Acton Institute Powerblog

5 facts about China’s cultural revolution

This month mark the fiftieth anniversary of the China’s Cultural Revolution. Here are five facts you should know about one of the darkest times in modern human history:

1. The Cultural Revolution — officially known as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution — was a social and political movement within China that attempted to eradicate all traces of traditional cultural elements and replace them with Mao Zedong Thought (or Maoism), a form of Marxist political theory based on the teachings of the Chinese political leader Mao Zedong, the Chinese communist revolutionary and founding father of the People’s Republic of China. Mao governed as Chairman of the Communist Party of China from its establishment in 1949 until his death in 1976.

2. The beginning of the Cultural Revolution is traced to May 16, 1966, when Mao issued a document that included ‘indictments’ against his political foes. In what has become known as the “May 16 notification”, Mao claimed that, “Those representatives of the bourgeoisie who have sneaked into the party, the government, the army, and various cultural circles are a bunch of counter-revolutionary revisionists.” Although Mao unveiled his intention in May, it was not until August that the Communist Party issued the “Decision Concerning The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” which outlined the Chairman’s goals. The two primary institutions that Mao wanted to eliminate were education and religion, the main threats to Mao Zedong Thought.

3. In the summer of 1966, groups of students — from middle school to college age — began to form violent paramilitary units. Mao, who believed being violent was a sign of a true revolutionary, sponsored the radical students. He ordered the nation’s schools to be shut down and encouraged these students — known as Red Guards — to dedicate themselves to revolutionary activity. Much of this activity included violence against the elderly, teachers, and other traditional authority figures. Mao and his allies held several rallies which were attended by over ten millions children and teens who identified as Red Guards. At an August rally for the Red Guards, the students were told to attack the ‘Four Olds‘ of Chinese society (old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas.) Over the next two months hundreds of thousands of homes were looted by Red Guard members, stealing money and valuables and destroying books, magazines, and works of art. The students also destroyed religious institutions and cemeteries, libraries, and cultural and historical artifacts.

4. Along with destroying property, Red Guards members also humiliated, tortured, and murdered innocent people. In August and September of 1966, note historians Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, the Red Guards murdered more than 1,700 people in Beijing. In Shanghai in September there were 704 suicides and 534 other deaths related to the Cultural Revolution. During this wave of violence Mao issued a directive ordering the police not to interfere with the “student movement.” Because the death toll is considered a Chinese “state secret,” no one knows for sure how many people died during the Cultural Revolution. Estimates by various scholars range from one-half to eight million.

5. By December 1968, Mao had reestablished his cult of personality and restored his influence. Having achieved his objective, he grew tired of the chaos and violence he had unleashed. He implemented the “Down to the Countryside Movement,” an expansion of a program in which young “intellectuals” from the cities were sent to the rural areas of the country to live with a work with the peasant class. (Mao’s definition of intellectual was very loose, and included children who merely had a middle school education.) From 1962 to 1979, about 17 million “sent-down youths” were displaced, leaving the country with an entire generation of undereducated people.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).