Mao Zedong’s Great Cultural Revolution (wenhua da geming) convulsed the People’s Republic of China (PRC) for ten years, from 1966 to 1976. Although he declared the revolution to have ended in 1969, it is generally accepted that the struggles for control of the Communist Party apparatus, and the political and economic turmoil from 1969 until his death in 1976 were part of the revolution.
Though elements within the Party who opposed the Cultural Revolution gained the upper hand after Mao’s death and ended the ‘reforms’ he initiated, the negative effects of the movement continued to plague China for many years afterwards, and some of the effects linger till this day.
With the elevation of Hua Guofeng to the post of Party Chairman and the arrest of the Gang of Four in 1976, the Communist Party declared an official end to Mao’s Great Cultural Revolution. Hua, however, continued to promote Mao’s philosophy and thoughts and to invoke his name. The period from 1979 to 1980 was marked by a power struggle within the Party between Hua and traditionalists who favored the Soviet-style of economic planning, and reform-minded officials led by Deng Xiaoping who were not against adopting new economic models for China.
The Fifth Plenum of the Eleventh Communist Party of China Congress in 1980 saw the rehabilitation of Peng Zhen and others who had been purged during the Cultural Revolution. Hu Yaobang became Party General Secretary and Deng protg Zhao Ziyang became Premier. Deng became Chairman of the Central Military Commission. Hua resigned, completing the transition to a pragmatic, reformist leadership within the Party, and the beginning of China’s emergence as an economic powerhouse in Asia.
Despite the economic progress that the new leadership ushered in, other negative impacts of the Cultural Revolution continue to impact China down to the present day.
The excesses of the youthful Red Guards destroyed much of China’s traditional culture; including ancient buildings and artifacts, and millions of antiques, books and paintings. China’s education system was brought to a virtual standstill for 10 years, resulting in an entire generation of people with inferior education and inadequate skills to operate effectively in a market economy. Many of these people still hold key positions in provincial and city governments and in rural areas.
The impact on minority cultures was particularly acute. In Tibet, over 6,000 monasteries were destroyed. In Inner Mongolia, nearly 23,000 people were reportedly beaten to death, and several hundred thousand maimed. In the western province of Xinjiang, copies of the Koran and other Islamic books of the Muslim Uyghur people were destroyed, and Muslim imams were publicly humiliated. While relations with minorities in China were never what one would call good, the trauma of the Cultural Revolution was probably instrumental in radicalization of the Muslims, and contributed to China’s current problems with this minority group.
The Cultural Revolution also made the unthinkable acceptable – criticism of high-level officials, something that had previously been unheard of. Some scholars attribute the Tiananmen student protests in 1989 to the habits formed during the Cultural Revolution.
The Communist Party of China still prohibits critical, objective study of this period in China’s history. But, as China moves to greater prominence on the world stage, this is one aspect of its past that it will have to come to grips with.
Chan, Anita. Children of Mao: Personality Development and Political Activism in the Red Guard Generation. University of Washington Press, 1985
Chang, Tony H. (compiler). China During the Cultural Revolution, 1966-1976: A Selected Bibliography of English Language Works. Greenwood Press, 1999