An introduction to the attempt to destroy China’s history – and its supporters.
The Cultural Revolution took place in China in approximately the decade of 1966-76. It represented one symptom of Mao Zedong’s return to the centrality of power in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and a major part of his effort to shape the China of the future. He launched a program of continuous revolution so as to provide young Chinese activists with their own authentic experience of revolution and to reduce the impact of elitism in China’s cultural life and history. As early as 1930, Mao was arguing against the dangers of book worship: “It is quite wrong to take a formalistic attitude and blindly carry out directives without discussing and examining them in the light of actual conditions simply because they come from a higher organ.”* Additionally, Mao was concerned that the Chinese revolution was taking the country along the lines of Soviet Russia, which he was increasingly coming to oppose and, consequently, he wanted to shape Chinese institutions such that they would follow a distinctive and, for him, ideologically superior path.
The Cultural Revolution centred on the thousands of young people who joined the Red Guards, an organized series of people empowered (the CCP and military were discouraged from interfering) to challenge, often with violence, the learning and obeisance of the past. This rapidly degenerated into a tyranny of the young and anti-intellectual, who defined their remit as including the ability not only to destroy the artefacts of the past (many cultural treasures were smashed into pieces) and those people who supported the understanding of the past determined to be ‘elitist.’ University professors were among those professionals identified as being enemies of the revolution. Thousands were killed, beaten, turned out of their homes, humiliated or sent to labour camps for extended periods of time for ‘self-criticism’ and ‘re-education.’
The Cultural Revolution also witnessed fighting between different factions of Red Guards and a collapse in industrial production (which was already suffering after the disaster of the so-called Great Leap Forward). Confusion in the country was intensified by the conflict at the top levels of the CCP, as Mao, his wife and key allies took action against those who had fallen out of favour. The personal mixed with the political in these activities. It was the death of Lin Biao, after what was claimed to be an assassination attempt on Mao and subsequent flight to the Soviet Union, which began the process of ending the Cultural Revolution. Lin Biao had been, so to speak, the high priest of the cult of Chairman Mao and when, two years later in 1972 Mao suffered a stroke, his ability to project himself as wholly in charge of events diminished considerably. Other key members of the CCP leadership had become convinced of the need to establish broader and deeper relations with the rest of the world and a process of negotiation took place with Mao’s power base to bring an end to the Cultural Revolution in such a way that Mao need not have to confess to having made a mistake.
* Mao Zedong, “Oppose Book Worship,” in Zizek Presents Mao (London: Verso Books, 2007), p.44-5.