Did communism destroy traditional Chinese culture?

Cultural revolution in seven questions

What was the core of the Cultural Revolution about?

The Cultural Revolution was a political campaign initiated by party leader Mao Zedong in 1966 to create the "New Man". The "New Man" should be that "selfless community in a society free of domination that has always been inspired by human utopias," says China expert Oskar Weggel. To achieve this goal, Mao called for the "four relics" to be destroyed. This meant: old thoughts, old culture, old customs and old habits. The Mao Zedong ideas should take their place.

Mao also called for the neutralization of so-called counter-revolutionary and revisionist elements within the party, embodied in his political opponent Liu Shaoqi, who had replaced Mao as chairman of the People's Republic of China a few years earlier. In this respect, the Cultural Revolution was also a power struggle within the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.

Liu relied more economically on market forces (like Deng Xiaoping later) and politically on party discipline. For Mao, however, incentives to enrich themselves were the work of the devil. For him, party functionaries also belonged to the "new exploiting class". Accordingly, he saw the permanent class struggle alone as the vehicle of social progress.

President Liu Shaoqi received music students before Mao toppled him in the course of the Cultural Revolution

How did the Cultural Revolution have anything to do with culture?

Mao had lost a significant part of his power in the early 1960s and left Beijing, the center of power, to exert his influence from Shanghai. He could not directly attack the Central Committee that Liu Shaoqi and his allies dominated. All that remained was an indirect attack on the peasants, the workers, or the schoolchildren and students. The "Great Leap Forward" (1958-1961) had shown that radical reforms in the agricultural and industrial sectors had catastrophic consequences, killing millions. The only attack left was culture, especially literature and newspapers.

After Mao and his allies had successfully launched propagandistic texts in advance, the decisive blow against the Liu faction took place at the "expanded meeting of the Politburo" in May 1966. Mao succeeded in excluding a large part of Liu's supporters from the inner circle of power . Then he declared the fight against "revisionists" in the ranks of the party, government, army and in the cultural sector. In August 1966, Mao sidelined his political opponents. The great chairman returned to Beijing.

How did the Cultural Revolution go?

The Cultural Revolution lasted from 1966 to 1976.

The beginning was formed by the uprising of the schoolchildren and students who joined together to form the so-called Red Guards in order to take to the field against the "four relics". Specifically, it was mainly about teachers and professors who were forced to "confess". Teachers' homes were devastated, temples, pagodas and libraries destroyed. It is not uncommon for alleged revisionists to end up in front of the firing squad. Workers and large parts of the urban population soon joined the revolution. It was now increasingly against the local party apparatus.

The country soon fell into chaos. Well over half of all Politburo, Central Committee and provincial secretaries lost their posts in the first months of the Cultural Revolution. The system of government collapsed. Ultimately, bloody factional battles also broke out within the Red Guards, because each group was convinced that it represented the doctrine of salvation alone.

When the dynamic of the Cultural Revolution could no longer be controlled, Mao activated the People's Liberation Army under the leadership of his comrade Lin Biao. As a kind of state within a state, the army was largely spared from chaos. The military took control almost everywhere in the country by 1968. Red Guards who did not obey were sent to the countryside for re-education or were executed without further ado. The desired mass domination soon turned into military rule.

1969 began the restoration of the party apparatus. But the military under Lin Biao did not want to give up his position willingly. Lin Biao planned the murder of Mao with the infamous "Project 571". But the plan became known and Lin Biao's plane crashed over the Mongolian People's Republic under circumstances that have not yet been fully clarified.

Despite the party's restoration, it was not until 1976 that calm returned to China. The so-called "Gang of Four", to which Mao's wife belonged, tried to push through the radical line against the new strong men Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping.

They finally failed when Mao died on 9.9.1976. The chaos of the Cultural Revolution ended with the death of its initiator.

Mao and Lin Biao in the Great Hall of the People

What role did the "little red book" play?

The "Little Red Book" or the "Mao Bible" is actually entitled "Words of Chairman Mao". It is a compilation of texts, speeches and sayings of Mao Zedong that Lin Biao put together during the "Great Leap Forward". During the Cultural Revolution, every upright revolutionary should always carry a copy with him. The Red Guards were happy to greet each other with quotes from the book. To date, around a billion "Mao Bibles" have been published worldwide.

How did the Cultural Revolution fail?

From the beginning, the Cultural Revolution contained a contradiction that could not be resolved. Mao also wanted to be the top revolutionary who would tear down all hierarchies, but at the same time retain total control. When this contradiction broke out, among other things, in the factional struggles within the Red Guard Railway and all calls for discipline were unsuccessful, Mao deployed the military to restore order. The dream of the New Man has been buried. In its place came the "power of the gun barrels". Finally, a cadre party based on the Leninist model emerged again - with hierarchy and bureaucracy. Many opponents of Mao took power again after Mao's death. So did Deng Xiaoping, who led the country into a new era with economic reforms.

What were the consequences of the Cultural Revolution?

Today's estimates put 1.4 to 1.6 million Chinese people killed during the Cultural Revolution. Most of them were probably killed in the "cleansing campaigns" of the People's Liberation Army, which tried with all their might to restore order in the country.

The few positive effects of the Cultural Revolution include the introduction of an at least rudimentary health system in the countryside and school reforms for workers and peasants.

How is the Cultural Revolution officially seen in China today?

In 1981 Deng Xiaoping had the "Gang of Four" condemned in a show trial and described the Cultural Revolution as a "great catastrophe for the party and the people". The official party line says today that Mao was 30 percent wrong and 70 percent right. China has long left Mao's concept of permanent revolution behind. Today the party is strictly hierarchical, has a monopoly of power in the country and attaches the highest value to social stability.