Photograph of workers in the countryside, taken during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). Many prominent intellectuals were sent to the countryside as well, when universities were effectively closed.

A mass movement occurring during the final decade of Mao Zedong’s life from 1966 onward, the Cultural Revolution caused massive political, social, and cultural disruption, and saw an onslaught on the rule of the Communist Party by rebellious groups and radicals. For the central government, the main issue was who was to succeed Mao Zedong as leader of China after his death. This was not resolved during his lifetime.

The Cultural Revolution (CR), officially known as the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” was a complex political-social movement that occurred in China during the last decade of Communist Party–leader Mao Zedong’s life from 1966 onward. Indeed, it is almost certain that without Mao Zedong the movement would never have taken place. It was evidence of Mao’s increasing radicalism in the final stages of his life, showing him subverting the very institutions and structures he had created after the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949 in order to achieve ambitious utopian political goals.

While limited in its economic impact, the CR was to have devastating social consequences, resulting in injury and death to many hundreds of thousands of people and traumatizing large parts of the urban Chinese population such that, in the words of the writer Ba Jin, it might be remembered as China’s “spiritual holocaust.” Despite the word Cultural in its title, the revolution was a period during which literary and artistic production was ruthlessly repressed (only eight model operas were recognized and performed during the CR, and novel production ground to a halt). Universities were effectively closed for the first five years, and many prominent intellectuals were sent to the countryside to what were called “May Seventh Cadre schools,” named after the date of the edict from the central government that established them. These schools were effectively concentration camps. The great Chinese writer Yang Jiang was to write about the grim, reductive experience of intellectuals in these camps in her book A Cadre School Life—Six Chapters.

One way of understanding the CR in PRC history is to see it as the culmination of several battles that Mao had fought with intellectuals since becoming leader of the Communist Party in the 1930s. In the revolutionary base of Yan’an (a city in Sichuan Province) during the 1940s and then in the early 1950s during the “Five Antis” campaign, Mao had instigated purges of writers, economists, and political scientists. The Hundred Flowers movement of 1957, in which people had been encouraged to voice criticisms of the government’s performance, had brought a deluge of negative feeling, which Mao had responded to by a much greater purge and which in many ways confirmed his suspicions that, within the classes of Chinese society, the intellectuals were among the least reliable. However, larger political issues, inside and outside China, contributed to the CR and made the movement what it was. These issues were:

1 tensions with the Soviet Union from the late 1950s onward after Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, a denunciation with which Mao profoundly disagreed, leading to the withdrawal of Soviet expertise and aid by 1961 and rising military tensions;

2 deep disagreements in the top leadership over the role of economic reform and the need to open up the Chinese economy and engage with the West; and

3 unresolved historical tensions between groups within China, ranging from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to those who had been rehabilitated in the 1950s but were still suspect because of the positions they had taken when the Communists were coming to power in the 1930s and 1940s. This situation created a devastating, complex mixture of outcomes that reached its culmination in the years after 1967.

The first signs of the CR came in 1965 from an unexpected direction. By this time Mao Zedong had effectively withdrawn from frontline day-to-day politics after criticisms at the Lushun forum in 1959 about the tragic impact of the Great Leap Forward (Mao’s campaign to quickly catch up with Great Britain and the United States in agriculture and industry). President Liu Shaoqi and General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party Deng Xiaoping were in charge and had started initial economic reforms allowing greater freedom to farmers in 1964. In 1965 the Shanghai-based writer Yao Wenyuan wrote an attack on a play, Hai Rui Dismissed from Office, written by Beijing vice mayor and Ming scholar Wu Han. In his attack Yao claimed that Wu Han’s play—about the Ming dynasty scholar and official Hai Rui and his unfair dismissal by the emperor—had been an allegorical reference to Mao Zedong’s dismissal of Peng Dehuai, former defense minister, who had been one of the most outspoken critics of Mao at the Lushun forum. This attack clearly had come with some sanction from Mao himself. There was also a clear link to the newly politically active wife of Mao, Jiang Qing, an actress in 1930s Shanghai, who had harbored political aspirations for a number of years but had to repress them on orders from the party. After 1966 she came into her own. The first major victims of the CR began to fall in 1966, among them Beijing mayor Peng Zhen. However, institutionally the movement began with establishment of the Cultural Revolutionary Group as a result of the Sixteenth May Circular, an order issued by the Central Committee of the Communist Party. The group reported directly to the standing committee and was a clear sign that parallel power structures were now directly competing with, and openly confronting, party structures.

Revisionist Road

After this development events happened rapidly. On 25 May 1966 Nie Yuanzi, an academic in the philosophy department at Beijing University, posted a big-character poster (a political poster with large Chinese characters) in which she demanded that people “defend the centre, defend Mao Zedong, and defend the dictatorship of the Proletariat,” which launched an all-out attack on those in the party taking the revisionist road. These sentiments were echoed on 16 August when the “16 Point Decision on the CR” was issued by the central government, threatening to “overthrow those in authority taking the capitalist road.” At the end of 1966 eight large rallies were held in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in which Mao appeared before a radicalized new audience, many members of whom belonged to the newly formed and initially informal “Red Guard” rebellious groups.

On one level the CR can be seen as a power struggle between members of the top leadership in Beijing. It had little impact on the vast majority of the Chinese population, who still lived in the countryside (about 80 percent of China’s population then). Mao saw his greatest threat coming from people around Liu Shaoqi, who had been experimenting with new, more flexible economic ideas and had drifted away from adherence to Maoism with its stress on class struggle. Naturally Mao looked toward the PLA, one of his main sources of power, and to its leader, Marshal Lin Biao, who was a hero of the struggle against the Japanese and of the civil war in the 1930s and 1940s but who had kept a low profile until 1964. In the early 1960s Lin had authorized the collection of key sayings by Mao in a booklet (what was to be named in the West, famously, the “Little Red Book,” although its formal title in Chinese translates as “Quotations from Chairman Mao”). The “Little Red Book” was to become one of the key props of the CR movement, with over 800 million copies printed. Lin Biao was Mao’s key partner in the opening part of the CR, ensuring that the army was Mao’s most dependable ally.

In January 1967 the CR further intensified with CR groups in Shanghai, seizing power from the local party committee. This tussle was representative of the tensions between the new CR organs and the traditional party organs that had been the main holders of power until then. CR committees were organized in cities throughout China, and in Beijing the central CR committee became one of the major decision-making bodies, with members such as Jiang Qing, the sinister Kang Sheng (Mao’s head of secret security), and the Shanghai radicals Zhang Chunqiao and Yao Wenyuan. By February 1967, after the establishment of a “Paris Commune model” in Shanghai, key figures within the party issued open attacks on what they saw as the excesses of the CR. They expressed dismay at the increasing disorder in China’s urban centers and at the violence that had started to be vented toward groups in China’s population. In the most representative event of this period, the Wuhan Incident in central China on 20 July 1967, radical factions in the city clashed, causing the army to intervene and the central government to send in leaders. In the second half of 1967 the CR made increasingly open attacks on Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, who were labeled initially the “Numbers One and Two in the Party taking the capitalist road” but who were then openly attacked by name and dismissed from their party posts in December 1967. Liu was to die tragically in Kaifeng, Henan Province, reportedly of untreated cancer, in 1969, although he was posthumously rehabilitated in 1980, four years after Mao’s death. Other figures such as Peng Dehuai were to receive similar violent treatment, being paraded through the streets of Beijing and publicly humiliated and attacked dozens of times throughout the summer and autumn of 1967. Such violence fanned out to the provinces. In Sichuan Province, radical rebellious groups struggled against the party secretary. A similar thing happened in Heilongjiang in the northeast.

Violence Peaks

The violence peaked in 1968. Events in Inner Mongolia can be seen as representative of this violence, with the local party secretary, the ethnic Mongolian Ulanfu, being dismissed and removed to Beijing for his safely in mid-1967 and replaced by General Teng Haiqing, a Han from outside the province. From late 1967 increasingly virulent attacks against what was labeled the “Inner Mongolian People’s Party” led to the deaths of 22,000 people and injuries to over 200,000 people, the vast majority of Mongolian ethnicity. In Xinjiang Muslims were forced to eat pork, all mosques were closed, and violent purges occurred in the party. They were under particular suspicion of harboring separatist sentiments as the region had been an independent country from 1945 to 1949. In Tibet cultural sites, temples, and lamaseries (monasteries of lamas) were attacked, and religious life effectively stopped. It would be an oversimplification to say that the CR was predominantly a Han movement. Some of the most enthusiastic followers in Tibet and Inner Mongolia were ethnically non-Han. The CR’s call to “root out and smash the old” and create a new world because “without destruction there could be no construction” (two popular slogans at the time) reached out to a large constituency. The “Purify the Ranks” campaign that continued into early 1969 attempted to dig out “class traitors” in most of China’s provinces, in some areas leading to massive skirmishes and even to acts of cannibalism and mass suicide.

Such internal turbulence inevitably affected China internationally, causing the withdrawal of most of its ambassadors abroad (all except one, Huang Hua in Egypt, were recalled to China) and the paralysis of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing, which was torn in a struggle between radical officials and the more moderate minister, Chen Yi. The burning of the British mission in Beijing in the summer of 1967 did little to help China’s international image, although this act at least brought China’s leaders to their senses. Premier Zhou Enlai, seen as a moderating influence, was to be instrumental in gaining the release of the British journalist Anthony Grey—who had been taken as a government hostage from 1967 to 1969. Paradoxically, from the end of 1968 onward China clearly was increasingly interested in resuming dialogue with the United States, culminating in the visit of President Richard Nixon in 1972. This development perhaps is easier to understand when seen against the background of the real deterioration of Chinese relations with the USSR, which led to bitter clashes on the northeast border in 1969, resulting in several hundred casualties on both sides and the threat of war.

The period from 1966 to 1969 was the most violent and unpredictable of the whole CR decade. During that decade a new leadership, more dominated by the military, was elevated; Lin Biao’s influence reached its peak; and his rapid and dramatic fall began. The decade was marked at the end by the Ninth Party Congress in Beijing, held in April 1969. Part of the argument at the Congress was about how Lin should be marked as Mao’s heir apparent. A more arcane, but still significant, point was Lin’s attempt to enshrine the recognition of the genius of Mao Zedong Thought (i.e., Maoist doctrine) into the party constitution, an act that Mao resisted, along with the attempt by Lin to name himself president, a position vacant since the fall of Liu Shaoqi. By 1970 Lin’s position had become more precarious, with clear signs that, in the top-level rapprochement with the United States, he had been sidelined. The facts surrounding his fleeing China on a plane and its crashing in the Republic of Mongolia in September 1971 are still unclear. Reports by the Chinese government afterward claimed that Lin and a group around him had been plotting either to assassinate Mao (a plot thwarted by Mao’s earlier-than-expected return to Beijing after a trip around central China) or to flee to south China and set up an independent state in Canton. That Lin chose to head to the USSR for refuge is puzzling and has fueled claims ever since that he was, in fact, murdered on Mao’s orders. The impact of his death bewildered the Chinese people, who were slowly informed by the authorities that the man once hailed as the “closest comrade in arms” and successor to Mao was, in fact, “a renegade, scab, and traitor.”

After 1972 Mao was reduced to relying increasingly on his premier, Zhou Enlai, a man who himself was ill with cancer and reportedly had suffered heart problems during the late 1960s. The group that came to be known as the “Gang of Four,” centered around Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, was a constant source of radicalization within politics during this period. The group was instrumental in launching highly indirect campaigns to attack Zhou and, upon his surprise rehabilitation in 1974, Deng Xiaoping. However, the gang was increasingly loathed within the party, and as Mao grew weaker and less active, groups within the party actively opposed what they saw as the gang’s pernicious influence. The gang still had enough clout, however, to cause Deng Xiaoping to be removed from his position as vice premier in 1976 on the grounds that he was a “reactionary” and opposed to the “correct line.” The death of Zhou Enlai in early 1976, with the attempt to conduct his funeral in private, proved to be the last straw. The Qingming festival in April 1976 was dominated by popular protests and attempts to lay wreaths in memory of Zhou, along with increasing demands that Deng Xiaoping be returned to power. The Tangshan earthquake in the summer, which resulted in over a quarter million deaths, was seen popularly as the augur that a period of Chinese history was coming to a close. On 9 September 1976 Mao Zedong died at the age of eighty-three. His death effectively marked the end of his revolution and of the CR.

Legacy Debated

Mao was to claim, toward the end of his life, that his two greatest achievements had been the Cultural Revolution and the defeats of the Japanese and the Nationalists, respectively, in the Sino-Japanese War (1937 to 1945) and the Civil War (1945 to 1949). He argued that the CR should be repeated every few decades. He told foreign visitors that his attempt to radically change Chinese society had been sincere, although he had evidently failed. The weight of history had been too great. Throwing off feudalism, attacking bureaucratism, and reining in the party were all widely appreciated as worthy objectives and made the CR, at least at its start, a genuinely popular movement, even though it is largely condemned in hindsight. Some writers, such as the Australian-based academic Mobo Gao, argue eloquently that the CR brought major gains to Chinese society, challenging and denting its conservatism, empowering disenfranchised people, and creating genuine equality. They point to the huge imbalances in the Chinese population now and refer back to that period with something approaching nostalgia.

One could argue that the CR was a bitter medicine—a painful process of national self-discovery that needed to be endured for China to get to where it is today. Even so, the price was horribly high, and the Communist Party itself, in its reevaluation of the CR period in 1981, declared that the movement had been a mistake, a calamity that had been visited upon the Chinese people by Mao and the radical leaders around him and that had inflicted the worst damages on the party and country since 1949. The Cultural Revolution certainly framed the worldview of the people occupying key positions in China now—people such as the current president, Hu Jintao, who had been at Qinghua University in Beijing during the period of the most radical activities in 1966 and 1967, and Bo Xilai, former minister of trade and son of party immortal Bo Yibo, who had been a member of radical groups in the same period. Mao had intended that part of the CR’s rationale was to teach young Chinese how to struggle and to understand the importance of politics—to “put politics in command.” In that he succeeded. The CR radicalized and politicized a new generation of Chinese.

The legacy of the movement in China is less easy to summarize. The trial of the Gang of Four in 1981 and the convictions of its members were widely seen as being insignificant because the “fifth member,” Mao Zedong, without whom the others would have had no influence at all, was now dead. The Cultural Revolution remains a sensitive topic in China even today, with many aspects of it little understood. There is, to this day, no openly available Chinese-language account of the period, although one appeared in the 1980s by Yan Jiaqi and Gao Gao but was quickly banned. To some the CR was perhaps the only period in Chinese history when the Chinese were affected by something like mass religious fervor—idolization of Mao reached delirious heights. To others the CR was a period of darkness and suffering. For still others it was a time of liberation. What can be said for certain is that it was a highly complex movement, one that will take many decades to understand and that still influences the superficially very different China of today.

Further Reading

Barnouin, B., & Yu Changgen.(1993). Ten years of turbulence: The Chinese Cultural Revolution. London: Kegan Paul.

Gao, Mobo. (2008). The battle for China’s past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution. London: Pluto Press.

Guo Jian, Song Yongyi, & Zhou Yaun. (2006). Historical dictionary of the Cultural Revolution. Lanham, MD and London: Scarecrow Press.

Schoenhals, M. (Ed.). (1996). China’s Cultural Revolution, 1966–1969: Not a dinner party. Armonk, NY: East Gate Books.

Schoenhals, M., & MacFarquhar, R. (2006). Mao’s last revolution. Cambridge, MA, and London: Bellknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Virtual Museum and resource centre for the Cultural Revolution at

Source: Brown, Kerry. (2009). Cultural Revolution. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 538–544. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

A classroom of children in tears, overcome with patriotic emotion. Photograph taken during the Cultural Revolution.

Photo of a large meeting, taken during the Cultural Revolution. Many such meetings included recitation from the book Quotations from Chairman Mao (known in the West as the “Little Red Book”), allowing even the illiterate to be exposed to Mao’s thinking.

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