The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution

Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution


There were two Reigns of Terror if we would but remember and consider them: the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred million. But our shudders are all for the ‘horrors’ of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak. But what is the horror of swift death by the axe compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heartbreak? – Mark Twain. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.


Part One of this trilogy described in detail how Mao did more good for more people than anyone in history. In Part Two, his logistical genius saved millions from dying in what could have become an epic famine. In this final episode Mao spends his last decade ending peasants’ ‘deaths from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty and heartbreak,’ introducing democracy and changing China’s ancient culture forever.

Birth of a Revolution

While our understanding of the French Revolution comes from its beneficiaries, ordinary French citizens who celebrate it annually. Our understanding of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution comes exclusively from the exiled Chinese elite. Its beneficiaries, the eighty percent of Chinese we call ‘peasants,’ made their first appearance there for the first time in China’s 3,000 year history and have since been airbrushed from it.

A voracious reader, Mao Zedong observed, “As I continued reading the old romances and tales of Chinese literature it occurred to me that there was something peculiar about such stories: the absence of peasants who tilled the land. All the characters were warriors, officials or scholars; there was never a peasant hero. I wondered about this for two years and then I analyzed the content of the stories.

Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution

I found that they all glorified men of arms, rulers of the people, who did not have to work the land because they owned and controlled it and, evidently, forced the peasants to work it for them”.

In 1957, eight years after taking power, Mao warned colleagues that the socialist transformation had not ended China’s social contradictions: “There are people who seem to think that, as state power has been won, they can sleep soundly, unworried, and play the tyrant at will. But the masses will oppose such persons, throw stones at them and beat them with their hoes. Which will, I think, serve them right and please me immensely. Moreover, sometimes fighting is the only way to solve a problem.

The people have good reason to remove bureaucrats from office.. I say it is fine to remove them, they ought to be removed, the Communist Party needs to learn a lesson. If students and workers take to the streets you comrades should regard it as a good thing.

Workers should be allowed to strike and the masses to hold demonstrations. Processions and demonstrations are provided for in our Constitution and, when the Constitution is revised, I suggest the freedom to strike be added so that the workers are explicitly permitted to strike”.

Critics had made the same observation about Russia’s revolution but, for Mao, the revolution was only the first step, “We began a new Long March in 1949 and we are still only on the first lap,” he told André Malraux.

“Victory is the mother of all illusions.. Humanity left to its own devices does not necessarily re-establish capitalism, but it does re-establish inequality. The forces tending towards the creation of a new class are powerful”.

The danger, he said, was a political leadership that turned its back on socialism, bourgeois elements who produced a new bureaucratic class that he attributed to China’s Stalinist bureaucratic hierarchy, a new exploiting class fashioned from a ‘bourgeois bureaucratic class sucking the workers’ blood’.

He reminded colleagues of ‘peasant rebellions when frustrations burst forth in emotional storms in which hatreds, resentments and a sense of hopeless desperation break through social restraints in an overwhelming surge’.

But no-one listened, nothing changed and he concluded that the problem was cultural: the ancient tradition of privileged officials and submissive, deferential peasants was to blame and this status quo needed changing–a job for which Mao was uniquely qualified.

As Robert Payne, who knew him, explained in 1948, “Mao holds all the arts of China in his hands. Lenin had neither the learning nor the inclination to assume the role of the transformer of culture. Mao, far more widely read and with a comparative subtlety of mind, has clearly determined to accept the position thrust on him and no one can foresee the changes in the basic structure of Chinese culture which will derive ultimately from his will.”

Mao’s Famine

A Guilty Secret

By 1966, the Communist Party had been in power for sixteen years but, behind its successes lurked a guilty secret: eighty percent of rural Chinese remained semi-destitute, illiterate, without access to basic needs, education or medical care. The Revolution had changed little beyond ownership of their tiny plots. Which remained subject to the vicissitudes of weather and fortune.

As Chungwu Kung observed, “China was a people’s democratic dictatorship in theory only; in practice, political and cultural power was held by scholarly and bureaucratic intellectuals who commanded vast influence and prestige”. Mao proposed giving five hundred million peasants equality, democracy, justice and dignity. He would direct their frustration ‘outward, through the force of ideology expressed in a political slogan, breaking. The shackles of repression through study and converting their thought into creative action’.

One Spring morning in 1966 he told startled colleagues. “I firmly believe that a few months of chaos, luan, will be mostly for the good,” and so became the only national leader in history to overthrow his own government.

Since the Party controlled the means of production, he said, dispossession and, thus, violence would be unnecessary.

Instead, he proposed an exclusively cultural revolution and recruited students to stir things up. Shanghai university students founded the Red Guard movement in response and their luan lasted a few months until, as the CIA perceptively reported⁠, adolescent zealotry created chaos:

“While it would be too much to say that the cultural revolution has followed a precise master plan. There have been too many tactical adjustments and shifts along the way. It is clear that Mao envisaged two distinct phases from the start: destructive and constructive.

“The Red Guards were Mao’s vanguard during the destructive phase. But, proved to be a woefully defective instrument during the constructive phase. Mao’s disillusionment with the Red Guards became apparent after their dismal, self-seeking performance. During the initial ‘power-seizures’ of early 1967 and was intensified by their indiscriminate internecine warfare during the following summer.

Time and again, Mao ordered the young students to rectify themselves voluntarily. They did not do so, thereby confirming in Mao’s mind his assessment of the negative qualities of China’s intellectuals.

As early as 1939, Mao had written that the sole criterion by which to judge whether or not a youth is revolutionary is. If he is ‘willing to integrate himself with the broad masses of workers and peasants and does so in practice’.

The Red Guards had not been willing to do so. Thus, Mao replaced them with a new vanguard–the working class–when he decided that the time had come to start building and consolidating his new revolutionary order, and he forcibly dispatched the young intellectuals [China’s current president and prime minister among them] to rural areas by the hundreds of thousands for further ‘revolutionary purification’”.

An enthusiastic revolutionary and son of a senior cadre, Yang Xiguang, sought sympathy from his family’s elderly housekeeper after reading posters denouncing his parents. The woman, who had behaved submissively towards them for many years, told him. That she completely approved of their downfall, confessed that her submission had been largely feigned. That Yang’s parents had exploited her all along and that the city’s housekeepers were organizing their own rebel group.

“I felt my world turned upside down. Lots of common people had smiled at me before the Cultural Revolution for being the son of a big shot. But I now felt it had only been pretence.

I suddenly recognized the keenness of the contradiction, that those at the bottom actually hated those at the top”. After a few months, Mao met with the Red Guard leaders and told them that factional conflicts had to stop. “The masses don’t like civil wars.. The people are unhappy, the workers are unhappy, the peasants are unhappy. The Beijing residents are unhappy, the students in most schools are unhappy.”

But, as he had anticipated, the fat was in the fire: urban workers needed little stirring and, by late October, activism had spread from school to factory and from factory to factory and, according to Maurice Meisner, “The old bureaucracy, in a desperate effort to save itself, expended its last financial resources bribing workers into political passivity,” appeasing them and buying time for political manoeuvring.

But social discontent–rooted in workers’ material life–remained. Their productivity had increased by 250 per cent since 1957 and the cost of living had increased by nearly ten per cent. But their incomes were five per cent lower and their protests about wages. Benefits and work conditions inevitably raised political, moral and ideological questions and issues of self-worth, dignity and autonomy.

Mao’s Great Famine?

Their demands expressed a yearning for human dignity and democratic control over socioeconomic life. One temporary worker recalled, “We were simply inferior.

In the factory, if people didn’t know your name, they would just call you linshi gong [temporary worker], which sounded contemptuous. Therefore the word linshi gong was a taboo among us. We would rather call one another lin Xiong or ‘temporary brothers’”.

A Program of Revolutionary Rebellion, issued by the Mao Zedong Thought Association of Hundreds of Millions of Peasants. In Dongjin (a rural county in Hunan) complained about heavy tax burdens and excessive labour levies and listed their demands

  • Peasants must enjoy genuine political and economic freedom.
  • Their rights should not be violated, and illegal and abusive practices. Such as tying up, beating, denunciation, and deception, must be abolished.
  • Peasants should receive the same political treatment as workers, cadres, and technical professionals.
  • As long as peasants have done a good job in collective production. Their income derived from sideline production (such as cultivating private plots. Raising pigs, chickens, and ducks, and embroidery) should not be vilified as capitalist.
  • Insofar as the provision of goods is concerned. Peasants should be treated in the same way as people from other occupations and should not be treated unequally. For example, the system of providing beans and tofu-based on ration coupons must be abolished; and cloth coupons should be distributed equally among workers, cadres, city residents, and the rural population, regardless of status distinctions.
  • Peasants who become ill must be covered by the public health-care system in the same way.  In which cadres and state workers are No matter how seriously ill a state worker becomes. All possible means will be tried to bring him back, and all expenses will be covered by the government. When a peasant gets seriously ill. However, if the treatment would cost several hundred yuan, then the patient’s fate would be to wait for death. The peasants’ well-being enjoys no guarantee. Such a system is patently unjust.
  • A nationwide movement that would “lessen burdens of the peasants, enhance their economic and political status, thoroughly lift them out of poverty. Overthrow the unjust social system, turn an inverted history on its own head. And struggle for the complete victory of hundreds of millions of peasants.
In the Country

With the youngsters now back in the classroom or rusticated, Mao placed his faith in his own class. “The peasants are clear-sighted. Who is bad and who is not, who is the worst and who is not quite so vicious. Who deserves severe punishment and who deserves to be let off lightly. The peasants keep clear accounts and very seldom has the punishment exceeded the crime”. He charged them to narrow the ‘three differences’ between mental and manual work, workers and peasants, city and countryside. And to establish ‘three-in-one production teams’ of workers, technicians and specialists to raise productivity through participative innovation.

Follow closely Chairman Mao’s grand battle strategy and create a new level of revolutionary purity

Everyone, he said, should practice the ‘Four Great Freedoms (later to be enshrined in the Constitution). Speaking out freely, airing views fully, holding great debates and writing big-character posters’.

He promised that the government would turn their ideas into concrete programs. Dongping Han describes what happened next:

I grew up in Jimo, a Chinese village. In 1966, there were many illiterate people in my village. The Cultural Revolution weakened professionalsʼ control of education and allowed workers and peasants to have more say in their children’s education. Peasants were allowed to run their own village schools. A village would build its own primary school with local materials. Hire its own teachers and provide free access to all children in the village.

Several villages would pool their resources to build a free middle school for all peasant children. Then the local commune would open free high schools for them. There were 1,050 villages in Jimo County and every village set up a primary school. All rural children were able to go to school free. Before the Cultural Revolution, there were only seven middle schools in Jimo County, which had a population of 750,000.

Now the number of middle schools increased to 249 and all primary school graduates could attend them free of charge, without passing tests. In the previous seventeen years, 1,500 people graduated from the only high school in Jimo County and a half went to college. And never came back and Jimo was unable to train a single high school graduate for each village in the County. Now, every commune had three high schools. When I graduated from middle school in 1972, only 70 per cent of my classmates could enter high school. When my younger sister graduated in 1973, all her classmates could go to high school.

By the end of the Cultural Revolution, in 1976. There were 100 high school graduates in my village and 12,000 in my commune.

The expansion of education during the Cultural Revolution years was unprecedented in Chinese history. It profoundly transformed the Chinese people and society. As people became more educated, they became more empowered in both political and economic activities.

In response to peasants’ demands, Mao next suspended college entrance examinations and called for high school graduates to work at least two years in a factory. The countryside, or the army to become eligible for college entrance.

In 1973 the academic test was dropped and students were selected by fellow workers and peasants based on their work performance and, later. Graduates were required to return to serve the communities that had sent them”. With his educational reforms underway, Mao next addressed peasants’ health. “Tell the Ministry of Public Health that it only works for fifteen per cent of the population and that this fifteen percent is mainly composed of urban gentlemen. While the broad masses of the peasants get no medical treatment: they have no doctors and they have no medicine.

The Ministry is not a Ministry of Public Health for the people. So, why not change its name to the Ministry of Urban Health, of Gentlemen’s Health, or even to the Ministry of Urban Gentlemen’s Health?

The methods of medical examination and treatment currently used by hospitals are not at all appropriate for the countryside and the way doctors are trained only benefits the cities. Yet in China over five hundred million of our people are peasants. Medical education must be reformed. It will be enough to give three years’ training to graduates from higher primary schools.

They can then study and raise their standards, mainly through practice. If this kind of doctor is sent down to the countryside–even if they haven’t much talent. They will be better than the current quacks and witch doctors, and the villagers can afford to keep them”.

His Rural Cooperative Medical System trained Barefoot Doctors. Who had lived in their villages all their lives and were available day and night. To administer vaccinations, demonstrate correct handling of pesticides, introduce new sanitation methods and, by teaching nutrition and child care, cut infant and maternal mortality by half. Urban doctors, now required to tour the countryside, provided free treatment and trained promising barefoot doctors at urban hospitals.

Chinese Atrocities Visible and Invisible

By the end of 1976, every village in China had a clinic and China’s death rate had fallen by eighteen per cent [thanks to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, an artefact of the period, A Barefoot Doctor’s Manual, is still in print].

Mao next turned to democratize the workers, insisting that true democracy requires financial equality among all participants. “For democracy to work for the betterment of all, all must be empowered and there can be no privileged class”. In his manual of democratic activism, The Little Red Book, he told them how to go about it:

  • Pay attention to uniting and working with comrades who differ with you. This should be borne in mind both in the localities and in the army and applies to relations with people outside the Party. We have come together from every corner of the country and should be good at uniting in our work not only with comrades. Who hold the same views as we but also with those who hold different views.
  • Guard against arrogance. For anyone in a leading position, this is a matter of principle and an important condition for maintaining unity. Even those who have made no serious mistakes and have achieved very great success in their work should not be arrogant. In the political life of our people, how should right be distinguished from wrong in one’s words and actions?
  • On the basis of the principles of our Constitution, the will of the overwhelming majority of our people and the common political positions. Which have been proclaimed on various occasions by our political parties and groups. We consider that broadly speaking, the criteria should be as follows:
    • Words and actions should help to unite, and not divide, the people of our various nationalities.
    • They should be beneficial, and not harmful, to socialist transformation and socialist construction.
    • The should help to consolidate, and not undermine or weaken, the people’s democratic dictatorship.
    • They should help to consolidate, and not undermine or weaken, democratic centralism.
    • The should help to strengthen, and not discard or weaken, the leadership of the Communist Party.
    • They should be beneficial, not harmful, to international socialist unity and the unity of the peace-loving people of the world. It is necessary to criticize people’s shortcomings but, in doing. So, we must truly take the stand of the people and speak out of wholehearted eagerness to protect and educate them.
  • To treat comrades like enemies is to take the stance of the enemy.

The elite spent the next decade living in ordinary houses, sending their children to local schools, bicycling to work and peasants elected village leaders. Who worked in the fields for three hundred days a year and county officials who spent two hundred days in manual labour.

To dramatize their empowerment, Mao promoted peasant ‘Red expert.’ Chen Yong to Minister of Agriculture and Chen spread best practices through cooperative networks.

The New York Times, September 24, 1974, reported⁠ the visit of a team of American agronomists and quoted Nobelist Norman Borlaug, “You had to look hard to find a bad field. Everything was green and nice everywhere we travelled.

I felt the progress had been much more remarkable than I expected”. The delegation’s leader, plant geneticist and father of the Green Revolution, Sterling Wortman, described the rice crop, “Really first-rate. There was just field after field that was as good as anything you can see. They’re all being brought up to the level of skills of the best people. They all share the available inputs”. [Full report: Science, 1975, vol.188:549-555]

Throughout the developing world, Wortman’s Green Revolution was then lowering world grain prices, destroying millions of small farms, ruining farmers and communities, causing millions of suicides and creating the vast shanty towns that persist in to this day. Mao compared this misguided development to the USSR’s centralized model of industrialization which, during its development dash, had located gigantic cement and fertilizer plants in cities and built expensive highways to deliver their products to the countryside.

China, Mao insisted, would build small plants locally, save money and create local jobs and the peasants exploited Wortman’s increased productivity by deploying surplus labour to man local industrial enterprises. Where they learned skills without leaving their communities.

Work teams constructed 1,500 chemical fertilizer plants and thousands of farm machinery factories, the population grew fifty percent and industrial output rose fifty-eight percent, outpacing both Germany’s thirty-three percent and Japan’s forty-three percent during their development phases and GDP grew fifty-eight percent over the decade.

Journalist Sidney Rittenberg recalled the transformation in their collective consciousness, “Nobody locked their doors. The banks–there was a local bank branch on many, many corners–the door was wide open. The currency stacked up on the table in plain sight of the door, there were no guards and they never had a bank robbery. Never”.

Rural participation in the arts rose. Short stories, poetry, paintings and sculpture, music and dance flowered and, in place of old court dramas, revolutionary works in opera and ballet–some of which have entered the international canon–emphasized workers’ and peasants’ resistance to oppression. In a play from the time, If I Were Genuine. A peasant youth disguises himself as a general’s son to get privileged treatment, free theatre tickets and an apartment from officials hoping to win the general’s favour.

Arrested, he refused to admit guilt, saying that his only fault was not having a real general for a father because. If his father were a general, everything he did would have been legitimate.

The play produced uncensored on TV and became a national favourite. Mobo Gao describes⁠ the impact on peasant culture, “The rural villagers, for the first time, organized theatre troupes and put on performances that incorporated the contents and structure of the eight model Peking operas with local language and music.

The villagers not only entertain themselves but also learned how to read and write by getting into the texts and plays. And they organized sports meets and held matches with other villages. All these activities gave the villagers an opportunity to meet, communicate, fall in love, and gave them a sense of discipline and organization and created a public sphere. Where meetings and communications went beyond the traditional household and village clans. This had never happened before and has never happened since”.

In response to peasants’ demands, Mao suspended college entrance examinations and called for high school graduates to work at least two years in a factory. The countryside or the army to become eligible for college entrance.

In 1973 the academic test drop and students were select by fellow workers and peasants based on their work performance and, later, graduates were required to return to serve the communities that had sent them.

But China did not have the luxury of endless social experimentation, nor did government officials have superhuman endurance. The socioeconomic grievances and political antagonisms Mao’s reforms unleashed often took on lives of their own and many eruptions were local. With specific groups making diverse demands in apparently unrelated contexts, including millennial clan quarrels. Some rebels began questioning the existing political order and the combination of disorder caus by mass activism below. And leadership power conflicts above created a genuine political crisis that Mao and the members of his inner circle decided must be tactfully neutralized and resolutely resolved.

After Mao’s death, his frightened heirs set about destroying most of the Cultural Revolution’s gains, as Dongping Han, who lived through in a village during the transformation, remembers:

In 1966, when the Cultural Revolution started, there were many illiterate people in my village. My mother never went to school and my father had learned how to read and write simple words by attending night school in his factory. My elder sister had only three years of primary school education.

In my neighbourhood, many children who were a few years older than. I, either never went to school or dropped out after one or two years of primary school. Not many people finished primary school, and only a few went as far as the junior high school in my village. During the educational reforms of the Cultural Revolution. My village set up its own primary school and hired its own teachers.

Every child in the village could go to the village school free of charge. My village also set up a junior middle school with six other villages. Every child could go to this joint village middle school free of charge and without passing any examinations.

The commune that included my village set up two high schools. About 70 per cent of school-age children in the commune went to these high schools free of charge and without passing any screening tests.

All my siblings except my elder sister, who was four years older than I, were able to finish high school. At the time we did not feel this was extraordinary at all.

Most people took going to high school for granted. Upon graduation from high school. I went back to my village like everybody else and worked on a collective farm for one year. And then worked in the village factory for three more years before going to college in the spring of 1978.

While I was in college the Cultural Revolution, together with its educational reform, was denounced by the government. Deng Xiaoping, the paramount Chinese leader then, said that schools should be like schools.

The implication was: the rural schools set up during the Cultural Revolution educational reforms were not like real schools..

Ten years later, in 1986, while teaching at Zhengzhou University, I was involved in a research project in rural Henan with a group of American historians and political scientists. The presence of foreigners in a rural village attracted a big crowd of children of different ages. Out of curiosity, I asked some children to read some newspaper headlines. One after another they shook their heads. I thought they were simply shy, but other children explain that they were not in school.

To my dismay, it was the same story everywhere that we went. I asked people why this happened. They told me that since the collectives were broken up and the land was divided among individual households village schools were no longer free. Some families could not afford to send their children to school. Others needed their children to help in the fields.

Girls were among the first to be sacrificed, as they were assigned to household chores and to take care of younger siblings. Their parents were more reluctant to invest in their futures than in those of their brothers.

Rural children’s loss of educational opportunities shocked me and forced me to think. The government attributed the lack of educational opportunities to the poverty of Chinese rural areas. However, I reached a different conclusion. It was not poverty that deprived the rural children of educational opportunities. Poverty is only a relative term. Why were the children of villagers able to finish high school during the Cultural Revolution? China’s rural areas were poorer then than now.

Cautiously, and sceptically, I began to appreciate the significance of rural educational reforms during the Cultural Revolution. I myself am a product of these reforms. As an educator, I found it hard to remain indifferent to the sad consequences of the condemnation of the rural educational reform of the Cultural Revolution years. I asked myself many questions and decided to study the issue.

However, I could not do the research in China then because the Chinese government did not allow research related to the Cultural Revolution.

In 1990, I came to study in the History Department at the University of Vermont for my master’s degree. I decided to write my thesis on the Cultural Revolution.

I felt that there was a need to go beneath the surface structure of the events that occurred at that time. After I entered the doctoral program in political science at Brandeis University I was able to return to China a number of times to research in-depth the evolution and consequences of educational policy in the country where I grew up.

As I began to investigate the education reforms of the Cultural Revolution, I came to understand that they were integrally linked with a comprehensive program of rural development. I broadened the scope of my study to include the changes in rural political culture. And efforts to advance agriculture and develop a rural industry that initiates during the Cultural Revolution decade.

I conclude, based on the evidence I present in this book, that educational reform, changes in political culture and rural economic development were closely linked. –The Unknown Cultural Revolution: Life and Change in a Chinese Village.

Years later, at the height of a government campaign to delegitimize the Cultural Revolution. Seventy-five percent of survey respondents confessed to feeling nostalgia for those heady days and even President Xi Jinping. Who suffered more than most, would only say, “It was emotional. It was a mood. When the ideals of the Cultural Revolution couldn’t be realized, it proved an illusion”.

Excerpted from Why China Leads the World: Talent at the Top, Data in the Middle, Democracy at the Bottom.


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