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?


Photo of a wall with the faint remnant marks of a propaganda slogan that has been removed

The central section of this wall shows the faint remnant marks of a propaganda slogan that was added during the Cultural Revolution, but has since been removed. The slogan reads "Boundless faith in Chairman Mao".

The Cultural Revolution directly or indirectly touched essentially all of China's populace. During this period, much economic activity was halted, with "revolution" being the primary objective. Countless ancient buildings, artifacts, antiques, books, and paintings were destroyed by Red Guards.

The ten years of the Cultural Revolution also brought the education system to a virtual halt. University entrance exams were canceled, only being restored by Deng Xiaoping in 1977. Many intellectuals were sent to rural labor camps, and those with academic skills and technical expertise became the primary targets of political "struggle" at the local level.

Mao Zedong Thought thus became the central operative guide to all things in China. In the Cultural Revolution's early years, authority of the Red Guards surpassed that of the army, local police authorities, and the law in general. Young people were encouraged to challenge and even inform on their parents and teachers, with the one exception of Chairman Mao, whose teachings were beyond question.

The Cultural Revolution also brought to the forefront numerous internal power struggles within the Chinese Communist Party, resulting in local factionalism and petty rivalries. Armed members of opposing factions often fought on the streets, and political assassination, particularly in the rural provinces, was common.

China's historical reserves, artifacts and sites of interest suffered devastating damage as they were thought to be at the root of "old ways of thinking". Many artifacts were seized from private homes and often destroyed on the spot. Western observers suggest that much of China's thousands of years of history was obliterated, and that such destruction of historical artifacts is unmatched at any time or place.

Remnants of a banner from the Cultural Revolution in Anhui

Remnants of a banner from the Cultural Revolution in Anhui

The Cultural Revolution was particularly devastating for minority cultures in China. This reportedly stemmed in part from Jiang Qing's personal animosity toward ethnic minorities. "The centrality of the Han ethnic group" was a major theme throughout this period. At the same time, the campaign aimed to bring restless ethnic regions under control of the Han-dominated central government. In Tibet, over 2,000 monasteries were destroyed, although often with the complicity of local ethnic Tibetan Red Guards. In Inner Mongolia, many people were executed during a ruthless campaign to expose supposed members of the "separatist" Inner Mongolian People's Party. In Xinjiang, Uyghur Muslim imams were publicly humiliated for their "counter-revolutionary" faith, while copies of the Qur'an were publicly burned.

In the ethnic Korean areas of northeast China, Korean language schools were destroyed and many killings reported. In Yunnan Province, the palace of the Dai people's king was torched, and an infamous massacre of Hui Muslims at the hands of the People's Liberation Army claimed over 1,600 lives in 1975.

The human rights of literally hundreds of millions of people were annulled during the Cultural Revolution. People were forced to walk through the streets naked and flogged publicly. Many deaths occurred in police custody, often covered up as "suicides". Numerous individuals were accused, often on the flimsiest of grounds, of being foreign spies. To have, or have had, any contact with the world outside of China, could be extremely dangerous. Millions were displaced as young people from the cities were forcibly moved to the countryside, where they had to abandon all forms of standard education in favor of Maoist propaganda.

Estimates of the death toll, including civilians and Red Guards, are about 500,000 from 1966 - 1969. In the trial of the so-called Gang of Four, a Chinese court figured that 729,511 people had been persecuted of which 34,800 were officially admitted to have died. The true figure may never be known, since many deaths went unreported or were covered up by local authorities. To this day the China refuses to permit serious scholarly research into the period.