Cultural Revolution
& the Cult of Mao
Image of a massive Mao in the background with military figures holding up the "Little Red Book" (i.e. Quotations from Chairman Mao)
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Mao’s Decline
The divided opinions that had surfaced among the leadership of the People’s Republic concerning the Hundred Flowers, the Great Leap, relations with the Soviet Union, continuing American hostility, and the pacing and focus of the Socialist Education Campaign left Mao feeling threatened. Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, Chen Yun, and Zhou Enlai, veteran revolutionaries all, seemed less and less to share his vision of governance through continuing struggle; indeed they barely seemed to need his presence or his inspiration.
Map showing the Zhongnanhai section of Beijing (near the Forbidden City, where all the political leaders lived)
Photo of Mao's Zhongnanhai Compound
Mao surrounded by fawning women lighting his cigarette, etc.
Mao himself had developed a personal life-style that was out of touch with many of his political colleagues. He had come to value the trappings of power, whether it was swims in the private pool built for him in the Zhongnanhai residence compound, the privilege of summoning his staff to meetings at any time of day or night, the pleasant soujourns in various villas (to which he could travel in his special train), or the sexual companionship of a succession of young women — whom he met either at the weekly Zhongnanhai dances or amidst the enthusiastic youthful followers he encountered on his train journeys. But these diversions, and his long periods of private reading and reflection in his book-lined study, could not disguise the fact that his policies of the late 1950s had failed, and his reputation in the early 1960s was not as high as once it had been. (SMC, 535)
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Mao Zedong with Lin Biao in front of a line of soldiers with the caption "Advance victoriously while following Chairman Mao’s revolutionary line" (1971)
Mao’s Rebirth
The "Little Red Book" (Quotations from Chairman Mao)One man who helped to rebuild Mao’s sense of self-esteem was Lin Biao, the veteran army commander from the days of Yan’an and the civil war. ... In the early 1960s, while the economic planners were trying to work out ways to restabilize the economy after the crises of the Great Leap, within the army Lin Biao moved to strengthen the vision of Mao as a great leader. He did this by making a compilation of aphorisms from among the huge body of papers and speeches that Mao had produced over the previous thirty years and more. By 1963 these Quotations from Chairman Mao (in reference to Mao’s role as chairman of the Communist party) were being studied and discussed throughout the PLA [i.e. the People’s Liberation Army]. Though the ideological significance of this collection, with its constant exhortations to self-sacrifice, self-reliance, and the maintenance of revolutionary impetus and ongoing struggle, was not apparent to most CCP leaders, first thousands and then millions of soldiers began to study and memorize Mao’s sayings, raising him to a new level of reverence. (SMC, 535-6)
Enormous image of Mao behind the People's Liberation Army with the caption "The People's Liberation Army is the University for Mao Zedong Thought"
Lei Feng's Diary In early 1963, Lin Biao intensified the degree of indoctrination in the army by starting a mass campaign within the PLA to emphasize the basic values of service to the party. The center of this campaign was the life of a young PLA soldier named Lei Feng, who had recently given his life for his country. The posthumously discovered Diary of Lei Feng emphasized again and again the soldier’s undying love for the revolution, for his country, and for his comrades, as well as his unswerving devotion to Chairman Mao. The fact that the “diary” was fictitious, concocted by PLA propaganda writers, should not conceal its basic significance, which was to launch an attack against the lack of revolutionary fervor displayed by many intellectuals and writers in the People’s Republic. ...
Lei Feng surrounded by children from the Communist Youth Organization with the caption "Uncle Lei Feng tells revolutionary stories"
The study of Lei Feng’s diary was introduced into China’s regular school system, and Mao consolidated its impact when, in late 1963, he graced the diary’s title page with his own calligraphy. Mao called on the whole country to “learn from the PLA,” implicitly undercutting the basic understanding hitherto that the country should be “learning from the party.” (SMC, 536-7)
Photo of the Leifeng Museum in Fushun, Liaoning
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Photo of Wu Han, author of The Dismissal of Hai Rui from Office
A Critique of Mao?
In the midst of the Great Leap Forward, [Wu Han] was invited by Mao Zedong to write on the celebrated Ming official Hai Rui, who had fought stubbornly for the people’s economic rights against shortsighted and conservative bureaucrats. Wu Han concentrated in his first essay on the way that Hai Rui, though loyal to his emperor, criticized the monarch for wasting the country’s resources while the famished population was driven to the edge of rebellion. In September 1959 Wu Han published another essay on Hai Rui in the newspaper People’s Daily. This time, Hai Rui was praised as a man “of courage for all times” who remained “unintimidated by threats of punishment.” The emperor whom Hai Rui served, however, was described as “craving vainly for immortality” and as “being self-opinionated and unreceptive to criticism.” The average official who served the emperor, in his turn, was called the type of person who would not “dare to oppose anything even though he knew it was bad.” ...
Scene from the play The Dismissal of Hai Rui from Office
Wu Han developed the theme of Hai Rui into a full length play, The Dismissal of Hai Rui from Office, which was staged in Peking in February 1961 and published the summer of the same year. By this time all Chinese concerned with politics knew that Peng Dehuai had criticized Mao for the Great Leap, so Hai Rui’s words of protest must have had sharp relevance to Wu Han’s audience:
 You say the common people are tyrannized,
but do you know the gentry injures them?
Much is made at court of the gentry’s oppression,
but do you know of the poverty
endured by the common people?
You pay lip service to the principle
that the people are the roots of the state.
But officials still oppress the masses
while pretending to be virtuous men.
They act wildly as tigers
and deceive the emperor.
If your conscience bothers you
you know no peace by day or night.

Peng Dehuai with Mao Zedong
In 1965 both Mao and Jiang Qing were to seize on these essays as Wu Han’s attempt to link Peng Dehuai allegorically to the virtuous Hai Rui. However, these two essays were not publicly criticized at the time, and during the early 1960s Wu Han was one of a number of intellectuals who published short pieces in the Peking newspapers, using historical or other social themes that were obviously critical of many Communist government policies, and of Maos isolation from an accurate reading of public opinion. (SMC, 539)
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Red Guard smashing various objects with a sledge hammer with the caption "Smash the Old World to Create a New World"
The First Shot
As the year 1966 began, two quite different groups met to discuss the Wu Han case and related matters. One was the Group of Five — though its active membership was far larger than the name implied — which met under the direction of Peng Zhen, a veteran party leader who was currently mayor of Peking and a member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo. This group included senior staff from the press, party academics, and members of the Ministry of Culture, almost all of whom could be regarded as professional party bureaucrats and intellectuals who embraced the status quo and were close to Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping.
Jiang Qing Illuminated by Mao with the caption "The Invincible Mao Zedong Thoguth illuminates the stage of revolutionary art!
The second group met in Shanghai under the general guidance of [Mao’s wife] Jiang Qing, who led a forum to discuss the political purposes of literature and the performing arts. Members of this group may be loosely called radical or nonestablishment intellectuals; they were pushing for socialist purification of art, and generally favored the search for new dramatic forms untainted by either so-called feudal or Westernized May Fourth elitist values. ...
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Image of young communists with the caption "Hold high the great red banner of Mao Zedong Thought to wage the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution to the end--Revolution is no crime, to rebel is justified"
So were the lines at last drawn, beyond effective mediation, for the cataclysmic central phase of what Mao and his supporters called the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. (SMC, 541-2)
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Mao Zedong illuminating the people with the caption "The sunlight of Mao Zedong Thought illuminates the road of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution"
The Great Proletarian
Cultural Revolution

In the late spring and summer of 1966, events moved to a swift yet unpredictable climax. In May the report of the Group of Five, calling for caution in cultural reform, was repudiated by the Central Committee — clearly at Mao’s urging — and a purge of the cultural bureaucracy commenced. ...
Red Guards in Tiananmen Square
[In August, 1966] Mao Zedong, from a stand atop the Tiananmen gate, entrance to the former Forbidden City in Peking, began to review gigantic parades of chanting Red Guards, all waving their copies of his little red book of quotations. ... Lin Biao heightened the public euphoria with his own declarations. “Chairman Mao is the most outstanding leader of the proletariat of the present era and the greatest genius in the present era,” Lin told a Red Guard rally on August 18. What Mao had done was to create “a Marxism-Leninism for remoulding the souls of the people.” (SMC, 543-4)
Poster of Mao in front of a red flag with Stalin, Lenin, Engels and Marx with the caption "Long Live the great Marxists-Leninist-Mao Zedong Thought!"
Comrade Mao Zedong is the greatest Marxist-Leninist in the contemporary world. He has ingeniously, creatively, and totally inherited, defended, and developed Marxism-Leninism and elevated it to a brand-new stage. Mao Zedong Thought is the Marxism-Leninism of an age in which imperialism is approaching complete collapse and socialism is approaching total global victory. Mao Zedong Thought is the guiding principle for all the work of the entire party and nation. (DC, 448)
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Poster with a red guard smashing Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping with a sledgehammer with the caption "Completely smash the capitalist class and the reactionary line of Liu and Deng!"
The great Proletarian Cultural Revolution now unfolding is a great revolution which touches the very soul of the people; it is a new and deeper phase of the socialist revolution in China. ... Although the bourgeoisie has been overthrown, it is still trying to use the old ideas, culture, customs and habits of the exploiting classes to corrupt the masses, capture their minds and endeavour to stage a comeback. The proletariat must do the exact opposite: it must meet every ideological challenge posed by the bourgeoisie head-on. Our present aim is to topple those in power who are taking the capitalist road, to criticize reactionary scholarly ‘authorities,’ criticize the ideology of the bourgeoisie and all exploiting classes. We must reform art and literature, reform all parts of the superstructure that do not accord with the socialist base of our socialist system. (DC, 449-50)
"A Crowd of Clowns" poster criticizing the Cultural Revolution
Since the Cultural Revolution is a revolution, it inevitably meets with resistance. This resistance comes chiefly from those in authority who have found their way into the Party and are taking the capitalist road. It also comes from the force of habits from old society. At present, this resistance is still fairly strong and stubborn. However, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution is, after all, an irresistible trend and there is abundant evidence that such resistance will be quickly broken down once the masses are fully aroused.
      Because the resistance is fairly strong, there will be reversals and even repeated reversals in this struggle. There is no harm in this. It tempers the proletariat and other working people, especially the younger generation, teaches and gives experience, and makes them see that the revolutionary road zigzags and does not run smoothly. (DC, 450)
Man with a Mao Zedong Thought book  with the caption "Turn philosophy into a sharp weapon in the hands of the masses"
In the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, it is imperative to hold aloft the great red banner of Mao Zedong Thought and put proletarian politics in command. The movement for the creative study and application of Chairman Mao Zedong’s works should be carried forward among the masses of the workers, peasants and soldiers, the cadres and the intellectuals, and Mao Zedong Thought should be taken as the guide to action in the Cultural Revolution.
       In the complexities of the current Cultural Revolution, Party committees at all levels must study and apply Chairman Mao’s works all the more conscientiously and in a creative way. In particular, they must study over and over again Chairman Mao’s writings on the Cultural Revolution and on the Party’s methods of leadership. ...
       Party committees on all levels must abide by the directions given by Chairman Mao over the years, that is, that they should thoroughly apply the mass line of “from the masses, to the masses” and that they should be pupils before they become teachers. They should try to avoid being one-sided or narrow. They should foster materialist dialectics and oppose metaphysics and scholasticism.
       The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution is sure to achieve brilliant victory under the leadership of the Central Committee of the Party headed by Comrade Mao Zedong. (DC, 453)
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Liu Shaoqi in a struggle session during the Cultural Revolution
In the autumn and winter of 1966, the struggles grew deeper and more bitter, the destruction and loss of life more terrible. With all schools and colleges closed for the staging of revolutionary struggle, millions of the young were encouraged by the Cultural Revolution’s leaders to demolish the old buildings, temples, and art objects in their towns and villages, and to attack their teachers, school administrators, party leaders, and parents. Under the direction of a small group of Mao’s confidants, along with his wife Jiang Qing and other Shanghai radicals, the party was purged at higher and higher levels until both Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping were removed from their posts and subjected to mass criticism and humiliation, along with their families. (SMC, 545)
1967 photograph showing the humiliation of two men at a mass rally in Shenyang (they were not executed).

The techniques of public humiliation grew more and more complex and painful as the identified victims were forced to parade through the streets in dunce caps or with self-incriminatory placards around their necks, to declaim their public self-criticisms before the great jeering crowds, and to stand for hours on end with backs agonizingly bent and arms outstretched in what was called “the airplane position.” ... Thousands of intellectuals and others were beaten to death or died of their injuries. Countless others committed suicide .... Thousands more were imprisoned, often in solitary confinement, for years. Millions were relocated to purify themselves through labor in the countryside. (SMC, 545)
Victims of the Cultural Revolution humiliated in front of the masses
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To what extent should Mao be blamed for the Cultural Revolution?
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How can autobiographies such as Son of the Revolution
help us understand the Cultural Revolution?
Mao as the sun illuminating the masses with the caption "Advance victoriously while following Chairman Mao's revolutionary line in literature and the arts"