No.055, May - June, 2007
By Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006. 693 pp.
China has gone through periods of deep turmoil in its long history, but none have inflicted as much destruction to its culture and human resources as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which lasted for ten years beginning in 1966. China was thrown into chaos when huge numbers of young people joined the Red Guards, whose sole purpose was to carry out orders from Mao Tsetung to eliminate opponents to his policy of transforming China into a proletarian society. The Red Guards, some as young as 10 or 11 years old, waged campaigns against so-called "capitalist roaders," intellectuals, landowners and anybody that showed the smallest signs of prosperity - such as wearing a necklace.
Mao's last revolution was the Cultural Revolution. Historians have said he launched it to get rid of mounting opposition to him after his disastrous Great Leap Forward campaign (1956-1961), in which tens of millions of people died when he ordered agricultural reform that resulted in widespread famine.
The authors of this book study the course of the Cultural Revolution from its beginning as well as the events of the period following it. The authors provide a trove of information, fully explaining how the revolution began. On February 24, 1965, Mao Tsetung sent his wife Jiang Qing on a secret mission to Shanghai to launch a small movement that would lead to the full-scale Cultural Revolution the following year. Jiang Qing knew Shanghai well because of her former career as a young actress there. One of Jiang Qing's early targets was a well known university professor named Wu Han, who also wrote plays for the Beijing Opera. Wu Han was asked to write a story of an official in the Ming dynasty. But Jiang Qing used the story Wu Han wrote to accuse him of attacking Mao's policies, thereby providing a reason for the campaign against the elite that dominated society at the time. Mao himself spent months in Shanghai and other cities to mastermind the Cultural Revolution. During his absence from Beijing, Mao continued to receive intelligence on all activities sent by his ministers and subordinates in the government as well as in the People's Liberation Army in order to prevent any opposition to his revolution.
The authors recount numerous examples of horrific acts by Red Guards against intellectuals. "The Red Guards did not limit themselves to teachers. At Beijing No.6 Middle School, located across the road from Zhongnanhai, where senior leaders lived, the Red Guards turned the music classroom into jail. On the wall they wrote: Long Live the Red Terror…" The primary task of the Cultural Revolution was to eliminate the so-called "four olds" which were the old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits of the exploiting classes. Lin Biao, the designated heir to Mao, led the first wave of destruction by urging the Red Guards to destroy the four olds. Zhou Enlai, the prime minister, also joined in the campaign of destruction.
In the first few months of the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards looted tens of thousands of homes of those considered rich. By October 1966, the Red Guards had confiscated 65 tons of gold and a large amount of foreign currency. Thousands of cultural and historical buildings and sites had been destroyed, and the Red Guards also aimed at The Forbidden City. But Zhou Enlai ordered its gates closed before the Red Guards showed up. The authors say perhaps the most destructive act was aimed at the priceless cultural site of the Confucius Temple at Qufu county in Shandong province.
There was a strong reaction to the Cultural Revolution worldwide, partly because it attacked foreign missions in China, including those of the Soviet Union, an ally of the communist regime in Beijing. In Moscow, London and many other capitals, Chinese students clashed with their hosts as they demonstrated in support of the revolution.