After the disaster called the Great Leap Forward
(in which inept management led to 36 million Chinese to starve to death in the worst famine humanity has ever seen), people started to favour the "moderates" in the Chinese Communist Party. Led by Deng Xiaoping, they introduced economic reforms and became quite popular.
was not amused.
Mao was still respected and loved by the majority of Chinese people, but he felt that he didn't have enough power. Backed by the army, he started the Cultural Revolution (or the Great Proletarian Revolution, as it was called). He claimed this was because the 'revolution was becoming too remote'; in fact, he was scared of losing power and the emergence of a middle class. His wife Jiang Qing also wanted to destroy all traditional culture and replace it with socialist ideas.
In 1966, groups of students independently began to attack their teachers at schools across urban China, under the umbrella name of "Red Guards". Soon, they gained official encouragement from Mao, and consolidated. These were young people, often students, who put up posters and banners praising Mao. Soon, they all carried a book containing quotes from Mao, and originally intended for distribution to the People's Liberation Army, called the 'Thoughts of Chairman Mao' but much more famous as the Little Red Book, because of its colour. On 18 August 1966, more than a million Red Guards attended a mass rally in Tiananmen Square, where Mao called for an attack on the "Four Olds":
- Old culture
- Old thoughts
- Old habits
- Old customs
This could be taken as the start of the Cultural Revolution. What ensued could be charitably described as a clusterfuck of epic proportions.
The Red Guards started to attack (verbally and physically) teachers, intellectuals, civil servants, doctors and scientists, labeling them "counter-revolutionaries", "capitalist-roaders" or "reactionaries". They were forced to publicly confess to (false) crimes, and forced to recite from the Little Red Book. First confessions were never accepted. All forms of traditional Chinese culture, such as buildings, statues, antiques, plays and art, were ridiculed and sometimes destroyed. Museum custodians would splash black paint over paintings to save them, then years later meticulously remove the paint by hand to expose the painting (if you go to see stupa towers in Beijing today, you will notice that all of the carvings and frescoes close to the ground have been destroyed, only those out of reach have survived). The only forms of new media allowed were those which glorified the revolution. Schools were closed for two years, and factories organized their own bands of workers to hunt down counter-revolutionaries. All ranks in the PLA were abolished, and all of Mao's opponents were arrested. Infighting was common between Red Guards as rival groups tried to prove who was more loyal.
The Cultural Revolution was Mao's way of bypassing the structure of the Chinese Communist Party, instead speaking directly to the fanatical Red Guards. Many Communist officials were targeted, even if they had no real connections to the nationalist Guomindang (Kuomintang) or, in fact, did anything remotely criminal. Familial love was seen as contrary to the revolution; you were supposed to devote every waking hour to Mao and the Revolution. Married couples, if placed in different regions, were only allowed 12 "marriage leave" days a year
to visit each other. Communes were to be the main unit of organization, and communal dining was often the only way to eat. The Revolution was often used as an excuse to settle personal scores, drawing ironic parallels to the years of corrupt Chinese imperial rule.
The most striking feature of the Cultural Revolution was perhaps the Red Guards. In the beginning, these were mostly middle-schoolers (13 - 16) who were organized into revolutionary units and were given complete authority over adults
. You can guess how these kids would have reacted
. Not only were they given power, they believed they were carrying out Mao's wishes, and Mao was tantamount to a god in their minds. Thousands of young Chinese participated in violent denounciations and accusations
, which sometimes ended with the death by torture of the victim involved. Street fights between different factions of Red Guards was a common sight. The Red Guards often made pilgrimages to Beijing in an attempt to get a glimpse of Mao.
By 1969 the country was in complete chaos. Mao called the PLA in to restore order, resulting in violent clashes as the PLA actually continued the violence. The re-education program was one way Mao tried to get rid of the Red Guards. Young people (and political dissidents) were sent to the countryside to be re-educated by the peasants, leading to an entire generation deprived of school. Schools were closed down as they were regarded as "bourgeois", and actual academic intelligence was considered second to "political character" (i.e. how fanatical a Communist you were). The ideal student was meant to be a "soldier or a peasant"; the idea that a high school student might be a better university student wasn't entertained.
By 1971, Lin Biao, Mao's heir apparent, was killed in an air crash in Mongolia, allegedly trying to defect to the Soviet Union after a failed coup attempt. It remains a mystery to this day whether Lin really was
planning any such thing; if so it was one of the most incompetent coup plots of all time. While the official story goes unquestioned in China (at least publicly), among Western historians there are many other theories, including simply that Lin was framed for political reasons, or that his son Lin Liguo ineptly tried to manipulate his father into staging a coup.
The Cultural Revolution lasted until 1971, but art and culture remained under control of Mao's wife until 1976, when Mao died after which she and her three main lieutenants (The Gang of Four) were overthrown. Deng Xiaoping took over and reformed China, but the legacy of the Cultural Revolution remains. Even today, signs of the Revolution is not hard to find: smashed and vandalized historic buildings, giant slogans praising Mao dotting the countryside, etc. Official sources places the death toll of the Revolution at 50 000, although some estimates go as high as 1.5 million.
Note that the Cultural Revolution was not specifically a revolution in favor
of anything. It was a constant revolution against
whatever was troubling Mao — or, frankly, whoever was holding the guns at the time.