50 Years from the Cultural Revolution

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution, a political campaign launched by Chairman Mao. The purpose was supposedly to give a new generation the experience of revolution; however, it was actually an outcome of a power struggle between Mao and the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.

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During the ten years that it lasted (ending with Mao’s death in 1976), the nation was thrown into chaos. Schools and colleges were closed, intellectuals were persecuted, religious activities were banned, and there was little economic activity, much less growth. A cult of personality was built up around Chairman Mao that allowed him to rule as an absolute dictator.

By the time Chairman Mao died, the country was on the brink of economic bankruptcy and the people were emotionally exhausted. Chinese young people who came of age during that time period are sometimes (still) referred to as “the lost generation.”

When I was studying with a professor in Beijing nearly twenty years ago, I was able to get him to talk to me about his experiences as a youth in the city during the Cultural Revolution. I was also seeking some personal insight on how it could have happened.

“Simple,” he said to me.

“Chairman Mao went crazy and we all went with him.”

To many working in China today—a land of skyscrapers, shopping malls, and high- speed trains—the Cultural Revolution may seem like ancient and irrelevant history. That is not the case, however, since the scars left on Chinese society, politics, and individuals remain today.

In China, very little is written or said about the Cultural Revolution because it is still considered a “sensitive topic” to discuss or research. That’s not the case outside of China, however, and this past month has seen a veritable flood of articles examine the the Cultural Revolution and its enduring legacy.

Evan Osnos, writing for The New Yorker in a piece titled “The Cost of the Cultural Revolution, Fifty Years Later,” says this:

In examining the legacy of the Cultural Revolution, the most difficult measurement cannot be quantified so precisely: What effect did the Cultural Revolution have on China’s soul? This is still not a subject that can be openly debated, at least not easily.

On May 3, The New York Times published a Q and A with Rod MacFarquhar, a Harvard scholar of Chinese history and politics, in which he discusses the enduring legacy of the Cultural Revolution today:

However, there is a strong resemblance with the Cultural Revolution in Xi’s anticorruption drive. Mao tried to make the country revolutionary by unleashing the Red Guards. Xi Jinping tries to make the people good, to purify them, by the anticorruption campaign. Both Mao and Xi wish to change the Chinese people.

NPR’s Fresh Air program posted an interview with historian Frank Dikotter in which he discusses newly available archives which reveal the chaos of the decade.

In Shanghai alone, a quarter of a million homes of ordinary people are raided by Red Guards. Much of what is seized is being destroyed. And then, of course, Red Guards attack the very people they believe are opposed to communism, attack them physically. Tens of thousands are hounded out of cities like Shanghai and Beijing in an effort to purify these cities. 

It is my belief that having at least a working knowledge of the Cultural Revolution is important for anyone serving Chinese people today, whether in China or in their home countries.

For those of you who like to learn by listening and or watching, these are your best places to start:

The China History Podcast: The Cultural Revolution (an 8-part series)

This is one of my favorite sources of anything related to Chinese history. Hosted by the indomitable Lazlo Montgomery, and California-based businessman, these podcasts are a great way to soak up history while driving or exercising or doing whatever it is you like to do while listening to podcasts. The 8-part series on The Cultural Revolution is outstanding.

Video: China: A Century of Revolution, 1949-1976 (PBS)

This excellent series produced by PBS traces the upheavals in China from 1911 to the 1990’s. This particular episode looks at the early days of the People’s Republic of China, as well as the Cultural Revolution.

And if you prefer to expand your knowledge base the old-fashioned way, by reading a book, these are the ones I would recommend. Some are historical accounts, and others are memoirs.

The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History 1962-1976, by Frank Dikotter

Mao’s Last Revolution, by Roderick MacFarquar

Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution, by Ji-Ji Jiang

Son of the Revolution, by Liang Heng and Judith Shapiro

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Cheng

The Secret Piano: From Mao’s Labor Camps to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, by Zhu Xiao-mei

Colors of the Mountain, by Da Chen

Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now, by Jan Wong

Finally, if you are a Twitter user,  you can track the campaign “in real time” as @GPCR50 live-tweets the Cultural Revolution.

Note: This is a slightly edited version of a post that was first published at ChinaSource on May 9.

Related Posts:

Cultural Revolution Tea

Farewell to a China Hand

Three Decades in China; Four Trends

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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