Cultural Revolution

Cultural Revolution
With little agreement on when it began (1964, late 1965 or mid 1966), how long it lasted (three years, 1966–9, or a decade, 1966–76), what it was about (culture, revolution, power struggles, or simply Mao Zedong’s monomania), or what it achieved (that it was a true Marxist-Leninist revolution, the prelude to the extraordinary post 1978 reform era, or just a historical vacuum), and a general official ban on in-depth research or analysis of the period, the Cultural Revolution remains one of the most ill-understood and controversial periods in modern Chinese history.
After the socialist transformation of China in the mid 1950s, Mao Zedong and his key supporters were mindful of the fragile nature of the revolution that they had initiated. Utopian agricultural policies and inefficient industrialization directed by political fiat rather than determined by socio-economic realities, coupled with an anti-market ethos that resisted the development of a consumer economy threatened the stability and viability of the People’s Republic. Mao believed that ideological rectitude and revolutionary thinking would in the long run bolster the socialist state. Following the Great Leap Forward period of the late 1950s, when ‘instant Communism’ was attempted with disastrous results and an enormous loss of life, efforts to ameliorate those extreme policies led to a mild shift towards a mixed economy in the early 1960s. A concomitant social and cultural relaxation engendered a relative flourishing of the arts, but alerted Mao, who had been sidelined politically because of his earlier baleful Communist adventurism, to the dangers of corrupting thoughts, cultural works and the insufficiently political educational system. Through directives, comments and the support of army leaders like Lin Biao, as well as his own wife Jiang Qing, Mao began to make a series of oblique interventions in national politics. He now proposed a cultural revolution (in the spheres of education, the media, the legal system and within state power itself) that would reinforce and safeguard the economic and political revolution that had taken place. The immediate evidence of these efforts was a series of new theatrical works, what was hailed in the media as ‘modern Beijing revolutionary opera’ among others, that would see traditional themes and heroes swept aside by worker, peasant and soldier protagonists.
The widespread sense of internal paranoia and embattlement was dramatically exacerbated as a result of the economic and ideological rupture with the Soviet Union (now declared to be a ‘revisionist’ socialist state) in the early 1960s, and the continued hostilities with the Nationalist government on Taiwan. The Nationalists were supported by a bellicose USA, a country that was regarded as being an imperialist aggressor in Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, a nation that had engineered a veritable ‘arc of aggression’ against socialist China.
Mao and his colleagues encouraged a belief that apart from the external economic and military threats to the regime, there was a more long-term and insidious threat lurking within China itself. That was that culture itself (the legal system, the media, the arts and education) was subject to erroneous political thinking authored by many leaders and public figures. These figures, it was felt, were actively insinuating bourgeois and feudal (that is, traditional) ideas and values among the populace, in particular the young. It was believed that these corrupting ideas could well prepare the way, either intentionally or unintentionally, for a counter-revolution that would see the reprivatization of agricultural land, industry and business, the creation of an educational and cultural meritocracy that privileged entrenched traditional elites, and a political reversal that would undermine the rights of the proletariat and peasantry, and that would witness a quasi-capitalist and feudal regime rule in the name of the Communist Party itself.
The rise of the Red Guards from May 1966 (the movement was founded by a small group of students at the ruins of the Jesuit-designed rococo palaces in the old imperial garden palace of the Yuanming Yuan to the north-west of Beijing) marked both a spontaneous student response to broader political tensions and an elite contestation over the future of the nation and revolution itself. Mao Zedong and the Party’s open support for these rebels in July-August 1966 led to a mass uprising of young, and not-so-young, people against the Party nomenklatura. The result over the following months was the collapse of Party and government rule.
The original rebels, having played a role in inciting nationwide rebellion by travelling the country in mock-imitations of the Red Army’s Long March, and through overt and often violent attacks on all aspects of the ‘old society’, were in turn condemned. Contending groups vied for the mantle of true revolutionary and all swore to the death to defend Chairman Mao’s revolutionary line. The contestation led to clashes and in some cases open warfare fuelled by an environment of virtual anarchy. The old power structures had been toppled, and new groupings sanctioned by Mao and his cohort grabbed power. Eventually the restive young population of the cities with no jobs or educational opportunities was dispatched to the countryside to learn about revolution through manual labour. For many this internal exile only ended in the mid to late 1970s. State cadres and intellectuals of all kinds were also rusticated as part of a policy to transform the bourgeois thinking of urban elites. Radical agricultural, industrial and cultural policies formulated in the past were now implemented with results that are generally regarded as calamitous. In the arts, model works inspired by the Beijing opera reform of the 1950s and early 1960s held sway. While the ‘Beijing model theatrical works’ attempted a striking amalgam of Chinese and Western culture that involved highly talented writers (like the noted novelist Wang Zengqi) and performers, the paucity of cultural variety and inventiveness, not to mention the stigma of their champion, Madam Mao, Jiang Qing, led to a wholesale rejection of these experiments.
Meanwhile, power struggles in Beijing and cities throughout China saw the fall of entrenched leaders and their bureaucratic supporters, all now condemned as followers of the now-defunct state president Liu Shaoqi, ‘China’s Khrushchev’. Revolutionary committees comprising rebels, reliable cadres and military personnel were formed to rule in their place, but they proved to be no less bureaucratic than their predecessors. An extravagant Mao cult had been promoted making it sacrilegious (and punishable) to question his omniscience and the universal wisdom of Mao Thought. With the demise of Mao’s one-time staunch military supporter, Lin Biao, in 1971, supposedly following a failed assassination attempt, the extravagances of the Mao cult were curtailed, and the chairman initiated a return to regularized government by recalling Deng Xiaoping, Liu Shaoqi’s close bureaucratic comrade-in-arms, to work with the premier Zhou Enlai, one of the only older Party leaders to have survived the maelstrom of the preceding years.
Infighting continued, however, with radical Maoist leaders (later dubbed ‘the Gang of Four’) constantly attempting to undermine both Zhou and Deng who were cautiously introducing policies aimed at reinvigorating education, the sciences, culture and the economy. Following Zhou’s death in early 1976, Deng Xiaoping was purged once more. Yet another campaign in what was still being called the Cultural Revolution in the state media was unfolding when Mao Zedong himself died in September 1976. Shortly thereafter, his most radical followers were toppled from power and over the following years the policies and practices of the Cultural Revolution era, officially called a’ten-year blank’, were negated and Mao’s role in the period was formally criticized in a Party decision passed in 1981. Although there are no officially published figures, it is generally recognized that during that decade millions of people’s lives were disrupted, countless people were tortured or killed, and incalculable damaged was inflicted on the material legacy of Chinese civilization.
The Cultural Revolution and Mao’s role in it inspired many imitators and much theoretical discussion internationally. Mao himself foresaw a time following his death when his radical attempt to maintain revolutionary momentum in a one-party socialist state would be negated, but he predicted that its value would one day be realized.
The Cultural Revolution was also a critical event in the shaping of contemporary China. The attitudes and alliances, the culture and the politics of that period led directly to the economic reforms launched by Deng Xiaoping and his supporters over twenty years ago, reforms which have changed the face and fate of the People’s Republic. The cadres currently in positions of leadership in China—those running China’s leading companies and much of its government, as well as those shaping its popular culture, its art and its intellectual life—came of age in the Cultural Revolution.
Since the mid 1980s, Cultural Revolution retrochic has played a role in the contemporary arts (fashion, music, film and art); it has also led to a flourishing of ‘victim literature’ with only the occasional confession of heinous deeds perpetrated in the name of revolution. From the early 1990s a number of Sinophone writers and academics on both sides of the Pacific have reaffirmed the value of the period and searched in it for answers for China’s post-socialist dilemmas. While neo-liberal reformist thinkers argue that the follies of the Cultural Revolution era laid the way for the economic reforms of the past decades and China’s integration in the global capitalist system, a long-term benefit for China, for new left-wing commentators and neo-Marxists, all of Mao’s fears about the fate of the revolution and the need for the kind of bottom-up purge of the system that he encouraged in the 1960s were justified. For them, China is indeed in the grip of a reactionary monopoly—Party bourgeois counter-revolution that has enmeshed the nation with the global economy and the US-led ‘new world order’.
The Communist Party’s 1981 evaluation of the Cultural Revolution (and the events that led to it) was seen as the final official verdict on the period, speaking as it did of an era of waste, ‘extreme leftism’ and futile infighting. When in 1989 rebellious students took to the streets of China’s capital once more protesting against the power-holders, for many Party leaders it signalled a dangerous return to the iconoclasm of the past when a wave of destruction had unseated Party-state rulers and pulverized their emblems of power. This time they did not hesitate to use maximum force to terminate a rebellion that they argued would have brought down the People’s Republic itself.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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