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.

Six Reasons to Study History

At some point, in elementary and high school, you took a history course.  The curriculum focused on your country or continent (e.g. European History).  Being from Canada, I learned about the Fur Trade, French and English competition in North America, national and provincial politics, and a smattering of other topics. 

However, no one told us why we studied history.  We didn’t learn how studying the past could benefit us, enrich our lives and teach us skills to help us navigate careers and even our lives.  School teachers omitted the most fundamental question: Why study history? 

Perhaps addressing this fundamental question would evoke more interest and appreciation in the subject

Historians have written extensively on the importance of understanding the past.  After careful consideration, we have distilled these explanations into six reasons to study history. 

  • Understand the Present.  “Everything,” Jules Benjamin writes, “that exists in the present has come out of the past.”  Our material life, for instance, grew out of past developments.  The Agricultural Revolution that began some 10,000 years led to farming, rising populations, and, as historians have recently pointed out, much of the environmental damage we contend with today.  Technologies have changed our lives – papermaking in China, the Gutenberg printing press, irrigation, gunpower, and computers, to name a few.  Politically, our borders, governing bodies, and values come out of the past.  Democracy, a Greek concept, hails back thousands of years, as does Confucianism, a significant factor in Chinese politics and culture.  Modern religious conflicts between the monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – can be better understood by delving into the past.  Current issues around race, gender, class and many others can be traced back in time.    
  • Understand Causation.  As Peter Stearns and Marcus Collins write, causation is the “factors which promoted a change in the first place.” (33). Not surprisingly, causation is a contentious matter among historians.  Regarding the decline of the Roman Empire, some historians emphasize external factors such as the growing determination and strength of the barbarians. In contrast, others have devoted more attention to internal factors such as corruption and financial mismanagement.  Whatever their positions, contemporary historians tend to agree that “most major developments respond to several factors, that is, multiple causations (34). Lessons about causation allow us to analyze current events with a more critical eye.  Conspiracy theorists, for instance, who point to Bill Gates or a secret New Order as the orchestraters of the COVID-19 pandemic, would be well served to study history and causation more carefully.  A recommended read – David Hackett Fischer’s Historical Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought
  • Situate Events in Context.  Intrinsically linked to causation is context.  Context, in short, is the set of conditions in which events unfold.   Historians tell us that Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of Austria-Hungary’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand sparked the beginning of World War I.  They also rightly assert we need to explore the conditions in which Princip shot the Archduke – Great Power rivalries, militarism, nationalism, and various other factors came into play – to develop a fuller understanding of what happened.  Understanding context helps us understand events (past and present) in sophisticated rather than superficial ways. 
  • Challenge Abuses of History.  Somepeople use history to further their agendasHitler and the Nazis rewrote history to justify their actions.  Among other past abuses, they identified a longstanding Jewish conspiracy to undermine German society while espousing their contrived record of Aryan accomplishment and superiority.   We need to challenge these abuses.  As Margaret McMillan writes, “Politicians and other leaders too often get away with misusing or abusing history for their own ends because the rest of us do not know enough to challenge them. (36)  This is especially relevant now, in what some call the age of disinformation.  Politicians like Donald Trump casually refer to a great America of the past or fabricates “facts” about election fraud or other issues to reinforce his position.  Historical training, as Stearns and Collins point out, “helps people to handle different kinds of evidence and to sort fact from opinion and disinformation.” (9). After all, who wants to be lead astray by those informed by partisanship, opportunism, or lazy thinking?
  • Pleasure. The love of learning!Some people approach history simply for the joy of learning more about the past – tracing family trees, visiting exotic locations and past eras can be exhilarating and enriching.
  • Practical Skills. People often overlook the practical skills involved in historical study.  You learn how to research topics and interpret sources for their biases and background.   In the process, you assess various viewpoints and interpretations.  Communicating your views helps you develop critical thinking, organization, as well as your writing and verbal skills.   Universities, for instance, apply these skills to a variety of topics.  Entrepreneurs and business students examine case studies of businesses past and present to gain insights into how companies succeed and fail. Law schools refer to pasts decisions – precedence 

There are many other reasons to study history that we will explore in future blogs.  John Tosh writes that “historical education achieves a number of goals at once: it trains the mind, enlarges the sympathies and provides a much-needed perspective on some of the most pressing problems of our time. (35)   These factors, coupled with the pure pleasure of learning about our past, offer poignant reasons to explore history. 

Enjoy!

Selected Bibliography.

Benjamin, Jules R. A Student’s Guide to History.  Boston: St. Martins, 2001.

Collins, Marc and Peter N. Stearns.  Why Study History? London: London Publishing Partnership, 2020.

Fischer, David Hackett.  Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought.  New York: Harper Perennial, 1970. 

McMillan, Margaret. The Uses and Abuses of History.  Toronto: Penguin Group, 2008. 

Stearns, Peter N. et al. Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History.  New York: New York University Press, 2000.

Tosh, John. The Pursuit of History: Aims, Methods and New Directions in the Study of Modern History.  Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 1999.

Wineberg, Sam. Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.  Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2001.