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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Il y a quarante ans la révolution culturelle...

by Dominique Bari

The Cultural Revolution Forty Years on...

Translated Monday 22 May 2006, by Carol Gullidge

In a bid to secure his own ideology throughout China, on 16 May, 1966, Mao Zedong launched an attack on the bourgeoisie which marked the start of the Cultural Revolution. This was to plunge China into a catastrophic period of chaos and violence which was only to end, following the death of Mao, with the arrest of the Gang of Four in 1976.

In a bid to secure his own ideology throughout China, on 16 May, 1966, Mao Zedong launched an attack on the bourgeoisie which marked the start of the Cultural Revolution. This was to plunge China into a catastrophic period of chaos and violence which was only to end, following the death of Mao, with the arrest of the Gang of Four in 1976.

The Cultural Revolution Forty Years on...

China. On 16 May, 1966, a Mao directive accelerated the crisis that had been simmering at the heart of the Communist party leadership. The Grand Helmsman precipitated the country into a decade of chaos.

“Repeat the revolution!”, “Rebellion is justified!”, “Don’t be afraid to think, don’t be afraid to act!”, “Bomb the headquarters!” It was with seductive slogans such as these that Mao Zedong intoxicated the young educated Chinese constrained by a stifling hierarchic system, hardship and conformism, provoking them to rise up against the Communist Party apparatus. That May of 1966, forty years ago, the Grand Helmsman launched his “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”, a repressive and repressed mass movement that was to tear China apart and take the country to the brink of civil war. It was to produce millions of victims, to plunge society and the economy into the abyss, and leave a whole generation scarred. The trigger for this on 16 May 1966 was a directive from Mao attacking “representatives of the bourgeoisie”, who had infiltrated every level of the Communist Party. The pretext was a play called Hai Rui Dismissed from Office, written by Wu Han, the deputy mayor of Peking, which was judged to be “disloyal” towards Mao for referring to the dismissal of Peng Dehuai in favour of Lin Piao at the head of the army.

Peng[1] had already overtly criticised the Great Leap Forward[2], along with the personalisation of Mao’s power. For the origins of the Cultural Revolution were rooted in the failure of Mao’s Great Leap Forward. Two political lines were facing each other. Briefly, we are talking about the pragmatism of those whose subsequent attack on Mao’s beloved collectivisation was spearheaded by Deng Xiaoping. Heavily criticised from July 1959 onwards, Mao left his post as President of the People’s Republic of China, and the National People’s Congress elected Liu Shaoqî.

The Socialist Education Movement (SEM)

Whilst still heading the Communist Party of China (CPC), the Grand Helmsman gradually lost control of economic matters, now under the predominant influence of Liu, Deng, and a few others, who embarked on economic reforms - a so-called “readjustment”. Mao rapidly denounced this as “revisionism”, a term echoing the radical deterioration of relations with the Soviet Union. In September 1962, he went on the offensive to seize back his power. His speech to the Party’s Central Committee can be summed up in a celebrated dictum: “Comrades, don’t forget the class struggle”[3], a concept, which, according to him, also finds its expression at the heart of the Party.

From a “socialist education” movement (1963) for rural areas that had barely recovered from the Great Leap Forward, to the publication of the Little Red Book (1964), through the abolition of ranks in the army (1965), or by a radicalisation of culture inspired by his wife, Jiang Qing: every front was used by Mao. Now retired to Shanghai, Mao surrounded himself with new “advisors” coming from a leftist pseudo-intelligentsia, and the hard core of whom went on to form the “Gang of Four”.

The purge against those accused of going down the “capitalist way” soon turned into a flood of persecutions and denouncements. The Red Guards beat the path. They destroyed temples, musical instruments, antiquities... Most of the Chinese who were condemned as counter-revolutionaries were made an example of by public execution, or exiled to the rural areas to be re-educated for manual work.

The insurrectionary phase of the Cultural Revolution ended in 1969 with the 9th CPC Congress. Advocating the continuation of the Cultural Revolution, Mao then imposed his theories of a permanent ideological revolution to the detriment of production. Power struggles and purges were to continue until the official end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. Mao died in September that year. In October, his successor, Hua Guofeng, ordered the arrest of the Gang of Four, who were soon held responsible for for the decade of terror. Four decades on, and despite an abundance of so-called “healing literature” about the events, there remain shadowy areas, and the debates remain unclosed. They have barely been opened. Deng Xiaoping, back in command of the Party in 1978, put an end to any discussion on the Maoist period by declaring that what the Grand Helmsman did was 70% positive and 30% negative. This manner of closing the matter of the Cultural Revolution as far as history is concerned is far from satisfactory for the many members of that “lost generation” of the educated youth of 1966. Amongst those, Xu Youxu, former Red Guard turned philosophy lecturer, and member of the Social Academy of China, for whom: “The Cultural Revolution caused invisible internal wounds in people’s minds.” Xu does not want to leave the Cultural Revolution any power to allure. In his eyes, areas of shadow that leave the complexity of events in one piece explain why some Chinese people, unhappy at economic reforms and increased inequalities, tend to idealise this sombre past.

Secret Documents

“A good understanding of the phenomenon would require a significant collective study using documents, including secret Party documents, and using a vast amount of research into oral history”, proffers Michel Bonin, specialist in Chinese affairs and author of “A Lost Generation”. “But it’s impossible to carry out this study while the authorities - in a bid to preserve a positive image of Mao - are opposed to it.”

Dominique Bari


1. Peng was exiled, then tortured to death in 1974.

2. The Great Leap Forward was the name given to the Second Five Year Plan, scheduled to run from 1958, during which China’s vast supply of cheap human resources was forced into communes in order to promote a rapid economic development intended to outstrip - or at least compete with - that of the major industrialised countries.

3. ‘...during the Cultural Revolution, people chanted Maoist slogans such as, "don’t forget the class struggle, don’t forget the class struggle"...’ For a first-hand account - moving in its simplicity - of life under the Cultural Revolution, see the following website: My Youth in China, by Yafei Hu 2003 (http://www.ljhammond.com/essays/my-youth.htm), page 6 onwards

A different point of view can be found in a short article by Verna Yu: "Chinese media silent on 40th anniversary of Cultural Revolution", in Sino Daily (http://www.sinodaily.com/reports/Chinese_media_silent_on_40th_anniversary_of_Cultur al_Revolution.html)

Article appeared in l’Humanité on 16 May, 2006


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