The beginnings of the Cultural Revolution also known as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, dates back to the early 1960s. This movement took place after the Great Leap Forward, a period of active government where more than 20 million people died. During this time Vice-Chairman Li Shaoqi and Premier Zhou Enlai wanted to assume a less active and dominant role in governing the country. They wanted to offer economic reforms based on individual incentives. One incentive was to allow families the opportunity to farm their own land. These actions were detested by more conservative members. Nonetheless, China’s economy grew greatly from 1962-1965as a result of individual incentives. The Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976 was compound social turmoil that stemmed from the struggle between Mao Zedong and other party leaders in efforts to control the Chinese Communist Party.
The Cultural Revolution in China was one of the most multifaceted events in China’s history. Each member of Chinese society was involved and somehow affected by the revolution. Although Mao initiated the movement, it took on its identity. Mao used many manipulation tasks when dealing with the people of China, but during the movement people saw that as an opportunity to express themselves. The Cultural Revolution went through many stages, but the most violent ones were the first two years. Mao even called upon school age students to join in the movement.
Building up to the Cultural Revolution, Mao lived in constant fear that the Chinese Communist Part y was adopting too many bureaucratic ideals. He felt that party officials were abandoning their commitment to communist values. Consequently, he felt that he had been losing influence among his comrades since the failure of the Great Leap Forward. In late 1965, Mao decided that China needed a new revolutionary movement after Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife, complained that cultural productions were openly criticizing the Communist leadership. Mao endorsed the discourse and the Cultural Revolution began.
The extensive violence during the Cultural Revolution was the most disturbing. China had suffered cruelty and violence before, but never to the extent of the Cultural Revolution. Students revolted within educational institutions and led to violence. Libraries were burned and schools were vandalized. The violence was so rampant that the military patrolled the streets followed by body trucks looking for the remains of the dead. “The suicide rate drastically increased as people escape persecution jumped from building, drank insecticide and would lie across train tracks, or throw themselves in front of cars” ( Schoenhals, p. 566 ). Also, many people died during the Revolution due to illnesses that went untreated due to the refusal of medical facilities to give aid to counter revolutionaries. Fowler said, “Everyone in China was affected; everyone knew someone who had died” (Fowler, p. 1329 ).
By the winter of 1966, the chaos and violence in China has increased. Most school and universities had closed so that students could participate in the movement. Frankly speaking, they were encouraged to get rid of the old China because they were educated and more accepting of change. Students began to verbally and physically attack authority figures, including teachers, administrators, and Communist Party members, neighbors, friends, relatives, and even their own parents if they try to prevent them from supporting the movement. The Red Guards were the most violent group that formed during the Revolution. The members of the Red Guard ranged from elementary students to university students. Their mission was to enforce communist dogma and alleviate China of the “Four Olds”, which were old culture, old customs, old habits, and old ideas. They were a million or more strong in membership. They destroyed antiques ancient texts, temples, and other facilities that represented what they deemed the old way. According to Thurston, “The Red Guards behaved so badly because first, morality is not a product of nature of man but rather education. Therefore, the young of China behaved badly because they were badly educated. Secondly, China had taken their leader and elevated him to a god. The Chinese exhibited unquestioning faith and obedience.” (Buckley, p. 599 ) They would publicly humiliate anyone who had counter revolutionary views. They slaughtered thousands of people. Once Mao realized that the Red Guards were out of control, he devised a plan to get them out of China. In late 1968, he issued a call for “Down to the Countryside Movement”. This movement was intended to ship the Red Guards out to the rural areas to work on farms and learn peasantry. His goal was to disperse the group to end the violent havoc they had been causing in China. By 1968, thousands had been imprisoned and millions were sent to work on the countryside.
The Cultural Revolution had a great impact on the educational system in China. The revolution left the school systems in disarray. In the late 1960s and early 1970s schools and universities gradually began reopening. However, it was in 1973 that examinations for entrance into universities were reinstated. The examinations replaced revolutionary purity-which allowed entrance by any individual who had participated in the revolution. Tsou adds,
“Going to work in the countryside and mountain areas” was compulsory for every urban student. Over 16 million urban students were carted off to remote parts of China such the Yunnan Province to be re-educated. They were organized into companies and regiments, and lived on farms, ate in communal cafeterias and performed tasks like digging ditches, cutting bamboo and planting rice. The idea behind the campaign was that manual labor could re-install socialist values” (Tsou, p. 321).
The Movement also affected the Art in China. Three generations of art and culture were destroyed during the Movement. As a result, the government wanted to create a new way of looking at China’s culture that could communicate the ideals and goals of the new Country. Artists were compelled to create pieces that revealed the essence of the revolution. Mao said, “Create art for the people” (Buckley, p. 600). During this time, painting with ink replaced traditional oil painting and socialist realist. Ink painting had been one of the most respected and admired forms of art in country for more than a thousand years. Old-style subjects such as sceneries, animals, and plants were replaced by revolutionary heroes, such as workers, soldiers, and peasants. Also, ink senior artists were subject be humiliated in front of everyone and even torture. Houses and artwork of traditionalist were detained and destroyed by rebels. Tsou said, “Few members of the older generation, which included teachers and respected artists escaped persecution and criticisms” (Tsou, p. 325). Fowler added that new, younger artists found this as a great opportunity to display their talents from their own perspectives. They wanted their works to become the new models of great artwork. They hoped that their works would be seen and revered by the multitude in the new country. (Fowler, p. 1330 ).
Propaganda and psychology played a large role in the effects of the Cultural Revolution in China. Propaganda is the usage of certain language through the media to implant ideas in the minds of the viewers. This tactic is used to create public trends. By nature, humans have the tendency to trust in authority. Often this trust is exploited. Widespread propaganda techniques were used to encourage activism by China’s youth. One technique that was used by the media in China during this time was the disfiguring and dehumanizing of the opponents. By distorting the proportions of the opponents, the media made the favored candidate look larger by enhancing physical traits to make one look taller and more muscular. Another tactic was just outright intimidation. Fowler adds, “Given free reign, the Red Guards seized public transport and took over the radio and television networks. Anyone showing signs of decadent tendencies-the most obvious examples being the wearing of Western clothes, jewelry or make up- was likely to be manhandled and publicly humiliated” (Fowler, p. 1325). They also used the tactic of bandwagon to entice people to join the movement. The media repeatedly showed depictions of large crowds and colors associated with violence. Buckley says, “The public was falsely reassured by propaganda posters that depicted fruits larger than humans, as well as abundant produce at farms, and bountiful communal farms and dining, yet 40 million civilians died as a result of the great famine that was a direct result of the Cultural Revolution”. (Buckley, p. 589)
One of the major goals of the Cultural Revolution was to correct the economic problems that the Great Leap Forward had caused. Nonetheless, it caused even more damage to an already weakened economy. During the Cultural Revolution, China denounced all the basic and universally accepted economic theories of production. Essentially, China halted production. It even ended its birth control program. So, not only was the economy failing, but more children were being born into a society that was unable to feed them. China’s population increased rapidly during the Cultural Revolution. Consequently, the quality of life in China decreased astronomically. The conditions that people faced in China during this time can be compared to that of present day Africa with war, disease, and famine. (Buckley, p. 590 ) The Red Guards caused another great expense that China was unable to pay. The government paid the bills of transporting the Red Guards all of the country side to harass and assault unwilling participants. Scientists and writers were forced to work on farms to be able to survive. There work was no longer needed because China had denounced that old way of thinking. Most intellectuals abandoned their life’s work and were transported to areas that had a high demand for manual labor. Imported goods were also halted during the Cultural Revolution. Many common amenities were now rare in China’s economy. The Revolution’s attempt to stop individual growth stopped economic freedom and growth of an entire country. Tsou adds, “The Economy of china in 1960s was much affected by Chinese Cultural Revolution. Especially a number of students loosed their focus of life and had a shattered career due to being used by the ruling party as Red Guards. The tragedy of the Chinese Cultural Revolution witnessed lots of bloodshed.” (Tsou, p. 329).
China’s youth was the most devastated by the Cultural Revolution. First, the Revolution denied them an opportunity to get an education because schools were closed during the revolution. This act left a long lasting physical and psychological damage. The Revolution instilled deep hatred and contempt for education. After all the schools were closed, children who were old enough were sent to the countryside to do manual labor jobs. On their countryside jobs they were faced with mental and physical hardships; sometimes they were beaten and treated like slaves. Often they worked for long periods of time without adequate food and water. Schoenhals said that educated individuals and other people who have views that opposed the Cultural Revolution were sent to the countryside as a form of punishment. In his research, Schoenhals quoted a survivor saying that the conditions her family had to live in while on the countryside were deplorable. They had to plant rice, a degrading job to who father who had been an English teacher at a middle school. They had to learn to work the land from fellow peasants. During their first year there they didn’t even have a house to live in. They stayed in something similar to a barn. Grain was stored their also. They were unable to raise crops that year and had to eat leaves and roots. She described this as living like an animal. ( Schoenhals, p. 563).Many starved to death, while others died from being over worked. All of the children were brainwashed into putting the wellbeing of the government before their own physical and mental wellbeing. So, they felt that sacrificing their lives for the benefit of the Cultural Revolution was noble. The overall all result of this process was a generation of people with physical and psychological damage. For example, “About one fourth of China’s population lived through the Cultural Revolution as children and teenagers. Some of them look back on the period fondly because they didn’t have to go school but ultimately many feel cheated because opportunities were lost. “( Schoenhals, p. 566) These children then raised their children with these same ideals and concepts of the government.
Many of today’s trends in China got their start after the Cultural Revolution wiped its culture and heritage from the minds of many Chinese people. Those that endured the ten year period have horrible memories, but a new found appreciation for life. Although there were many negative outcomes of the Cultural Revolution, one concept is seen in a positive light. Prior to the Cultural Revolution, healthcare and doctors were only available in the city areas of China. Consequently, millions of peasants and poor people in villages did not have access to healthcare. They only had access to rudimentary and herbal medial practices. As a direct result of the Cultural Revolution, the term “barefoot doctor” became popular. Millions of educated doctors went to the countryside as part of a movement called “down to the villages”. They had strict guidelines to serve the people of the countryside by focusing on disease prevention. These doctors were unlike any doctors the people of the countryside had seen before. They were barefoot, muddy, and callused hands. They trained healthcare workers to take preventive measures. They gave the villagers vaccinations, demonstrated the proper use of pesticides, showed them new sanitation procedures, and taught new parents how to care for their new borns.
In conclusion, the Cultural Revolution was a movement that took place from 1966-1976. It was initiated by Chinese leader, Mao Zedong. The purpose of this movement was to change the traditional way of thinking many Chinese people believed in. Although the goal was never met, the Cultural Revolution did change many aspects of Chinese life. China’s borders were closed to imports from other countries. As a result, China’s industrial performance was far behind other parts of the world. Also, the closing of schools and colleges had a long lasting negative affect on the people. Without proper education, many were forced to work manual jobs. Even college educated people worked manual jobs because the country had lost value in education. Finally, and most importantly, so many lives were lost. The Red Guards took so many lives so senselessly. Any person who was believed to have views that were against what the Red Guards supported was in potential danger. At any moment they could be attacked and killed. No one was safe; the Red Guards would even kill the parents, friends, or relatives of their own or other members of the Red Guards if they did not support the movement.
Buckley, Patricia. Cultural Revolution. A visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization. The Journal of Asian Studies 46 (1992): 575-600
Fowler, Erin Malia. An exploration of the life experiences of the survivors of China’s Cultural Revolution… US: ProQuest Information & Learning. 69(2-B), 2008. p. 1323-1330.
Schoenhals, Michael. Unofficial and Official Histories of the Cultural Revolution—A Review Article, The Journal of Asian Studies 48 (1989): 563-570.
Tsou, Tang. The Cultural Revolution and Post-Mao Reforms. Chicago. The University of Chicago Press. 1986. p. 312-333.