When Chairman Mao declared to students in an October 1966 speech, “You must let politics take command, go to the masses and be with the masses. You must conduct the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution even better,” he was not making a suggestion; he was giving an order. The hundreds of thousands of students who carried out the ‘Cultural Revolution’ (CR) before and after Mao’s pronouncement did so with the belief that the most beloved, renowned, and powerful figure in China stood squarely behind them. Despite the existence of literally hundreds of factions of student ‘Red Guards’ by the end of the CR, every single one of them justified itself with the statements and writings of Chairman Mao. Despite the fact that these Red Guard factions engaged in vicious gang warfare with each other, every single one claimed to be pursuing the same goal, namely ‘Chairman Mao’s Revolutionary line.'
Well first, what is a revolution? A goal of drastic change, I argue, is the most important component. A revolution in support of the status quo is absurd. A revolution must have a coherent vision. A revolution without a vision is simply struggle for the sake of struggle. Underpinning all this then a revolution needs an ideology to distinguish it from a coup or a rebellion. Great changes need some form of reasoning to support them. Finally, a revolution must be popular. Transforming a society without involving society is virtually impossible, and all the more so when attacking the status quo.
Mao's Cultural Revolution fails the above criteria. Firstly, the CR is not genuinely popular. Large portions of it are orchestrated from the top. The motive force is Mao. Secondly, the ideology of the CR is not drastically different from the status quo. 'Mao Zedong Thought' was hardly new or revolutionary. It had been the official policy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for more than a decade. Meanwhile, the vision of the Red Guards who carry out the CR is that of a communist utopia. True, the Red Guards demanded that the CCP live up to the propaganda it so abundantly produced. But while unusual, this was originally an idea conceived of by Mao. Fundamentally, Mao gave them the ideas, and off they ran to carry them out. The CR was in many ways more a matter of following orders than making radical changes or revolution. The violent uncontrolled anarchy of the CR was perhaps the only part of the endeavor that was genuine. But violence alone cannot make a revolution.
First, a clarification: the Cultural Revolution I refer to runs from 1966 to 1968. By mid 1968, the People's Liberation Army had moved in to reestablish order. Authority was restored, and the Red Guards for all intents and purposes were disbanded. With the military in charge, the popular component of the CR ended completely. It makes no sense to speak of revolution in an environment where the military is in full control, particularly when that military is engaged in restoring public order. My discussion of the CR, accordingly, does not include anything after the crackdown.
In practical terms, what did the Red Guards, the 'revolutionaries' of the CR, do? Gao Yuan's remembrances in Born Red describe the process well. Most Red Guards were originally students, so the revolution began at school. Initially, students searched for signs of ‘revisionism’ among school authorities. Teachers and administrators who were unpopular or unorthodox were first accused and later forced to make self-criticism. Once the work teams sent in by the authorities to resolve the situation were forced to leave or co-opted, the Red Guards moved out into the towns and cities. Capitalism at the local level, superstitious religious practices and relics of bygone eras were all targets. People of all sorts were then accused, their houses were searched, and if anything incriminating were found, they might be humiliated, tortured, imprisoned and killed.
But in Gao Yuan's case, as no doubt in others, each step had an outside impetus. No sooner had Beijing mayor Wu Han's play, "Hai Rui Dismissed From Office," been publicly castigated in the press than Little Mihu discovers "Long Live Kai-Shek" written on the cover of the magazine "China Youth", albeit sideways, in faint marks, on a wheat field. Little Mihu’s discovery begins a period of political witch-hunts. The "People's Daily’s" call to "sweep away all ox ghosts and snake spirits" immediately precedes widespread violence against Gao’s teachers. The punishments meted out, Gao observed, were taken directly from Mao's "Report on the Peasant Movement in Hunan Province." The authority of the local party secretary is finally broken when some alumni from Gao's school return from Quinghua University, Beijing "to help make revolution.” In each case, the actual 'revolution-making' seems stirred up from the outside.
As she describes in Spider Eaters, Rae Yang participates in a similar progression at Beijing 101 Middle School. First teachers are criticized; then they are beaten and killed. For all her idealistic language of leading the world down a whole new path, it is hard to credit Rae and fellow Red Guards with spontaneity when they were busy attending rallies where the likes of Lin Biao, Zhou Enlai and Jiang Qing were giving speeches. Only after this, and after Chairman Mao appeared before thousands of deliriously excited Red Guards, did Rae and fellow Red Guards decide to take their campaign against the 'four olds' to the world beyond their school.
Of course if Gao's classmates are aroused by events in Beijing, where is the spark behind unrest in Beijing? Yue Daiyun gives an inside account of the rise of radicals at Beida (Beijing University). If one believes her, the spark for activity at Beida came from Nie Yuanzi, a party secretary who, shortly after the original critiques of Wu Han's play appeared, came out in support of student accusations that the university's former president, Lu Ping, was a capitalist agent, and that the faculty were following a "bourgeois educational line." Nie's piece duly received support from the "People's Daily" after which thousands of students began to flock to Beida to protest.
The trend is clear enough. Once disgruntled individuals like Nie Yuanzi attacked 'bourgeois tendencies' of intellectuals or bureaucrats like Lu Ping, official CCP organs like the "People's Daily" would back them up. Only after the endorsement was made did such attacks become commonplace. Similarly, before Mao's speech at Tiananmen, Rae Yang confined making revolution to Beijing 101 while Gao Yuan's travels around China happened only once Mao proclaimed the trains free to revolutionaries. In the transition during the CR from isolated protests to a mass movement, it seems clear that the role of the authorities was critical.
In any case, the behavior of the various Red Guard groups was far too similar to be spontaneous. Consider the treatment of teachers. Gao Yuan is in a provincial backwater. One of Gao's teachers, Wen, is a target because her mother is deformed from syphilis. She is accused of being a landlord's daughter and a whore. Leng has an American father, so he is accused of being a tool of 'American Imperialist Leighton Stuart.' Li, the literature teacher, once guarded Chiang Kai-Shek's house before defecting. He is made out to be a Guomintang spy. Rae Yang's descriptions from Beijing are virtually identical. A teacher who personally humiliated her, Lin, she accuses as a counter-revolutionary. A teacher who is too tall and resembles a spy from a movie, Chen, is beaten to death for corrupting the students with nude art. The motivations for the charges range from personal dislikes, like Lin, to questionable pasts, like Wen.
Consciously and unconsciously, the Red Guards' assault on teachers had precedents. At the Lushun Conference in 1959, Defense Minister Peng Dehuai "... wrote and circulated a letter in which criticisms of the Great Leap were moderately expressed..." For this Mao purged Peng as a rightist, with the party's approval. His crime was disloyalty to Mao. In 1957 during the Anti-Rightist Campaign, Yue Daiyun purged and was purged. One target was classics professor Lao Yang whose crime was having served as a warlord's secretary before Liberation, and having quoted Mencius: "If you have morality, then you can oppose a person in power." Yue Daiyun herself led the accusations only to be purged months later when her former student, Lao Lin, hoping for a job, charged her with advocating individualism. The implicit message was that nobody was above suspicion, and even the most ridiculous or minor charges had major consequences.
As for the Red Guard interrogations and struggle sessions, they were unpleasant. Gao's Teacher Li has flower paste thrown over him, and was beaten. He survives. Vice principle Lin Sheng was 'struggled against,' had his head shaved, and committed suicide following weeks of humiliation. Politics teacher Guo Pei was beaten and marched around wearing a sign that read: 'I am a worn shoe' (whore). Yue Daiyun's husband survived being 'jet-planed.’ Rae Yang's teacher, Chen, was "beaten to death by a group of senior students." Far from abhorring violence, the Red Guards embrace it.
But the messiness of the CR is merely a replica of the messiness of Land Reform, twenty years prior. William Hinton's describes in Fanshen the origins of the struggle session. First Japanese collaborators like village head Kuo Te-yu are brought in. Other villagers accuse them. If they do not confess to their accusations, and reveal their supposed ill-gotten wealth, they are beaten or perhaps killed. Initially it is the cruel landlords who are attacked; soon all landlords are being question. Many are beaten, some die. The accusations come from the fellow townspeople. "Thus were old scores settled one by one," observes Hinton of a particularly vicious squabble. For the local officials it was a question of "historical justice" which the landlords earned by virtue of being landlords. The fact that the people were attacking them was considered sufficient proof of guilt by the CCP. In the CR, it is much the same: righteous violence conducted on those with no legitimate means of defense. Lin Biao expresses this idea best in ‘Why a Cultural Revolution’: “The revolutionary movement of the masses is naturally right.”
For a revolution predicated so heavily on ideology there is one astounding fact about the CR: almost all of their ideology is the same as that of the status quo. The Red Guards are pro-socialist. Great, so is the CCP. The Red Guards are for an end to privilege. How odd that one of the better-known slogans of the CCP is 'never forget class struggle.' The Red Guards claim to be supporting the revolutionary peasants, workers and soldiers. Curiously, Lei Feng, the party's ideal of a good communist is both a revolutionary soldier and worker.
On one point, and only one point do the CCP and Red Guards differ appreciably: the Red Guards are Mao cultists, and do so beyond mere lip service. Consider Rae Yang's description of Mao's visit to Tiananmen: "Everybody was shouting 'Long Live Chairman Mao!' Around me girls were crying; boys were crying too... Earnestly we chanted: 'We-want-to-see-Chair-man-Mao!'" So it goes through the entire CR. Every speech begins with a Mao quote. Gao Yuan and fellow Red Guard Fangpu devote themselves to the study of Mao writings. 'Mao Zedong Thought is the Sole Criterion of Truth,' is both the title and substance of a 1966 speech by Premier Zhou Enlai. On the other hand as the Lushun conference demonstrated, the party towed Mao's line in general, so in practical terms, the actually ideological gap would have been pretty limited.
I do have doubts as to how enthusiastic much of the CCP leadership was about the deification of Mao. Nonetheless, Mao as the ideological lynchpin to everything was not an idea that the Red Guards arrived at first. It was the PLA under Lin Biao who first published the so-called 'little red book.' The same Lin Biao declared that 'Mao Zedong Thought' was 'a spiritual atom bomb', whatever that exactly meant. Point being that Mao-centered ideology, while perhaps lacking full CCP support, was hardly inimical to the other prevailing ideologies of the day, and it had some rather powerful patrons.
The vision of the Red Guards, at least as it was articulated, was fully in line with Mao's piece, "On the People's Democratic Dictatorship." What the document presents is a somewhat standard Marxist view of the road to utopia, along with a number of specific practices needed to head down that road. By working hard, the 'laboring people' and Communist party "can create the conditions in which classes, state power and political parties will die out very naturally and mankind will enter the realm of Great Harmony." There are two reasons why one should assume the Red Guards took this piece seriously. First, as indicated above they were sycophantically devoted to Mao literature, and it is inconceivable that they could have passed over such a document. Secondly, the rhetoric, particularly the bit about people instituting a dictatorship against the people's enemies, was used frequently by Red Guards. They found it useful when justifying or explaining their brutality against their 'enemies.' In any case, the ideas it contained were certainly accepted by the CCP as much as the Red Guards, so the long-term goals of both seem pretty much in tandem.
Where one must credit the Red Guards is that in some cases at least, they tried to force the CCP to live up to its rhetoric. The CCP opposed religion as outmoded superstition from the beginning, but never quite got around to tearing it up by the roots. One of the 'four olds' that Mao wanted destroyed were 'old customs' and, as Gao Yuan described, he and his compatriots did a pretty thorough job of destroying temple relics. The Muslim Red Guards Gao lived with went so far as to abandon dietary restrictions on pork. Rae Yang meanwhile reorganized restaurant service in Beijing, pointing out that the idea of someone serving you food and washing your dishes for you is antithetical to meaningful equality. Perhaps most importantly, some Red Guards attacked bureaucrats for being members of an elite in a society that claimed to oppose elites. Intellectuals were attacked for having privileges in an 'egalitarian' society: Yue Daiyun was forced to give up her daughter's nanny and move into a small house.
One of the most amusing and telling episodes of all this was Rae Yang's trip to Guangdong. Concerned by the many private businesses thriving in Guangdong, she demanded to meet with the governor Zhao Ziyang, insisting that the government take over the businesses. All correct and socialist, but of course the government argued that it couldn't afford to do so. "Our rhetoric soared in the sky. Their argument crawled on the ground," she notes. Yet there is no ideological argument between the two sides: simply a matter of practice meeting theory.
Anarchy doesn't merit much of a description. Nevertheless, Gao Yuan does portray the Red Guard movement's single truly revolutionary attribute. In 1967, his school's Red Guards first split into factions. Two opposing alliances eventually form: the radical East-Is-Red Corp., and the slightly less radical Red-Rebels. First they attack each other with posters. Then they beat each other up. Finally full warfare erupts. Gao Yuan's comrades end up wearing helmets, carrying swords, and manufacturing explosives. They operate far beyond the control of anyone. They attack and occupy the local hospital. At the end, doomed by a chance remark of Mao's secretary, Chen Boda, they are attacked by the PLA's 93rd Army division.
Once the Red Guards split into factions, nobody was in control. The violent gang-warfare characterizing the period was quite decentralized. Public order has broken down to the point that Red Guard groups routinely steal public property to use as war materiel. The violence is so intense that a number of Red Guards were maimed or killed. In Guanxi, 40,000 Red Guards were mobilized in a coup attempt against the local governor. At Beida in Beijing, Yue Daiyun describes how rival Red Guard groups cut electricity to their enemies' dorms.
Perhaps the most telling indication of where the Red Guards drew their inspiration from is the results they achieved. Many were doubtless idealistic, if somewhat naive. Gao Yuan would not have defied his father and returned to school to 'make revolution' if he had not believed in what he was doing. Many of those from his faction were later tortured after they lost, but few were willing to name accomplices, so strongly were they motivated. Yue Daiyun's children refused to stop interacting with Red Guards at Beida after violence broke out claiming that they could not abandon their comrades. They were fighting for something more than mere power in such cases.
On the other hand, the manifestation of all this turned out to be negative. Red Guards terrorized thousands of people. They did so having been told, as Rae Yang put it, that they "must purify China and make it a shining example. Someday the whole world would follow us onto this new path." Purify is the key word, for at a practical level the Cultural Revolution was a purge. Mao's dictum of uprooting the 'four olds' was a matter of destroying the past. Aside from political education, nowhere were they urged to do be constructive. Mao's pronouncements were militant. The Red Guards behaved militantly. Mao declared that the party contained 'revisionist elements.' Thousands were questioned and tortured by the Red Guards as 'revisionists.' Mao told them to destroy old culture, and off they went, smashing idols and burning books.
Given the correlation between Red Guard behavior and pronouncements from the CCP, particularly Mao, there are two possibilities. Either the Red Guards were following Mao’s orders, or Mao was somehow expressing the ideas they’d held all along. But considering who the Red Guards were (by and large heavily propagandized teenagers) it really doesn’t matter. Almost all the ideas they would have had would have been propagated down through the indoctrination they received as education. These were mainly kids after all, and kids who’d been bombarded their whole life with propaganda. Either way you cut it, the movement ultimately stems from Mao.
Given then that the CR was either directly or indirectly based upon Mao’s political ideas, could it be considered a revolution? Not really. A political revolution from the top is a contradiction in terms. To be considered a revolution, the Red Guards would have needed to attack the status quo in full. Yet when Mao and his coterie of acolytes were above all criticism, how could such an attack take place? Implementing what is, with a few exceptions, a society’s dominant ideology, is not a revolution.
Actually, there is a good term for what the Cultural Revolution was: a purge. The Cultural Revolution’s main activity was the discovery and removal from authority of ‘bad elements.’ It was admittedly an unorthodox way to conduct a purge, namely from the bottom up. But Mao had abandoned orthodoxies long before the spring of 1966, and so when he finally set the Cultural Revolution in motion, he was both getting rid of opponents and conducting a civics lesson on a massive scale. It is a testimony of sorts to Mao’s marketing genius that the phrase Cultural Revolution survives to this day without having acquired inverted commas at both ends. Sorry to rain on your parade, Chairman Mao, but calling something a revolution doesn’t necessarily make it one.
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