Chinese cultural revolution, Causes, Stages, Background And Effects

We explain what the Chinese Cultural Revolution was, its causes, stages and consequences. In addition, the power of Mao Zedong.

What was the Chinese Cultural Revolution?

It is known as the Chinese Cultural Revolution or the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution to a socio-political movement that occurred between 1966 and 1977 initiated by Mao Zedong , leader of the Chinese Communist Party. This sort of Revolution within Revolutionary China marked the future of Chinese society in a very significant way.

Its objective was to end the capitalist and traditional elements of Chinese society . For this, it consisted in imposing in its entirety the dominant ideological doctrine within the party, known as Maoism (since its author was Mao himself).

The logic of the Cultural Revolution was driven by the strong cult of the personality of Mao Zedong that broke out in Communist China at the time, which led to the purge of opposing communist leaders , accused of revisionists. As will be seen, it was a particularly violent period of contemporary Chinese history .

For example, violent gangs of youth known as the Red Guard were formed . These groups began throughout the country the persecution of all those who were accused of detractors, beating them, imprisoning them, humiliating them publicly, confiscating their property and sentencing them to forced labor, when not to simple execution.

The Cultural Revolution triumphed by force and implemented Maoist procedures throughout the country. In 1969 it was declared finished by Mao himself . However, many of his activities continued until the leader’s death in 1976. Then his most fervent followers were arrested, accused of crimes committed during the Cultural Revolution.

The latter were known as the “Band of the Four”: Mao’s own widow, Jian Qing, and her three collaborators: Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan and Wang Hongwen. Thereafter, a reformist government headed by Deng Xiaoping began the gradual dismantling of Maoist policies.


The Chinese Civil War (1927-1949) culminated in the victory of the communist side and the foundation of the People’s Republic of China, whose head was from the beginning the leader of the Chinese Communist Party, Mao Zedong. In the new regime, large estates were collectivized, industrialization and infrastructure modernization was promoted.

Consequently, the GNP increased interannually between 4 and 9%. However, in 1958 Mao proposed the Great Leap Forward , a rapid campaign of collectivization and industrialization of the countryside, combining various elements of the Soviet Union’s experience in a particular Chinese way.

This policy failed , due to the verticality of Chinese domestic politics and dynamics of Mao’s personality cult. The result was poor production and adulterated statistics so as not to admit unsolved problems.

However, an awful famine among the peasantry, which claimed around 30 million victims, according to some historians , was unquestionable . As a result, Mao lost the leadership of the State but continued to lead the party.

Causes of the Chinese Cultural Revolution

The main cause of the Cultural Revolution has to do with the internal struggles of the Chinese Communist Party , in which Mao Zedong was confronted by leaders such as Liu Shaoqui, Peng Dehuai and Deng Xiaoping. Both factions accused themselves of counterrevolutionary or sin of gentrification, and understood differently the fate of revolutionary China.

Since he was not resigned to losing power and his influence in the country, Mao began this fierce campaign of ideological reaffirmation , radicalizing young people already in the army, and summoning them to face anyone who departs from the most orthodox commandments of the Revolution.

In this process were key Lin Biao, defense minister faithful to Mao, and Mao’s own wife, Jiang Qing (a former actress), who employed the prestige of the revolutionary leader to face factions within the Communist Party and promote their own aspirations to power.

In 1966, the Central Committee of the party approved its “Decision on the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” (or “Sixteen points”), thus converting what was initially a student movement into a national campaign.


chinese cultural revolution communism mao red book
Mao’s Red Book spread the doctrine of the Cultural Revolution.

Broadly speaking, the Cultural Revolution took place in the following stages:

  • Mass mobilization (May-August 1966) . In its initial stage, the Cultural Revolution massively mobilized the students of the country, and then workers , military and officials, to the formation of Red Guards who persecuted and defeated the alleged bourgeois enemies that, infiltrated in the country, prevented him from The Revolution move towards its destiny. These ultrafanatized groups traveled throughout the country, financed by the State , recruiting members for their cause and organizing mass rallies, in which the abandonment of the old Chinese customs was encouraged and the figure of Mao Zedong was exalted. At the peak of the mobilization, traditional Chinese temples were destroyed, lootedlibraries and burned books, while youth marched with Mao’s Red Book under his arm.
  • The Red Terror (August 1966-January 1967) . By the end of 1966, the country was in chaos. The assaults and lynchings of the Red Guards had ceased to be guarded by the police under party instruction. Those who disrespected her were accused and punished of counterrevolutionaries. Some 1,772 people were murdered between August and September and in October Mao summoned a “Central Labor Conference”, where he managed to force the self-criticism of his allegedly reactionary and bourgeois opponents, thus completely eliminating his opposition in the party.
  • Mao’s return to power (January 1967-April 1969) . Without visible opponents, Mao summoned the army to restore order in the nation, during the first months of 1967. However, the Red Guards acted freely for another year. In April 1969, the IX Congress of the Communist Party of China was convened, where Mao’s authority as party leader and military leader was reaffirmed. His doctrine was adopted as the central ideology of the party and the nation. At the same time Lin Biao was appointed as his second in command and successor. The Cultural Revolution was officially over.

Effects of the Chinese Cultural Revolution

The main consequences of the Cultural Revolution were:

  • The return of Mao Zedong to power . Mao ruled China from the presidency of the party (but not that of the Republic, which was abolished in 1970 by Mao himself), until his death in 1976. His main detractors were arrested, and although Deng Xiaoping survived, working in a factory engines, Liu Shaoqi instead died in a detention camp in 1969, after being denied medical assistance.
  • The devastation of the Chinese elites . Unlike the Great Leap Forward, which devastated the peasantry and the most vulnerable sectors, the Cultural Revolution had as main victims the Chinese intellectuals and communist leaders opposed to Mao, generating a profound decline in education , which was limited to repetition of revolutionary slogans after the abolition of university entrance exams and redefinition of study programs. The same happened with most writers and intellectuals, accused of gentrification for having expressed interest in something other than Mao’s thinking.
  • A blow to traditional Chinese culture . Buddhism and Chinese traditions were violently rejected during the Cultural Revolution, and in assaults, looting and fires, temples, relics and much of the traditional Chinese cultural heritage were lost. This was an invaluable loss in cases like the great Confucian Purge of Qin Shi Huang. Of the 80 cultural heritage sites in Beijing, 30 were totally destroyed.
  • Persecution, public humiliation and executions . Millions of people were persecuted, harassed and humiliated publicly during the Cultural Revolution, and hundreds of thousands were executed, starved to death or put to work until fainting. Their assets were confiscated, their relatives persecuted, raped, tortured or forcibly displaced to the countryside. Estimates between the number of deaths during this period vary between several million and 400,000, a minimum figure that has been recognized. The truth may never be known in this regard, since many deaths were concealed by the authorities or lacked formal registration for the time.

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