The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966–1971) was an attempt to replace China's traditional "feudal"-capitalist and foreign-"bourgeois"-capitalist cultures entirely with pure "Socialist" culture that would enable the creation of "Full Communism". This was done to forever eliminate the possibility of the country falling to Capitalism from within, preclude American-Capitalist or Soviet-Revisionist attempts to invade and restore the KMT or a different Socialist regime, and to restore the personal dictatorship of Mao Zedong. It was so ideologically "necessary" if one accepted Maoist tenets, and so traumatic in its implementation, that it completely discredited Maoist Socialism-as-a-pathway-to-full-Communism. This paved the way for a virtually-unquestioned restoration of a 'State Capitalist' Socialist political economy which accepted a permanent role for privately owned capital.
In 1959, Mao was basically forced to resign leadership as President of the PRC after the full scale of the disaster caused by the unfolding "Great Leap Forward" (1958–62) became apparent, though he retained Chairmanship of the Communist Party. In the 1958–60 period, total local-government control over all food supplies, a governmental hierarchy which rewarded favourable over accurate reporting, and gross bureaucratic incompetence led to about 35% of a total population of 500 million people dying of starvation-related diseases when they otherwise would not have, and perhaps another 20% dying when they would have anyway (old age, ordinary disease, accidents). The party and people started to favour the right-"Socialists" who accepted the permanent existence of (regulated, managed) Capitalism and existence of Capitalists, over the left-"Socialists" led by Mao who favoured the eventual total aufhebung (lit. 'transcendence') and elimination of capitalism. Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping led the rightist revival, the former as the new President of the PRC and the latter as an administrator and man with connections; they introduced economic reforms and became quite popular.
Mao was upset on principle, and about the loss of his personal power. As a Marxist-Leninist ideologue, he was not happy about China becoming de facto Fascist, nor about losing his ability to prevent that, nor about the loss of face and control.
Most Chinese people still loved and respected Mao, but he felt that the revolution had become far too "bureaucratic" and "distant" from The People. While Mao didn't have a definitive vision of what exactly the Chinese state and Chinese society should be, he was very clear that it should be nothing like the Soviet Union's government and society, which he saw as being choked by bureaucracy and plagued by a lack of popular 'democratic' participation. Backed by the army, he started the Cultural Revolution (or the Great Proletarian Revolution, as it was called) to combat "bureaucracy" and "statism", de facto favouring a model of government in which China would not be governed by committee as a single entity — but instead, as a series of many hundreds or even thousands of independent entities (counties) working towards the similar (but mutually contradictory) goals of "strength" and "prosperity". His wife Jiang Qing also wanted to destroy all feudal and capitalist (traditional and foreign-bourgeois) culture and replace it with socialist ideas. Only by eliminating every vestige of Capitalism and its profit-seeking, exploitative narratives from society could China be inoculated against Capitalist restoration even if it were to be re-imposed by outside force.
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 teachers, intellectuals, civil servants, doctors, and scientists verbally and physically, 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 historical architecture 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 that 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 opponents of Mao 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 mutually-entwined Chinese Federal Government and Chinese Communist Party, instead speaking directly to the fanatical Red Guards. Characteristic of this approach was his removal of Liu Shaoqi from the Presidency, never replacing him with anyone else until the office was abolished in 1975. Many government and party officials like Liu were targeted because of their potential to betray the revolution as a result of their ideological leanings, rather than any actual wrongdoing in conspiring with the Soviets, or the Americans, or the nationalist Guomindang (Kuomintang), or engaging in corruption, or doing anything else remotely criminal.
Familial love was considered a threat to the social bonds of Socialist fraternity, though concessions were made to the reality of the situation in that they effectively conceded a 'phasing-out' period in which familial and romantic love would be replaced by something nobler and more wholesome. 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 (thirteen to sixteen years old) 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 denunciations 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 nominally lasted until 1971, but the economic stagnation continued with the continued division of the country into Counties and Communes, and cultural stagnancy was continually re-enforced by Mao's wife. This persevered until 1976, when Mao died. Jiang Qing and her three main lieutenants (Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan, and Wang Hongwen — who, together with Jiang, became known as the Gang of Four) were overthrown by the intrigue of Deng Xiaoping, who took power from the shadows and reestablished capitalism. The physical legacy of the Cultural Revolution remains. Even today, signs of the Revolution are 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. On a cultural and social level, China managed to actively destroy its own heritage and the lasting damage is simply impossible to account for. The education gap created by the revolution is haunting China to this day, half a century later. Once people were allowed to return home from the rural hinterland in the 1980s, the divorce rate skyrocketed - during re-education, many married locally with random partners just to gain some form of stability in the hard times. Things that were once commonplace and part of day-to-day life, like teahouses or Peking Opera, virtually disappeared or the remnants had to be put under governmental patronage to survive at all.
The social and mental scars are astonishingly evident, as it is one of extremely few events in the post-1949 history of Mainland China to be openly admitted by the official Communist Party historians to have been a terrible mistake. Its negative portrayal is fairly common, with little to no government censorship meddling with it. By comparison, even implying that the Great Leap Forward was anything other than an unfortunate and unavoidable series of natural disasters can seriously affect your chances of getting promoted within state-owned media — let alone the Government or Party. It's thus hardly surprising that a Cultural Revolution setting is a handy one for those who wish to convey some less than subtle Take That! at the Communist Party without formally crossing any lines.
Note that as far as we know, there was no real plan or structure or even coherent vision for the Cultural Revolution as a whole. Mao was a visionary, not a bureaucrat, and so it appears to have been entirely improvised at virtually every level. Even before 1966, Mao's supporters had conceded that he was no bureaucrat; after 1976, his remaining supporters could not defend even his vision as being anything but inhuman and unattainable. The problem had clearly not just been Mao's administrative competence, as in the Great Leap Forward, but his wisdom as a philosopher. This delivered the contest of ideas into the hands of Deng Xiaoping and, posthumously, Liu Shaoqi (died under suspicious circumstances, aged 71, in 1969).