The Cultural Revolution

Conversely, the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) was Mao's attempt to purge China of anything deemed corruptive to the revolutionary cause. The government and local citizens suppressed anything considered western, American, or European, and anything that promoted capitalism or democracy. Homes were invaded, dissidents were imprisoned in reeducation camps, and prisoners were executed for their crimes against the state. This damaged China's economy and led to the persecution of tens of millions of people. Historians estimate up to 20 million people were killed.

Read this text on the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath. Make a timeline of these events. How does the Cultural Revolution compare with the Great Leap Forward?


Great Leap Forward

In 1957, after China's first Five-Year Plan, Mao Zedong called for an increase in the speed of growth of "socialism". Mao thus launched the Great Leap Forward, establishing special communes in the countryside and instituting a nationwide program of steel production using backyard furnaces. Industries soon went into turmoil as peasants were producing too much steel, which was often of very poor quality, while other areas were neglected. Farming implements like rakes and shovels were melted down for steel, impeding agricultural production. To make matters worse, in order to avoid punishment, local authorities frequently over-reported production numbers, which hid the seriousness of the problem. With the country having barely recovered from decades of war, the Great Leap Forward left the Chinese economy in shambles.


Photo of Liu Shaoqi

Liu Shaoqi

Mao admitted serious negative results and called for dismantling the communes in 1959. However, he insisted that the Great Leap was 70 percent correct overall. In the same year, Mao resigned as chairman of the People's Republic, and the government was subsequently run by reform-minded bureaucrats such as People's Republic Chairman Liu Shaoqi, Premier Zhou Enlai, and General Secretary Deng Xiaoping. Mao, however, remained as chairman of the Chinese Communist Party. During this period, Mao formed a political alliance with Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. Among Liu's and Deng's reforms were a retreat from collectivism, which had failed miserably.

These moves away from the crippling effects of the Great Leap Forward however, did not result in an improvement in the lives of the Chinese people. The nation was now faced with the so-called "Three Years of Natural Disasters," which made recovery even more difficult. Food was in desperate shortage, and production fell dramatically, as much due to lasting effects of the failed Great Leap Forward campaign as to natural causes. An estimated 38 million people died from widespread famine during these years.

In response, Liu Shaoqi developed a policy to move more dramatically away from Maoist policies of collectivism and state socialism. The success of his economic reforms won Liu prestige in the eyes of many Party members. Together with Deng Xiaoping, Liu began planning to gradually retire Mao from any real power, and to turn him into a figurehead.

The reformers, however, faced opposition from Maoist hardliners, and Mao, fearing an abandonment of his revolutionary principles, initiated the Socialist Education Movement in 1963 to restore his political base and renew "revolutionary spirit," especially among the youth. Mao soon began criticizing Liu Shaoqi openly. By 1964, the Socialist Education Movement had become the new "Four Cleanups Movement," with the stated goal of the cleansing of politics, economics, ideas, and organization. The movement was directed politically against Liu and his allies.


In late 1959, Beijing Deputy Mayor Wu Han had published an historical drama entitled "Hai Rui Dismissed from Office," in which a virtuous official (Hai Rui) was dismissed by a corrupt emperor. The play initially received praise from Mao, but in 1965, his wife, Jiang Qing, published an article criticizing the play together with her protégé Yao Wenyuan. They labeled it a "poisonous weed" and an attack on Mao.

The Shanghai newspaper article received much publicity nationwide. In response, Beijing Mayor Peng Zhen, a supporter of Wu Han, established a commission to study the issue, finding that the criticism had gone too far. In May, 1966, Jiang Qing and Yao Wenyuan published new articles denouncing both Wu Han and Peng Zhen. Then, on May 16, following Mao's lead, the Politburo issued a formal notice criticizing Peng Zhen and disbanding his commission. Soon, the Politburo launched the Cultural Revolution Group.

Lin Biao, who would become a primary organizer of the Cultural Revolution, declared: "Chairman Mao is a genius, everything the Chairman says is truly great; one of the Chairman's words will override the meaning of ten thousands of ours". Soon, popular demonstrations were launched in support of Mao and in opposition to the reformers. On May 25, a young teacher of philosophy at Beijing University, Nie Yuanzi, wrote a dazibao ("big-character poster") labeling the director of the university and other professors as "black anti-Party gangsters". Some days later, Mao ordered the text of this big-character poster to be broadcast nationwide.

On May 29, 1966, in the middle school attached to Beijing's Tsinghua University, the first organization of Red Guards was formed, aimed at punishing and neutralizing reform-minded intellectuals and officials. On June 1, 1966, the official People's Daily Party newspaper stated that all "imperialistic intellectuals" and their allies must be purged. On July 28, 1966, representatives of the Red Guards wrote a formal letter to Mao, arguing that mass purges and related social and political phenomena were justified; and committing themselves to this effort. In an article entitled "Bombard the Headquarters," Mao responded with full support. Thus the Cultural Revolution began in earnest.