The Chinese Cultural Revolution: Everything You Need To Know

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It has now been over 60 years since the dictator, Mao Zedong, took control of China and launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, widely known as the Cultural Revolution. His influence began the darkest and most politically tumultuous time in the country’s history. China suffered a terrible fate for the majority of Mao’s time in power, with the Great Chinese Famine leading to the death of an estimated 70 million people. 

We have investigated this era and compiled everything you need to know about this period of history and its continuing influence in the region. 

Who was Mao?

Mao Zedong
Mao Zedong in 1963.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Born in 1893, Mao was the leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from 1935 until his sudden death in 1976. Born in rural Hunan, Mao was born into a fairly affluent family but was nonetheless forced to work on a farm from the aged of 12. Revolting against these orders, Mao moved away and enlisted in a secondary school where he received his first introduction to communist ideology. 

Throughout Mao’s life, he married 4 women and is known to have had 10 children, although this number is estimated to be substantially higher considering the number of mistresses the ruler was said to have had. 

In his personal life, Mao battled with many health problems. Medical records explained that Mao had contracted parasitic sexually transmitted diseases throughout his life and refused medical treatment in every instance. Legend has it that Mao also believed that bathing was a ‘waste of time’ and would insist on using hot towels instead. The leader is also have said to have dealt with serious gum disease and tooth rot as he famously refused to brush his teeth and instead washed his mouth out with Chinese tea. 

Mao smoked excessively throughout his life and was known to have chain-smoked for most of the day. Mao famously insisted, ‘smoking is also a deep-breathing exercise, don’t you think?’. Any health issues that Mao faced were kept top secret even though it has since been discovered that lung and heart disease contributed to his death. 

Despite these health issues, Mao was always determined to portray himself as a strong, capable, and healthy leader. So much so that, at the age of 73, he embarked on swimming in the Yangtze River with photographs having documented the leader’s 15 mile swim that, according to the government, he completed in just over an hour. 

Throughout 1976, Mao suffered three heart attacks with the third eventually proving fatal. His body was embalmed, which was actually against his wishes to be cremated. You can view this in Mao’s mausoleum in Beijing, where his body lies in a glass box protected by armed guards. 

The Revolution’s Beginnings

Mao ‘officially’ launched the revolution during May 1966 with orders for his closest allies to purge the party and government of any enemies or those expressing any descent to the regime. This revolution kicked off an economic crash throughout China, plunging the country into years of widespread poverty, economic stagnation, and ultimately bloodshed. 

In August 1966, Mao ordered students to attack anyone that expressed bourgeois ideals that could be ‘impure’ or even just looked like they were a member of the upper class. In turn, gangs stormed the streets seeking out any intellectuals or liberals that could have disagreed with the party’s ideology. As a result of this encouraged mobilization, thousands of youths banded together to form the Red Guards, a paramilitary group.

Throughout the 1960s, Mao had grown increasingly discontented with the political landscape of China. He believed that China was moving very much in the same direction as the Soviet Union during this period, where not enough praise and recognition was given to having ‘ideological purity’. 

The Little Red Book 

Cover of the first edition of the English translation of the Little Redo Book titled "Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-Tung
First English edition copy of the Little Red Book.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

During the early days of the Cultural Revolution, Mao ordered for many books and academic papers to be destroyed if they supported sentiments that could be seen as disloyal to the regime. 

In turn, Mao decided to produce the famous, Little Red Book, in a bid to further the cult of personality that surrounded the leader. The Little Red Book was distributed throughout China with millions of copies published and included quotations and advice from Mao. 

Mao encouraged the population to engage in public and collective readings of the book. Famously, during the 1960s, readings even took place by air hostesses mid-flight. It is now estimated that Mao had a total of a billion copies of the book produced and there are still copies for sale today.

The ‘Sent Down’ Youth 

In 1968, Mao and his officials began sending young people from the cities to the country’s rural communities in order for them to ‘undergo re-education by the poor peasants’. This was following the chaos that ensued when Mao ordered the young people of China to take it upon themselves to purge any enemies of the state, known as the ‘red terror’. 

Mao explained in a speech from December 1968 that, ‘we must persuade [them] to send their sons and daughters who have graduated from school and university to the countryside. Let’s mobilize. The comrades in the countryside should welcome them’. It is now estimated that around 1 in 10 were sent to the countryside during this time, including China’s current president Xi Jinping. 

Lin Biao Vs. Mao

Lin Biao and Mao
Lin Biao with Mao Zedong in 1966.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Lin Biao had remained close to Mao throughout the beginning of the revolution and was even the minister that oversaw the distribution of the Little Red Book. In 1969, Mao agreed for Lin to be his successor and be given the authority to be in charge following Mao’s rule. 

Although, this affection was very short-lived. Soon enough, Mao and Lin had fallen out within the party and in, September 1971, Lin was killed in an airplane crash that raised significant suspicion throughout the party. In fact, Lin had actually boarded the plan in an effort to escape to the Soviet Union following his issues with Mao.

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