China\'s Lost Culture

Starting in the summer of 1966 Mao Zedong, the leader of China's Communist Party launched what he termed "The Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution." At that point communism had been China's form of government for about 17 years (starting in 1949). Chairman Mao was alarmed by what he saw as an increasing trend towards bureaucratization. Believing that China would soon end up with a government mirroring that of the Soviet Union, Mao decided to strike out against the political machinery of China's Communist Party.

His idea was simple: to prevent China from establishing an entrenched bureaucracy he had to rid himself of what he called "the four olds:" old ideals, old customs, old culture, and old habits. After Mao issued a circular from the central committee of the Communist Party launching the Cultural Revolution, all regular classes in high schools and universities in China were shut down. Subsequently a group of students at Qinghua University put up a poster in support of Mao. The poster read: "Pledge to fight to the death to defend the dictatorship of the proletariat! Pledge to fight to the death to defend Mao Zedong's Thought!"

The group called themselves the "Red Guards of Mao's Thought." This was the origin of the notorious Red Guards. After Mao wrote a letter supporting the student's statement, Red Guard units began springing up in schools across the country. The students were encouraged to attack their professors with "Big Character Posters." Big Character Posters held messages designed to denigrate and humiliate the wearers. They included statements such as "Reactionary Academic Authority," "Member of the Black Gang," and "Counterrevolutionary."

For the next three years the Red Guard launched an all-out campaign to destroy the "four olds." This included changing street names, burning books, destroying temples, statues, art, and artifacts. It quickly escalated to attacking anyone and anything that might be labeled "old." Teachers, professors, intellectuals, and community members were humiliated, tortured, beaten to death in some cases, and occasionally publicly executed. The fervor in support of Mao became so strong that daily hour-long readings of Mao's Little Red Book became a common practice, and anyone not carrying a copy of the book would be targeted as a suspected counterrevolutionary.

Soon chaos erupted in the streets of China's cities as the Red Guards split into factions and began fighting each other for dominance. Throughout those first three years, Mao publicly supported the actions of the Red Guard. He held rallies in Tiananmen Square where he gathered millions of Red Guard members to praise and encourage their efforts. He gave them full authority to "learn revolution by making revolution," and even suspended police authority over actions taken by members of the Red Guard.

In 1967 Mao set up "3-in-one revolutionary committees" in every city and province giving them sole authority. The following year a cleansing class rank campaign was launched in which many people were imprisoned and tortured for months and sometimes even years. The goal was to purge the political and class ranks within the government. Local government officials began accusing political rivals of being "counterrevolutionaries," leading to wave after wave of purges. Eventually the only way of not becoming a casualty was to accuse others of counterrevolutionary activity.

The chaos did not slow until December 1968 when Mao, after perceiving the Cultural Revolution to be a failure, attempted to reign in the actions of the Red Guard. By that point most of China's cities were embroiled in gang warfare that often utilized actual military-grade weapons stolen from the People's Liberation Army. The Red Guard had been given some authority over the military as well so that even the army would not oppose them.

Mao began rounding up and sending millions of students and Red Guard members into the countryside to be re-educated through exposure to the peasants and their way of life. Though the Cultural Revolution was declared officially over in 1969 by the Communist Party of China, it is not considered to have ended until the death of Mao Zedong in 1977. During this period many more campaigns were launched some of which included imprisoning hundreds of thousands of people on charges of criticizing the Cultural Revolution and Mao Zedong. There were several other campaigns during this time including one to promote "revolutionary artwork" and another to denounce Confucius. The effect was the widespread loss of confidence in politics. The refusal of the young to go to the countryside also created a secret underclass in the cities. Ultimately, the Cultural Revolution broke down the institutions that had long served as the foundation of Chinese civil society.


For more information see:

Wikipedia: The Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution

The Chinese Holocaust Memorial

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This is a great article!

This is a great article! But let's not forget the role of the Great Leap Forward in motivating the Cultural Revolution. Even though the horrendous and utterly pointless famines of the Great Leap were largely overlooked in the West, the people of China had seen the deaths and knew that their government had made massive mistakes. Killing between 10 million and 30 million of your own people for no particular reason doesn't look good on anyone's resume, so Mao needed a way to distract and frighten people, as well as a way to eliminate any critics that managed to live through the Great Leap.

There were differences, of course. The Cultural Revolution hit the cities worst, whereas the Great Leap was worst for peasants. Still, a key target of the Cultural Revolution was anyone that had been critical of the policies that led to disaster in the Great Leap.