Chinese Culture After the Cultural Revolution

Although China caught up economically rapidly after the Cultural Revolution, 10 years of stagnation in the Chinese society’s development left gaps in education and knowledge about Chinese history and culture that remain irretrievable.

The News Lens
Date: 2016/07/23
By: Angela Stanzel

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, initiated by Mao Zedong (毛澤東) as part of China’s social and political transformation in 1966, changed the cultural life in the country more than any other event since the assumption of power by the Communist Party. After previous failed campaigns, – the most prominent one being the “Great Leap Forward” – Mao saw the need to strengthen his position of power, believing that the Communist Party had become corrupt and compromised. Mao used culture as a political tool to rectify the Party and to make the system less elitist, but thereby he also irreversibly changed China’s culture.

The last of Mao’s ideological and revolutionary mass campaigns (1966-1976) was aimed at changing the country’s cultural values and to replace them according to his own thinking. Mao propagated that the country would have to get rid of the “Four Olds,” namely “old ideas, old customs, old culture, and old habits.” It was primarily an attack on China’s intellectual elite, in which Mao saw his most ardent critics. The revolution and destruction of the old China were carried out by a mass movement of students and even schoolchildren, encouraged and legitimated by Mao. This student movement was called the Red Guards, groups of militant students who were encouraged by Mao to attack all traditional values and to publicly criticize party officials.

Teachers, officials, intellectuals, and cadres were persecuted, humiliated in public, beaten, and tortured. Universities and schools had to shut down; theaters and films were banned and books destroyed if they did not comply with official propaganda. The development of the society stagnated for around a decade, particularly in the fields of art, literature, science, research, and education. Allegedly up to 13 million Red Guards destroyed as much as they could, including numerous temples, and shrines. Old culture included also religious customs and the traditions of minorities, in particular in Tibet and Xinjiang. Over 6,000 monasteries were destroyed in Tibet and the Red Guards burned Koran writings and shut down Islamic sites in Xinjiang. The first and most destructive period of the Cultural Revolution ended in 1967-68 as political opposition towards the raging students increased in view of the turmoil in the country.

Industrial production, already weakened by the Great Leap Forward, continued to decline and so did China’s economy. Mao himself decided to dismantle the Red Guards and to re-organize the party and state institutions. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), led by defense minister Lin Biao (林彪) – and also Mao’s designated successor – was given authority to contain the Red Guards and to take the control over the country again. The second phase of the Cultural Revolution, from 1968 to 1971, was the time when the army was in charge, but the clashes between the PLA and the Red Guards almost escalated into civil war. Mao simultaneously issued a call for the “Down to the Countryside Movement” in which the army forced millions of urban Red Guards to move to the countryside, where they would cause less disruption.     [FULL  STORY]