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What Was The Cultural Revolution?

What Was The Cultural Revolution?

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The Cultural Revolution was a sociopolitical movement in China that began in 1966 with Mao Zedong, the leader of the Chinese Communist Party, denouncing the old capitalistic and traditional ways of Chinese life. Many people suffered during this time, but by 1976, following the death of Mao and the arrests of the Gang of Four, the Cultural Revolution was considered over.

The Cultural Revolution Explained

Following the failure of Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward—a disastrous attempt to accelerate the Chinese economy that left as many as 45 million dead from famine between 1958 and 1962—the founder of the People’s Republic of China sought to reassert his authority, eliminate his political enemies and revive the country’s revolutionary fervor. On May 16, 1966, Mao launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution to purge the country of “representatives of the bourgeoisie who have sneaked into the Party, the government, the army and various spheres of culture” and destroy the “Four Olds”—old ideas, old customs, old culture and old habits.

Read More: China Timeline

Thousands of party leaders, including Chinese President Liu Shaoqi, were jailed for “crimes against the state.” Millions of young radicals who formed the paramilitary Red Guards shut down schools, destroyed religious and cultural relics and killed intellectuals and party elites believed to be anti-revolutionaries. Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, led the effort to purify the arts by banning music, literature, film and theater, such as Shakespeare, too closely tied to the West. A cult of personality grew around Mao as millions of copies of the “Little Red Book” filled with his thoughts were forced to be read by those in need of “re-education.” When cities descended into anarchy as competing Red Guards factions began to battle each other, the People’s Liberation Army disarmed the student groups and banished them to work on communes in the countryside.

The Cultural Revolution waned in the years before Mao’s death on September 9, 1976, and came to a close weeks later with the arrest of Jiang and three of her collaborators, known as the Gang of Four, who were subsequently convicted of “counter-revolutionary crimes.” The Cultural Revolution crippled the Chinese economy and resulted in the deaths of approximately 1.5 million people and the banishment of approximately 20 million others, including China’s current president, Xi Jinping. The Chinese Communist Party condemned the Cultural Revolution in 1981, but laid most of the blame on the Gang of Four. Public discussion of the Cultural Revolution remains prohibited in China today, in part to protect Mao’s legacy.

Read More: Communism Timeline

A Brief Overview of China’s Cultural Revolution

The Cultural Revolution (in full, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution) took place from 1966 to 1976 in China. The benign-sounding moniker belies the destruction it unleashed upon the country’s population. It was launched under the direction of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Chairman Mao Zedong, who wished to renew the spirit of the communist revolution and root out those he considered to be “bourgeois” infiltrators—alluding, in part, to some of his CCP colleagues who were advocating a path for economic recovery that differed from Mao’s vision.

Though formally launched at the Eleventh Plenum of the Eighth Central Committee in August 1966, the Cultural Revolution actually had been declared months earlier, on May 16, and had been under way since then, with an initial focus on educational institutions. In the beginning, Mao pursued his goals through the Red Guards, groups of the country’s urban youths that were created through mass mobilization efforts. They were directed to root out those among the country’s population who weren’t “sufficiently revolutionary” and those suspected of being “bourgeois.” The Red Guards had little oversight, and their actions led to anarchy and terror, as “suspect” individuals—traditionalists, educators, and intellectuals, for example—were persecuted and killed. The Red Guards were soon reined in by officials, although the brutality of the revolution continued. The revolution also saw high-ranking CCP officials falling in and out of favor, such as Deng Xiaoping and Lin Biao.

The revolution ended in the fall of 1976, after the death of Mao in September and the downfall of the so-called Gang of Four (a group of radical pro-Mao CCP members) the following month, although it was officially declared over in August 1977 by the 11th Party Congress. The revolution left many people dead (estimates range from 500,000 to 2,000,000), displaced millions of people, and completely disrupted the country’s economy. Although Mao had intended for his revolution to strengthen communism, it had, ironically, the opposite effect, instead leading to China’s embrace of capitalism.


While the Cultural Revolution was an entirely logical culmination of Mao’s last two decades, it was by no means the only possible outcome of his approach to revolution, nor need a judgment of his work as a whole be based primarily on that last phase.

Few would deny Mao Zedong the major share of credit for devising the pattern of struggle based on guerrilla warfare in the countryside that ultimately led to victory in the civil war and thereby to the overthrow of the Nationalists, the distribution of land to the peasants, and the restoration of China’s independence and sovereignty. Those achievements must be given a weight commensurate with the degree of injustice prevailing in Chinese society before the revolution and with the humiliation felt by the Chinese people as a result of the dismemberment of their country by the foreign powers. “We have stood up,” Mao said in September 1949. Those words will not be forgotten.

Mao’s record after 1949 is more ambiguous. The official Chinese view, defined in June 1981, is that his leadership was basically correct until the summer of 1957, but from then on it was mixed at best and frequently wrong. It cannot be disputed that Mao’s two major innovations of his later years, the Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution, were ill-conceived and led to disastrous consequences. His goals of combating bureaucracy, encouraging popular participation, and stressing China’s self-reliance were generally laudable—and the industrialization that began during Mao’s reign did indeed lay a foundation for China’s remarkable economic development since the late 20th century—but the methods he used to pursue them were often violent and self-defeating.

There is no single accepted measure of Mao and his long career. How does one weigh, for example, the good fortune of peasants acquiring land against millions of executions and deaths? How does one balance the real economic achievements after 1949 against the starvation that came in the wake of the Great Leap Forward or the bloody shambles of the Cultural Revolution? It is, perhaps, possible to accept the official verdict that, despite the “errors of his later years,” Mao’s merits outweighed his faults, while underscoring the fact that the account is very finely balanced.

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The best-known of the new self-styled historians is Yang Jisheng, whose detailed account of Mao’s Great Leap Forward—the world’s worst man-made disaster, an ill-conceived attempt to jump-start China’s economy that led to the deaths of some 36 million people by famine—was published in Hong Kong in 2008. Though this book, Tombstone, was banned on the mainland, it circulated there in samizdat versions available online and from itinerant booksellers, who hid copies on their pushcarts. Four years later, edited and translated into English by Guo and Stacy Mosher, it was published internationally to great acclaim, and in 2016, Yang received an award for “conscience and integrity in journalism” from Harvard. He was forbidden to leave the country to attend the awards ceremony, and has told friends that he fears he is under constant surveillance.

Rather than being chastened, Yang has done it again. His latest book, The World Turned Upside Down, was published four years ago in Hong Kong and is now in English, thanks to the same translators. It is an unsparing account of the Cultural Revolution, another of Mao’s misadventures, which began in 1966 and ended only with his death in 1976.

Yang was born in 1940 in Hubei province, in central China. In a heartbreaking scene in Tombstone, he writes of coming home from school to find his beloved uncle—who had given up his last morsel of meat so that the boy he had raised as a son could eat—unable to lift a hand in greeting, his eyes sunken and his face gaunt. That happened in 1959, at the height of the famine, but it would be decades before Yang understood that his uncle’s death was part of a national tragedy, and that Mao was to blame.

In the meantime, Yang ticked off all the boxes to establish his Communist bona fides. He joined the Communist Youth League served as editor of his high school’s mimeographed tabloid, Young Communist and wrote a poem eulogizing the Great Leap Forward. He studied engineering at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, although his education was cut short by the start of the Cultural Revolution, when he and other students were sent traveling around the country as part of what Mao called the “great networking” to spread the word. In 1968, Yang became a reporter for Xinhua News Agency. There, he would later write, he learned “how ‘news’ was manufactured, and how news organs served as the mouthpieces of political power.”

A property owner is publicly shamed. (Li Zhensheng / Contact Press Images)

But it wasn’t until the crackdown on prodemocracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square in 1989 that Yang had a political awakening. “The blood of those young students cleansed my brain of all the lies I had accepted over the previous decades,” he wrote in Tombstone. He vowed to discover the truth. Under the guise of doing economic research, Yang began digging into the Great Leap Forward, uncovering the scale of the famine and the degree to which the Communist Party was culpable. His job at Xinhua and his party membership gave him access to archives closed to other researchers.

In moving on to tackle the Cultural Revolution, he acknowledges that his firsthand experiences during those years did not prove to be much help. At the time, he hadn’t understood it well, and “missed the forest for the trees,” he writes. Five years after the upheaval ended, the Communist Party’s Central Committee adopted a 1981 resolution laying down the official line on the horrifying turmoil. It described the Cultural Revolution as occasioning “the most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the Party, the state and the people” since the founding of the country. At the same time, it made clear that Mao himself—the inspiration without whom the Chinese Communist Party could not remain in power—was not to be tossed onto the rubbish heap of history. “It is true that he made gross mistakes during the Cultural Revolution,” the resolution continued, “but, if we judge his activities as a whole, his contributions to the Chinese revolution far outweigh his mistakes.” To exonerate Mao, much of the violence was blamed on his wife, Jiang Qing, and three other radicals, who came to be known as the Gang of Four.

In The World Turned Upside Down, Yang still dwells very much amid the trees, but he now brings vividness and immediacy to an account that concurs with the prevailing Western view of the forest: Mao, he argues, bears responsibility for the cascading power struggle that plunged China into chaos, an assessment supported by the work of, among other historians, Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, the authors of the 2006 classic Mao’s Last Revolution. Yang’s book has no heroes, only swarms of combatants engaged in a “repetitive process in which the different sides took turns enjoying the upper hand and losing power, being honored and imprisoned, and purging and being purged”—an inevitable cycle, he believes, in a totalitarian system. Yang, who retired from Xinhua in 2001, didn’t obtain as much archival material for this book, but he benefited from the recent work of other undaunted chroniclers, whom he credits for many chilling new details about how the violence in Beijing spread to the countryside.

The Cultural Revolution was Mao’s last attempt at creating the utopian socialist society he’d long envisioned, although he may have been motivated less by ideology than by political survival. Mao faced internal criticism for the catastrophe that was the Great Leap Forward. He was unnerved by what had happened in the Soviet Union when Nikita Khrushchev began denouncing Joseph Stalin’s brutality after his death in 1953. China’s aging despot (Mao turned 73 the year the revolution began) couldn’t help but wonder which of his designated successors would similarly betray his legacy.

To purge suspected traitors from the upper echelons, Mao bypassed the Communist Party bureaucracy. He deputized as his warriors students as young as 14 years old, the Red Guards, with caps and baggy uniforms cinched around their skinny waists. In the summer of 1966, they were unleashed to root out counterrevolutionaries and reactionaries (“Sweep away the monsters and demons,” the People’s Daily exhorted), a mandate that amounted to a green light to torment real and imagined enemies. The Red Guards persecuted their teachers. They smashed antiques, burned books, and ransacked private homes. (Pianos and nylon stockings, Yang notes, were among the bourgeois items targeted.) Trying to rein in the overzealous youth, Mao ended up sending some 16 million teenagers and young adults out into rural areas to do hard labor. He also dispatched military units to defuse the expanding violence, but the Cultural Revolution had taken on a life of its own.

Schoolchildren march on National Day. (Li Zhensheng / Contact Press Images)

In Yang’s pages, Mao is a demented emperor, cackling madly at his own handiwork as rival militias—each claiming to be the faithful executors of Mao’s will, all largely pawns in the Beijing power struggle—slaughter one another. “With each surge of setbacks and struggles, ordinary people were churned and pummeled in abject misery,” Yang writes, “while Mao, at a far remove, boldly proclaimed, ‘Look, the world is turning upside down!’ ”

Yet Mao’s appetite for chaos had its limits, as Yang documents in a dramatic chapter about what is known as “the Wuhan incident,” after the city in central China. In July 1967, one faction supported by the commander of the People’s Liberation Army forces in the region clashed with another backed by Cultural Revolution leaders in Beijing. It was a military insurrection that could have pushed China into a full-blown civil war. Mao made a secret trip to oversee a truce, but ended up cowering in a lakeside guesthouse as violence raged nearby. Zhou Enlai, the head of the Chinese government, arranged his evacuation on an air-force jet.

“Which direction are we going?” the pilot asked Mao as he boarded the plane.

“Just take off first,” a panicked Mao replied.

What started as casual brutality—class enemies forced to wear ridiculous dunce caps or stand in stress positions—degenerated into outright sadism. On the outskirts of Beijing, where traffic-crammed ring roads now lead to walled compounds with luxury villas, neighbors tortured and killed one another in the 1960s, using the cruelest methods imaginable. People said to be the offspring of landlords were chopped up with farm implements and beheaded. Male infants were torn apart by the legs to prevent them from growing up to take revenge. In a famous massacre in Dao County, Hunan province, members of two rival factions—the Red Alliance and the Revolutionary Alliance—butchered one another. So many bloated corpses floated down the Xiaoshui River that bodies clogged the dam downstream, creating a red scum on the reservoir’s surface. During a series of massacres in Guangxi province, at least 80,000 people were murdered in one 1967 incident, the killers ate the livers and flesh of some of their victims.

An estimated 1.5 million people were killed during the Cultural Revolution. The death toll pales in comparison to that of the Great Leap Forward, but in some ways it was worse: When people consumed human flesh during the Cultural Revolution, they were motivated by cruelty, not starvation. Stepping back from the grim details to situate the upheaval in China’s broader history, Yang sees an inexorable dynamic at work. “Anarchism endures because the state machine produces class oppression and bureaucratic privilege,” he writes. “The state machinery is indispensable because people dread the destructive power of anarchism. The process of the Cultural Revolution was one of repeated struggle between anarchism and state power.’’

In China, the Cultural Revolution has not been quite as taboo as other Communist Party calamities, such as the Great Leap Forward and the Tiananmen Square crackdown, which have almost entirely vanished from public discourse. At least two museums in China have collections dedicated to the Cultural Revolution, one near Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, and another in the southeastern port city of Shantou, which now appears to be closed. And for all the horrors associated with that period, many Chinese and foreigners have a fondness for what has since become kitsch—the Mao pins and posters, the Little Red Books that the marauding Red Guards waved, even porcelain figurines of people in dunce caps. (I confess I bought one a few years back at a flea market in Beijing.) A decade ago, a craze for Cultural Revolution songs, dances, and uniforms took off in the huge southwestern city of Chongqing, tapping a vein of nostalgia for the revolutionary spirit of the old days. The campaign was led by the party boss Bo Xilai, who was eventually purged and imprisoned in a power struggle that ended with the ascension of Xi Jinping to the party leadership in 2012. History seemed to be repeating itself.

Although Xi is widely considered the most authoritarian leader since Mao, and is often referred to in the foreign press as “the new Mao,” he is no fan of the Cultural Revolution. As a teenager, he was one of the 16 million Chinese youths exiled to the countryside, where he lived in a cave while toiling away. His father, Xi Zhongxun, a former comrade of Mao’s, was purged repeatedly. And yet Xi has anointed himself the custodian of Mao’s legacy. He has twice paid homage to Mao’s mausoleum in Tiananmen Square, bowing reverently to the statue of the Great Helmsman.

Tolerance for free expression has shrunk under Xi. A few officials have been fired for criticizing Mao. In recent years, teachers have been disciplined for what is called “improper speech,” which encompasses disrespecting Mao’s legacy. Some textbooks gloss over the decade of chaos, a retreat from the admission of mass suffering in the 1981 resolution, which ushered in a period of relative openness compared with today.

Confiscated stocks and savings-deposit books are burned. (Li Zhensheng / Contact Press Images)

In 2008, when Tombstone first appeared, the Chinese leadership was more accepting of criticism. Two of Yang’s contemporaries at Tsinghua University in the 1960s had by then risen to the top ranks of the Communist Party—the former leader Hu Jintao and Wu Bangguo, the head of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress—and he received indirect messages of support, according to Minxin Pei, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College and a friend of Yang’s. “The book resonated with the top Chinese leadership because they knew the system could not produce its own history,” he told me. The problem for Yang today “is the overall sense of insecurity of the current regime.”

Yang, now 81, is still living in Beijing. He was so nervous about the repercussions of The World Turned Upside Down that he initially tried to delay publication of the English edition, according to friends, out of worry that his grandson—who was applying to university—might bear the brunt of reprisals. But the repressive political climate in China today makes honest assessments of Communist Party history ever more urgent, Guo told me. “Ever since the time of Zuo Qiuming [a historian from the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.] and Confucius, truthfully recorded history has been considered a mirror against which the present is viewed and a stern warning against rulers’ abuse of power.” He pointed as well to a more contemporary, Western source, George Orwell’s 1984, and its mantra, “Who controls the past controls the future: Who controls the present controls the past.”

Unlike the imperial dynasties, the Communist Party can’t claim a mandate from heaven. “If it admits error,” Guo said, “it loses legitimacy.”

This article appears in the January/February 2021 print edition with the headline “China’s Rebel Historians.”

Key Facts & Information


  • After the fall of his Great Leap Forward (1958-1960) and the economic crisis that followed shortly after, Mao’s position in the Chinese government weakened.
  • For such reason, it is believed that Mao had the desire to reassert his authority over the Communist party, which led to the establishment of the Cultural Revolution in August 1966.
  • However, historians suggested that the Cultural Revolution might have begun in mid-May 1966 when Chinese leaders in Beijing issued a document called as the May 16 Notification, telling that the Communist party had been infiltrated by bourgeois revisionists.
  • Mao Zedong urged his loyal supporters to condemn bourgeois ideas embedded in academic writing. He encouraged the students from universities and colleges to rebel toward their teachers who were anti-revolutionaries. The students responded enthusiastically to Mao Zedong and he summoned them for a mass rally in Tiananmen Square on August 18, 1966.
  • Following this, massive youth mobilizations took place, which created the paramilitary group called the Red Guards, aimed at destroying the four olds: old culture, old customs, old habits, old ideas. When the group grew by one million members in Beijing, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution began. Members of China’s elderly and intellectual population were also attacked by the Red Guards.
  • Many campuses, universities, churches, shops, and even private homes were likewise destroyed at the time, as an attack on feudal traditions.
  • Moreover, this revolution escalated quickly to violence as Mao ordered security forces not to interfere in the work of the Red Guards.
  • This resulted in an estimated 1,800 deaths in August-September 1966 alone.
  • By late 1968, Mao started to send millions of urban youth to the countryside for their supposed reeducation.
  • The Red terror further blew out of proportion as Mao instructed the army to restore order, resulting in a military crackdown that lasted until 1971. The death toll also increased during these times.


  • As the Cultural Revolution approached its eventual end, Zhou Enlai, one of Mao’s accomplices, tried to stabilize China by renewing the educational system and bringing back former officials into power.
  • However, in 1972, Zhou learned that he had cancer while Mao suffered a stroke. Due to this development, the two leaders campaigned for Deng Xiaoping, a decision opposed by Mao’s allies known as the Gang of Four. This divide continued for the succeeding years.
  • Convincingly, the death of Mao on September 9, 1976 marked the fall of the Cultural Revolution.
  • Following this, party leaders ordered the execution of Mao’s allies, including his widow, Jiang Qing.
  • In 1981, Jiang was sentenced to death, but it was later reduced to life in prison. In 1991, which marked the 25th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution, Jiang hung herself.


  • Historians believed that this revolution had an estimated 500,000 to 2,000,000 deaths. The southern province of Guangxi is said to have suffered the worst due to reports of mass executions and even cannibalism.
  • This period brought massive violence, relocations, executions, and closing of institutions greatly affected China’s economic production.
  • Furthermore, this revolution which intended to revive the visions of communism, next to Mao’s ideas, ironically resulted in the opposite. It instead led China to embrace capitalism in the 1980s.
  • The Communist Party made some attempts to correct the horrors of the previous decade. Those who were unfairly purged or persecuted went into rehabilitation. Others were also punished for this chaos.
  • However, these efforts slowed down starting in the early 1980s because Beijing became worried that it might implicate itself in the massive killings that took place, especially due to the growing resistance from the Chinese youth.
  • Historians likewise observed how this chaotic period brought class enemies across China at the time.

The Cultural Revolution Worksheets

This is a fantastic bundle which includes everything you need to know about the Cultural Revolution across 21 in-depth pages. These are ready-to-use The Cultural Revolution worksheets that are perfect for teaching students about the Cultural Revolution. Believing that the leadership at the time was moving towards a revisionist direction, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Chairman Mao Zedong launched a movement known as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution to revive the revolutionary spirit of China. This revolution, which took place from 1966-1976, originally intended to strengthen the foundations of communism, following Mao’s visions but is believed to have pursued the opposite, instead of leading China to embrace capitalism.

Complete List Of Included Worksheets

  • China: The Cultural Revolution Facts
  • Locating China
  • Find the Word
  • Timeline of the Cultural Revolution
  • Reforms under the Cultural Revolution
  • Mao Zedong
  • ‘The East is Red’
  • Poster Analysis
  • Video Analysis
  • The Impact of the Cultural Revolution
  • In a Nutshell

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Use With Any Curriculum

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The Cultural Revolution

The Cultural Revolution had a massive impact on China from 1965 to 1968. The Cultural Revolution is the name given to Mao’s attempt to reassert his beliefs in China. Mao had been less than a dynamic leader from the late 1950’s on, and feared others in the party might be taking on a leading role that weakened his power within the party and the country. This probably explains the Cultural Revolution – it was an attempt by Mao to re-impose his authority on the party and therefore the country.

The movement began in September 1965 with a speech by Lin Piao who urged pupils in schools and colleges to return to the basic principles of the revolutionary movement. Chinese youths were also encouraged to openly criticise the liberals in the Chinese Communist Party and those apparently influenced by Nikita Khruschev of the USSR. Educational establishments were considered to be too academic and, therefore, too elitist.

Mao believed that the progress China had made since 1949 had lead to a privileged class developing – engineers, scientists, factory managers etc. Mao also believed that these people were acquiring too much power at his expense. Mao was concerned that a new class of mandarins was emerging in China who had no idea about the lifestyle of the normal person in China.

Red Guards (groups of youths who banded themselves together) encouraged all the youth in China to criticise those who Mao deemed untrustworthy with regards to the direction he wanted China to take. No-one was safe from criticism: writers, economists and anyone associated with the man Mao considered his main rival – Liu Shao-chi. Anyone who was deemed to have developed a superior attitude was considered an enemy of the party and people.

Mao deliberately set out to create a cult for himself and to purge the Chinese Communist Party of anyone who did not fully support Mao. His main selling point was a desire to create a China which had peasants, workers and educated people working together – no-one was better than anyone else and all working for the good of China – a classless society.

However, the enthusiasm of the Red Guards nearly pushed China into social turmoil. Schools and colleges were closed and the economy started to suffer. Groups of Red Guards fought Red Guards as each separate unit believed that it knew best how China should proceed. In some areas the activities of the Red Guard got out of hand. They turned their anger on foreigners and foreign embassies got attacked. The British Embassy was burned down completely.

The looming chaos was only checked when Zhou Enlai urged for a return to normality. He had been one of the leading members of the Chinese Communist Party to encourage all party members to submit themselves to criticism but he quickly realised that the experiment that was the Cultural Revolution had got out of hand and was spiralling out of control.

In October 1968, Liu Shao-chi was expelled from the party and this is generally seen by historians as the end of the Cultural Revolution. Mao had witnessed the removal of a potential rival in the party and therefore saw no need for the Cultural Revolution to continue.

Quotations: the Cultural Revolution

This page contains a collection of Chinese Revolution quotations about the Cultural Revolution, made by prominent leaders, figures, observers and historians. These quotations have been selected and compiled by Alpha History authors. If you would like to suggest a quotation for these pages, please contact Alpha History.

“Marxism comprises many principles, but in the final analysis they can all be brought back to a single sentence: it is right to rebel.”
Mao Zedong, 1939 (often cited by the Red Guards)

“We need determined people who are young, have little education, a firm attitude and the political experience to take over the work… When we started to make revolution we were mere 23-year-old boys, while the rulers of that time… were old and experienced. They had more learning – but we had more truth.”
Mao Zedong, 1958

“A big character poster is an extremely useful new weapon. It can be used anywhere as long as the masses are there: city, village, factory, commune, store, government office, school, military unity and street. It has been widely used and should be used indefinitely.”
Mao Zedong, 1958

“[The play] Hai Rui Dismissed from Office is not a fragrant flower but a poisonous weed… Its influence is great and its poison widespread. If we do not clean it up, it will be harmful to the affairs of the people.”
Yao Wenyuan, 1965

“Lately some weird happenings and weird phenomena deserve our awareness. There is a decided possibility of a coup involving killings, seizure of power and restoration of the capitalist class, and of attempts to eliminate the socialist way… We must not be paralysed in our thoughts. We must take categorical action and discover the capitalist-class representatives, time bombs and landmines, and eliminate them… We must criticise them, expose them until they are driven out of the party.”
Lin Biao, 1966

“The representatives of the capitalist class who have infiltrated our party, our government, our armed forces and various cultural groups are actually a batch of counter-revolutionary revisionists… They are Khrushchev types and they are sleeping right next to us. All levels of Party cadre must b especially aware of this point.”
The CCP’s May 16th circular, 1966

“Raise high the great red flag of Mao Zedong Thought, unite around the Party and Chairman Mao, and crush all kinds of constraints and subversive plots of revisionism… to carry the socialist revolution to the end.
A big character poster from 1966

“If the father is a hero, the son is a real man. If the father is a reactionary, the son is a bastard. That’s basically how it works.”
A slogan used by Beijing Red Guards, 1966

“We firmly support your proletarian revolutionary spirit of daring to break through, to act, to make revolution and to rise up in rebellion… Overthrow those persons in power taking the capitalist road, overthrow the bourgeois reactionary authorities and all bourgeois loyalists.”
Lin Biao’s speech to the Red Guards on August 18th 1966

“Our constitution allows people to have freedoms of speech and assembly. Chairman Mao tells us frequently that in order for the leadership to correct mistakes, the revolutionary masses must have the freedom of petition and strikes… The popular masses are allowed to criticise publicly through big and small character posters, big airings, big releases and big debates.”
Zhou Enlai, August 1966

“Speaking out freely, airing views fully, holding great debates and writing big-character posters are a new form of carrying on socialist revolution created by the masses. The state should ensure to the masses the right to use these forms to create a political situation.”
The Fourth National People’s Congress, January 1967

“In some high schools, students killed their principals and then cooked and ate the bodies to celebrate a triumph over ‘counter-revolutionaries’.”
Zheng Yi, Chinese writer

“Resuming classes to make revolution means to reopen class in Mao Zedong Thought and in the Great Proletarian Revolution!”
People’s Daily, 1967

“To promote proletariat educational revolution, we must rely on the school’s revolutionary students, revolutionary teachers and workers. We must rely on the activists among them.”
Mao Zedong, 1967

“Some people say that China loves peace. That’s bragging. In fact, the Chinese love struggle. I do, for one.”
Mao Zedong, 1967

“I won’t be happy till I die. I’ve never lived a good day in my life. My mother was beaten to death, my father was left senseless, and I still have to beg for everything. That is what the Cultural Revolution did. It is unfixable. My scars will never heal.”
Lihua, a victim of the Cultural Revolution

“It was at this time, the height of the Cultural Revolution, that Mao was sometimes in bed with three, four, even five women simultaneously.”
Li Zhisui, Mao Zedong’s personal physician

“I was Chairman Mao’s dog. What he said to bite, I bit.”
Jiang Qing on her role in the Cultural Revolution

“Chairman Mao is very strict with me. Most of all, he is a strict teacher to me. Naturally he does not take my hands and make them do things the way he wishes others to do… We have lived together but he is the silent type. He does not talk much.”
Jiang Qing, 1968

“I saw our most, most, most dearly beloved leader Chairman Mao. Comrades, I have seen Chairman Mao! Today I am so happy that my heart is about to burst… I have decided to make today my birthday. Today I start a new life.”
An unnamed Red Guard at the height of the Cultural Revolution

“The purpose of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution is to destroy the old culture. You cannot stop us!”
An unnamed Red Guard, 1966

“Father is dear, Mother is dear. But Chairman Mao is dearest of all.”
Junior school oath, circa 1967

“We will swing a big stick, demonstrate magic, exhibit supernatural power, turn heaven and earth upside down. We are going to throw men and horses off their feet, make flowers wither so that they flow away with the water. We want to heap chaos upon chaos.”
An unnamed Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution

“We were told that we needed to use violence to destroy a class, spiritually and physically. That was justification enough for torturing someone. They weren’t considered human anymore. If they were the enemy, they deserved to be strangled to death, and they deserved to be tortured. This was the education we received… the Cultural Revolution brought out the worst in people and the worst in the political system.”
Xi Qinsheng, former Red Guard

“The Cultural Revolution must be reassessed. Mao Zedong was 70 per cent good and 30 per cent bad.”
Big character poster, 1978

“Your action indicates that you are expressing hatred and denunciation of landowners, the bourgeoisie, imperialism, revisionists and their running dogs who exploit workers, peasants, revolutionary intellectuals and parties. Your actions suggest that your rebellion… is justified. You have my warmest and fullest support.”
Mao Zedong to the Red Guards, 1966

“Chief responsibility for the grave error of the Cultural Revolution does indeed lie with Comrade Mao Zedong… his prestige reached a peak and he began to get arrogant… Comrade Mao Zedong was a great Marxist and a great revolutionary. It is true he made gross mistakes during the Cultural Revolution but his contribution to the Chinese Revolution far outweighs his mistakes.”
Chinese Communist Party history text, 1981

“Some think that… inciting the people [during the Cultural Revolution] is democracy. In fact, inciting the people is to start civil war. We know the lessons of history.”
Deng Xiaoping, speaking in 1993

Cultural Revolution

The period of the Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 until 1977, was one of the most difficult in Chinese history. China’s leader, Mao Zedong, had led a revolution that brought a form of government called Communism to the country in 1949. He launched the Cultural Revolution in order to maintain that system.


By the mid-1960s the government Mao had established was weakening. Groups opposing him had emerged in the Chinese Communist Party and in the army. His economic policies had failed. Leaders opposed to him wanted better economic policies even if it meant moving away from the principles of Communism. Mao also was a believer in permanent, ongoing revolution. Thus he called for a cultural revolution in 1965.


Mao had four main goals for the Cultural Revolution. The first was to replace people in the government with leaders who were more loyal to his current ideas. The second was to reform the Chinese Communist Party. The third was to provide China’s youth with a revolutionary experience. The fourth was to make the educational, health care, and cultural systems oriented more toward common citizens rather than select members of society.


Mao had a group of associates who helped him with the movement. One group was his wife, Jiang Qing, and her three supporters. This group was later known as the Gang of Four. Mao’s other associates included Lin Biao, Chen Boda, and Zhou Enlai.

Mao formally launched the Cultural Revolution in August 1966 by shutting down China’s schools. The Chinese youth responded to his call with great enthusiasm. They organized themselves into groups known as the Red Guards. They marched through cities and towns attacking anyone they thought was against their leader. Elderly people and scholars were physically assaulted, and many died.

The mounting chaos led many top party leaders to call for a halt to the revolution in early 1967. But clashes continued to grow out of control. In 1968 Mao decided to rebuild the Chinese Communist Party and to establish some order. Schools, factories, and government agencies were taken over by the military, and millions of Red Guards were forced from the cities. Thus society began to return to normality, though slowly—for example, universities did not reopen fully until 1970.

In April 1969 Lin Biao was officially named Mao’s successor. However, he soon fell out of favor with Mao and was killed in 1971. The next year Mao suffered a stroke and Zhou Enlai learned that he had a fatal form of cancer. These incidents prompted them to bring Deng Xiaoping to power. However, Jiang Qing, who was by now the leader of the radicals, did not support this move. She and her followers eventually persuaded Mao to turn against Zhou and Deng.

Zhou and Mao both died in 1976, and the Gang of Four was forced to stop their activities, paving the way for Deng’s return to power in 1977. The Cultural Revolution was officially ended in August 1977.


Mao’s attempt to maintain a state of permanent revolution was extremely costly. The Cultural Revolution slowed the growth of China’s economy. It also created a major division between supporters and opponents of the movement. After the revolution both these groups often had to work together despite their differences. Many Chinese who had been in their teens and early twenties during the movement did not receive a full education, and in the post-revolution period they failed to secure good jobs. The harm done to the educational system took a long time to repair. China fell even further behind the industrialized powers of the world, and the effects of the Cultural Revolution troubled China for decades.

Vandalism toward priceless cultural relics

One may arguably say that one of the most painful acts of vandalism toward priceless cultural relics was the destruction, looting, and burning of an over 2,000-year-old temple of Confucius in Shandong in 1966, when more than 200 students from Beijing Normal University traveled to the sacred site with the aim of completely demolishing it.

China’s Cultural Revolution. Looting and destruction of figurines in front of a Confucius temple. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Religious text and wooden figurines were usually burned, typically before the public, to display “patriotism.”

The disastrous destiny of traditional artifacts, literature, and culture was not limited to its dark pages in China’s history, but continues to this day, not just in China, but all across the world.

The Role of Mao Zedong

In the introduction, Dikötter writes, “Mao used the people during the Cultural Revolution but, equally, many people manipulated the campaign to pursue their own goals” (xiii). In the past, some studies on the Cultural Revolution focused on the leadership in Beijing and others on the grassroots level. In Dikötter’s first two volumes, the two dominant narratives, one of Mao as a crazy tyrant and the other of suffering masses on the ground, were not always well connected. In the new book, Dikötter shows how Mao reacted to local events by adjusting his policies: for example, switching between supporting the rebels and the PLA in the first half of 1967. Dikötter has no sympathy for the Chairman, but his picture of Mao is more nuanced than in the first two volumes.

Dikötter contributes to the debate on whether the Cultural Revolution was a maneuver by Mao to purge his enemies within the leadership or a strategy to prevent socialist China from becoming revisionist. Dikötter argues, “These two aspects of the Cultural Revolution—the vision of a socialist world free of revision, the sordid, vengeful plotting against real and imaginary enemies—were not mutually exclusive. Mao saw no distinction between himself and the revolution” (xi–xii). There are many examples in the book of campaigns against imaginary enemies that got out of hand. For example, the hunt for the so-called May 16 Conspiracy, a small grassroots group in Beijing, had a terrible impact on 3.5 million people all over the country between 1967 and 1969 (240). Among the victims were many rebels who were loyal to Mao.

Historiography of the Cultural Revolution

The Cultural Revolution has generated more debate and discussion than any other aspect of the Chinese Revolution. The historiography of the Cultural Revolution is therefore diverse and often contentious.

While the disastrous famine of 1959-61 can be explained by policy failures and natural conditions, the Cultural Revolution was a human event with more contentious causes.

The ‘party line’ which emerged after Mao Zedong’s death was that the Chairman acted in error. With faint echoes of Khrushchev denouncing Stalin, Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping described the Cultural Revolution as the “greatest mistake of [Mao’s] life”. Since 1981, the official Chinese Communist Party (CCP) position is that Mao was “mistaken” – but that the Cultural Revolution was corrupted and worsened by the actions of troublemakers and other leaders, particularly Lin Biao and the Gang of Four.

Today in China, the government monitors and censors discussion of the Cultural Revolution more than any other historical event.

Hong Yung Lee

One of the first serious historical studies of the Cultural Revolution was undertaken by Hong Yung Lee (The Politics of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, 1978). In this work, Lee argued that the Cultural Revolution began as a conflict between party elites, but expanded rapidly into a conflict between elites and the masses.

Lee suggested that most of the Red Guards were from underprivileged sections of urban society. They were aggrieved because the Revolution had failed to meet their needs. The Red Guards were thus motivated by frustration and class envy more than political or ideological concerns.

In addition, the communist regime had established a precedent for ‘violent criticism’ during the ‘Speak Bitterness’ campaigns that accompanied land reform. According to Lee, Mao set this movement in motion but was unable to control or restrain it.

Red Guards humiliate an accused Rightist during the Cultural Revolution

The ‘social mobility’ theory

Research conducted by Anita Chan in the 1980s and echoed later by Jonathan Spence emphasised another important factor among China’s youth: the need to succeed. Chan claims that the ‘new China’ of the mid-1960s offered fewer opportunities for social mobility. Competition for university places, government jobs and technical appointments had rapidly increased, leaving many with little chance of success.

Chinese students of the 1960s were subject to political socialisation: they were taught by their parents that obtaining these positions was dependent on their devotion to the state, to Chairman Mao and his socialist ideals. The radicalism of many Red Guards was fuelled by this intense competition and the belief that success could only come through fanatical loyalty and enthusiasm.

Ouyang Xiang is beaten by Red Guards in 1968. He was later murdered.

Longer-term factors

Writing in the mid-1980s Lucian Pye, an American historian, questioned why so many historians have presented ‘shallow’ causes of the Cultural Revolution – usually suggesting it was caused mostly, if not entirely by Mao. Pye asked whether the political and social upheaval of 1966 had deeper causal roots in China’s history, such as its long tradition of peasant rebellions.

Pye also noted that patriotism and loyalty had prevented China’s leaders and scholars from thinking critically about the Cultural Revolution, understanding the damage it had caused or responding accordingly. Rather than undertaking any self-analysis, China’s rulers blamed the negative outcomes of the new regime – the sufferings of land reform, the Great Leap Forward, the fanaticism and violence of the Cultural Revolution – on the “excessive zeal of cadres”.

Tang Tsou

A counterpoint to these negative interpretations of the Cultural Revolution came from Tang Tsou (The Cultural Revolution and Post-Mao Reforms: A Historical Perspective, 1986).

In his 1986 book and a series of essays, Tsou argued that the Cultural Revolution was a functional expression of ‘people power’ that limited the power of the government and paved the way for reforms after the death of Mao. The Cultural Revolution was necessary, Tsou argued, because the power of the government had grown excessively and a correction was needed.

Tsou’s argument was later challenged by Anne Thurston and the ‘scar literature’ of the 1980s, which painted the Cultural Revolution as a tragedy. These writers argued that the social disruption and human cost of the Cultural Revolution far outweighed whatever political benefits it delivered.

Western historiography

In the West, the prevailing view of the Cultural Revolution was that it was mostly the work of Mao Zedong.

Jung Chang – who herself was a Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution – considers Mao to be largely responsible. Chang considers that the vast majority of young Chinese were brainwashed by Maoism and its personality cult. The Cultural Revolution, according to Chang, was a grandiose attempt to restore Mao’s control of the CCP, by turning millions of his indoctrinated subjects against it.

Michael Lynch also considers the Cultural Revolution a political strategy, writing that Mao “unleashed the Cultural Revolution to secure the continuation of the China he had created”.

Ross Terrill is another historian who views the Cultural Revolution as Mao’s handiwork, though he suggests that asserting political control was only one of Mao’s aims. “He [Mao] was worried about the softness of the 300 million young people born since 1949,” Terrill wrote. “They must be put through a struggle of their own.”

“We will know more about Mao in the future than we do now. It is possible to identify present-day barriers to further knowledge. One is our inability to study Chinese military archives. A second is unavailability of the notes and/or tape recordings of thousands of Mao’s informal talks and conversations… a third is the political reputation of people still alive or in high favour… In an important sense, we will not know what many segments of Chinese society think of Mao until Leninist rule comes to an end, for the expression of opinion on Mao within China always occurs within a specific political context.”
Ross Terrill, historian