China’s Cultural Revolution: A Brief Overview

Adapted from William A. Joseph, “Cultural Revolution,”
in Joel Krieger, Editor-in-Chief, with William A. Joseph, et. al., The Oxford Companion to Politics of the World,
2nd edition. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).

The “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” (1966-76) was launched by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chairman Mao Zedong to stem what he perceived as the country's drift away from socialism and toward the “restoration of capitalism.” The campaign, which was euphorically described at its inception by its progenitors as “a great revolution that touches people to their very souls” and which inspired radical students from Paris to Berkeley, is now regarded as having been a terrible catastrophe for the Chinese nation.

The origins of the Cultural Revolution can be traced to the mid–1950s when Mao first became seriously concerned about the path that China's socialist transition had taken in the years since the CCP had come to power in 1949. His anxieties about the bureaucratization of the party, ideological degeneration in society as a whole, and the glaring socioeconomic inequalities that had emerged as China modernized escalated through the early 1960s and propelled him to embark on a crusade to expunge the “revisionism” that he believed was contaminating the party and the nation.

Mao concluded that the source of China's political retrogression lay in the false and self–serving view of many of his party colleagues that class struggle ceased under socialism. On the contrary, the chairman concluded, the struggle between proletarian and bourgeois ideologies took on new, insidious forms even after the landlord and capitalist classes had been eliminated. The principal targets of Mao's ire were, on the one hand, party and government officials who he felt had become a “new class” divorced from the masses and, on the other, intellectuals who, in his view, were the repository of bourgeois and even feudal values.

Mao's decision to undertake the Cultural Revolution was strongly influenced by his analysis that the Soviet Union had already abandoned socialism for capitalism. The Cultural Revolution was also a power struggle in which Mao fought to recapture from his political rivals some of the authority and prestige that he had lost as a result of earlier policy failures. Furthermore, Mao saw the Cultural Revolution as an opportunity to forge a “generation of revolutionary successors” by preparing China's youth to inherit the mantle of those who had originally brought the CCP to power.

There was also a policy dimension to the Cultural Revolution: once those who were thought to be leading China down the “capitalist road” had been dislodged from power at all levels of society, a wide range of truly socialist institutions and processes (“sprouts of communism”) were to be put in place to give life to the vision of the Cultural Revolution. For example, elitism in education was to be replaced by schools with revamped, politicized curricula, mass–based administration, and advancement criteria that stressed good class background, political activism and ideological correctness.

The complex and convoluted history of the Cultural Revolution can be roughly divided into three major phases. The mass phase (1966–1969) was dominated by the Red Guards, the more than 20 million high–school and college students who responded to Mao's call to “make revolution,” and their often–vicious efforts to ferret out “class enemies” wherever they were suspected to lurk. During this stage, most of Mao's rivals in the top leadership were deposed, including China's president, Liu Shaoqi.

The military phase (1969–1971) began after the People's Liberation Army had gained ascendancy in Chinese politics by suppressing, with Mao's approval, the anarchy of the Red Guards. It ended with the alleged coup attempt in September 1971 by Mao's disgruntled heir, Defense Minister Lin Biao, who had also been one of the Chairman's main allies in launching the Cultural Revolution.

The succession phase (1972–1976) was an intense political and ideological tug–of–war between radical ideologues and veteran cadres over whether to continue or curtail the policies of the Cultural Revolution. Underlying this conflict was a bitter struggle over which group would control the succession to the two paramount leaders of the CCP, Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou Enlai, both of whom were in deteriorating health by the early 1970s. The decisive lot in this struggle was cast when the most prominent radicals (the “Gang of Four,” which included Mao's widow, Jiang Qing) were preemptively arrested in October 1976, a month after the Chairman's death, by a coalition of more moderate leaders. The arrest of the Gang of Four is said to mark the official end of China's Cultural Revolution.

The Cultural Revolution is now referred to in China as the “decade of chaos” and is generally regarded as one of the bleakest periods in the country's modern history. The movement's ideals were betrayed at every turn by its destructive impulses. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of officials and intellectuals were physically and mentally persecuted. The much–vaunted initiatives that were to transform the nation often had disastrous consequences for China's education and cultural life. Economic development was disrupted by factional strife and misguided “ultraleftist” policies.

The market-oriented economic policies that China has followed since Deng Xiaoping came to power in the late 1970s represent a thorough repudiation of everything the Cultural Revolution stood for. Nevertheless the memory of the movement still casts an ominous shadow over Chinese politics. Deng, who was purged during the Cultural Revolution as one of China's leading “capitalist roaders,” and the other elderly leaders who made the decision to crush the Tiananmen Square protests in June 1989 feared that, left unchecked, the demonstrations would snowball into Red Guard-like chaos. After Deng's death in 1997, his successors have continued to cite the experience of the Cultural Revolution as one of the reasons China cannot risk the disorder that democracy, by challenging Party authority, might bring to the country.

Maintained by: Professor William A. Joseph
Department of Political Science
Created By: Giuliana Funkhouser '04 and Joyce Hsu '05
Page Created: August 8, 2003
Last Modified: February 11, 2010
Page Expires: August 8, 2004