Overview of the Chinese Cultural Revolution

Red Guards in a mass reading of Mao's Little Red Book, 1968
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Between 1966 and 1976, the young people of China rose up in an effort to purge the nation of the "Four Olds": old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas.

Mao Sparks the Cultural Revolution

In August 1966, Mao Zedong called for the start of a Cultural Revolution at the Plenum of the Communist Central Committee. He urged the creation of corps of "Red Guards" to punish party officials and any other persons who showed bourgeois tendencies.

Mao likely was motivated to call for the so-called Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in order to rid the Chinese Communist Party of his opponents after the tragic failure of his Great Leap Forward policies. Mao knew that other party leaders were planning to marginalize him, so he appealed directly to his supporters among the people to join him in a Cultural Revolution. He also believed that the communist revolution had to be a continuous process, in order to stave off capitalist ideas.

Mao's call was answered by the students, some as young as elementary school, who organized themselves into the first groups of Red Guards. They were joined later by workers and soldiers.

The first targets of the Red Guards included Buddhist temples, churches, and mosques, which were razed to the ground or converted to other uses. Sacred texts, as well as Confucian writings, were burned, along with religious statues and other artwork. Any object associated with China's pre-revolutionary past was liable to be destroyed.

In their fervor, the Red Guards began to persecute people deemed "counter-revolutionary" or "bourgeois," as well. The Guards conducted so-called "struggle sessions," in which they heaped abuse and public humiliation upon people accused of capitalist thoughts (usually these were teachers, monks, and other educated persons). These sessions often included physical violence, and many of the accused died or ended up being held in re-education camps for years. According to the Mao's Last Revolution by Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, almost 1,800 people were killed in Beijing alone in August and September of 1966.

The Revolution Spins out of Control

By February of 1967, China had descended into chaos. The purges had reached the level of army generals who dared to speak out against the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, and Red Guards were turning against one another and fighting in the streets. Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, encouraged the Red Guards to raid arms from the People's Liberation Army (PLA), and even to replace the army entirely if necessary.

By December of 1968, even Mao realized that the Cultural Revolution was spinning out of control. China's economy, already weakened by the Great Leap Forward, was faltering badly. Industrial production fell by 12% in just two years. In reaction, Mao issued a call for the "Down to the Countryside Movement," in which young cadres from the city were sent to live on farms and learn from the peasants. Although he spun this idea as a tool for leveling society, in fact, Mao sought to disperse the Red Guards across the country, so that they could not cause so much trouble anymore.

Political Repercussions

With the worst of the street violence over, the Cultural Revolution in the following six or seven years revolved primarily around struggles for power in the upper echelons of the Chinese Communist Party. By 1971, Mao and his second-in-command, Lin Biao, were trading assassination attempts against one another. On September 13, 1971, Lin and his family tried to fly to the Soviet Union, but their plane crashed. Officially, it ran out of fuel or had an engine failure, but there is speculation that the plane was shot down either by Chinese or Soviet officials.

Mao was aging quickly, and his health was failing. One of the main players in the succession game was his wife, Jiang Qing. She and three cronies, called the "Gang of Four," controlled most of China's media, and railed against moderates such as the Deng Xiaoping (now rehabilitated after a stint in a re-education camp) and Zhou Enlai. Although the politicians were still enthusiastic about purging their opponents, the Chinese people had lost their taste for the movement.

Zhou Enlai died in January of 1976, and popular grief over his death turned into demonstrations against the Gang of Four and even against Mao. In April, as many as 2 million people flooded Tiananmen Square for Zhou Enlai's memorial service—and the mourners publicly denounced Mao and Jiang Qing. That July, the Great Tangshan Earthquake accentuated the Communist Party's lack of leadership in the face of tragedy, further eroding public support. Jiang Qing even went on the radio to urge the people not to allow the earthquake to distract them from criticizing Deng Xiaoping.

Mao Zedong died on September 9, 1976. His hand-picked successor, Hua Guofeng, had the Gang of Four arrested. This signaled the end of the Cultural Revolution.

After-Effects of the Cultural Revolution

For the entire decade of the Cultural Revolution, schools in China did not operate, leaving an entire generation with no formal education. All of the educated and professional people had been targets for re-education. Those that hadn't been killed were dispersed across the countryside, toiling on farms or working in labor camps.

All sorts of antiquities and artifacts were taken from museums and private homes and were destroyed as symbols of "old thinking." Priceless historical and religious texts also were burned to ashes.

The exact number of people killed during the Cultural Revolution is unknown, but it was at least in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions. Many of the victims of public humiliation committed suicide, as well. Members of ethnic and religious minorities suffered disproportionately, including Tibetan Buddhists, Hui people, and Mongolians.

Terrible mistakes and brutal violence mar the history of Communist China. The Cultural Revolution is among the worst of these incidents, not only because of the horrific human suffering inflicted but also because so many remnants of that country's great and ancient culture were willfully destroyed.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "Overview of the Chinese Cultural Revolution." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-was-the-cultural-revolution-195607. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2020, August 25). Overview of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-was-the-cultural-revolution-195607 Szczepanski, Kallie. "Overview of the Chinese Cultural Revolution." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-was-the-cultural-revolution-195607 (accessed February 3, 2023).