The cultural revolution (1966-1976)

The divergence within the Communist party: between those who came from the city and those from the country, and between the educated and illiterate, led to differences in state policies: should the state pursue a technocratic approach to economy, and focus on establishing a select number of schools training professionals, which would certainly leave a large number of those illiterate revolutionaries from a rural background behind, or should it develop China's economy from a grass-roots level, using the style of mass mobilization.  The political campaigns of the late 1950s, the Anti-Rightist movement, the Great Leap Forward, were grounds for these two contrasting views to unravel.  The most thorough and fierce struggle between these two groups within the Communist Party was carried out in the form of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).   The CR was begun as a way to purge the technocrats from the party, and Chairman Mao Zedong of the Communist Party again used the strategy of mass mobilization, in the form of Red Guards, Tiananmen Square parades, mass criticism meetings, and parades of the "bad elements".  Mao also wanted to transform Chinese culture through the CR, including bridging the gap between the country and the city, and the educated and the illiterate.  To do so he sent millions of Chinese high school graduates to the countryside in the name of reeducation.  Although many of them have returned to the cities today, many have permanently settled in the countryside because they married local farmers, which was a condition that barred their return back to their hometown cities after the CR was over. 

1. The Cultural Revolution (1966-76)

The Cultural Revolution, as suggested by the title, was a movement to transform the Chinese culture by, according to Mao Tse-tung (Zedong), uprooting it from feudal and bourgeois backgrounds of pre-Communist China and turning it completely into a socialist state. It started with Mao's article "Bombing the headquarters [of the feudal and bourgeois]" in 1966. Mao interviewed high school students dissatisfied with the college examination system and told them that rebellion [against their teachers] was justified.

2. Phases of the Cultural Revolution 

  • Criticism of the school teachers. 

By fall 1966, all schools, from primary to tertiary, were shut down, and most resumed in 1968, in some cases in 1971. 

Mao charged conspiracy against him within the Party, that some wanted to restore capitalism and these people were high party cadres. 

  • Criticism of the followers of the capitalist roaders--technical and other professionals, people who were not "born red"--from poor peasants and poor workers' households. 
  • Criticism of any one with overseas connections, with ties to the Nationalist government before 1949, and with any other spots on their backgrounds, or whose behavior in the CR was not approved.

3. Forms of criticism  

As in the past, the CR was a mass political movement. Everyone was mobilized. There were massive criticism meetings, during and after which those criticized were often forced to wear tall hats and were paraded around. Those who refused to participate often became the next target. Children of the denounced were often asked to separate from their parent(s).  Picture posters and large word posters (dazibao), and loudspeakers at work units became the means to communicate the latest developments of the CR.  View Cultural Revolution posters.

4.How mass mobilization was achieved 

The Communist state mobilized the masses through instilling fear (“you are next”), social mobility (promotion), encouraging telling on one another (some did so to settle personal scores). 

The Red Guards: initially created of high school students in Beijing, soon spreading to all professions in the cities. From defending Mao, they broke into many factions standing for different figures in the Central party committee, and often settled their differences with armed fights.

5. Installing a new culture 

Criticism of feudal and bourgeois cultures was followed with banning any and all non-revolutionary music from the West (except from Communist countries like the USSR, Yugoslavia, and Albania), and non-revolutionary or non-patriotic music from pre-1949 China. Revolutionary songs emerged in massive quantities, often Mao’s poems or quotations set to music. 

The eight Peking operas:

Peking operas were a traditional genre of opera that took their themes from history. Mao decided they were too full of emperors, generals, talented scholars and beautiful women, and did not represent the masses, therefore they should be reformed. Hence the launching of eight revolutionary operas.  View description of Peking Operas.

6.Mao's worship 

  • The little Red Book. 
  • Mao badges. 
  • Loyalty dances. 
  • Morning inquiries, evening reports. 
  • Parades at Tiananmen (literally: gate of heavenly peace) Square to be interviewed by Mao.

7.The Cultural Revolution as Communist youth movement.

From the beginning of CR, the Chinese youth were an important force Mao relied on to combat his opponents in the Communist Party. The Red Guards, as these high school students were called, wore red armbands to distinguish themselves from other high school students. They were guards of Mao against his (black) capitalist-roader opponents. Almost overnight, high school kids found themselves empowered by the number one leader of the country. They now, as Rae Yang recounts, were able to knock on people's door and interrogate them in their private homes or in public places, their red guard armband being the only thing needed to provide them with authority.

The red guards not only interrogated people, they often took over the leadership of institutions: hospitals, schools, factories. By now, the red guards were no longer confined to high school students, but also workers and others who were from a good class background, i.e. from poor, working-class background. Mao also encouraged them to communicate with one another across China. So almost overnight, Chinese trains were filled with red guards who traveled around in response to Mao's call, of course without purchasing their train tickets. They also often "made revolution" on their way, as Rae Yang did on her visit to Mount Hua, a very famous tourist site in China. Many red guards sincerely believed they were continuing a revolution started by their forefathers and led by Mao that the capitalist roaders tried to undermine. They wanted to perpetuate a revolutionary spirit by reexperiencing what the Chinese Communist Party experienced in history, such as the Long March (Oct.1934-Oct.1935) when the Communists trekked for about 6,000 miles from southeast to northwest China as a strategic withdrawal after defeat by the Nationalists in 1934, averaging 17 miles per day. Rae Yang narrates her experience of trying to live up to that record by actually attempting to walk to Yanan, a city in Shaanxi Province in the northwest and final destination of the Long March in 1935. Yanan was since called the "cradle of the Chinese revolution."

The Red Guards' acceptance of their call in the CR was the result of years of moral indoctrination of heroism and selfless sacrifice for the Communist cause. Individualism and independent thinking were long criticized as "bourgeois," thus any one with doubts about the CR, as Yang sometimes did, would often feel ashamed of themselves, and at least not talk about their thoughts in public.

The Red Guards' participation in the CR, however, soon went awry. For one thing, most of them were young, and students. They soon fell into factional struggles against one another. And they were really not suited to govern the institutions they occupied. They were creating embarrassment to Mao. Mao was ready to retire and disperse them by 1967, and to use them to realize another of his goals.

Mao's vision to fully integrate the Chinese educated and uneducated, the city and the country found its way in the reeducation of urban educated youth. Starting from 1967, the graduating classes of junior and senior high school were required to go and work in the countryside, with no date of return. View posters of the reeducation movement. 

8. Cultural Revolution after Sept.13, 1971

On Sept.13, 1971, Mao's successor Lin Biao crashed his plane in Mongolia en route to the Soviet Union. Lin was trying to flee China after his plot against Mao was discovered. This significantly dampened Mao's political zeal. Political reform started.  

One of the consequences was improving the Sino-US relations: Nixon's visit to China in Dec.1971 and the Shanghai Communique in Jan.1972.

9. Women in the Cultural Revolution

The Cultural Revolution aimed at a complete cultural transformation of China, including on the issue of gender. Yet it was not the first time the Communist regime tried to erase the symbolic differences between gender. A poem written by Mao Tse-tung glorifying women in military uniform was set to music and became one of the popular songs in the 1960s and 1970s. It went roughly as: Spirited and attractive, with a five feet rifle/arriving at the training ground with the first rays of morning sunshine/how magnificently ambitious Chinese women are/they prefer military uniforms to feminine clothes.
During the Cultural Revolution, violence also became women's identity, especially because they wanted to escape from a conventional perception of them as passive and gentle, which were all labeled as "bourgeois" by Mao during the Cultural Revolution. It was not uncommon for girls to interrogate and beat up the "bad elements". Women invariably dressed as men, or as male army combatants because it was "considered very glorious." And often, the belt on their uniform became their instrument to beat up their suspects. Rejecting a bourgeois lifestyle and engaging in aggressive, violent attacks both mandated that girls dress like boys, cut their hair like boys, and borrow their fathers (not their mothers') leather belts.(The above is from Emily Honig, "Maoist Mapping of Gender: Reassessing the Red Guards," 255-268, in Susan Brownell and Jeffrey Wasserstrom eds., Chinese Femininities/Chinese Masculinities: A Reader (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002))

During the Cultural Revolution, political correctness consisted largely in women wearing the same dark colors as men, keeping their hair short, and using no make-up. That men were not required to use these things shows that it was women's symbolic difference that had been specifically targeted and suppressed on top of all other forms of political repression. Post-Mao Chinese women are therefore dealing with an order of reality vastly different from that which feminists in the West face within their own patriarchal society, where the female gender is exploited more on the grounds of her difference than the lack there of. Being named as the "other" and marginalized, Western feminists can speak more or less from a politically enabling position against the centered capitalist ideology. By contrast, contemporary Chinese women find their political identity so completely inscribed in official discourse on gender and institutionalized by Fulian (the All-China Women's Federation) that they cannot even claim "feminism" for themselves.

(The above is from Lydia H. Liu, "Invention and Intervention: The Making of a Female Tradition in Modern Chinese Literature," 149-174, in Susan Brownell and Jeffrey Wasserstrom eds., Chinese Femininities/Chinese Masculinities: A Reader (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002))

10. The last phase of the CR: Madame Mao and the Gang of Four

A new wave of radicalism (1974-76)

Just as China was gradually returning to normal, partly marked by the reinstitution of the universities (1972), a new power struggle became prominent, between Madame Mao and her followers, and the dying Mao. 

Mme.Mao targeted chief rivals for succession, such as Premier Zhou Enlai. Again, she used mass political movements to do so, one of which was criticizing Zhou as the follower of Confucius and Lin Biao.  View posters criticizing Lin Biao and Confucius.

Radicalism at schools:

Reflected in the schools, again, knowledge was linked to capitalism. One primary student’s diary was published in which she constantly criticized her teachers. One college candidate was nationally praised because he turned in a blank examination paper.

11.The overthrow of the Gang of Four.

After Mao's death in Sept., 1976, his wife and three of her cohorts were arrested on charges that they started the Cultural Revolution and wanted to usurp the power of the country.  This was followed by the reinstitution of Deng Xiaoping, who in the next twenty years directed China’s modernization program. Starting from January 1978, Deng declared China needed to modernize in order to become strong. On his agenda were industry, commerce, and the return of Hong Kong to China.  View posters against the Gang of Four.

12. Reopening to the outside

With the new policy, China slowly but gradually reopened to the outside world. Scholarly communications were reestablished with Western countries, foreign investments were encouraged, first in four coastal cities, then in a greater number of cities.