The Cultural Revolution began as a campaign against political subtexts in culture in the mid-1960s. It quickly grew into a mass movement of millions of students who targeted the perceived enemies of communism. This movement would cause significant damage and disruption across the People’s Republic of China for years to come.
According to its leader and figurehead Mao Zedong, the Cultural Revolution aimed to restore socialism by cleansing the state, the party and society of bourgeois and reactionary elements.
To achieve this, Mao mobilised and agitated thousands of students from the schools and universities of Beijing. These students were intensely loyal to Mao. Their fanaticism exceeded anything seen in revolutionary Paris or Nazi Germany. The Red Guards, as they became known, were hostile to anyone or anything that opposed the Chairman or impeded his vision for a socialist China.
Working in numbers, the Red Guards used pressure, coercion and violence to force obedience to Mao’s will. Through the actions and propaganda of the Red Guards, Mao’s political power and prestige were restored. For millions of ordinary Chinese, the Cultural Revolution was a period of restricted freedom, intimidation, social upheaval and economic disruption.
The context for the Cultural Revolution was Mao Zedong’s loss of political power and prestige, following the disastrous failures of the Great Leap Forward.
Mao surrendered the national presidency to Liu Shaoqi (April 1959), though he remained chairman of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Still greatly respected, Mao continued to wield influence over both party and policy, though he was no longer the dominant figure.
Control of economic policy was instead picked up by Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, Chen Yun and others. From 1960, this group wound back Mao’s policies, bringing an end to the Great Famine and overseeing economic recovery. They implemented their reforms cautiously, avoiding direct criticisms of Mao, who still retained enormous public support and veneration.
Meanwhile, Mao fumed about the economic reforms of the early 1960s. He considered these reforms an abandonment of socialist economic principles and a betrayal of his revolutionary vision. The party, the government and the revolution had been hijacked, Mao claimed, by “those who have taken the capitalist road”.
Finding the precise origin of the Cultural Revolution is difficult. Many historians trace the Cultural Revolution to a play called Hai Rui Dismissed from Office.
Written by Wu Han, a Beijing historian, it dramatised the career and downfall of Hai Rui, a 16th-century official who dared to voice criticisms of the Jiajing Emperor. Hai Rui was removed from office and sentenced to death, though his sentence was commuted when the emperor died first.
When Hai Rui Dismissed from Office was performed in 1961, many interpreted it as an allegory about the downfall of Peng Dehuai. Like Hai Rui, Peng had dared to criticise the emperor (Mao) and had paid for it with his career and his reputation.
Mao’s defenders interpreted it this way too and reacted strongly. In late 1965, Yao Wenyuan, a future member of the Gang of Four, penned a lengthy essay condemning the play as political slander. “Hai Rui Dismissed is not a fragrant flower but a poisonous weed,” Yao said. “If we do not clean it up, it will be harmful to the affairs of the people”.
Mao had long been concerned about art and literature and the dangers they posed to his regime. “Writing novels is popular these days, isn’t it”, he mused in 1962. “The use of novels for anti-party activity is a great invention. Anyone wanting to overthrow a political regime must create public opinion and do some preparatory ideological work.”
By the start of 1965, Mao was urging a ‘cultural revolution’. In January, the Politburo, responding to Mao’s demands, set up a ‘Five-Man Group’ to review anti-socialist attitudes in fields like history, philosophy, literature, law and dramatics.
The Five-Man Group, led by Peng Zhen, interpreted Mao’s concerns as an academic debate, not a political issue. Peng saw no need for state intervention in fields like literature or the arts, nor did he believe culture must follow party lines.
Mao’s war on culture
The group’s inaction infuriated Mao, who was insistent that anti-socialist cultural expressions be identified and criticised. By the second half of 1965, Mao had decided to take action himself.
Yao Wenyuan’s essay attacking Hai Rui Dismissed provided a logical starting point. In November, Mao ordered state newspapers to publish Yao’s essay in its entirety. Peng Zhen, believing this risked turning an academic debate into a political confrontation, attempted to block the publication of Yao’s essay but was overruled by Zhou Enlai.
Mao’s supporters began to produce a wave of similar essays and articles, each critical of anti-socialist ideas in cultural pieces. Peng’s Five-Man Group moved to block these as well.
In early 1966, Peng’s group released a document, the ‘February Outline’, which acknowledged the existence of bourgeois or reactionary sentiments in culture. The solution, it said, was to “seek truth from facts”, to fight bourgeois ideas with better socialist ideas. The February Outline also harked back to an earlier campaign urging the party to “let one hundred schools of thought contend”.
May 16th Circular
The February Outline led to an undeclared war between the Five-Man Group and Mao and his supporters. Mao emerged victorious on May 16th, when the CCP’s Central Committee voted to disband the Five-Man Group and replace it with “a new Cultural Revolution Group”.
The committee’s May 16th circular condemned Peng Zhen in the strongest terms and demanded a reorientation of the Cultural Revolution on Mao’s own terms. Peng and three other members of the Five-Man Group were charged with counter-revolutionary sympathies, booted from office and purged from the CCP.
The new Cultural Revolution Group was populated with supporters of Mao, including Zhou Enlai, Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, his secretary Chen Boda, security chief Kang Sheng and Yao Wenyuan himself. The Central Committee’s May 16th circular called on loyal party members to “thoroughly criticise and repudiate reactionary bourgeois ideas in the sphere of academic work, education, journalism, literature, art and publishing”, urging them to “seize the leadership in these cultural spheres”.
Mao’s challenge was taken up by young students in high schools and universities. These young but fanatical students would eventually become the Red Guards.
On May 25th, a dazibao (‘big character poster’) appeared on the walls at Tsinghua University in Beijing, urging students to rebel against their teachers and lecturers. They responded enthusiastically and the Reds Guards movement took shape over the following weeks.
On July 16th, Mao ended a period of public seclusion with his famous ‘good swim’ in the Yangtze River. Despite his age (72) and his portly frame, Mao spent more than an hour floating down the Yangtze. The ‘good swim’ demonstrated to the public that Mao was in good health and ready to retake control of the government.
‘Bombard the Headquarters!’
By the end of July, the Red Guards boasted more than one million members in Beijing alone. They looked to Mao for inspiration and direction.
On August 1st, Mao penned a letter to the Red Guards at Tsinghua University, offering them his approval and support. Five days later, he published his famous directive to “Bombard the Headquarters!” and expel the “bourgeois dictatorship” which had “imposed a white terror”.
On August 18th, the Chairman appeared before a rally of Red Guards in Tiananmen Square. Mao’s choice of dress – an olive-green military uniform – was chosen to replicate theirs. Mao donned the armband worn by the Red Guards and stood for six hours, listening to speeches from Lin Biao, Chen Boda and various Red Guard leaders.
The ‘Four Olds’
Mao attended several similar rallies over the coming weeks. At each rally, the Red Guards were encouraged to attack the ‘Four Olds’: old customs, old culture, old habits and old ideas.
Having formed enthusiastically but without much leadership, purpose or direction, the Red Guards were thus given free rein to attack the enemies of Maoist socialism.
The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was thus born. What started with some mild allegorical criticism of Mao Zedong in a 1961 play would become a sweeping movement, drawing in millions of students. Their actions would transform and disrupt China for years to come.
A historian’s view:
“There is no master script [for the Cultural Revolution]… no blueprint, no scenario, no game plan. All there is are random, scattered remarks – some spontaneous, others carefully hedged; some just possibly meant to be taken at face value, others almost certainly intended to obscure rather than elucidate… We have no firm answers.”
1. Mao Zedong had long wanted a campaign against anti-socialist and anti-CCP criticisms in art and literature. In 1965 he convinced the Politburo to set up a Five-Man Group to examine instances of this.
2. In 1961 a play called Hai Rui Dismissed from Office was interpreted as an allegorical criticism of Mao and his purging of Peng Dehuai in 1959. This play was attacked in a November 1965 essay by Yao Wenyuan.
3. The Five-Man Group tried to block publication of Yao’s essay and other similar pieces, infuriating Mao. In May 1966 the group was replaced by a clique of Mao loyalists: the Cultural Revolution Group.
4. In May to August 1966, Mao used rhetoric and propaganda to urge militant students to assemble and “bombard the headquarters” and force reactionary and bourgeois figures from positions of authority.
5. As the Red Guards swelled in number, Mao appeared before a series of rallies in August to October, wearing their uniform and symbols and urging them to destroy the ‘Four Olds’.