What Happened in China's Cultural Reform?
China's leader Mao Zedong led his country into an ambitious program of cultural reform called the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.” Mao began his revolutionary reforms in 1966, and the Chinese Communist Party continued the program until 1976. The purpose of the Cultural Revolution was to strengthen the CCP and train Chinese society in its communist ideology.
1 Closure of Universities
In the autumn and winter of 1966, the CCP closed high schools and universities and students were sent off to work in the countryside. The purpose of this forced migration was to remove urban young people from the corrupting influence of the city and educate them on the revolutionary values of the peasantry. Mao thought it was important to keep the Chinese people in a permanent mode of revolutionary class struggle. The students were expected to alter the culture by destroying the “Four Olds” -- old customs, old culture, old habits and old thinking.
The schools gradually re-opened in the early 1970s, and university entrance exams were reinstated in 1973. Stanford University's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies estimates that a total of 16 million urban youth were sent off to work in the Chinese countryside during the Cultural Revolution.
2 Attacks on Cultural Leaders
Starting in the spring of 1966, CCP chairman Mao Zedong began attacking authors, scholars and ideological opponents within his own party. Mao enforced his repression of cultural leaders by using the Red Guards, a force of millions of young people who had been taken away from school to be “re-educated” in revolutionary communist values. Wu Han, a historian and deputy mayor of Beijing, was denounced for writing a play in 1960 that mocked Mao and his former defense minister, Peng Dehuai. After several years of public controversy about his play, Wu Han was jailed and died in prison in 1969.
3 Leadership Purges
As chairman of the CCP, Mao was the most powerful figure in China because he had the authority to remove people from the ruling party -- and driven by his ideological paranoia, he did so frequently. Mao believed there were hidden enemies of the communist revolution within the party who needed to be identified and removed. From 1966 to 1969, Mao purged many of the party's top leaders from their positions. He removed President Liu Shaoqi, whom he accused of being a secret capitalist, as well as many other leadership rivals, such as Peng Zhen and Lu Dingyi.
4 “Re-education” of Intellectuals
Mao used his Red Guard army and various other worker and peasant groups to terrrorize millions of Chinese people during the Cultural Revolution. Intellectuals who did not subscribe to official party ideology were special targets. Mao imprisoned thousands of intellectuals and forced millions to work with the peasants in the countryside for “re-education.”
- 1 China's Cultural Revolution, 1966-1969: Not a Dinner Party; Ed. Michael Schoenhals
- 2 Encyclopedia Britannica: The Cultural Revolution, 1966–76
- 3 Stanford University: Spice Digest: Introduction to the Cultural Revolution
- 4 Wellesley University: Academics: Polisci: China’s Cultural Revolution: A Brief Overview