The great proletarian cultural revolution. An Overview

Term Paper, 2016
14 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

(1) Introduction

(2) Background

(3) The early period (1966-1968)

(4) Raise and fall of Lin Biau (1969-1971)

(5) Final years (1972-1976)

(6) Assessment

(7) References

(1) Introduction

The Chinese Cultural Revolution, also well known as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution – Wuchanjieji Wenhua Dageming (文化大革命), describes a unparalleled and from the top established revolution launched by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chairman Mao Zedong during his very last period in power (1966–76) to restore the spirit of the Chinese Revolution (Lieberthal 2016). Mao Zedong during this time feared that China possibly could develop like the Soviet Russian nation did and he did not want China to follow their example. He was very concerned about China’s and his own place in history and therefore did not hesitate to throw China’s cities into chaos in a big effort to reverse the historic processes which were on their way obviously. Plenty of the events during this period of this time are without equal in the modern world’s history. After the catastrophic Great Leap Forward, in which according to some sources more than 45 million people died, Mao Zedong decided to take a passive role in governing China. More practical and moderately oriented leaders, such as Vice-Chairman Liu Shaoqi and Premier Zhou Enlai, introduced soft economic reforms founding on individual incentives – such as allowing private people to farm their own land –an effort to rebuild and strengthen the heavily harmed economy (Leese 2016). Mao disliked such actions, as they went against the principles of pure communism in which he believed deeply. In fact, China’s economy grew sustainably from 1962 to 1965 with the more conservative economic policies applying (Stanford 2001).

Mao feared that his political party, the CCP, would become too bureaucratic and that officials let go their commitment to the true values and virtues of communism (The great leap forward, 1958 - 1960 1983). In order to reassert his authority over the Chines government he started what became known as the Cultural Revolution ( 2009). The events appeared to be a complex social upheaval which originally started in form of a struggle between Mao Zedong and other top party leaders about dominance of in the CCP. (Spence 1990)

Mao believed that China’s economic progress since 1949 had led to a privileged class of e.g. engineers, scientists of factory managers. He feared that these kind of people were acquiring too much power. No one in that specific group of people was safe from criticism. Everyone who might have developed a superior attitude was considered and discredited an enemy of the people. The ultimate Communism dream of creating a China which had men and women working in agricultural sector, workers and educated people working united was his justification for the revolution. Not one person was better than someone else and all of them were working together for the good of China – a classless society. The true communist thought. (Trueman 2015)

(2) Background

The negative example of the Soviet Union loosing it’s track haunted Mao. When Khrushchev managed to make it head of state in the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death in 1953, he criticized Stalin. Moreover, he launched political and economic reforms, and backed away from the Stalin’s style of government. Mao always greatly admired Stalin and that is why he was shocked by Khrushchev’s reforms. These tensions were strong and in the early 1960s resulted in a break in relations between the two former allies (Stanford 2001).

Mao himself was sure that the Russian Revolution had gone wrong, which let him fear that China might follow the negative example. The different economic programs carried out by his allies in order to bring China out of a dangerous economic depression caused by the Great Leap Forward let the chairman doubt their true revolutionary commitment (Dikötter 2011). Urban social stratification was what he feared and what is typically for capitalistic systems. All of that in a society as traditionally elitist as China. Ultimately Mao therefore developed four goals for his revolution: “to replace his designated successors with leaders more faithful to his current thinking; to rectify the Chinese Communist Party; to provide China’s youths with a revolutionary experience; and to achieve some specific policy changes so as to make the educational, health care, and cultural systems less elitist.” (Lieberthal 2016)

Mao’s own standing in government for sure had weakened after the failure of his “Great Leap Forward” (1958-60) and the economic crisis that followed that time. He worried that local party officials would take advantage of their positions and would benefit themselves. Rather than working out such cases internally to preserve the prestige of the party, he chose open criticism and the involvement of the people to expose and punish the governing class who disagreed with him. He framed this action as a unique and genuine socialist campaign involving the central struggle of the proletariat versus the bourgeoisie (Stanford 2001).

Mao gathered with a group of radicals, including his wife Jiang Qing and the current defense minister Lin Biao, to help him attack the party leadership and reassure his own authority as chairman and head of the party ( 2009). Youths all over the county were encouraged to openly criticize liberals in the CCP and those influenced by the Soviet leader Khrushchev. Basically all those who Mao considered untrustworthy (Trueman 2015). Mao organized students in groups named the Red Guards and commanded CCP and army not to suppress the movement for a revolutionary sake. Educational establishments like universities were considered to be academic – to be too elitist (Trueman 2015). The movement began in September 1965 with a speech held by Biao who requested pupils to return to the basic principles of the revolutionary movement (Trueman 2015). On top of that he put together a coalition of associates to help him carry out the Cultural Revolution. Mao’s wife Jiang Qing and other extremist officials argued that communism was criticized more often recently and argued to refocus on promoting a revolutionary spirit (Stanford 2001). Defense Minister Lin Biao secured that the military remained on Mao’s side in this conflict. Premier Enlai played an essential role in keeping the country’s main processes running. Especially during the periods of extraordinary chaos. The history of the Cultural Revolution reflects the conflicts among the associates almost as much as it reflects Mao’s own initiatives. (Lieberthal 2016)

(3) The early period (1966-1968)

In August 1966 the Cultural Revolution at the Eleventh Plenum of the Eighth Central Committee was formally launched by Mao (Lieberthal 2016). He truly believed that this action would benefit both the young and the party cadres that they exposed and attacked. Against his expectations the movement escalated quickly. Old people and intellectuals were not only attacked verbally but on top of that were physically abused – many of them even died ( 2009). Students were encouraged to destroy the “Four Olds” as mentioned above already. The students damaged many of China’s ancient temples, valuable art works and even buildings (Stanford 2001). The Red Guards splintered into dozens of rival factions, each claiming for them to be the only true representative of Maoist and Communist thought. The extremists used hat as an excuse for acting even more ruthless and extreme than the rest. Anarchy, terror, and paralysis completely disrupted the urban economy. Industrial production for the year 1968 dropped by 12 percent below that of 1966 (Lieberthal 2016).

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Figure 1: Red Guards - radicalization of Chinese urban students []

Even though nobody wanted to be considered reactionary everyone became a potential target of abuse in the absence of some kind of valid guidelines. Some people tried to protect themselves by attacking friends and even their own families. Resulting in a bewildering series of attacks and counterattacks, unpredictable violence, and the collapse of authority throughout China. Many of the Chinese accused being counterrevolutionaries were sent to the countryside in order to engage in hard rural labor. It was meant to be a complement to their political indoctrination. Overall, estimates say that 16 million urban Chinese youth had been sent to work in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution (Gernet und Kappeler 2011). They were supposed to develop solidarity with the peasants and contribute their labor to the revolution, they were by the same time relocated to mitigate the overcrowding of Chinese cities. Years of living in the countryside meant that this generation lost many educational opportunities and that the intellectual capacity of a whole generation might be underdeveloped. (Stanford 2001)

A strong personality cult on Mao grew similar to that which existed for Josef Stalin, with several splinter groups of the movement claiming the true interpretation of Maoist thought for themselves (Opletal 2011). It provided a huge momentum to the revolution and reached religious proportions finally. Lin Biao printed and distributed the Little Red Book" throughout China in order to encourage the personality cult. He organized hundreds of Mao’s citations and quotes in a book called “Quotations from Chairman Mao” (Cook 2014). Lin made it a requirement for every soldier to read the book. Mao in return praised the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as an outstanding example of rightfulness. Mao’s status climbed new heights when Chinese people began to study his quotations and memorized several. He became a prophet-figure to many Chinese (Opletal 2011). He started to wave the up-in-the-air hold book to huge parades of Red Guards (Cook 2014). Some other key politic leaders (e.g. president Shaoqi, who apparently was Mao’s designated successor until that time, and CCP General Secretary Xiaoping – were removed from power.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 2: Personality cult on Mao []


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The great proletarian cultural revolution. An Overview
Tsinghua University
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Around 1.5 million people were killed during the Cultural Revolution, millions suffered imprisonment, loss of property, torture or general humiliation. The revolution’s long-term effects had impact the entire country for many years to come.
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Paul Scholz (Author), 2016, The great proletarian cultural revolution. An Overview, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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