Chinese Revolution: Hundred Flowers

Exam task

Section A Question 3 – Chinese Revolution

Source extract

“Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend is the policy for promoting progress in the arts and sciences and a flourishing socialist culture in our land. Different forms and styles in art should develop freely and different schools in science should contend freely. We think that it is harmful to the growth of art and science if administrative measures are used to impose one particular style of art or school of thought and to ban another…It is therefore necessary to be careful about questions of right and wrong in the arts and sciences, to encourage free discussion and avoid hasty conclusions. We believe that such an attitude will help ensure a relatively smooth development of the arts and sciences.”

Source: Mao Zedong, May 1956


“Using both the source and your own knowledge, explain how Mao and his regime dealt with critics, dissenters and opposition in the 1950s.” (6 marks)

Student response

“The successes of the First Five Year Plan of 1953-1957 encouraged Mao to seek still greater revolutionary excesses and allowed him, perhaps prematurely, to feel secure about the direction of the revolution and his position of power as perceived by the party and the masses. This encouraged him to assert, in February 1957, that China’s intellectuals should voice their political and economic concerns and comment on the Communist’s performance in general. Mao, who was under the impression that these ‘experts’ were ‘Red’ in their attitude and therefore supportive of the new regime announced that it was time to “let a hundred flowers bloom” and to “let a hundred schools of thought contend”. By allowing those critical of the new government to freely air their concerns without fear of castigation or punishment a stronger, more passionate and ‘redder’ support base would hopefully grow.”


“Explain the usefulness of this source for understanding the causes and significance of the Hundred Flowers campaign. In your response, refer to other views and historical perspectives.” (10 marks)

Student response

“Many took to the campaign with a fervour which saw them criticise not only the economy and politics but also the Communist system itself. Even Mao was subject to mild berating. After merely five weeks Mao abandoned the Campaign and launched an Anti-Rightists movement whose aim was to purge detractors within the Party and to round up critical intellectuals for ‘re-education’ through labour. In this extract Mao claims that the Hundred Flowers Campaign’s aim was to spread socialist culture, yet later he argues that its purpose was always “to let poisonous weeds sprout so that the people would take action to wipe them out”. The motivation behind the Campaign is an area of much debate among historians. Mao himself offers contradicting views. As Lynch argues, the speed with which Mao reversed his policy suggests that the campaign had been a deliberate scheme to reveal, and then deal with, his critics and not a Campaign which encouraged free discussion as a means of allowing socialist culture to flourish in China. Some historians refuse to question Mao’s motivation in this manner and remain adamant that, as O. E. Clubb argues, “It was hoped that a wide variety of flowers would bloom to enrich the Communist garden”; that Mao truly did want to see a “hundred flowers bloom”. However, the brutal and quick way Mao turned on his critics (between 400,000 and 700,000 intellectuals and officials were sent for re-education) seems to prove that the intended effect of the Campaign was instead to remove counter-revolutionary “demons”, “devils”, “ghosts” and “monsters” from society. Mao himself states that this was no secret scheme, that in fact this aim was quite open. This contradicts the extract remarkably and seems to prove it as merely a piece of propaganda absent of any credible sincerity.”

Teacher feedback

The student here has shown a strong level of understanding and provided good specific information. Both responses could be a little better organised, however, and focused more on the question. The first question is quite broad (“the 1950s”) but the student has focused mainly on the Hundred Flowers campaign. Mao’s land reform campaign, the use of ‘Speak Bitterness’, the Three Antis and Five Antis campaigns and the Anti-Rightist campaign could also have been mentioned. In this context, Mao’s call for free thought and criticism has the appearance of a ploy rather than a sincere attempt at openness and reform.

In the second response, the student should have opened by addressing the question and providing an evaluation of the source (he/she identifies it as propaganda, though not until the last sentence). The student’s discussion of historiographical perspectives about the Hundred Flowers campaign is quite good. The reason for the Hundred Flowers campaign articulated by Mao, after the campaign had concluded, was to lure ‘capitalist roaders’ into the open and lead them to criticism and self struggle. This has been the consensus view of historians like Jung Chang and Lynch, who the student mentions in their second response. Revisionists are unconvinced and see the Hundred Flowers movement as a sign of Mao’s overconfidence, rather than a deliberate ‘trap’. These responses together would score in the region of 14 out of 16.

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