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Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) transformed China’s educational system from what had been in place under Soviet influence in the early 1950s to a more revolutionary one. The new system valued practical knowledge over academic learning, viewed teachers and students as equals, and sought to eradicate so-called bourgeois tendencies. Although access to basic education was expanded during this period, higher education and scientific research suffered, as did many Chinese citizens who were subject to bitter experiences of class struggle.
The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution 文化大革命 (1966–1976, referred to as the Cultural Revolution hereafter) was a radical social movement initiated by Mao Zedong 毛泽东, then chairman of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The goal of the revolution was to transform educational and cultural institutions, which Mao claimed had failed to meet the needs of Marxist-Leninist socialist construction (MacFarquhar and Schoenhals 2006).
In May of 1966, China’s young people were mobilized to openly criticize the party and society. Normal teaching came to a halt across the country as young Red Guards 红卫兵 were encouraged to criticize revisionists (those thought to favor a Soviet model of socialism) and to remove bourgeois elements from their schools. This movement subsequently spread to other social groups (Kwong 1988). Governments at the national and local levels lost control, and anarchic conditions prevailed for more than a year. Some semblance of social order began to be restored in 1969, as this revolutionary social experiment moved into its second phase (Kwong 1988). Although many view the Cultural Revolution as a catastrophe that caused severe damage to the nation (Seeberg 2000), some elements of its educational rhetoric may deserve attention, even though the realities of implementation were so disastrous (Chen 1974).
Since the 1970s the Cultural Revolution has been the subject of considerable research and attention. The most convincing interpretation sees it as reflecting the political struggle between revisionists in the CCP, who adhered to the Soviet model of socialism, and radicals led by Mao Zedong. Scholars cite Mao’s fear of losing power, his concern about what he saw as the revisionist direction of the party, and international developments—especially the changing political scene in the Soviet bloc in the post-Stalin era—as factors that helped to launch the revolution. At the same time, Mao’s attempt to experiment with utopian social ideals, especially by transforming education, is seen as a key element in the political struggle within the CCP (Chong 2002; Clark 2008; Joseph, Wong, and Zweig 1991; MacFarquhar 1988; MacFarquhar and Schoenhals 2006). This analysis makes sense, yet it may be important to go deeper than the factional politics of the time and reflect on the connection between knowledge and power in traditional China.
A clear conception of the structure, organization, and value of knowledge, as expressed through educational institutions, was central to China’s traditional culture and contributed to a remarkable continuity in the Chinese imperial system, which lasted more than a thousand years and persisted into the twentieth century. When Chinese political leaders wanted to adopt these knowledge patterns to serve the goals of socialism, they may have been reluctant to abandon a Confucian knowledge structure that was seen as essential to political order (Hayhoe 1989).
Ironically, the approach to education borrowed from the Soviet Union in the early 1950s had persisting elements from the European tradition that exacerbated the patterns of knowledge for social control that had maintained imperial power for so long. A clear hierarchy of knowledge areas was thus established that gave highest prestige to Marxist-Leninist theory as a new kind of classical text, and fostered specialist fields of knowledge that were to be applied in a mechanistic way to macrosocietal planning. According to the British sociologist Basil Bernstein (1977), the curriculum had extremely strong classification and framing—meaning, according to Bernstein’s well-known formulation of these categories, that definitive boundaries existed between subjects, and syllabi were to be completed in a rigorously prescribed order and within a specific time. Such a curriculum allowed for minimal involvement or empowerment of local leaders, let alone students and teachers (Hayhoe 1989, 11–12). China’s traditional meritocracy had always been balanced by strong forces of populism, and the ways in which these Soviet patterns exacerbated the highly centralized control of the new political elite may have stimulated Mao to mobilize an educational revolution. He proclaimed that the primary aim of education was to serve the working classes and to ensure proletarian leadership over intellectuals and revisionist political leaders. He saw revolutionary education as action-oriented and practice-centered with knowledge being pursued only in order to serve proletarian politics and bottom-up economic development. (Chen 1974).
The Revolution in Philosophy
The guidelines of Maoist education during the Cultural Revolution stated that education must serve politics and be combined with productive labor. In addition, course lengths were to be cut, teaching materials transformed, and the schools placed mainly under the control of the representatives of workers, peasants, members of the People’s Liberation Army 中国人民解放军 (PLA), and designated revolutionary teachers and staff (Cleverley 1985). “Open-door schooling” (kāiménbànxué 开门办学) was intended to build horizontal and integrated knowledge patterns that could be accessed by the masses. Policies were formulated to popularize five years of primary schooling throughout the country, and small primary schools were set up in the remotest villages, with largely untrained teachers. Between 1966 and 1976 the number of primary school students increased from 116.2 million to 150 million, or 29.1 percent. A reduction in the period for secondary education from six to four years was accompanied by an even more significant expansion in the number of students, from 9.3 million in 1965 to over 58.4 million in 1976—an increase of almost 630 percent (Yang 2006, 45–46).
The open-door principle was also reflected in higher education recruitment policies. The National Higher Education Entrance Examination (or gāokǎo 高考) was discontinued in 1966 and replaced by an admission system based on recommendation, with political attitude being the single most important criterion (Taylor 1981). High school graduates had to have at least three years of work experience before they were eligible for recommendation. In an attempt to reduce the gap in enrollment between the countryside and the cities, urban youth were required to work in rural areas before they could be considered for higher education (Bernstein 1978). Youth from “bad class” origins (landlord, rich peasant, counter-revolutionary, and other so-called rotten elements) were denied access to higher education altogether, while access for students from worker, peasant, military, and revolutionary-cadre backgrounds was expanded (Unger 1982). But in fact, opportunities for working-class students were not increased much due to low enrollments during the decade of the Cultural Revolution: from 1967 to 1969 there were no new enrollments because of the chaos caused by revolutionary activism, and afterward that enrollment was slow to resume (some universities did not even reopen until 1978). Nonetheless, the numbers of higher-education students gradually grew from 47,815 in 1970 to 564,715 in 1976 (Hayhoe 1999).
The massive expansion at the basic primary school education level was managed through local appropriations and did not put heavy demands on the national purse. In general, decentralization and self-reliance were encouraged for the education sector, which was in line with the transfer of many industrial undertakings from central to provincial control (Pepper 1996). In the countryside, primary schools were financed mainly by the production brigades that paid local teachers. Work-study programs were set up in many schools to save money and to cultivate the integration of knowledge with practice (Chen 1981).
Physical labor in factories and on farms became mandatory for students and staff. It was thought that sharing the hardship of workers and peasants would serve to break down class barriers, eliminate resentment caused by the distinctions between mental and manual work, teach useful skills, and relate knowledge to practice. Primary school pupils undertook light labor in factories and brigades on a weekly basis, while some secondary and tertiary institutions maintained substantial factory complexes where their students could work (Cleverley 1985). The distinction between full-time academic, and vocational schools and work-study schools was blurred, as on the one hand traditional institutions of learning built factories on their campuses, and various informal educational institutions were established in factories and communes on the other (Gamberg 1977).
The Revolution in Curriculum and Teaching
Considerable effort was made to integrate theory and practice in teaching. New textbooks were compiled locally, with content closely linked to agricultural and industrial practice in the region (Price 1979). Secondary school students visited nearby production teams and surveyed land gradients, helping peasants to estimate the quantity of soil requiring excavation for dams; they designed and built irrigation systems, and invented new tools to improve productivity in factories. Universities and colleges worked closely with factories and local enterprises, and their staff and students joined workers and peasants in solving problems (Cleverley 1985, 194–195).
Indigenous and practical knowledge was recognized and respected while academic knowledge was doubted and discredited. Workers and peasants were invited to teach courses for professional teachers who had been assigned to do labor in factories and brigades in order to remove their bourgeois tendencies (Pepper 1996). One long-lasting positive effect of the respect paid to indigenous knowledge was a renewed interest in traditional medicine, which had been revived a decade earlier during the Great Leap Forward 大跃进, Mao’s attempt to catch up to Great Britain and the United States in agriculture and industry.
Another salient feature of the curriculum reform was the emphasis on political content in all courses. Since Mao believed that “ideology is the commander and the soul,” the number of political courses increased, as did the political content in ordinary lessons. Textbooks teaching English, for example, talked about Mao Zedong Thought (Máo Zédōng Sīxiǎng 毛泽东思想) and short stories reflected class struggle (Cleverley 1985).
Drastic changes in classroom power relations accompanied curriculum reform. Students were empowered to participate in discussion and debates, and to challenge their teachers. Teachers, administrative staff, and students were all seen simply as comrades with equal positions in this new relationship. At the tumultuous early stage of the Cultural Revolution, this practice went too far and many teachers were violently criticized and physically abused by students (Kwong 1988).
Based on Mao’s view of knowledge, the length of schooling was cut from twelve to nine years and higher-education programs were shortened from five to three years. Course subjects were integrated, and some disciplines and subjects were dropped. It was argued that education would be improved by concentrating on essentials, and skilled manpower would be released for production sooner (Chen 1974).
The governance of education changed during the Cultural Revolution as well. The Ministry of Education was replaced by the Science and Education Group, which worked under the Central Cultural Revolution Group. Meanwhile, Mao Zedong Propaganda Teams composed of workers, peasants, PLA and revolutionary cadres, as well as representatives of students and revolutionary teachers, led the universities (Cleverley 1985).
The Revolution in Retrospect
While there were some deep-rooted cultural dynamics at work in the struggle over who should control schools and what kinds of knowledge should be disseminated at all levels, there is widespread agreement that this was an educational experiment that failed. The modest benefits in terms of access to education at a basic level could not offset the tremendous suffering of all those caught up in the revolutionary struggles and the loss of a decade in terms of higher-education development and scientific research.
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