Understanding the Cultural Revolution

Understanding the Cultural Revolution is essential for understanding modern China:

We can understand the cultural revolution if we remember tat Truly human culture is founded on concern for the right use of the goods and opportunities of human life, as well as concern for the higher growth and the ultimate transcending of egoity in human individuals. The true social revolution is a cultural revolution, not a political or economic one. The political and economic necessities become relatively easy to organize once the Wisdom of the truly human cultural orientation is generally accepted. Adi Da Samraj.

By 1966, China needed to understand that a Cultural Revolution was necessary.

The country was a people’s democratic dictatorship in name only. Land reform had channeled excess production from private landlords to the State. However, otherwise, little had changed: eighty-percent of people were still rural, semi-destitute, and illiterate, without access to basic needs, education, or medical care. In reality, scholarly and bureaucratic intellectuals who had always commanded vast influence and prestige in Chinese society. Urban privilege, scholarly elitism, official impunity, corruption, and exploitation were undoing early gains, as William Hinton explained, “Socialism must be regarded as a transition from Capitalism to Communism. As such, it bears within it many contradictions, many inequalities that cannot be done away with overnight or even in the course of years or decades. As long as these inequalities exist, they generate privilege, individualism, careerism, and bourgeois ideology. They can and do create new bourgeois individuals who gather as a new privileged elite and ultimately as a new exploiting class. Thus, Socialism can be peacefully transformed back into capitalism”.

Few officials were socialists–let alone Communists. Though they embraced Mao’s theory of class struggle, he knew they would desert him if it threatened their positions so, rather than condemn them as members of an exploitive bureaucracy, he purged them.He had often warned them about peasant rebellions, “When frustrations burst forth in emotional storms in which hatreds, resentments, and a sense of hopeless desperation break social restraints in an overwhelming surge”, he warned officials, “If you alienate yourself from the people and fail to solve their problems, the peasants will wield their carrying-poles, the workers will demonstrate in the streets, and the students will create disturbances. Whenever such things happen, they must, in the first place, be taken as good things. That’s how I see them, anyway”.

He had no magic wand. If the peasants wanted freedom, they would have to learn how political forces work in society, the culture, and the world. Only through study and effort could they grasp the link between their struggles and the wider world, “Democratic politics must rely on everyone running things, not just on a minority of people running things”. Modernizing land ownership, infrastructure, agriculture, and industry were secondary. If working people were not politically mobilized around broader issues, they could not transform the economy, management, and labor.

A cultural revolution, he said, would spiritually revolutionize the people, especially the youth, and revitalize the Revolution’s socialist goals while employing the rhetoric of class struggle. Through the power of ideology expressed in political slogans, he proposed to direct the peasants’ energy outward to “Break the shackles of repression with study and convert thought into creative action”.

How Can We Understand the Cultural Revolution?

To gain control of their lives, peasants must control intellectual capital so, having eliminated the barriers to land ownership, he would now destroy the obstacles to the ownership of knowledge, “Working men and women must have their own army of technical specialists and professors, teachers, scientists, journalists, writers, artists, and Marxist theorists… We call for a technical revolution that is also a cultural revolution, a revolution to do away with ignorance and stupidity. We can’t do it without intellectuals, either. We can’t do it just by relying only on uneducated people like ourselves”.

His rhetoric was radical, but his revolution would be cultural, political, and ideological, and he prohibited the use of force or the disruption of economic production. His Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, the only successful social uprising of the 1960s, would be a ten-year saga during which hundreds of millions of peasants would emancipate themselves from second-class citizenship. Theoretical study groups and working people’s cultural activities would take place at ‘universities of class struggle’ where everyone could practice the Four Freedoms: speaking out freely; airing views fully; holding great debates, and writing big-character posters, and he promised that the government would turn their ideas into concrete programs and so consolidate their political power. He would empower and educate hundreds of millions of underprivileged people, raise their consciousness and, simultaneously, revolutionize agriculture and industry through radical cooperation.

When colleagues questioned the feasibility of such a transformation, he repeated Confucius’ warning, “Regulations alone will not work. Men’s minds must change. That’s the importance of ideology, shaping the ideological environment in which all decisions are made, and of collective responsibility–people internalizing goals and engaging in vigorous political struggle. The class that controls material production simultaneously controls the means of mental production so that the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it”.

In the heat of July 1966, Mao, a consummate politician, dramatized the most auspicious omen in the I Ching: “It is favorable to cross great rivers; Heaven looks favorably upon your plans; it is the right time to dare great undertakings”. He swam the Yangtze River signaling, “Cross the great river with me. Join me in this auspicious undertaking, the Cultural Revolution. Now. Together. In real life”. The only national leader in history to overthrow his own government, he told horrified colleagues, “I firmly believe that a few months of chaos, luan, will be mostly for the good”. (Forewarned, the Party published ‘Suggestions for the protection of cultural relics and books during the Cultural Revolution.’ It protected cultural institutions and relics and even helped discover the Terracotta Army and Hunan’s Mawangdui tombs).

Enlisting student Red Guards as catalysts, Mao admonished them, “When there is a debate, conduct it by reasoning, not by coercion or force. Anyone should be allowed to speak out, whoever he may be. So long as he is not hostile and does not make malicious attacks, it doesn’t matter if he says something wrong. Leaders at all levels have to listen to others and encourage people to observe three principles: Say all you know, say it without reserve, and don’t blame the speaker but take his words as a warning”. Journalist Wilfred Burchett experienced luan first-hand:

From the window of my hotel room on the morning after my arrival, I had witnessed an extraordinary scene–straight out of Peking opera–with the flat roof of the big department store in nearby Wang Fu Jing (formerly Morrison Street) as the stage. Two hostile groups, each with leaders waving poles with giant red flags, followed by hundreds of supporters with small flags, were fighting it out for possession of the roof. The crowds swayed back and forth, flags and banners were raised and lowered as instruments of combat, and it was all a tremendous visual pandemonium. I decided to go and have a look but retreated when confronted with the vast crowd which had spilled over into the spacious courtyard in front of the hotel and through which I would literally have to use my elbows to advance a few yards. The crowd was not hostile–curious would be a correct definition–but the atmosphere was such that I thought a misunderstood word or gesture might provoke an incident… The group which represented the management had succeeded in getting the combatants out of the shop and padlocking the doors. Not to be outdone, the contenders had returned with a massive chain and an even bigger padlock ‘to protect the people’s property’ and locked the entrance with an appropriate da tze pao (big-character posters). Such posters covered every building from street level to the roofs wherever you looked or went in Peking (and viewed from the train windows from the frontier with Vietnam to that with North Korea, it was the same everywhere). The battle for control of the store had started the previous afternoon. Each of the factions, the East is Red and the Red Flag, had its supporters in the industrial area and the villages in the outskirts and had urged them to drop their work and come out to do battle–in the very heart of Peking. The only battle was a verbal one, with the chief propagandists of each side, the Little Red Books of Mao’s Thoughts in their hands, shouting appropriate phrases at each other and posing as the true champions of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, the official designation for what was going on.

Adolescent zealotry soon threatened real chaos, but the CIA knew how to understand the Cultural Revolution:

December 1968. 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 Mao’s assessment of the negative qualities of China’s intellectuals. As early as 1939, Mao had written that the sole criterion 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. He forcibly dispatched the young intellectuals to rural areas by the hundreds of thousands for further ‘revolutionary purification’.

Luan had served its purpose so, sending the youngsters back to school or down to the countryside, he turned to 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–by establishing ‘three-in-one production teams’ of workers, technicians, and specialists to raise productivity through participative innovation. Concern with technological balance brought forward the policy of ‘walking on two legs,’ or utilizing both advanced and simple or traditional technologies, and spreading technology and scientific know-how that people could master and apply: peasants learned and practiced seed-selection and seed-crossing, for example.

Highly industrialized areas sent half their revenues to the center, and less developed regions received subsidies. Skilled labor and technical expertise were transferred from more developed to less developed areas. By the early 1970s, Shanghai had supplied over half a million skilled workers to industry in the interior so that the least industrialized areas experienced the fastest growth. Dongping Han describes the impact on a hundred thousand villages like his own and helps us understand the Cultural Revolution:

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, and 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 for Jimo County’s 750,000 population. 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, only 1,500 people graduated from the only high school in Jimo County, and half went to college and never came back. 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 percent 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.

Mao told high school graduates they would have to work at least two years in a factory, the countryside, or the army to earn college admission. The gaokao college entrance exam was suspended, and students–selected by fellow workers and peasants–returned to serve their communities after graduation. With education reform underway, Mao turned to peasants’ health.

Tell the Ministry of Public Health that it only works for fifteen percent of the population, and that fifteen percent is mainly composed of urban gentlemen, while the broad masses of the peasants get no medical treatment: they don’t have any doctors, and they don’t have any 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 to benefit the cities exclusively, though five hundred million of us are peasants. Medical education must be reformed. It will be enough to give three years’ training to graduates from higher primary schools who can then study and raise their proficiency through practice. If such barefoot doctors are sent 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”.

The Rural Cooperative Medical System trained Barefoot Doctors who lived in their own villages and were always available to administer vaccinations, teach nutrition and childcare, demonstrate correct handling of pesticides, and introduce new sanitation methods. They cut infant and maternal mortality by half, and urban doctors, now required to tour the countryside, provided free treatment and trained promising medics at local hospitals. By the end of 1976, every village had a clinic, newborn survival soared, and the death rate had fallen by eighteen percent.

Mao turned next to democracy, “For democracy to work for everyone’s benefit, everyone must be empowered. There can be no privileged class”. He encouraged criticism of the elite through “big-character posters” and instructed villagers in political activism through the Little Red Book.

  • 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. It also applies to relations with people outside the PartyParty. 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 do but also with those who have different opinions.
  • Guard against arrogance. For anyone in a leading position, this is a matter of principle and an essential 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 our people’s political life, how should right be distinguished from wrong in one’s words and actions? Based on 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; they should help to consolidate, not undermine or weaken, the people’s democratic dictatorship; they should help to consolidate, and not undermine or weaken, democratic centralism; they 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.

Shocking fellow officials, Mao encouraged peasants to elect village leaders who would work in the fields for three-hundred days a year. County officials would labor for two-hundred days, live in ordinary houses, send their children to rural schools, bicycle to work, and ‘make revolution’ when the day’s work was done.

To dramatize rural empowerment, he appointed Chen Yonggui, a peasant with a keen sense of political theater, Minister of Agriculture. Chen wore his field clothes when he greeted American plant geneticist and father of the Green Revolution; Sterling Wortman, who led a delegation on a tour of inspection, “The rice crop is 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”. Nobel agronomist Norman Borlaug agreed, “You had to look hard to find a bad field. Everything was green and nice everywhere we traveled. I felt the progress had been much more remarkable than I expected”. Wortman’s Green Revolution was then crushing Third World grain prices, destroying millions of small farms, ruining farming communities, and creating vast shantytowns of rural immigrants that persist to this day.

To save capital and create local jobs, teams of peasants, workers, and technicians built thousands of local fertilizer plants and farm machinery factories where peasants learned industrial skills without leaving their communities. Says Nicholas Lardy, “Socialism eliminates the barrier of private ownership. Innovations and knowledge become social property. One task of the planning system in China was to socialize such knowledge”.

Industrial output rose fifty-eight percent, outpacing Germany’s thirty-three percent and Japan’s forty-four percent growth during their takeoffs. Social morality, damaged by a century of war, improved sharply. Rural participation in the arts rose. Short stories, poetry, paintings and sculpture, music, and dance flowered. In place of old court dramas, revolutionary works in opera and ballet—some now in the international canon—emphasized workers’ and peasants’ resistance to oppression. Mobo Gao describes their impact,

For the first time, the rural villagers organized theater troupes and put on performances that incorporated the contents and structure of the eight model Peking operas with local language and music. The villagers entertained themselves and 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. They gave them a sense of discipline and organization, creating 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.Cultural Revolution Death Rates

Throughout the ten years of revolutionary upheaval, Mao drove inequality to the lowest level ever recorded and kept the economy growing more than six percent annually–twice America’s rate. He mechanized agriculture with a twenty-fold increase in tractors; a thirty-five-fold increase in diesel engines; a sixteen-fold increase in electric motors; a seven-fold increase in mills; a fifty-fold increase in grinders, and a thirteen-fold increase in sprayers.

By the end, rural literacy was taken for granted and rural people, no longer ‘peasants,’ were as intolerant of oppression and corruption, as vocal about their priorities, as enthusiastic about voting, and as eager to voice complaints as their urban cousins. For the first time in history, they were full citizens who could point to the infrastructure they built, the agricultural advances they had made, and the problems they had solved.

Yet, though hundreds of millions of rural people benefited from the Cultural Revolution, many urbanites felt that, by destroying the hierarchy, Mao had destroyed the culture itself–a charge that resonated with elites worldwide. Many fled abroad and published semi-fictional books about their sufferings. Officials had struggled to maintain their sanity amid an administrative nightmare, others were subjected to public humiliation or years in prison while some, crushed by criticisms they could not comprehend, committed suicide. Few forgave Mao.

His successors, exhausted by luan, humiliation, and persecution, sought to discredit him and his revolution. Their revenge was swift, says Mobo Gao:

Soon after Mao died, his vision of educating workers, peasants, and soldiers to be new leaders of the socialist society was denounced. The new ‘reformers’ charged that workers, peasants, and soldier-students were not suited for college education and lacked the cultural background to become educated and charged that China had wasted ten precious years by not educating its brightest. In 1977, the college entrance examination was reinstated, and the Education Reform instituted during the Cultural Revolution was repudiated and abandoned. By 1980, the worker, peasant, and soldier university study program disappeared. Like all other newborn things in the Cultural Revolution, they vanished from China’s red earth like falling stars. However, even though the education revolution was defeated, its glory continues to shine–just like the Paris Commune. The education revolution was a successful attempt by workers, peasants, and soldiers to occupy the sphere of ideology. It was an unprecedented milestone in human development on the long road to human emancipation.

Deng Xiaoping, the scion of an elite family, dissolved the communes, clinics, and schools and, despite fierce resistance, forced peasants back to small producers’ status. His Reform and Opening, says Orville Schell, “Rammed Chinese society into reverse gear, stampeding the country into a form of unregulated capitalism that made the US and Europe seem almost socialist by comparison”. A new generation of illiterate peasants, particularly women, emerged. Life expectancy fell as poverty, prostitution, drug trafficking and addiction, the sale of women and children, petty crime, organized crime, official corruption, pollution, racketeering, and profiteering returned.

By 1983, peasants unable to afford their children’s tuition or medical care, teenagers who were forced out of school, and farmers who could not afford privately manufactured fertilizer created a severe crime wave. Deng executed thousands and crushed all signs of dissent and, seven years later, in a hugely popular film, The Herdsman, a poor herder talks with an intellectual who had been a herder in Mao’s time and later became a teacher, “You were one of us once; now us folk are all done for”. Says Dongping Han,

The Chinese government’s official evaluation of the Cultural Revolution serves to underline the idea, currently very much in vogue worldwide, that efforts to achieve development and efforts to attain social equality are contradictory. The remarkable currency of this idea in China and internationally is due, at least in part, to the fact that such a view is so convenient to those threatened by efforts to attain social equality. This study of the history of Jimo County has challenged this idea. During the Cultural Revolution decade and in the two decades of market reform that followed, Jimo has experienced alternative paths, both of which have led to rural development. The difference in the paths was not between development and stagnation but rather between different kinds of development. The main conclusion I hope readers will draw from the experience of Jimo County during the Cultural Revolution decade is that measures to empower and educate people at the bottom of society can also serve the goal of economic development. It is not necessary to choose between pursuing social equality and pursuing economic development. The real choice is whether or not to pursue social equality.

Understanding the Cultural Revolution: Like all revolutions, the Cultural Revolution brought mixed blessings. For every tale of outrage, imprisonment, or suicide, there are a million from peasants who, despite government campaigns against ‘Cultural Revolution nostalgia,’ reunite each year to celebrate their emancipation. Mao had no doubts. Shortly before his death, someone asked about his proudest achievements, and Mao answered, “Winning the war, of course, and the Cultural Revolution”.

If we attribute excess deaths to Mao, we must also credit him with a billion excess lives and a nation transformed. When he stepped down in 1974, he had reunited, reimagined, reformed, and revitalized the largest, oldest civilization on earth, modernized it after a century of failed modernizations, and ended millennia of famine. Under the West’s crushing, twenty-five-year embargo on food, finance, technology, and medical and agricultural equipment, and its exclusion of China from the family of nations, Mao worked a miracle. He banished invaders, bandits, and warlords; eliminated severe crime and drug addiction; doubled the population, life expectancy, and literacy; liberated its women and educated its girls; erased its disparities of wealth and land; built its infrastructure; grown its economy twice as fast as the West’s; led four revolutions and succeeded in three; produced jet aircraft, locomotives, oceangoing ships, ICBMs, hydrogen bombs, and satellites, and left the country debt-free.

Today, ninety-eight percent of Chinese admire Mao. His image, like St. Christopher’s, adorns taxis and stares down from the walls of offices, businesses, and restaurants, and upon Tiananmen Square. He destroyed the ancient myth of elite authority, altered China’s consciousness and the peasants’ destiny.

Today, despite official disapproval, ten million people visit his birthplace every year: more than all the people who visit all the world’s shrines.

Mao’s final thoughts on understanding the Cultural Revolution are fascinating: “Like a man, a political party has its childhood, a youth, manhood and old age. The Communist Party of China is no longer a child or a lad in his teens but has become an adult. When a man reaches old age, he will die, and the same holds true of a party..For the worWking class, the laboring people and the Communist Party the question is not one of being overthrown but of working hard to create the conditions in which classes, state power and political parties will die out very naturally and mankind enters the realm of Great Harmony, dàtóng.”

Read more about the Cultural Revolution

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