(CHINA from MAO to DENG – continued)

home | 1945-21st century

CHINA from MAO to DENG (6 of 11)

previous | next

The Cultural Revolution

Mao Zedong's wife, Jiang Qing, a former actress, belonged to a group of Maoists who wished for socialist purity in literature and the performing arts. In February 1966, the minister of defense, Lin Biao, still siding with Mao, invited Jiang Qing to establish cultural policy for the People's Liberation Army. Jiang Qing and her group were encouraged. They charged that China's garden of culture was infested with "anti-socialist poisonous weeds." Jiang Qing called for a revolution against bourgeois culture – a cultural revolution.

Mao was encouraged and spoke about a regeneration of communist attitude. He spoke of weeding from authority those who had chosen to lead China down "the capitalist road." Old comrades directly beneath Mao – Liu Shaoqi, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping – chose to accommodate Mao rather than collide with him head-on. And Liu Shaoqi, who had been a leading pragmatist, tried to curry favor with Mao by orchestrating an "anti-revisionist" campaign.

Cultural Revolution Poster

The Red Guard poster reads: "Destroy the Old World." Under his left foot are statues of Jesus and Buddha, also dice and what looks like might be booze.

A poster of Madam Mao handing red books

The evangelist of a "cultural revolution," Madam Mao is depicted in this poster with a book of quotations by her husband.

Still believing in the wisdom of the masses, Mao moved again for their support. He was especially interested in young people. Young people, he said, were the most willing to learn and were "the least conservative in their thinking." Mao's wife agreed, and she allied her group with student unrest in Beijing. China's students were more in tune with Mao's communist idealism than they were with the pragmatism practiced by Mao's rivals within the Communist Party. Jiang Qing's cultural revolutionaries distributed armbands to the students and declared that they were a new vanguard – Red Guards. And Mao, still a venerated figure, encouraged the student radicals, announcing that they should "learn revolution by making revolution."

In Beijing the ranks of the Red Guards swelled with disaffected youths attracted by the rhetoric, by their reverence for Mao as the father of China's revolution and by the excitement. During the autumn of 1966, Mao was reviewing gigantic parades at Tiananmen Square, his Red Guards chanting and waving the little red book of "Quotations from Chairman Mao" that Lin Biao had put together for the Red Army.

The Red Guards were with Mao in his attempt to prevent China from developing into a bureaucratic state, as had the Soviet Union. And they demonstrated displeasure with US military involvement in Vietnam. They enjoyed the support of China's military, Lin Biao encouraging the students and describing Mao as "the greatest genius of the present era" and as "the great helmsman." Lin Biao spoke of Mao as having created a Marxism-Leninism that was "remolding the souls of the people."

Through 1966, secondary schools and colleges closed in China. Students from the age of nine through eighteen followed Maoist directives to destroy things of the past that they believed should be no part of the new China: old customs, old habits, old culture and old thinking – the "four olds." In a state of euphoria and with support from the government and army the students went about China's cities and villages, wrecking old buildings, old temples and old art objects. In their wake, monasteries and places of worship were converted into warehouses, and leading Buddhist monks were sent off to do manual labor. To make a new China, the Red Guards attacked as insufficiently revolutionary their parents, teachers, school administrators and everyone they could find as targets, including "intellectuals" and "capitalist roaders" within the Communist Party.

In cities across China, Mao's movement was joined by a variety of people trying to prove they were as loyal to Mao as were the Red Guards. Local politicians joined the movement in an effort to win against their political rivals. Mobs of Red Guards grabbed prominent individuals whom they deemed insufficiently revolutionary, put dunce caps on their heads or hung placards around their necks, and paraded them through the streets. Officials were dragged from their offices. Their files were examined and often destroyed, and the officials were often replaced by youths with no managerial experience.

As had happened in the Soviet Union, the revolution in China was devouring its own. The purges in the Party went higher and higher until Deng Xiaoping and Liu Shaoqi were removed from their offices. Filled with righteousness, the power of their numbers, and support from Mao, the campaigns for revolutionary change became violent. People seen as evil were beaten to death. Thousands of people died, including many who had committed suicide.

By September 1967, the chaos was too much for Mao, Lin Biao and Jiang Qing. Jiang Qing spoke out against what she called "ultra-leftist tendencies." With intolerance riding high, violent battles erupted between Red Guard factions. Mao ordered the People's Liberation Army to enforce Red Guard unity. Lin Biao and the People's Liberation Army called on the Red Guards to stop fighting each other and instead to study the works of Mao. The chaos and deaths continued, with the People's Liberation Army itself splitting into hostile camps. Mao wanted order, and he commanded that the Red Guards disperse, Mao describing the Red Guards as having failed in their mission.

The People's Liberation Army was better organized and had more power than the Red Guards. By the summer of 1968 the army subdued the Red Guards. Groups of Red Guards were sent to do labor in the countryside, confused in their being cast down from their height of glory and importance. Mao's romance with the masses was all but over. For order, Mao was now counting on the People's Liberation Army, and he had the army form revolutionary committees in all provinces.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.