Fifty years ago this day, on May 16, 1966, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was started in the People’s Republic of China by Chairman Mao Zedong. It was a social/political movement, launched for the stated purpose of purging capitalist and traditionalist elements from the Communist Party, in reality an attempt by Mao to reestablish his power base. The movement developed a momentum of its own, and would plunge China into chaos for the next decade.
As I have written about before, the Cultural Revolution had a profound effect on my life, but not for the reasons one might immediately presume. The events of that decade are varied and detailed, and I only have the ability to give you the barest of facts. I encourage you to investigate more on your own.
After the communists won the Chinese Civil War, the People’s Republic of China was founded on October 1, 1949. The Chinese people had endured what they called “The Century of Humiliation”, as various foreign powers invaded their country again and again, killing their people, stealing their resources, and occupying large sections of the land. China was now one nation again (except for Taiwan) and they were determined that never again would foreigners treat them in that manner.
They knew that the only way they could advance was to become a power on a worldwide scale, and the Chinese leaders felt that they had to modernize quickly. A series of Five Year Plans were launched, along with several social/political campaigns, such as the Hundred Flowers Campaign (1956) and the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961), all of which were instigated to modernize the nation. Poor planning and worse execution caused most of these campaigns to fall well short of expectations.
Mao Zedong had lost a lot of prestige in these failed campaigns, and there were elements within the Party who wanted to replace the founder of their nation.
On May 16, 1966, Mao gave a speech that became known as the “May 16 Notification”. In it, he stated that there were enemies of the Party hiding within the Party, undermining all of its efforts. It was the classic witch-hunt and deflection, blaming their ills on internal enemies. (The same tactic is being used in the US 2016 Presidential Campaign.)
Mass rallies were held, and the campaign to “Destroy the Four Olds and Cultivate the Four News” (customs, culture, habits, and ideas in both cases) began. Street and location names were changed to revolutionary ones, and this was just the beginning. Revolutionary plays and posters were everywhere. Students started revolutionary organizations known as Red Guards; spontaneously at first, but later with Mao’s direct support. The Quotations of Mao Zedong, later called the Little Red Book, were published by the army and Lin Bao, Mao’s presumed successor. Citizens were expected to own the book, and be able to quote from it on command. Overnight it became one of the most published books in human history.
Old grudges were turned into counter revolutionary enemies, and the movement developed an anti-intellectual streak. Enemies were publicly humiliated, forced to wear placards and cone shaped dunce hats. Many were murdered or killed themselves later from shame. Millions were forced from the cities to the rural regions in the “Down to the Countryside Movement” to purge themselves of “selfish city ways”.
China became a real world fulfillment of George Orwell’s “1984”, with a Two Minute Hate that no one seemed to be able, or willing to stop.
The movement began to feed on itself, as the revolutionaries ran out of foes and had only each other to go after. Red Guard units fought each other in real battles, claiming that their opponents were not pure enough in their “Mao Thought.” The country was collapsing under its own zeal.
In 1967 – 1968, the People’s Liberation Army, the military wing of the Chinese Communist Party and the de facto military for the country, had had enough of the Red Guards, and brutally suppressed their units, often with violence followed by mass executions of the captured Guards. This was the start of real political power for the military that would last for decades. The following year Mao called an official end to the Cultural Revolution, but its effects continued.
In 1971 Lin Bao was implemented in a presumed military coup, which may or may not have been true. He tried to flee the country for the Soviet Union, but his plane crashed in Mongolia and he died. With the death of Lin, Mao became very depressed and his health had started to fail him. He reached out to old political friends that he had made foes, but the infrastructure of the Party had been seriously damaged, and many were worried that Mao would again change his mind and purge them. Mao began to rely heavily on Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan, Wang Hongwen, and Mao’s own fourth wife, Jiang Quig. This “Gang of Four” as they came to be called perpetuated the Cultural Revolution for their own ends, eliminating enemies and amassing power.
Premier Zhou Enlai died on January 8, 1976 and Mao himself died September 9, 1976. The new Premier Hua Guofeng and up and coming leader Deng Xiaoping had the group arrested on October 6, 1976. The Cultural Revolution was finally ended.
In 1981, the Gang of Four were put on trial for crimes against the state, and given long sentences. Jiang committed suicide in 1991, Wang died in 1992, and Yao and Zhang were released in the late 1990s, and died later.
The period of the Cultural Revolution is often seen as a time when China went only backwards, but this is not true. During this time China emerged on the world stage as a major player. They helped their Vietnamese allies to win the Vietnam War, Nixon came to China, their first nuclear and hydrogen bombs were detonated, its space program started, and on October 25, 1971 China took its place as one of the five Permanent Members of the United Nations Security Council. China started economic and social programs worldwide, which continue to this day.
When Deng Xiaoping became Chairman in 1978, he only chose members for the Politburo who had been personally harmed in the Cultural Revolution. In what is now called the “political turmoil between the Spring and Summer of 1989”, as students massed in Tienanmen Square, each of these Politburo members once again heard the ghosts of the Red Guards. As my prediction of the time (in school and the military) came true, on June 4, 1989 soldiers attacked and killed hundreds of protesters. The Cultural Revolution had claimed its last victims.
So what has all of this to do with me? At the time the Cultural Revolution started, I was only 1 1/2 years old. I do not remember television in the United States showing much, but in Europe the news was full of China. It did not end until after I was 12 years old. I wondered what all of these grown ups were so angry about, shouting and waving their little books. It caused me to want to understand more of who they were, and what they were doing. It began a life long love of China and all things Chinese. I even bought a first edition English language edition of the Little Red Book, which has its place among my many other books of historical import.
The Cultural Revolution was a period of pain, fear, death, and growth. The China that emerged from the turmoil would go on to become a world power, looking forward to a brighter future, but always wary not to repeat the past.