Like much of China, the Cultural Revolution (known more officially as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution) is mired in mystery and intrigue. Few would recognize – let alone fathom – that almost 45 million Chinese (estimates vary from 30 to 45 million) died during a period of roughly twenty years between the Great Leap Forward in the late 50s and early 60s; and the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976. The sheer loss of life, and the cultural trauma caused by these events make its 50th anniversary a time of deep reflection for Chinese society and, conversely, a new opportunity for those outside of China to learn about the true horrors of Mao Zedong, Communism, and a civil war (in all but name) that almost destroyed one of greatest and ancient civilizations known to history. Half a century may have passed since the Cultural Revolution, but it will take much longer for its legacy to fully dissipate from China’s collective memory.
It would not be a stretch to categorize the Cultural Revolution as one of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century. Much of the secrecy surrounding its events are mired by China’s continued control over media, information, and continued suspicion of foreign critique or calls for greater transparency. The suppression of any evidence that might sully the government’s reputation or its official ideology is strictly controlled. This has undoubtedly made it more difficult to piece together a more comprehensive picture of the Cultural Revolution and its legacy. In western discourse, we focus on the two world wars, the Holocaust, the Cold War and, more recently, conflicts post-1989 like the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia and ongoing strife in Africa. While there is nothing wrong with learning from those profound events, cherry picking history is a dangerous path. We have done a great disservice that we don’t make a more concerted effort to really examine the 20th century more thoroughly, and look at traumatic events as collective tragedies and collective learning experiences.
Although it could be argued that the Cultural Revolution is certainly a manifestation of China’s vast historical experience with isolation and insular thinking, let us begin by examining a more contemporary context to the Cultural Revolution. Following the consolidation of power and declaration of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Mao Zedong’s Communist forces began to purge enemies of the state (i.e. Kuomintang followers) and implement a rigid program of land reform that transformed China’s rural and urban life. Mao also attacked China’s so-called “feudal” past persecuting landowners, business owners, and anything or anyone that reminded China of its past history (including ancient structures and an invaluable array of artifacts). A class struggle was created in a means to purge Chinese society and give power theoretically back to peasants and workers, with disastrous effect.
In 1958, almost ten years after Communist forces took power in China, Mao embarked on a shift of epic proportions. Large-scale population reorganization into rural communes in which millions of people were moved into communes to promote industrialization through sheer labour power (not, alternatively, through the acquisition of capital) utterly destroyed China’s economy; life expectancy dropped considerably; and, the changes to collective agricultural and industrial production through unskilled labour, archaic production methods, and poor allocation of resources to communes (agricultural rakes and farm equipment were melted to create excessive amounts of steel thus destroying agricultural capacity) resulted in a massive shortage of food and starvation on a scale probably unseen before in history. This juncture is Chinese history is known ironically as the Great Leap Forward. The legacy of the Great Leap Forward alters society and very much creates the conditions for the Cultural Revolution to follow.
By 1966, Mao Zedong knew that the Great Leap Forward had failed on all fronts. Cracks in his authority over the system necessitated, in his mind, a Cultural Revolution to reassert his authority and finally convert China into the Marxist utopia envisioned by its leaders. The first target of Mao’s revolution would be those perceived to be a part of the bourgeoisie who he believed had infiltrated the highest corridors of power, the military, and close advisors. Mao’s approach was outlined in the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee’s ominous document issued on May 16, 1966. That is why 1966 is commonly believed to be the start of the Cultural Revolution. Mao perceptively enlisted the power of Chinese youth to cleanse the country of elements that were regarded as impure or in contrast to the aims of the Revolution. Mausoleums, museums, temples, libraries, foreign texts, universities, cemeteries – in addition to the loss of life on a massive scale – were destroyed with brutal disregard and merciless anger. Mao was not above testing his own ministers and closest colleagues in an attempt to reveal his paranoia over bourgeois infiltrators. Mao’s purges were not altogether dissimilar to Stalin’s in the 1930s. Given the Soviet Union’s assistance to Mao’s Communist forces in 1949, it is not surprising that Mao would look to Stalin as a model. From a historical perspective, it is always shocking at how ruthless purges can be when administered by authoritative figures and their lieutenants. Moreover, that devastating effectiveness is often orchestrated by complicity by those who’s ultimate fate is usually liquidation by the same means. The ultimate sufferers are always the innocent.
As with the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution did little to calm Mao’s fears of a fragmented Marxist vision for China. Political and economic instability soon shadowed the revolution and periodic reforms to correct the revolution’s path created a sense of fear, paranoia, and chaos among the bureaucratic minions who were frequently purged for failure to implement Mao’s changing policies. That same lunacy seeped all the way down to the smallest towns where anyone could be denounced, imprisoned, or executed. So desperate was the situation in the communes and rural parts of China that cannibalism was a frequent occurrence, and where scrounging for body parts among the executed in order to survive the famine was common practice. China’s economy ground to a halt and, if not for Mao Zedong’s death in September 1976, the Cultural Revolution would have claimed far more innocent lives. Politically the revolution left China in chaos. Mao’s death exacerbated this downfall having left rival political factions to battle it out, and the average Chinese citizen with nothing to return to.
The tally of death and destruction from the Revolution is both staggering and profound. Approximately 1.5 million people were “officially” killed during the ten years of the Cultural Revolution, yet upwards of 45 million lost their lives in the years between 1958 and 1976. About 200 million people in the countryside suffered from chronic malnutrition and starvation. Millions of people and their families had been uprooted and sent to rural communes. The legacy for the Chinese people was to set their nation and their great past achievement back decades. The Cultural Revolution also affected the China we see today. Mass corruption took hold among Communist party officials and the average person was required to use bribery and personal contacts and favours to survive. Youth were taught that mass mobilization was justified for grievances and a natural part of class struggles. The images of youth starring town tanks in Tianeman Square in 1989 highlighted those historical connections. China’s modern President, Xi Jinping, who’s father was purged during the Cultural Revolution, took it upon himself to instigate a reform of endemic corruption within party ranks. The Cultural Revolution strengthened China’s isolation and continued fear of western ideas and the unraveling of the Marxist dream. Modern China very much echoes that protectionism of its past, thus feeding China’s often mysterious and overlooked history and power.
We cannot deny that in the fifty years since the Cultural Revolution China has undergone another dramatic transformation. Has it learned from its history? In many respects, yes; but in others, it rests on the one weapon that has been a staple since 1949: a strict control of information that maintains state power and provides for a slow and gradual liberalization of its economy managed by a cadre of secretive officials in Beijing. The Cultural Revolution taught those in power how to stay in power, and removed a generation of reformers that could have ushered China into the superpower club much sooner. The only fear at this point is that as younger generations are not taught the lessons of the Cultural Revolution or similar events we are, as cliched as it may sound, doomed to repeat them. The Chinese have always taken the long view in history and they will deal with their own historical legacies in varied ways. The opening of China to the world will continue to test the Chinese government, its resolve, and its definition of history. In the process, we hope that the China we see will be genuine and truthful – warts and all.