China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976)

From 1966 to 1976, Communist leader Mao Zedong led a “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” that renewed the Chinese Revolution that Mao felt had lost its way. Mao and his followers drastically altered the country’s political, economic, and social structure.   Historian Paul Clark calls it “the biggest non-wartime, concentrated social upheaval in world history. (1). Rhoads Murphey and Kirsten Stapleton describe it as “perhaps the great cataclysm in world history, measured by the hundreds of millions of people in mass persecution and suffering. (377).

During this period, Mao used strong imagery to promote himself as the “father” of the people and China as the world’s communist leader. By 1976, and after Mao’s death, moderates like Deng began to guide the country down a different path that invited economic incentives, western technology, education, and industrialization.

The Great Leap Forward and Soviet “revisionism.” A series of events leading to 1966 undermined Mao’s position in the Chinese Communist Party. First, his “Great Leap Forward” (beginning in 1958) was a disaster. Proclaiming that China would exceed British industrial production, Mao abolished private ownership and established communes throughout China to focus on manufacturing and bring industrialization to China’s rural areas. These peoples’ communes lacked organization and adequate equipment, expertise, and resources to succeed. Peasant resistance, administrative problems and bad weather also lead to unproductive food production. As many as 30 million starved or died from malnutrition in what Murphy and Stapleton describe as the “worst famine in world history.” (376). The program undermined Mao’s credibility and opened more opportunities to the moderate elements of the Communist Party, such as Lin Shaoquoi, who wanted to invite foreign technology and reinstate profit incentives.

Foreign developments also undermined Mao’s status. Mao had “portrayed Soviet policy-makers as ‘capitalist roaders’ and as betrayers of Marxism for seeking to cooperate with the West. (Rossabi, 386) The subsequent break with Moscow led to increasing political isolation and the withdrawal of much-needed Soviet technical support and economic assistance. In short, Mao’s zealous ideology furthered China’s isolation.   

Mao “revives” the revolution. Mao Zedong lost his position as head of state but somehow remained the most powerful and popular leader of the Communist party. He wanted to renew a revolution he felt had lost its vision and integrity. He insisted that China would fall into the complacency and Westernization he believed was happening in the Soviet Union without drastic changes. The Chinese revolution needed a revival.

Persecution. Supported by ideologically driven Party members and youth movements, Mao set about to “cleanse” Chinese society by targeting those deemed enemies of the campaign. The list of enemies proved long, but Mao and his supporters began with moderate party members like Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997). A Red Guard Student Brigade ridiculed and abused Mao’s political rivals such as Liu Shou (killed), Deng Xiaoping (imprisoned), and Zhou Enlai (driven to seclusion).  

Mao closed China’s schools and universities, labelling them as breeding grounds for rightist dissenters. Intellectuals, including writers, educators, and academics who criticized Party policies, were removed or detained, sentenced to forced manual labour or killed. Persecutors identified these targets as “rightists,” “enemies of the revolution,” or people of “bourgeoisie” inclination. In 1968, Zhou Enlai finally convinced Mao to bring in the army to suppress the Red Guards, many of whom felt betrayed by Mao, who had encouraged their radical actions. 

Mao’s Economic Revolution. Mao and his supporters altered the economy to reflect their ideological goals. They criticized Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiangping’s welcoming of foreign technology to grow the economy. Mao preferred to depend on labour rather than machinery and favoured the competence and dedication of the proletariat over capital investment in technology. In other words, China would achieve progress and prosperity through domestic efforts without foreign inspiration or assistance. Like the Great Leap Forward, rural communes produced mediocre and low-quality items such as iron, steel, and agricultural goods.  Once again, the economy faltered.

The Moderates Regain Power. By the 1970s, the revolution lost momentum, mainly under the weight of its extremism and archaic economic policies. The violence of the Red Guard and other groups had gone further than even Mao saw fit. People coveted stability. Not surprisingly, Mao’s economic policies did not revive the economy, and China seemed again immersed in a weakening economy inspired by ideology rather than practical guidance. 

The Cultural Revolution received its final blow when Mao died on September 9, 1976. Again, the moderates moved to consolidate control. One of the first steps was to purge the Gang of Four from the Party and sentence them to life imprisonment. Deng Xiaoping would lead the moderates to shift China away from Mao’s ideologically driven plan to a more pragmatic approach that blended modernization and capitalist ingenuity into the Party’s communist agenda.

In future blogs, we will take a closer look at various elements of the Cultural Revolution and the preceding Great Leap Forward. As always, feel welcome to contact us with ideas about future blog topics you would like to see.

Bibliography

Clark, Paul. The Chinese Cultural Revolution. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Dikoter, Frank. The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2016.

MacFaquahar, Roderick and Michael Schoenhals.  Mao’s Last Revolution.  Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2006.

Murphey, Rhoads and Kristen Stapleton. A History of Asia. Eighth Edition, New York: Routledge, 2019.

Rossabi, Morris. A History of China. West Sussex, Blackwell Publishing, 2014.

What was the “Agricultural Revolution”? 

Try this. Ask people to name three revolutions.  Depending on their background, they might cite the American and French Revolutions of the nineteenth century.  Others will mention the Russian Revolution of 1917 or the Industrial Revolution.  How many cited the Agricultural Revolution?  Likely not many.  Ironic, since the agricultural revolution stands as one of the more fundamental and far-reaching developments in human history.  Peter Stearns calls it a “great watershed in human history.” (Stearns 16) Ronald Wright argues that “In the magnitude of its consequences, no other invention rivals farming…”  (Wright, 45)

So, what is the agricultural revolution? When did it happen?  How did it change how humans lived? It is a far-reaching and complex topic but let’s try to cover the essentials.  “Essentially,” the agricultural revolution transitioned nomadic hunting-gathering societies to human societies that grew their food and for some domesticated animals.  This development is revolutionary because it fundamentally changed how people lived.  Hunting and gathering societies depended on edible wild plants and animals, whereas agricultural communities controlled and shaped their environment (to some extent) to grow crops and domesticate animals.  Besides planting crops, agricultural societies changed their landscapes through irrigation and canal construction.   

When Did it Happen? Where did it happen first? The above chronology offers a general timeline. Essentially we are looking at 9000 BCE to 3500 BCE.  Agriculture on a large scale first happened in various river valleys (e.g. Nile River, Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, Mesoamerica) that offered reliable water sources and fertile soil. Different crops grew throughout the world.  Egypt produced wheat and barley. People living on what became the Greek peninsula grew grapes and olives.  China cultivated rice

There are two points to remember.  One is that this revolution happened over a very long time – 1000s of years.   Secondly, agriculture occurred independently in various parts of the world and at different times. Mesoamerica, for instance, had no contact with Eurasia and alone learned to cultivate crops like maize and squash. Later, as populations grew and interacted more through trade, agricultural practices and technologies would be shared and accelerate agricultural production over larger areas. 

Nomadic to Sedentary and Permanent Dwellings.  Tending to crops requires people to stay in one area.  Hence the term “sedentary agriculture.”  Nomadic people might remain in one place for some time, but as soon as the supply of wild plants and or game ran low or migrated, they were on the move.   Permanent dwellings offered space to store food and house families.    

Growing Populations, Social and Political Specialization By increasing food production, the agricultural revolution also facilitated drastic population growth.  Agriculture could sustain more people in a smaller area.  As Greg Woolf writes, “5 square miles cold support a farming village of 150 people. (Woolf 58).  A more reliable food source also contributed to higher life expectancy.   These growing population centers became the first steps toward cities, city-states and even empires.  A food surplus allowed people to adopt more specialized roles in families, politics and religious life. 

What motivated hunters and gatherers to adopt agriculture?Great question.  After all, farming required more effort than hunting and gathering.  Accordingly, people likely adopted agriculture very gradually. Probably, circumstances pushed them in this direction.  Climate change, for example, might have encouraged big game to migrate north of the Middle East and other river valley areas.  Overhunting also might have significantly diminished the wild animal population.  Another factor might be growing populations that required alternative food supply offered by hunting and gathering.     

Historians, of course, differ on how the Agricultural Revolution came about, how it evolved and its impact.  Concerning the latter, some historians have lauded it as one of the seminal movements of human progress.  Others see it as the catalyst for current problems such as overpopulation, consumerism, rapid species extinction and climate change.  Whatever their position, they agree that the Agricultural Revolution is one of the most fundamental developments in human history. 

Select Bibliography.

Havari, Yural Noah.  Sapiens.  A Brief History of Humankind.  Toronto: McLelland and Stewart, 2014. 

McClellan III, James E. and Harold Dorn.  Science and Technology in World History: An Introduction.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 2015

Roberts, J.M. The Penguin History of the World.  New York: Penguin Books Ltd, 1987.

Stearns, Peter et al.  World Civilizations: The Global Experience. Third Edition.  New York: Longman, 2001.

Woolf, Greg, ed.  Ancient Civilizations. London: Duncan Baird Publishers Ltd., 2005.

Wright, Ronald. A Short History of Progress.  Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2004.