Confucius’s hometown of Qufu lies near the southern border of the present-day province of Shandong. Through the wars and rebellions of the nineteenth century, then through the invasions and revolutions of the first half of the twentieth, the august sage’s temple and tomb there remained unmolested, a reminder of the moral foundation on which all of China had stood so proudly and firmly for so long. Perhaps, mused the faithful, modern China would someday find its renewal in Confucius’s ancient precepts, as it had so many times before over the course of the nearly two and a half millennia since his death.

But it turned out that Mao Zedong’s own vision of national renewal would brook no rivals — not even one who had been dead for 2400 years. On November 15, 1966, hundreds of Red Guards — militant student agitators who had pledged to forward the cause of Mao’s version of communism by any and all means necessary — burst into Confucius’s holiest temple. They cut off the head of the statue of Confucius that stood in the inner sanctum. Then they cut open its belly, scooped out the ancient books and charms that were hidden inside, and threw the lot onto a bonfire. They desecrated his tomb as well, scattering the dust that was all that was left of him hither and yon. The Red Guards of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution thus became Confucius’s judge, jury, and executioner, just as they were becoming for countless other, living souls whom they saw as throwbacks to the China of the past.

The Cultural Revolution is an historical outlier in several ways. While it is certainly not uncommon for revolutions like the one China underwent in the late 1940s to pass through a reign of terror after an initial victory has been achieved, this one was unusually late in coming, fully seventeen years after Mao Zedong and his Communist Party first seized complete control of China. And it stands almost alone among even its most extreme ilk for the extent of its determination to uproot every last trace of traditional Chinese culture, root and branch, and throw it onto the bonfire. It is difficult to find any other instance in history of any single leader attempting to remake a society so comprehensively in such a short span of time. Adolf Hitler, for example, may have subverted and destroyed Germany’s fragile democracy in even less time, but he did so by appealing to age-old cultural currents that lived on in the body politic rather than by wiping the slate clean.

The details of the Cultural Revolution are as horrific as they are farcical; it was a seething, senseless cauldron of suffering and absurdity, a national nightmare that no one in China today cares — or perhaps dares — to examine too closely. And yet in some senses the Cultural Revolution really did accomplish its mission. Call it the brutal clearing of the underbrush that was necessary to erect the edifice of the modern, highly bureaucratic, industrialized state that we know today. Or call it, as does historian Richard Curt Kraus, the “final push in a century-long trajectory of Chinese revolution, after which China got down to the serious business of building a modern nation.”

There are two paths we can follow to an understanding of how and why the Cultural Revolution came to take place: the philosophical and the proximate. Like so much in China between 1949 and 1976, both lead back directly to Mao Zedong. Let us take them one at a time.

By the early 1960s, Mao believed China to have gotten stuck on the road to true communism. The Great Leap Forward, which had been intended to make the country as communist in reality as it was in name, had been a catastrophic failure, as even he had to tacitly if not explicitly acknowledge. Clearly there was need for a Plan B. True communism could never take hold, he now decided, until the “Four Olds,” encompassing countless centuries of bourgeois, imperialistic, and feudalistic thought, had been utterly eradicated: Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas. As long as any trace of the Four Olds remained, the revolution would be incomplete. And it was important to finish the revolution sooner rather than later because Mao believed that it was up to China alone to set the example for the rest of the communist world; it was now clear to him that the Soviet Union had backslid hopelessly into accommodation and complacency, with institutions that focused more on perpetuating themselves than on continuing the march toward a worldwide dictatorship of the proletariat. When China exploded its first atomic bomb in 1964 — a remarkable if unnerving achievement for what was still a poor and backward country, and one it managed with very little help from the Soviets — the table seemed set for a newly muscular global posture. But before it could fully enact its new role on the world stage, it was necessary, judged Mao, for China to get its own communist house in order. “The thought, culture, and customs which brought China to where we found her must disappear,” Mao said, “and the thought, culture, and customs of proletarian China, which does not yet exist, must appear.”

But the Cultural Revolution was also, for all its sweep and scope, a personal lashing out by a single unscrupulous man in response to changing personal circumstances. For all of its radical rhetoric, it was a paradoxically reactionary development, a case of a rigid old warrior — Mao was 73 years old when the Cultural Revolution began — who was no longer able to change with the times, and so decided to change the times to suit himself. Mao’s standing in the government had been badly weakened by the failure of the Great Leap Forward. The exhalation of the body politic that followed that tragic inhalation was marked by a more moderate breed of bureaucrat, exemplified by Zhou Enlai and the new Party Secretary Deng Xiaoping, who succeeded in wresting some if not all of his dictatorial power away from him; Mao grumbled that Deng treated him like the corpse at a funeral, paying deference to his past achievements but ignoring him in the here and now. The old campaigner was a wartime leader who struggled to cope with the more plebeian, less existential, but for all that no less pressing demands of running a nation at peace. Strange as the comparison may sound, I cannot help but think of Winston Churchill, the prime minister who shepherded Britain through the cataclysm of the Second World War, only to be packed off to an enforced retirement by his grateful citizenry as soon as the war was over and talk turned from battles and invasions to the social safety net and national healthcare. The difference is that the people of China didn’t have the ability to vote Mao out of office; he just hung around, brooding and scheming. The solution to his dilemma, when he arrived at it, was brilliant in its simplicity: as a leader who thrived far better in war rather than in peace, he would turn China’s current domestic politics into a form of war. Needless to say, doing so would involve a hefty amount of score settling.

Beginning as early as 1962, Mao assembled an inner circle of fellow travelers who were dissatisfied with the progress of Chinese communism and/or the role to which it had relegated them. Four of the five most prominent names would go down in history as the Gang of Four: Jiang Qing, a former actress who had become Mao’s fourth (and final) wife in 1938; Zhang Chungqiao, a radical writer; Yao Wenyuan, a literary critic; and Wang Hongwen, a labor activist. But it was the fifth name who became Mao’s most essential ally: Lin Biao, a veteran general who as minister of defense controlled the Chinese military, having replaced the unfortunate Peng Dehuai in that role back in 1959, after the latter had made the mistake of speaking truth to power.

Even as the more moderate wing of the Party continued with business as usual in the country, these allies and others polished Chairman Mao’s cult of personality. In January of 1964, they published the first edition of Mao’s Little Red Book, which condensed his political philosophy down into a thin volume small enough to carry around in a shirt pocket and straightforward enough to be read and understood by schoolchildren — which it would be, by hundreds of millions of them in the course of time. If Confucius had been old China’s nearest equivalent to Jesus Christ, The Little Red Book was the new China’s Bible, with Mao standing front and center as its semi-divine savior and “Mao Zedong Thought” the nation’s guiding light.

Having moved the necessary pieces into place almost unnoticed by the Party leaders around him, Mao fired the first real shot of the Cultural Revolution on June 1, 1966, via an editorial written by a flunky named Chen Boda for The People’s Daily. Entitled “Sweep Away All Monsters and Demons,” it warned of “reactionaries” at every level of society who were trying to “deceive, fool, and benumb the working people in order to consolidate their power.” These enemies of the people were “bourgeois specialists,” “scholarly authorities,” and “venerable masters.” China’s next, spastic inhalation had begun.

With Lin Biao and his People’s Liberation Army on its side, the Cultural Revolution was unstoppable. Over the course of the next two years, Mao picked up the nation bodily and gave it a good shaking. The chairman had always held a peasant’s antipathy for intellectuals, specialists, and anyone else who put on airs, as he saw it. He therefore ordered much of China’s urban elite to go to the countryside and atone for the sins of their class through hard labor.

Given that the objective was to destroy China’s traditional culture in order to make room for a new one, it made sense to mobilize in the service of the cause those who had had the least amount of time to absorb the old ways. Thus Mao made the sword of the Cultural Revolution the Red Guards, made up of university students and other discontented youths who were suddenly empowered to pass judgment on their elders. (The fact that this was a direct inversion of Confucian ethics surely wasn’t lost on the chairman.) And once they had judged, the Red Guards were empowered to punish as they saw fit, all the while spouting quotations from the copies of The Little Red Book that accompanied them at all times. It was a heady wine indeed for the young, this chance to strike down all of the authority figures in their lives, excepting only Mao, Biao, and the Gang of Four themselves. “I felt the same kind of excitement I had felt playing spying games in primary school,” admitted one Red Guard later.

The Red Guards rally on Tienanmen Square, each with a copy of The Little Red Book. (Public Domain)

On August 18, 1966, more than a million Red Guards held a mass rally in Beijing’s Tienanmen Square. Then they fanned out across the country, recruiting ever more young people into their ranks as they went; in many places, children whose ages were still in the single digits joined up, often condemning their parents in the process. Libraries went up in flames everywhere, along with monuments and other buildings from the imperial times, private shops of all descriptions, and most of the country’s few remaining Christian churches. The Red Guards broke into private homes and ransacked them for impediments to correct thinking: wrong books, wrong art, wrong fashions, or any tokens of Confucianism, Taoism, or Buddhism. They took any money or valuables they found away with them too, in order to relieve the owners of these bourgeois burdens on their consciences. As they left, they invariably adjured the residents to set up a shrine to Chairman Mao in the center of the house, hinting that they would soon return to satisfy themselves that this had been done.

The following manifesto appeared at one university campus. It conveys something of the flavor of the time.

Revolution is rebellion, and rebellion is the soul of Mao Zedong Thought. Daring to think, to speak, to act, to break through, and to make revolution — in a word, daring to rebel — is the most fundamental and most precious quality of proletarian revolutions. Not to rebel is revisionism, pure and simple. Revisionism has been in control of our school for seventeen years. If today we do not rise up in rebellion, when will we?

Now some of the people who were boldly opposing our rebellion have suddenly turned shy and coy, and have taken to incessant murmuring that we are too one-sided, too arrogant, too crude, and that we are going too far. All this is utter nonsense. If you are against us, please say so. Why be shy about it? Since we are bent on rebelling, the matter is no longer in your hands. Indeed, we shall make the air thick with the pungent smell of gunpowder. All this talk about being “humane” and “all-sided” — let’s have an end to it!

You say we are too one-sided? What kind of all-sidedness is it that suits you? It looks to us like eclecticism.

You say we are too arrogant? Arrogant is just what we want to be. Chairman Mao says, “And those in high positions we count as no more than dust.” We are bent on striking down not only the reactionaries in our school, but the reactionaries all over the world. Revolutionaries take it as their task to transform the world.

You say we are too crude? Crude is just what we want to be. To be moderate toward the enemy is to be cruel to the revolution.

You say we are going too far? Your “don’t go too far” is reformism, it is “peaceful transition.” Well, we are going to strike you down to the earth and keep you down!

You sticklers for convention, you toadies are all curled up inside your revisionist shells. At the first whiff of rebellion, you become scared and nervous. A revolutionary is a monkey king whose golden rod is might, whose supernatural powers are far-reaching, and whose magic is omnipresent, specifically because he has the great and invincible thought of Mao Zedong. We [will] turn the old world upside down, smash it to pieces, create chaos, and make a tremendous mess — the bigger the better! We are bent on creating a tremendous proletarian uproar, and on carving out a new proletarian world! Long live the revolutionary rebel spirit of the proletariat!

A newspaper report from the city of Nanning tells how Red Guards there

took to the streets to post revolutionary leaflets and carry out oral propaganda. Using Mao Zedong Thought as a weapon, they violently attacked all Old Ideas, Old Culture, Old Customs, and Old Habits. They demanded that Nanning be built into a great school of Mao Zedong Thought. With revolutionary pride, they sang, “Sweep and break. Raise the iron broom of the revolution to sweep away the vestiges of feudalism, uproot the bourgeois ideology, hold aloft the red banner of Mao Zedong Thought, destroy a lot and build a lot, and construct a new country.” The masses around them sang with them.

These Red Guards proposed to change the names of streets, places, and stores into new names with revolutionary content. They proposed getting rid of all poisonous things in barber shops, tailor shops, and book-lending shops immediately. They were received warmly by the workers and employees, who were determined to respond to their revolutionary proposals.

The workers of the Handicraft Product Center of Nanning said, “We have long wanted to discard artistic products decorated with emperors, kings, generals, prime ministers, scholars, and beauties. Now that you have come to support us, we’ll take immediate action.” They tucked away the carved standing screens and hanging screens and hung more portraits of Chairman Mao in the shop.

The workers of the New South Barber Shop, at the suggestion of the Red Guards, took down the pictures showing decadent bourgeois hairstyles such as “wave type” and “big Western style” and indicated that they would in the future refuse to do such bizarre hairstyles for their clients.

Of course, not all of the people were as eager to give up their markers of individuality as this propaganda article would imply. The Red Guards dealt with the recalcitrant through arson, desecration, public humiliation, beatings, torture, and in some cases impromptu executions, all with the impunity granted by the official sanction of the People’s Liberation Army, the ultimate arbitrator in China. There are credible reports of cannibalism, of Red Guards feasting on the hearts and livers of “class enemies.” Even the highest ranks of the Party were not immune to the waves of fear that swept the country. Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping followed Mao around “like faithful dogs,” in the words of one observer. They were fortunate enough to survive; thousands of others did not, as Mao took advantage of his freshly won-back authority to purge anyone whose loyalty to him personally was remotely in doubt. Almost 70 percent of the Party’s existing leadership in 1966 would end up losing their careers — and in some cases their freedom or their lives — to the Cultural Revolution.

China became a nation of bullies and their victims. The pejoratives the former threw around with such abandon — “imperialist,” “revisionist,” “feudalist,” “decadent” — lost any tethering to coherent ideology. The people who were branded thusly, and suffered so terribly for it, were simply those whom the bullies of the Red Guards — protected by China’s bully-in-chief, Chairman Mao — decided at any given instant to make their victims. Communism was no longer seriously discussed as a way of righting wrongs, correcting social ills, or placing people on a more equitable footing. Amidst this national frenzy, it became nothing more than a verbal club with which to beat those one resented, employed often as a prelude to a physical one. It was Lord of the Flies on an impossibly massive scale, almost one-quarter of the world’s population at the mercy of roving gangs of vengeful teenagers who were guided by raging hormones, pet peeves, youth’s eternal impatience with ethical nuance, and of course the copies of The Little Red Book in their pockets.

Looming over all of this chaos was the pleasantly plump, incongruously jolly-looking visage of Mao Zedong himself. One of the few commercial trades that was safe to practice at the height of the Cultural Revolution was the production and sale of Mao memorabilia: badges, armbands, caps, posters, portraits, shrines, busts, statues. Chinese children collected Mao badges the way American children collected baseball cards. Farms, offices, factories, and schools began each day with a reading from The Little Red Book, and educational curricula were revised to require that students memorize all 270 of its pages in the same way that they had once memorized the Confucian classics. In lieu of imperialist pop music, radio and television blared a jaunty song called “Beloved Chairman Mao,” which had a prescribed dance to accompany it.

A typical Cultural Revolution propaganda poster, showing Mao as the true heir to Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin, and Joseph Stalin. Notably absent are the visages of Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev, betrayers of the communist cause. (Buster & Bubby)

Even Edgar Snow, who had played no small role in creating the cult of Mao, was a little taken aback by it when he visited the country to mark the 30th anniversary of the publication of Red Star Over China:

Great portraits of him hung in the street, busts were in every chamber, his books and photographs were everywhere on display to the exclusion of others. In the four-hour revolutionary pageant of song and dance, The East Is Red, Mao was the only hero. As a climax to that performance, I saw a portrait copied from a photograph taken by myself in 1936, blown up to about 30 feet [9 meters] high. It gave me a mixed feeling of pride of craftsmanship and uneasy recollection of similar extravaganzas of [the] worship of Joseph Stalin seen during [the] wartime years in Russia.

“It struck me as absurd,” mused one Chinese citizen later. “Most of us felt that way, as I was to discover after the Cultural Revolution. At the time, however, no one in their right mind would dare say so openly, let alone discuss it.”

Still, there was definitely no shortage of true believers in Mao the savior, both inside and outside of China. One of the more bizarre aspects of the Cultural Revolution is the way that it made Mao Zedong, this portly Chinese despot with no fashion sense, bad teeth, and a contempt for any form of culture that didn’t serve to glorify himself or vilify his enemies, into an international youth icon on a par with John Lennon or Mick Jagger. Admittedly, there were some parallels between what was going on in the West and what was going on in China. “Red Guard participation was a political act,” writes Richard Curt Kraus, “but it was also a form of teen rebellion, opening possibilities for experiences that would otherwise have been forbidden.” When the Cultural Revolution was at its peak in China, the hippie generation in the West were engaging in their own titanic clashes with the authority figures in their lives. What better way to break with their parents’ values than by embracing those of Mao, the sworn enemy of capitalism and all of the other inequitable “-isms” of daily life in North America and Western Europe? Chairman Mao badges sold almost as well in the trendy boutiques of London, New York, and Los Angeles as they did in the less colorful surroundings of Beijing, Shanghai, and Nanjing.

But to dismiss the embrace of Maoism among Western youth as nothing more than a case of privileged teenagers acting out would be to do a grave disservice to its most serious adherents, sorely misguided though they were in this author’s opinion. Many black leaders in the United States, worn out by the century of injustice that had followed their race’s alleged emancipation at the end of the American Civil War, found Mao’s rhetoric about absolute equality as appealing as they did his call to tear down and remake decrepit social institutions on a newer, better model. Likewise, many young men of all races preferred to join Mao’s movement and go underground than to be shipped off to fight and quite possibly die in Vietnam; whereas the purpose of that war was clear as mud to them, the cause of Mao was clear as crystal. Some of these people became full-fledged terrorists. Most, however, can be accused mainly of naïveté. Disgusted with the domestic political establishment as they were, they were looking for an alternative. The Soviet Union had turned into a gray, bland place under the leadership of the equally gray and bland Leonid Brezhnev, who had replaced Nikita Khrushchev in 1964; it was no longer capable of inspiring anyone. China, though… China was another story.

Although he shared no language nor much of anything else in the way of touchstones with Western youth, Mao’s instincts for effective propaganda remained as unrivaled as they had been back when Edgar Snow had come to visit him in Yan’an. The Little Red Book was translated into dozens of languages and given away for free all over the world, until it surpassed even the likes of the Bible and the Koran to become the most oft-printed single book of the second half of the twentieth century. The Party nurtured a globe-spanning network of radical cells, political parties, and bookshops, instilling them all with a carefully sanitized view of the top-to-bottom societal remaking that was happening in China and the unparalleled wisdom and benevolence of the leader who was making it happen.

Religions and political causes — and, let’s face it, Maoism was a bit of both — can inspire a sense of belonging and shared purpose that is difficult for their adherents to find anywhere else. For some who were involved in the Western Maoist movement, all of the details of Mao Zedong’s many crimes against humanity that have come out since his death have been insufficient to overcome their lingering sense of having been soldiers in a worthy cause. A few years ago, while working on another project, I interviewed one Bob Stein, an American former Maoist. Although his history as a would-be revolutionary wasn’t the main topic at hand, I couldn’t resist asking him how he looked back on that stage of his life today. I was surprised by his rather milquetoast, prevaricating response.

I was a revolutionary. I am not a revolutionary anymore, but, although my ideology has shifted, it hasn’t changed. I think we’re still many, many years away from making a judgment about the Cultural Revolution. Anything that is that broad, that encompasses a billion people over a ten-year period, is going to have so many facets to it. I will go to my grave saying that, from one perspective, the Cultural Revolution was the high point of humanity at the point when it happened. We’d never seen a society that was so good for so many of its people. That doesn’t mean it was good for everybody; intellectuals in particular suffered if they were not onboard with what was happening. And intellectuals are the ones who tell the story. So, a lot of the stories are told by intellectuals who didn’t do well during the Cultural Revolution. It was a hard time in China for a lot of people — but I don’t fault the Chinese for trying. Whether they failed is not as interesting to me as whether they tried.

With some isolated exceptions, Western Maoists such as Stein were content merely to preach and look fondly toward revolution rather than try to enact it themselves with guns and bombs. Other parts of the world were not so fortunate. Training and indoctrination camps were set up in and around Beijing for the most promising and uncompromising foreign revolutionaries. Out of them sprang destabilizing guerrilla movements that touched much of the developing world, movements which are in some cases still very much alive to this day. Sometimes these have accomplished worthwhile goals, albeit often through extremely violent methods; the Maoist Josiah Tongogara, for example, ended white minority rule in Rhodesia. More frequently, though, they have resulted only in bloodbaths for their own sake; Pol Pot killed a quarter of the population of Cambodia after completing his training in China. Such atrocities are yet another part of Mao Zedong’s checkered legacy, although not one we can afford to examine in detail here.

Historians consider the era of the Chinese Cultural Revolution to span fully ten years, from 1966 until Mao’s death in 1976. That said, its most frenzied phase filled less than two. By early 1968, the various factions of Red Guards had started fighting even one another, to the extent that China was starting to resemble a nation in the throes of civil war. The daily life of the country was in danger of coming to a complete standstill. Arriving ships sailed away from China’s ports still fully laden when they found no one there willing and able to unload them, and Party functionaries began to murmur among themselves about the prospect of famine in the cities, what with the country’s transportation network being virtually paralyzed by the chaos. Some form of adult supervision was sorely needed.

So, Mao allowed Lin Biao to step in with his People’s Liberation Army and restore order. The brigades of Red Guards were disbanded as suddenly as they had been created. The urban universities from which they had come, however, were left closed. In a decree that must have struck many of the people the Red Guards had tormented as a most delicious dish of poetic justice, the students were ordered to stay in the countryside and work the land. In this way, they would be able to reform their own thinking and prove their worth to the communist cause, in some cases under the supervision of the very same people they had been lording it over just days earlier. Chalk it up as a valuable lesson for the youngsters, that life has its ups and downs, and the same people you mistreat on your way up are likely to be there waiting for you when you fall back down.

Lin Biao, no longer a young man, learned the same lesson in time. His complete personal control of the army and his high-handed way of employing it worried Mao at the same time that he benefited from it. Unable as he was to see domestic politics as anything other than another form of war, Mao was all too ready to listen to whispers from Biao’s enemies that the grizzled old general was plotting to assassinate him and grab his position for himself. Matters came to a very confused head in September of 1971, when Biao’s son was accused of setting a rather clumsy and easily thwarted coup attempt in motion. This accusation may or may not have been legitimate, and, if legitimate, the father may or may not have been aware of the conspiracy; the real facts of the case are presumably buried somewhere in the archives of the Chinese Communist Party, an organization not known for airing its dirty laundry. At any rate, Biao did hear that the state police were coming for him. He and his son attempted to flee to the Soviet Union in a plane with insufficient fuel and no navigator, radio operator, or copilot; it crashed over Mongolia, killing everyone aboard. Biao’s death was followed by a purge of the People’s Liberation Army, intended to eradicate all of his loyalists and to ensure that it would henceforward be answerable only to Chairman Mao. At 78 years old, and 50 years after he first had become a man of consequence in Chinese politics, Mao remained as malicious, ruthless, and guileful as ever. He still maintained his hold on power by keeping everyone else in China on a constant knife’s edge.

Nevertheless, another slow, careful exhalation had begun in China already with the dissolution of the Red Guards in 1968. At first, it was in many places so gradual as to be almost imperceptible. For example, the first universities didn’t reopen until 1970, and even for years after that their students’ educations were interrupted, arbitrarily and unpredictability, by trips back to the countryside to “eliminate the gap between mental and manual labor.” Still, this exhalation would continue for more than two decades, long past the death of Mao, gaining speed all the while. All of which is to say that the worst of the Cultural Revolution was over well before the death of Lin Biao.

The Cultural Revolution has rightly gone down in history as one of the two cruelest social experiments of an innately cruel man. And yet, loath as a believer in the ideals of the Western Enlightenment like myself is to admit it, it is different from the Great Leap Forward in that it wasn’t totally without practical benefits. It really did blow away the cobwebs of China’s lengthy past and lay the groundwork for the nation-state we know today. As the hysteria of those first two years ebbed away, it left space for other, more productive kinds of new thinking.

The competent and well-meaning Party cadres in the rural districts, who did exist, brought in modern techniques and technologies to complement rather than instantly replace the traditional farming methods of the peasants there. As a result, China’s agricultural output increased by 50 percent between 1966 and 1976, equaling and then exceeding the figures from before the Great Leap Forward. Similarly, modern medicine relaxed the grip of often ineffective folk medicine on the rural populace in particular. As a result, the average life expectancy increased from 45 to 62 years between 1966 and 1976. Compulsory primary-school education took root even as the universities were being uprooted, increasing the literate share of China’s population from 43 percent to 65 percent, with fully 90 percent of China’s teenagers able to read and write by the late 1970s. Even the universities arguably gained more than they lost from the Cultural Revolution in the long run, as their admissions criteria were shifted from a combination of family influence and rote-memorization skills to more holistic measurements of an applicant’s suitability.

Women too benefited, as the Party continued to insist to an often reluctant rural patriarchy that “women hold up half the sky.” Female participation in the workforce increased dramatically, with corresponding benefits to the economy.

The propaganda of the Cultural Revolution depicted Chinese women in a new light — as strong and capable as men. This at least was a most welcome form of progress. (Public Domain)

In fact, the Chinese economy grew steadily through the last eight years of the Cultural Revolution. Its average annual rate of growth over the period reckons out to a not-too-shabby 6.85 percent, enough to make it a considerably wealthier nation in 1976 than it was in 1966, if still a very poor one by Western standards. Useful public-works projects were by no means unknown; the first major bridge across the Yangtze River was completed in 1968, and a subway system was opened in Beijing in 1969.

Contradictions like these have made the Cultural Revolution a notoriously slippery subject for historians to get a handle on. Those in China have their scope of inquiry limited by their government, which is in no hurry to undermine its preferred version of modern Chinese history by engaging in a comprehensive reckoning with the period. Meanwhile Western historians, not to mention the general public, have limited access to sources along with their own political prejudices to blinker their vision. Mainstream Western readers in recent decades have tended to encounter the Cultural Revolution primarily in the form of “survivors'” memoirs, a few of which have topped the bestseller lists. Richard Curt Kraus describes their general arc:

Typically, a youth from a privileged family gets caught in a Maoist storm, but is rescued by a scholarship to a Western university. The trajectory moves from a life in a bleak China, which the young Chinese was too naïve to recognize as totalitarian. The passions of the Cultural Revolution explode, sometimes accompanied by self-discovery, followed by a flight (never so identified) to the West. These memoirs are often very informative, well-written, and beloved by many readers. Their very talented, hard-working, and ambitious writers skillfully achieve a difficult connection with Western audiences. But these memoirs subtly flatter Western readers’ sense of superiority as they oversimplify China.

Personally, I cling stubbornly to an opinion about the Cultural Revolution that doubtless reveals my own prejudices. I do not believe that such a brutal cultural defenestration and such a heartless trampling on individual rights are necessary to move a society toward a brighter future. Surely there are ways to respect a people’s heritage without keeping them mired in the past. Having said that much, I will leave the rest of the Cultural Revolution’s well-nigh infinite subtleties for others to wrestle with.

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(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)

One Comment for "Chapter 24: The Cultural Revolution"

  • morg

    Churchill is certainly not the least apt comparison one might make. If you think Mao a monster, which seems not an unfair reading (and I’m not about to argue that power doesn’t tend to make monsters of people, howsoever accrued), it’s comfortable company. The dead of the Bengal famine belong under Churchill’s account as much as the dead of the Great Leap Forward belong under Mao’s; and if Mao tackled the problem of reconciling past and future with all the delicacy of a wrecking crew Churchill as well remained, depending on how much credit you’re inclined to extend, a brutal enforcer or a willing enough figurehead for British imperialism and colonialism throughout his career. Which career didn’t in fact end in being packed off to retirement as soon as Hitler was safely dead — he got bounced into the opposition in 1945 but became PM again in the first half of the 50s and stayed in government until the mid-60s. And Mao’s policies considered en bloc are, as you mention, vindicated in a number of important ways beyond his successes as general and pop philosopher.

    Also funny to put these lines in reverse order:

    > Admittedly, there were some parallels between what was going on in the West and what was going on in China.
    > Chinese schoolchildren collected Mao badges the way American children collected baseball cards.

    _Our_ beloved childhood memorabilia vs _their_ tokens of indoctrinated hero-worship! Okay, baseball’s more interesting than enumerating the types of liberalism yet again, but it’s close.


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