In the 1950’s and 60’s, China was in the throes of a great political upheaval. The country’s leader, Mao Zedong, fresh from introducing some rather embarrassing new policies, had decided that it was time to go against the grain in a more headfirst manner. Thus began China’s Cultural Revolution.
This misguided attempt to wrest power away from the intellectual and politically savvy was a brilliantly executed gambit on the chairman’s part. Yet, many of its glaring flaws would soon become apparent as the country spiraled downward into economic depression, cultural stagnation, and violence…
It was May 1966 and the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee had decided to issue a pamphlet outlining their leader Mao Zedong’s ideas on a “Cultural Revolution.” The revolution was coming many years before that, however, and would last for only a decade. But it would be a decade marred by forced tyranny, communist ideals, starvation, and violence.
How did it begin?
The same Cultural Revolution had roots in an early 60’s event know as the Great Leap Forward, which was a collectivization of agricultural and industrial output that came right before a nationwide famine. That same famine left as many as 45 million people dead and was blamed on the Communist Party, who banded together to blame Mao. But the chairman would not be deterred…
It’s interesting because the initial cultural revolution started because of a play called The Dismissal of Hai Rui From Office. The play was about a Ming Dynasty official who criticized the emperor in public. Mao took offense to the play, believing that it was aimed at him and decided to initiate the Great Leap Forward as retaliation against the Chinese Defense Minister.
At the same time, China’s relations with the Soviet Union had grown increasingly tense. Mao was worried that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956 and subsequent removal from office in 1964 might prompt the Chinese people to rethink his position as chairman. The Cultural Revolution was the perfect way to cement his power, or so he thought.
A number of students answered Mao’s call for continuing revolution. These students would become Mao’s Red Guards, a group of angry communist sympathizers that would eventually target political enemies. Through abuse, public humiliation, and violence, the Red Guards began to wipe out old ideas and cultural norms, including some priceless historical relics.
Smite the Smarties
Intellectuals, in particular, were persecuted by the Red Guard youths. All schools had been shut down, and now it was time for the Red Guard to harass the adults in their midst for accepting the values of the bourgeoisie. The revolutionary youths even targeted the elderly. The ensuing violence resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands during the initial years of the Cultural Revolution. But the toll would grow heavier still…
The overall impression of Chairman Mao’s ideas for the Cultural Revolution was that they weren’t very good. The revolution, while perfect for unhappy, rebellious youths, was not exactly good for the country. As people were being harassed and killed by Mao’s Red Guard, the national economy was slipping away slowly. And all of this was for the sake of Mao’s ego…
Mao had instigated the revolution in an attempt to push the country back to a more purist form of Communism. Unfortunately, Communism was slowly falling out of favor with the rest of the world. Mao wanted the people to rely on him and the government, rather than on intellectualism and education. He wasn’t going to fall out of favor, he wanted the nation to love him again, at any cost…
In an effort to prove that he was still physically fit enough to lead, the 72-year-old Mao tried to swim across the Yangtze River by joining Wuhan’s annual Cross-Yangtze Swimming Competition. The swim was an absurd spectacle and featured Mao, surrounded by six swimming bodyguards and accompanied by giant portraits of himself. He made it for about 65 minutes before leaving the water.
Part of the Machine
Despite the massive opposition to his Cultural Revolution, everyone in China was expected to be a paragon of Communist propaganda. Every government worker, from subway ticket takers to bus drivers, were instructed in the proper way to espouse Mao’s propaganda. Speakers were even set up on every street corner to blast Mao’s wisdom to the people. The champion of the “people” was becoming a dictator of the highest order…
Many artistic, historical, culturally-relevant, and religious artifacts were destroyed by the rambunctious Red Guard at the height of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. This was in an attempt to erase all of China’s pre-revolutionary past. In 1969, the bodies of Ming Dynasty Emperor Wan Li and his wives were dug up, denounced publicly, and burned.
Brother Against Brother
Many Chinese families were swallowed up by the fervor of the Cultural Revolution. The concept of “respect for one’s elders” was now a bygone thought. Some young people, though not of the Red Guard, even accused family members of political crimes. In some cases, mothers and fathers were dragged into the streets, humiliated, wounded, and then driven off to be shot in the name of the revolution. Because of this, many started to fall in line with Mao’s new ideas…
Fall in Line
Those who did not, however, were forced to wear signs identifying themselves as criminals, rightists, landlords, or worse yet, capitalists. The rest of the country was encouraged to mock these outsiders and abuse them as best they could, even violently. Young people now had the power to challenge authority, every authority except Mao’s that is.
Stay Humble, Folks
Mao’s Red Guard also instituted a new dress code upon the Chinese people. People were ordered to avoid ostentatious clothing and to keep their fashion choices appropriately humble. Women were forbidden the use of beauty cream, makeup or perfume, and any western influenced apparel or hairstyle was strictly prohibited. All of these things were taught to children in schools as a result of Mao’s new education reforms…
Any remaining schools during the Cultural Revolution were told to only teach Maoist propaganda. Grade school age math students were made to sing two revolutionary songs and study six Mao quotations for 25 minutes each class. Only then, once they had learned the important essentials, where they allowed to learn math, for about 15 minutes. The same went for almost every subject.
Dig In, Help Out
In an effort to bring everyone down to the same level, the educated and wealthy were forced to do physical labor. This “Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside Movement” saw 18 million young urbanites from the city to the countryside where they would be forced into harsh labor on farms. This resulted in the closing of many schools and universities and took power away from many of Mao’s political opponents. But all was not perfect in Maoland…
A power struggle took place about halfway through the revolution when Lin Biao succeeded against Mao’s ragtag Red Guard and was announced as Mao’s successor. Emboldened by his new celebrity, Lin declared martial law in 1970, but it was not to last. Mao was able to wrest power away from Lin’s supporters after Lin’s death in a plane crash in 1971. Lin had been fleeing China for the safety of the Soviet Union.
In addition to the many, many lives lost during the famine and violence of Mao’s misguided attempts to maintain power, thousands committed suicide in the years of the revolution. These were mainly the result of the harsh humiliation and harassment that many suffered at the hands of Mao’s Red Guard. In 1966, nearly 704 suicides took place in Shanghai, over the course of a single month. When it all ended in 1975, Mao was forced to reevaluate his position…
Little Red Book
The one main symbol of Mao’s Cultural Revolution is most likely his Little Red Book of Quotations. This collection of wisdom contains a number of ideas thought up by the chairman himself. Every citizen was required to own a copy of the book and to read from it daily. Many will be surprised to know, however, that Mao did not ascribe to everything in “his” philosophy.
Mao secretly sacrificed his ideals in an attempt to create a more stable country. When it all fell apart in 75′, following his own stroke, Mao threw support behind new, softer leader, Deng Xiaoping. Dang had actually been one of the many politicians he purged during the revolution. The support sounded an echoing death-knell for Communism in China.