massacre caused the deaths of 325 people from August 27 to September 1, 1966; those killed ranged from 80 years old to a 38-day old baby, with 22 families being completely wiped out.[1][111][113]

Cannibalism in Guangxi

In the Guangxi Massacre, the official record shows an estimated death toll from 100,000 to 150,000[114][115] between January and April 1968 in Guangxi, in one of the worst violent struggles of the Revolution, before Zhou sent the PLA to intervene.[116]: 545  Zheng Yi's Scarlet Memorial: Tales of Cannibalism in Modern China alleged "systematic killing and cannibalization of individuals in the name of political revolution and 'class struggle'" among the Zhuang people in Wuxuan County during that period.[117] Zheng was criticized for reliance on unpublished interviews and for the negative portrayal of a Chinese ethnic minority,[118] although senior party historians corroborated allegations of cannibalism.[6]: 259 

Violent struggles, struggle sessions, and purges

Main articles: Violent Struggle, Struggle session, and Cleansing the Class Ranks

The Cultural Revolution Cemetery in Chongqing, where 400–500 people killed in factional clashes are buried, out of a total of at least 1,700 deaths[119]

Violent struggles were factional conflicts (mostly among Red Guards and "rebel groups") that began in Shanghai and then spread to other areas in 1967. They brought the country to a state of civil war.[1][120] Weapons used included some 18.77 million guns[note 3], 2.72 million grenades, 14,828 cannons, millions of other ammunition and even armored cars and tanks.[1] Notable violent struggles include the battles in Chongqing, in Sichuan, and in Xuzhou.[1][119][121] Researchers claimed that the nationwide death toll in violent struggles ranged from 300,000 to 500,000.[122][95][1]

The recorded rate of violence rose in 1967, reaching a peak that summer before dropping suddenly.[89] During 1967, casualties were relatively low as the weapons used were primarily clubs, spears, and rocks until late July.[89] Although firearms and heavier weapons began to spread during summer, most were neither trained nor committed fighters and therefore casualties remained relatively low.[89] The peak of collective violence in summer 1967 dropped sharply after August, when Mao became concerned about rebel attacks on local army units and thereafter made clear that his prior calls to "drag out" army commanders was a mistake and he would instead support besieged army commands.[89]: 150 

The greatest number of casualties occurred during the process of restoring order in 1968, although the overall number of violent conflicts was lower.[89]: 152–55  Walder stated that while "rising casualties from a smaller number of insurgent conflicts surely reflected the increasing scale and organizational coherence of rebel factions, and their growing access to military weaponry[,]" another important factor was that "[t]he longer that local factional warfare continued without the prospect of an equitable political settlement, the greater the stakes for the participants and the more intense the collective violence as factions fought to avoid the consequence of losing."[89]: 154–55 

In addition to violent struggles, millions of Chinese were violently persecuted, especially via struggle sessions. Those identified as spies, "running dogs", "revisionists", or coming from a suspect class (including those related to former landlords or rich peasants) were subject to beating, imprisonment, rape, torture, sustained and systematic harassment and abuse, seizure of property, denial of medical attention, and erasure of social identity. Intellectuals were also targeted. Many survivors and observers suggest that almost anyone with skills over that of the average person was made the target of political "struggle" in some way.[64]

Some people were not able to stand the torture and committed suicide. Researchers claimed that at least 100,000 to 200,000 people committed suicide during the early CR.[122] One of the most famous cases of apparent attempted suicide involved Deng Xiaoping's son Pufang, who was paralyzed when he fell out of a four-story building after he was interrogated by Red Guards. It is disputed whether he jumped or was pushed.[123]

At the same time, many "unjust, false, and mistaken" cases appeared due to political purges. In addition to those who died in massacres, a large number of people died or became permanently disabled due to lynching or other forms of persecution. From 1968 to 1969, the Cleansing the Class Ranks purge caused the deaths of at least 500,000 people.[1][124] Purges of similar nature such as the One Strike-Three Anti Campaign and the campaign towards the May Sixteenth elements were launched in the 1970s.[122][95]

During the Inner Mongolia incident, official sources in 1980 stated that 346,000 people were wrongly arrested, over 16,000 were persecuted to death or executed, and over 81,000 were permanently disabled.[1][125][126] However, academics instead estimated fatalities as between 20,000 and 100,000.[1][125][126][127]

In Yunnan's Zhao Jianmin Spy Case, more than 1.387 million people were implicated and persecuted, which accounted for 6% of the province's population.[1][128] From 1968 to 1969, more than 17,000 people died in massacres and 61,000 people were crippled for life; in Kunming alone, 1,473 people were killed and 9,661 people were permanently disabled.[1][128]

In Hebei, Li Chuli, the former deputy director of Organization Department, was purged in 1968 and in turn reported around 80,000 people, 2,955 of whom were persecuted to death.[129][130][131]

Repression of ethnic minorities

See also: Inner Mongolia incident and Shadian incident

The Panchen Lama during a struggle session
Struggle session of Sampho Tsewang Rigzin and his wife

The Cultural Revolution wrought havoc on minority cultures and ethnicities. Languages and customs of ethnic minorities in China were labeled as part of the Four Olds, texts in ethnic languages were burned, and bilingual education was suppressed.[132][133][134] In Inner Mongolia, some 790,000 people were persecuted during the Inner Mongolia incident. Of these, 22,900 were beaten to death, and 120,000 were maimed,[6]: 258  during a witch hunt to find members of the alleged separatist New Inner Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party. In Xinjiang, copies of the Qur'an and other books of the Uyghur people were apparently burned. Muslim imams reportedly were paraded around with paint splashed on their bodies.[135]

In the ethnic Korean areas of northeast China, language schools were destroyed. According to Julia Lovell, "[e]vents took a horrific turn in the frontier town of Yanbian, where freight trains trundled from China into the DPRK, draped with the corpses of Koreans killed in the pitched battles of the Cultural Revolution, and daubed with threatening graffiti: 'This will be your fate also, you tiny revisionists!'"[136]

In Yunnan Province, the palace of the Dai people's king was torched, and a massacre of Muslim Hui people at the hands of the PLA in Yunnan, known as the Shadian incident, reportedly claimed over 1,600 lives in 1975.[135] After the Cultural Revolution, the government gave reparations for the Shadian Incident, including the erection of a Martyr's Memorial in Shadian.[137]

Concessions to minorities were abolished during the Cultural Revolution as part of the Red Guards' attack on the "Four Olds". People's communes, previously only established in parts of Tibet, were established throughout Tibetan Autonomous Region in 1966,[138] removing Tibet's exemption from China's land reform, and reimposed in other minority areas. The effect on Tibet was particularly severe as it came following the repression after the 1959 Tibetan uprising.[139][140] The destruction of nearly all of its over 6,000 monasteries, which began before the Cultural Revolution, were often conducted with the complicity of local ethnic Tibetan Red Guards.[141]: 9  Only eight were intact by the end of the 1970s.[142]

Many monks and nuns were killed, and the general population was subjected to physical and psychological torture.[141]: 9  An estimated 600,000 monks and nuns lived in Tibet in 1950, but by 1979, most were dead, imprisoned or had disappeared.[141]: 22  The Tibetan government in exile claimed that many Tibetans died from famines in 1961–1964 and 1968–1973 as a result of forced collectivization,[140][143][144] however the number of Tibetan deaths or whether famines, in fact, took place in these periods is disputed.[145][146][147] Despite persecution, some local leaders and minority ethnic practices survived in remote regions.[148]

The overall failure of the Red Guards' and radical assimilationists' goals was mostly due to two factors. It was felt that pushing minority groups too hard would compromise China's border defenses. This was especially important as minorities make up a large percentage of the population that live in border regions. In the late 1960s, China experienced a period of strained relations with some of its neighbors, notably with the Soviet Union and India. Many of the Cultural Revolution's goals in minority areas were simply unreasonable. The return to pluralism, and therefore the end of the worst period, coincided with Lin Biao's removal from power.[149]

Rape and sexual abuse

Further information: Sent-down youth § Sexual violence

Suiming, Honig, and others documented that rape and sexual abuse of sent-down women were common during the CR's height.[150][151] Branigan documented that women raped tended to be from educated urban backgrounds while their rapists were poor peasants or local officials.[152][153]

Cultural impact and influence

Red Guards riot

A 1968 map of Beijing showing streets and landmarks renamed during the Cultural Revolution. Andingmen Inner Street became "Great Leap Forward Road", Taijichang Street became the "Road for Eternal Revolution", Dongjiaominxiang was renamed "Anti-Imperialist Road", Beihai Park was renamed "Worker-Peasant-Soldier Park" and Jingshan Park became "Red Guard Park". Most of the Cultural Revolution-era name changes were later reversed.

The Cultural Revolution affected almost everyone in China, either directly or indirectly. Much economic activity was halted, with "revolution", regardless of interpretation, becoming the primary objective. Mao Zedong Thought became the central operative guide. The Red Guards' authority surpassed that of the PLA, local police authorities, and the law in general. Traditional arts and ideas were publicly attacked, replaced by praise for Mao. People were encouraged to criticize cultural institutions and to question their parents and teachers, which had been strictly forbidden in traditional Chinese culture.[citation needed]

The Cultural Revolution brought huge numbers of Red Guards to Beijing, with expenses paid by the government, and the railway system fell into turmoil.

The revolution aimed to destroy the Four Olds and establish the corresponding Four News, which ranged from changing of names and cutting of hair to ransacking homes, vandalizing cultural treasures, and desecrating temples.[13]: 61–64  Countless ancient buildings, artifacts, antiques, books, and paintings were destroyed by Red Guards. The status of traditional Chinese culture and institutions within China was severely damaged, and many customs weakened.

The revolution aimed to eliminate "cow demons and snake spirits", that is, the class enemies who promoted bourgeois ideas, as well as those from an exploitative family background or who belonged to one of the Five Black Categories. Large numbers of people perceived to be "monsters and demons" regardless of guilt or innocence were publicly denounced, humiliated, and beaten. In their revolutionary fervor, students especially the Red Guards denounced their teachers, and children denounced their parents.[13]: 59–61  Many died from ill-treatment or committed suicide. In 1968, youths were mobilized to go to the countryside in the Down to the Countryside Movement so they may learn from the peasantry, and the departure of millions from the cities helped end the most violent phase of the Cultural Revolution.[154]: 176 

Academics and education

Yao Tongbin, one of China's foremost missile scientists, was beaten to death by a mob in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution (1968). This caused Zhou Enlai to order special protection for key technical experts.[155]
A classroom at Beijing No. 23 Middle School in 1967. At the time, students were commanded to return to schools and "resume classes while carrying out the revolution".[156] On the blackboard at the back is the text "Conference to Complaint and Criticize the Revisionist Education Line".

Academics and intellectuals were regarded as the "Stinking Old Ninth" and were widely persecuted.[157] Many were sent to rural labor camps such as the May Seventh Cadre School. The prosecution of the Gang of Four revealed that 142,000 cadres and teachers in the education circles were persecuted. Academics, scientists, and educators who died included Xiong Qinglai, Jian Bozan, Wu Han, Rao Yutai, Wu Dingliang, Yao Tongbin and Zhao Jiuzhang.[158] As of 1968, among the 171 senior members who worked at the headquarters of Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, 131 were persecuted. Among the members of the academy, 229 died.[159]

As of September 1971, more than 4,000 staff members of China's nuclear center in Qinghai had been persecuted. More than 310 were disabled, over 40 committed suicide, and 5 were executed.[160][161] During the CR, scientists tested the first missile, created China's first hydrogen bomb and launched China's first satellite in the Two Bombs, One Satellite program.[162] Significant achievements came in science and technology.[163]

In the CR's early months, schools and universities were closed. Secondary school classes of 1966, 1967, and 1968 were unable to graduate on time later and became known as the Old Three cohort.[30]: 362  Primary and middle schools gradually reopened, but colleges and universities were closed until 1970, and most universities did not reopen until 1972.[164]: 164  University entrance exams were cancelled after 1966, replaced by a system whereby students were recommended by factories, villages and military units. Entrance exams were not restored until 1977 under Deng. Traditional values were abandoned.[13]: 195 

During the Cultural Revolution, basic education was emphasized and expanded. While schooling years were reduced and education standard fell, the proportion of Chinese children who completed primary education increased from less than half to almost all, and the fraction who completed junior middle school rose from 15% to over two-thirds. Educational opportunities for rural children expanded, while education of the urban elite were restricted by anti-elitist policies.[164]: 166–67 Industrial Universities were established in factories to supply technical and engineering programs for industrial workers.[30]: 362  These study programs were inspired by Mao's July 1968 remarks advocating vocational education.[30]: 362  Mao had given the instruction to emulate the model of the Shanghai Machine Tool Factory university.[165]: 92  Factories around the country therefore established their own educational programs for technicians and engineers.[165]: 92  By 1976, there were 15,000 such July 21 Universities.[165]: 92 

In the Down to the Countryside Movement's initial stages, most of the youth who took part volunteered. Later on, the government forced them to move. Between 1968 and 1979, 17 million urban youth left for the countryside. Living in the rural areas deprived them of higher education.[154]: 10  This generation is referred to as the 'lost generation'.[13][166][167] In the post-Mao period, many of those forcibly moved attacked the policy as a violation of their human rights.[168]: 36 

The Cultural Revolution's impact on accessible education varied across regions. Formal literacy measurements did not resume until the 1980s.[169] Some counties in Zhanjiang had literacy rates as low as 59% 20 years after the revolution. China's leaders denied illiteracy problems. This was amplified by the elimination of qualified teachers—many districts were forced to rely on students to teach.[169]

Though the Cultural Revolution was disastrous for millions, positive outcomes advanced some groups, such as those in rural areas. For example, the upheavals and the hostility to the intellectual elite is widely seen to have damaged education, especially at the upper end of the education system. Radical policies provided many in rural communities with middle school education for the first time, which is thought to have facilitated rural economic development.[164]: 163  Rural infrastructure developed during CR, facilitated by the political changes that empowered ordinary rurals.[170]: 177 

Many health personnel were deployed to the countryside as barefoot doctors. Some farmers were given informal medical training, and health-care centers were established in rural communities. This process led to a marked improvement in health and life expectancy.[171]

Slogans and rhetoric

A Red Guard holding up the Selected Works of Mao Zedong, with "revolution is no crime, to rebel is justified" written on a flag next to him, 1967.

Huang claimed that the Cultural Revolution had massive effects on Chinese society because of the extensive use of political slogans.[172] He claimed that slogans played a central role in rallying Party leadership and citizens. For example, the slogan "to rebel is justified" (造反有理; zàofǎn yǒulǐ) affected many views.[172]

The remnants of a banner containing slogans from the Cultural Revolution in Anhui

Huang asserted that slogans were ubiquitous in people's lives, printed onto everyday items such as bus tickets, cigarette packets, and mirror tables.[168]: 14  Workers were supposed to "grasp revolution and promote productions", while peasants were supposed to raise more pigs because "more pigs means more manure, and more manure means more grain." Even a casual remark by Mao, "Sweet potato tastes good; I like it" became a slogan.[172]

Political slogans had three sources: Mao, Party media such as People's Daily, and the Red Guards.[172] Mao often offered vague, yet powerful directives that divided the Red Guards.[173] These directives could be interpreted to suit personal interests, in turn aiding factions' goals in claiming loyalty to Mao. Red Guard slogans were violent, advancing themes such as "Strike the enemy down on the floor and step on him with a foot", "Long live the red terror!" and "Those who are against Chairman Mao will have their dog skulls smashed into pieces."[172]

Dittmer and Ruoxi claim that the Chinese language had historically been defined by subtlety, delicacy, moderation, and honesty, as well as the cultivation of a "refined and elegant literary style".[174] This changed during the CR. Mao wanted an army of bellicose people in his crusade, so rhetoric at the time was reduced to militant and violent vocabulary.[172] These slogans were an effective method of "thought reform", mobilizing millions in a concerted attack upon the subjective world, "while at the same time reforming their objective world."[172][174]: 12 

Dittmer and Chen argued that the emphasis on politics made language into effective propaganda, but "also transformed it into a jargon of stereotypes—pompous, repetitive, and boring."[174]: 12  To distance itself from the era, Deng's government cut back on political slogans. During a eulogy for Deng's death, Jiang Zemin called the Cultural Revolution a "grave mistake".[175]

Arts and literature

The ballet The Red Detachment of Women, one of the Model Dramas promoted during the Cultural Revolution

Drastic changes in art and culture took place.[176] Before this period, few cultural productions reflected the lives of peasants and workers.[176] The struggles of workers, peasants, and revolutionary soldiers became frequent artistic subjects, often created by peasants and workers themselves.[176] The spread of peasant paintings in rural China, for example, became one of the "newborn things" celebrated in a socialist society.[176] In poor and remote areas, movies and operas were shown for free.[177] Mobile film units brought cinema to the countryside and were crucial to the standardization and popularization of culture, particularly including revolutionary model operas.[178]: 30 

Jiang took control of the stage and introduced revolutionary operas under her direct supervision. Traditional operas were banned as they were considered feudalistic and bourgeois, but revolutionary opera, which modified Peking opera in both content and form, was promoted.[13]: 115  Six operas and two ballets were produced in the first three years, most notably the opera The Legend of the Red Lantern. These operas were the only approved opera form. Other opera troupes were required to adopt or change their repertoire.[154]: 176 

The model operas were broadcast on the radio, made into films, blared from public loudspeakers, taught to students in schools and workers in factories, and became ubiquitous as a form of popular entertainment and were the only theatrical entertainment for millions.[32]: 352–53 [13]: 115  Most model dramas featured women as their leads and promoted Chinese state feminism.[179] Their narratives begin with them oppressed by misogyny, class position, and imperialism before liberating themselves through the discovery of internal strength and the CCP.[179]

In 1966, Jiang advanced the Theory of the Dictatorship of the Black Line. Those perceived to be bourgeois, anti-socialist or anti-Mao (black line) should be cast aside, and called for the creation of new literature and arts.[32]: 352–53  Disseminators of the "old culture" would be eradicated. The majority of writers and artists were seen as "black line figures" and "reactionary literati", and were persecuted, and subjected to "criticism and denunciation" where they could be humiliated and ravaged, and be imprisoned or sent to hard labour.[180]: 213–14  For instance, Mei Zhi and her husband were sent to a tea farm in Lushan County, Sichuan. She did not resume writing until the 1980s.[181]

Documents released in 1980 regarding the prosecution of the Gang of Four show that more than 2,600 people in the field of arts and literature were persecuted by the Ministry of Culture.[158] Many died: the names of 200 writers and artists who were persecuted to death were commemorated in 1979. These include writers such as Lao She, Fu Lei, Deng Tuo, Baren, Li Guangtian, Yang Shuo and Zhao Shuli.[180]: 213–14 

In 1970, the communist party came to view the Ministry of Culture as so disruptive that it decided to dissolve the Ministry and establish a Culture Group within the State Council in an effort to rein in cultural politics.[165]: 160 

Only a few writers who gained permission or requalification under the new system, such as Hao Ran and some writers of worker or farmer background, could have their work published or reprinted.[citation needed] The principles for cultural production laid out by Mao in the 1942 "Talks at the Yan'an Forum on Art and Literature" became dogmatized.[182] The literary situation eased after 1972, as more were allowed to write, and many provincial literary periodicals resumed publication, but the majority of writers still could not work.[180]: 219–20 

The effect is similar in the film industry. The Four Hundred Films to be Criticized booklet was distributed, and film directors and actors/actresses were criticized with some tortured and imprisoned.[32]: 401–02  These included many of Jiang's rivals and former friends. Those who died in the period included Cai Chusheng, Zheng Junli, Shangguan Yunzhu, Wang Ying, and Xu Lai.[183] No feature films were produced in mainland China for seven years apart from a few approved "Model dramas" and highly ideological films.[184] A notable example is Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy.[185][186]

Loyalty dances became common and were performed throughout the country by both professional cultural workers and ordinary people.[30]: 362 

During the Cultural Revolution, composers of Yellow Music, which had already banned following the communist takeover, were persecuted, including Li Jinhui who was killed in 1967.[187] Revolution-themed songs instead were promoted, and songs such as "Ode to the Motherland", "Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman", "The East Is Red" and "Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No New China" were either written or became popular during this period. "The East Is Red", especially, became popular; it de facto supplanted "March of the Volunteers" as the national anthem of China, though the latter was later restored to its previous place.[citation needed]

Quotation songs, in which Mao's quotations were set to music, were particularly popular during the early years of the Cultural Revolution.[178]: 34  Records of quotation songs were played over loudspeakers, their primary distribution,[178]: 35  as the use of transistor radios lagged until 1976.[178]: 32–33  "Rusticated youths" with an interest in broadcast technology frequently operated rural radio stations after 1968.[178]: 42 

Visual arts

Posters from the Cultural Revolution period

Some of the most enduring images come from poster arts. Propaganda in posters was used as a mass communication device and often served as the people's leading source of information. They were produced in large numbers and widely disseminated, and were used by the government and Red Guards to push ideology defined by the Party.[188] The two main posters genres were the big-character poster (dazibao) and "commercial" propaganda poster (xuanchuanhua).[189]: 7–12 

The dazibao presented slogans, poems, commentary and graphics often posted on walls in public spaces, factories and communes. Mao wrote his own dazibao at Beijing University on August 5, 1966, calling on the people to "Bombard the Headquarters".[189]: 5 

Xuanchuanhua were artworks produced by the government and sold cheaply in stores to be displayed in homes or workplaces. The artists for these posters might be amateurs or uncredited professionals, and the posters were largely in a Socialist Realist visual style with specific conventions—for example, images of Mao were to be depicted as "red, smooth, and luminescent".[189]: 7–12 [190]: 360 

Traditional themes were sidelined and artists such as Feng Zikai, Shi Lu, and Pan Tianshou were persecuted.[154]: 97  Many of the artists were assigned to manual labour, and artists were expected to depict subjects that glorified the Cultural Revolution related to their labour.[190]: 351–52  In 1971, in part to alleviate their suffering, several leading artists were recalled from manual labour or freed from captivity under a Zhou initiative to decorate hotels and railway stations defaced by Red Guard slogans. Zhou said that the artworks were meant for foreigners, therefore were "outer" art and not under the obligations and restrictions placed on "inner" art meant for Chinese citizens. He claimed that landscape paintings should not be considered one of the "Four Olds". However, Zhou was weakened by cancer, and in 1974, the Jiang faction seized these and other paintings and mounted exhibitions in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities denouncing the artworks as "Black Paintings".[190]: 368–76 


Mobile film units brought Chinese cinema to the countryside and were crucial to the standardization and popularization of culture during this period, particularly including revolutionary model operas.[178]: 30  During the Cultural Revolution's early years, mobile film teams traveled to rural areas with news reels of Mao meeting with Red Guards and Tiananmen Square parades, and welcomed ceremoniously in rural communities.[191]: 110  These news reels became known as hong bao pian ("red treasure films"), analogous to how the Little Red Books were dubbed hong bao shu ("red treasure books").[191]: 110  The release of the filmed versions of the revolutionary model operas resulted in a re-organization and expansion of China's film exhibition network.[18]: 73 

From 1965 to 1976, the number of film projection units in China quadrupled, total film audiences nearly tripled, and the national film attendance rate doubled.[18]: 133  The Cultural Revolution Group drastically reduced ticket prices which, in its view, would allow film to better serve the needs of workers and of socialism.[18]: 133 

China rejected Hollywood films and most foreign films.[18]: 213  Albanian films and North Korean films developed mass audiences in China.[18]: 213 

In 1972, Chinese officials invited Michelangelo Antonioni to China to film the achievements of the Cultural Revolution.[192]: 13  Antonioni made the documentary Chung Kuo, Cina.[192]: 13  When it was released in 1974, CCP leadership in China interpreted the film as reactionary and anti-Chinese.[192]: 13  Viewing art through the principles of the Yan'an Talks, particularly the concept that there is no such thing as art-for-art's-sake, party leadership construed Antonioni's aesthetic choices as politically motivated and banned the film.[192]: 14  Since its 2004 release in China, the film has been well-regarded by Chinese audiences, especially for its beautiful depictions of a more simple time.[192]: 14 

Historical sites

Buddhist statues defaced during the Cultural Revolution

China's historical sites, artifacts and archives suffered devastating damage, as they were thought to be at the root of "old ways of thinking". Artifacts were seized, museums and private homes ransacked, and any item found that was thought to represent bourgeois or feudal ideas was destroyed. Few records relate how much was destroyed—Western observers suggest that much of China's thousands of years of history was in effect destroyed, or, later, smuggled abroad for sale. Chinese historians compare the suppression to Qin Shihuang's great Confucian purge. Religious persecution intensified during this period, as religion was viewed in opposition to Marxist–Leninist and Maoist thinking.[32]: 73 

The destruction of historical relics was never formally sanctioned by the Party, whose official policy was instead to protect such items. On May 14, 1967, the Central Committee issued Several suggestions for the protection of cultural relics and books during the Cultural Revolution.[168]: 21  Despite this, enormous damage was inflicted on China's cultural heritage. For example, a survey in 1972 in Beijing of 18 cultural heritage sites, including the Temple of Heaven and Ming Tombs, showed extensive damage. Of the 80 cultural heritage sites in Beijing under municipal protection, 30 were destroyed, and of the 6,843 cultural sites under protection by Beijing government decision in 1958, 4,922 were damaged or destroyed.[193] Numerous valuable old books, paintings, and other cultural relics were burnt.[194]: 98 

Later archaeological excavation and preservation after the destructive period were protected, and several significant discoveries, such as the Terracotta Army and the Mawangdui, occurred after the peak of the Revolution.[168]: 21  Nevertheless, the most prominent medium of academic research in archaeology, the journal Kaogu, did not publish.[195] After the most violent phase, the attack on traditional culture continued in 1973 with the Anti-Lin Biao, Anti-Confucius Campaign as part of the struggle against moderate Party elements.

Foreign relations

The Embassy of China, Jakarta after being burned

China exported communist revolutions as well as communist ideologies to multiple countries in Southeast Asia, supporting parties in Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and in particular, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia (responsible for the Cambodian genocide).[196] It is estimated that at least 90% of the Khmer Rouge's foreign aid came from China. In 1975 alone at least US$1 billion in interest-free economic and military aid and US$20 million came from China.[197] China's economic malaise impacted China's ability to assist North Vietnam in its war against South Vietnam by the 1970s, which cooled relations between the once allied nations.[198]

Among the over 40 countries that had established diplomatic or diplomatic half-relations with China at the time, around 30 countries went into diplomatic disputes with China—some countries terminated their diplomatic relations, including Central Africa, Ghana and Indonesia.[199][better source needed]

Opinions and views

See also: Boluan Fanzheng

Communist Party opinions

Main article: Ideology of the Chinese Communist Party

The central section of this wall shows the faint remnant marks of a propaganda slogan that was added during the Cultural Revolution, but has since been removed. The slogan read "Boundless faith that in Chairman Mao."

To make sense of the chaos caused by Mao's leadership without undermining the CCP's authority and legitimacy, Mao's successors needed to provide a "proper" historical judgment. On June 27, 1981, the Central Committee adopted the Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party Since the Founding of the People's Republic of China, an official assessment of major historical events since 1949.[205] This document became the key official interpretation of the Cultural Revolution.[206]

The Resolution frankly noted Mao's leadership role in the movement, stating that "chief responsibility for the grave 'Left' error of the 'Cultural Revolution,' an error comprehensive in magnitude and protracted in duration, does indeed lie with Comrade Mao Zedong." It diluted blame by asserting that the movement was "manipulated by the counterrevolutionary groups of Lin Biao and Jiang Qing," who caused its worst excesses. The Resolution affirmed that the Cultural Revolution "brought serious disaster and turmoil to the Communist Party and the Chinese people."[205] These themes of "turmoil" and "disaster" underlie historical and popular understanding of the Cultural Revolution.[206] The 1981 Resolution was followed by a three-year campaign to "totally negate" the Cultural Revolution.[4]: 55  The communist party called on individuals and cooperatives to study the Resolution and engage in criticism and self-criticism.[4]: 55  People were urged to root out followers of Lin Biao and the Gang of Four, those seriously impacted by factional ideas, and the "smashers and grabbers" of the Cultural Revolution.[4]: 55 

The official view in the Resolution and elsewhere aimed to separate Mao's actions during the Cultural Revolution from his "heroic" revolutionary activities during the Chinese Civil War and the Second Sino-Japanese War. It also separated Mao's personal mistakes from the correctness of the theory that he created, going as far as to rationalize that the Cultural Revolution contravened the spirit of Mao Zedong Thought, which remains the official guiding ideology. Deng famously summed this up with the phrase "Mao was 70% good, 30% bad."[207]

CCP historiography characterizes the Cultural Revolution as an aberration and a period of chaos.[208] The official view is the dominant framework for historiography of the period; alternative are discouraged. A new genre of literature known as "scar literature" (Shanghen Wenxue) emerged, encouraged by the post-Mao government. Written mainly by educated youth such as Liu Xinhua, Zhang Xianliang, and Liu Xinwu, scar literature depicted the Revolution negatively, based on their own perspectives and experiences.[168]: 32  Movies criticizing Cultural Revolution hardliners were prevalent from the late 1970s to the early 1980s, although they were later banned as historical nihilism.[209]: 248 

After the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and massacre, both liberals and conservatives within the CCP accused each other of excesses that they claimed were reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution. Li Peng, who promoted the use of military force, claimed that the student movement had taken inspiration from the populism of the Cultural Revolution and that if left unchecked, would eventually lead to mass chaos.[210] Zhao Ziyang, who was sympathetic to the protestors, later accused his political opponents of illegally removing him from office by using "Cultural Revolution-style" tactics, including "reversing black and white, exaggerating personal offenses, taking quotes out of context, issuing slander and lies ... inundating the newspapers with critical articles making me out to be an enemy, and casual disregard for my personal freedoms."[211] Speaking during his 1992 Southern Tour, Deng Xiaoping characterized the Cultural Revolution as civil war and contrasting it with the contemporary situation: "Why was it that our country could remain stable after the June 4th Incident? It was precisely because we had carried out the reform and the open policy, which have promoted economic growth and raised living standards."[212]: 49 

Alternative opinions

Although the Chinese Communist Party officially condemns the Cultural Revolution, many Chinese people hold more positive views, particularly amongst the working class, who benefited most from its policies.[168][page needed] People in rural areas tend to view the Cultural Revolution more positively given the expansion of rural infrastructure and agricultural development that occurred.[170]: ix  During Deng's ascendancy, the government arrested and imprisoned figures who took a strongly pro-Cultural Revolution stance. For instance, in 1985, a young shoe-factory worker put up a poster at a factory in Xianyang, Shaanxi, which declared that "The Cultural Revolution was Good" and led to achievements such as "the building of the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge, the creation of hybrid rice crops and the rise of people's consciousness." The worker was eventually sentenced to ten years in prison, where he died soon after "without any apparent cause".[168]: 46–47  Since the late 1980s, China has experienced "at first a fitful and then a nationwide revival in Mao Zedong", including aspects of the Cultural Revolution.[206]: 6–7 

One of the student leaders of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, Shen Tong, author of Almost a Revolution, has a positive view of some aspects of the CR. According to Shen, the trigger for the Tiananmen hunger-strikes was a big-character poster, a form of public political discussion that gained prominence during the Cultural Revolution. Shen remarked that the travel of students from across the country to Beijing on trains and the hospitality they received from residents was reminiscent of the experiences of Red Guards.[12]

Since the advent of the Internet, people inside and outside China have argued online that the Cultural Revolution had many benefits. Some hold that the Cultural Revolution 'cleansed' China from superstitions, religious dogma, and outdated traditions in a 'modernist transformation' that later made Deng's economic reforms possible. The popular revival of Mao in the late 1990s coincided with the government's increasing privatization and its dismantling of its iron rice bowl employment and welfare policies.[206]: 5  These sentiments also increased following the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 when a segment of the population began to associate anti-Mao viewpoints with the US.[168]: 117 

Contemporary Maoists became more organized in the internet era, partially as a response to academic criticisms of Mao. One Maoist website collected thousands of signatures demanding punishment for those who publicly criticize Mao.[213] Along with the call for legal action, this movement demanded the establishment of agencies similar to Cultural Revolution-era "neighborhood committees", in which "citizens" would report anti-Maoists to local public security bureaus. Maoist rhetoric and mass mobilization methods were resurgent in Chongqing during the 2000s.[214]

In 2012, Chinese web portal and social media platform Tencent conducted an online survey focused on combatting "the unhealthy trend of Cultural Revolution nostalgia."[206] Seventy-eight percent of survey participants expressed Cultural Revolution nostalgia.[206]

Chinese New Left internet forum Utopia was suspended for one month in response to its advocacy of a new Cultural Revolution.[209]: 47 

Contemporary China

See also: Shantou Cultural Revolution Museum

Public discussion is still limited. The Chinese government continues to prohibit news organizations from mentioning details, and online discussions and books about the topic are subject to official scrutiny. Textbooks abide by the "official view" of the events. Many government documents from the 1960s onward remain classified.[215] The Cultural Revolution is barely mentioned in historical exhibits at the National Museum of China in Beijing.[216] Despite inroads by prominent sinologists, independent scholarly research is discouraged.[215]

Mao Zedong's legacy

Mao Zedong's legacy remains in some dispute. During the anniversary of his birth, many people viewed Mao as a godlike figure and referred to him as "the people's great savior". Contemporary discussions in newspapers such as the Global Times continue to glorify Mao. Rather than focus on consequences, newspapers claim that revolutions typically have a brutal side and are unable to be viewed from the "humanitarian perspective".[217]

Critics of Mao Zedong look at the actions that occurred under his leadership from the point of view that "he was better at conquering power than at ruling the country and developing a socialist economy". Mao went to extreme measures on his path to power, costing millions of lives then and during his rule.[218]

Outside mainland China

In the world at large, Mao Zedong emerged as a symbol of anti-establishment, grassroots populism, and self-determination. His revolutionary philosophies found adherents in the Shining Path of Peru, the Naxalite insurgency in India, various political movements in Nepal, the U.S.-based Black Panther Party,[219]

In Hong Kong, a pro-Communist, anti-colonial strike inspired by the Cultural Revolution was launched in 1967. Its excesses damaged the credibility of these activists in the eyes of Hong Kong residents.[220] In Taiwan, Chiang Kai-shek initiated the Chinese Cultural Renaissance to counter what he regarded as the destruction of traditional Chinese values by mainland Communists.

In Albania, Communist leader and Chinese ally Enver Hoxha began a "Cultural and Ideological Revolution" organized along the same lines as the Cultural Revolution.[221] Hoxha delivered a speech to a plenum of the CC of the Party of Labour titled Some Preliminary Ideas about the Cultural Revolution, criticizing it. He said that "the cult of Mao was raised to the skies in a sickening and artificial manner" and added that, in reading its purported objectives, "you have the impression that everything old in Chinese and world culture should be rejected without discrimination and a new culture, the culture they call proletarian, should be created." He further stated that, "It is difficult for us to call this revolution, as the 'Red Guards' are carrying it out, a Proletarian Cultural Revolution... the enemies could and should be captured by the organs of the dictatorship on the basis of the law, and if the enemies have wormed their way into the party committees, let them be purged through party channels. Or in the final analysis, arm the working class and attack the committees, but not with children."[222]

In October 1966, Chiang Kai-Shek criticized the Cultural Revolution as a synonym for Mao Zedong's method in the name of proletarian revolution after failures of Proletarian Revolution General Route, Great Leap Forward, People's commune and the Three Red Flags. He claimed that Maoism lost its origins in Marxism–Leninism. And Mao himself dropped his Marxist–Leninist mask, revealing its roots in Huang Chao, Li Zicheng, and the Boxer Rebellion, destroying Chinese Culture, purging intellectuals, destroying modern civilization, and used his "people's war" to attempt to rule Asia and the world following Adolf Hitler's model.[223]

In the 1970s, Nikita Khrushchev criticized the Cultural Revolution in his memoir. He saw Chinese people repeatedly recite Mao's quotations and felt sick after he saw human dignity trampled. He argued that Mao is not supernatural, but upended his country, and that the Cultural Revolution was actually counter-revolutionary.[224]

In 2007 Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang remarked that the Cultural Revolution represented the 'dangers of democracy', remarking "People can go to the extreme like what we saw during the Cultural Revolution [...], when people take everything into their own hands, then you cannot govern the place."[225] The remarks caused controversy in Hong Kong and were later retracted.[225]

Academic debate

Scholars and academics debate the origin, the events, Mao's role, and its legacy. These debates evolved as researchers explored new sources.[226]

In the 1960s, while many scholars dismissed Mao's initiatives as ideological and destructive, others sympathized with his goals. They saw Maoism as a populist insistence on mass participation, mass criticism and the right to rebel, and a determination to wipe out a new ruling class. By the 1980s, however, Harvard University sociologist Andrew Walder wrote that the "public opinion in the field had changed markedly". Most in the field now "seem convinced that the Cultural Revolution was a human disaster, even a historical crime, something on the order of Hitler's holocaust and Stalin's great terror."[227]

Walder argued that the failures of the Cultural Revolution did not come from poor implementation, bureaucratic sabotage, disloyalty, or lingering class antagonisms. If things turned out differently than Mao expected, Walder concluded, this was "probably due to the fact that Mao did not know what he wanted, or that he did know what he was doing, or both ... the outcomes are what one should have expected, given the Maoist doctrine and aims."[227]

The debate continues because the movement contains many contradictions: led by an all-powerful omnipresent leader, it was mainly driven by a series of grassroots popular uprisings. Many English-language books published since the 1980s paint a negative picture of the movement. Historian Anne F. Thurston wrote that it "led to loss of culture, and of spiritual values; loss of hope and ideals; loss of time, truth and of life".[228] Barnouin and Yu summarized the Cultural Revolution as "a political movement that produced unprecedented social divisions, mass mobilization, hysteria, upheavals, arbitrary cruelty, torture, killings, and even civil war", calling Mao "one of the most tyrannical despots of the twentieth century".[194]: 217  According to historian Chun Lin, despite these human tragedies, individual freedoms and political self-organization expanded rapidly.[177]

Some scholars challenge the mainstream portrayals and conceive it in a more positive light. Mobo Gao, writing in The Battle for China's Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution, argues that the movement benefited millions of Chinese citizens, particularly agricultural and industrial workers,[168]: 1  and sees it as egalitarian and genuinely populist, citing continued Maoist nostalgia today as remnants of its positive legacy.[168]: 3  Some draw a distinction between intention and performance.[227]: 159  While Mao's leadership was pivotal at the beginning of the movement, Jin Qiu contends that as events progressed, it deviated significantly from Mao's utopian vision.[53]: 2–3  In this sense, the Cultural Revolution was actually a decentralized and varied movement that gradually lost cohesion, spawning many 'local revolutions' that differed in their nature and goals.[53]: 2–3 

Academic interest focused on the movement's relationship with Mao's personality. Mao envisioned himself as a wartime guerrilla leader, which made him wary of the bureaucratic nature of peacetime governance. With the Cultural Revolution Mao was simply "returning to form", once again acting as a guerrilla leader fighting an institutionalized bureaucracy. Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, paint the movement as neither a bona fide war over ideological purity nor a mere power struggle to remove Mao's political rivals.[6]: 2–3 

While Mao's personal motivations were undoubtedly pivotal, they reasoned that other factors contributed to the way events unfolded. These include China's relationship with the global Communist movement, geopolitical concerns, the ideological rift between China and the Soviet Union, Khrushchev's ouster, and Great Leap Forward catastrophe.[6]: 2–3  They conclude that the movement was, at least in part, a legacy project to cement Mao's place in history, aimed to boost his prestige while he was alive and preserve his ideas after his death.[6]: 2–3 

Varying academic focuses on power conflicts or clashes of personalities as underlying Mao's motivations, or alternatively on ideological reasons for launching the Cultural Revolution, are not necessarily conflicting.[206]: 20  Mao's suspicions of those in power around him reflected his longstanding concerns with the decline of revolutionary spirit and the potential rise of a new class-stratified society arising as the popular revolutionary movement transformed into a socialist bureaucracy.[206]: 20  Historian Rebecca Karl writes that for Mao, the pursuit of power was never an end in itself, but rather the seizure of state power was to be used in making the revolution.[229]

Professor Yiching Wu argues that the typical historiography of the Cultural Revolution as an "era of madness" is simpleminded but writes that such narratives have a "remarkably tenacious ideological power:"[206]: 3 

Since the early 1980s, there have been concerted efforts to reduce the extraordinary complexity of the Cultural Revolution to the simplicity almost exclusively of barbarism, violence, and human suffering. Flattening historical memory of the Cultural Revolution through moralistic condemnation and exhortation, these narratives not only deprive an immensely important and complex episode of Chinese history of its multilayered historicity, but also provide the discursive ground for delegitimizing China's revolutionary history of the twentieth century.

See also




  1. ^ No relation to Peng Dehuai.
  2. ^ This position, effectively China's de jure head of state, was renamed "President" in 1982.
  3. ^ Some claim 1.877 million.[why?]



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Further reading


Specific topics


Fictional treatments

Memoirs by Chinese participants

Films set in the Cultural Revolution