Reflections on the Cultural Revolution


In the modern age, society has become capable of reflecting upon itself. In China in the 1950s to early 1960s, the Great Leap Forward and the ensuing catastrophe opened new possibilities for the self-reflection of society. However, it seems that these possibilities were suppressed by subsequent developments, particularly the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976, during which intra-party debates about the direction of the Chinese Revolution collapsed into mass upheaval. Ultimately, the Cultural Revolution obscured the nature of rural poverty, deepened social hierarchies, and eroded trust among people, discouraging the kind of genuine social participation that is perhaps most needed for society to one day learn from itself.

The following are my reflections as a Chinese person born in the 1950s and sent to the countryside in the mid-1970s as part of the “Educated Youth” program. I managed to leave the countryside through the restoration of the college examination system after Mao’s death. In the early 2000s, I immigrated to North America, where I have been living since. I have long pondered the meaning of the Cultural Revolution.

The Great Leap Forward

The Cultural Revolution arose from the economic and political crisis produced by the Great Leap Forward. Thus, before discussing the Cultural Revolution, it is necessary to consider the circumstances around the Great Leap Forward.

It is difficult to understand the speed and sense of urgency with which the country hurtled headlong into the Great Leap Forward without comprehending the domestic political climate and international relations of that time. From 1951 to 1957, there was a series of campaigns cracking down on anyone who voiced criticisms to the party. Millions of people were attacked. Universities and research institutions often helped identify whom to purge among the intellectuals. Quotas were implemented where, for example, 5 percent of an area’s population had to be identified as “rightists.” The families of those identified were deeply impacted, and their “political futures,” were locked in. It was in such an environment that the country pursued the expansion of co-operatives and, later, communization.

Under the co-operative movement, households were organized into production units. Each unit, or co-operative (hezuose), was made up of tens of households, to be distinguished from communes (gongse), which were made up of hundreds or thousands of households. Co-operatives were supposed to be based on the principle of voluntary mutual benefit, but to meet their quotas, local cadres often broke with this rule. They would withhold loans for people unwilling to join co-operatives, confiscate their fruit trees, livestock, and fisheries, and accuse them of “taking the bourgeois road.” By the spring of 1954, the co-operative movement had fomented pockets of resistance among the peasants, and in many areas, peasants began quitting the co-operatives. The party’s response to this was to reduce quotas on co-operatives for some areas and suspend quotas altogether in others, measures initially backed by extensive popular support.

However, Mao believed that in taking these measures, the party had erred. Mao thought that the Department of Agriculture was sabotaging the co-operative movement. He began cracking down on leaders who pointed out the realities of the co-operative movement and expressed hesitation about its pace. In “On the Issue of Agricultural Co-operation” (July 1955), Mao called such leaders “women with bound feet” and warned that leaders cannot be allowed to fall behind the movement. Thus, the party’s measures to slow the pace of the co-operative movement were reversed. Instead, the rural reforms in the Han region were expanded into the Tibetan, Yi, and other minority regions, several years earlier than planned. There, the reforms were met with armed resistance. In 1956, the central government used two bombers donated by the Soviet Union to blow up the Litang Monastery (in Sichuan), engaged in gun battles, and shelled other Tibetan areas, resulting in what amounted to a civil war in western China that was little known to the outside world at the time.

As a result of the previous year’s political campaigns, most cadres preferred to err on the side of being too “left” at the risk of being described as verging “right” in their speeches or actions. This environment encouraged widespread false reports about the successes of the co-operative movement at the local level, which the central government embraced because it corroborated Mao’s assessment of how to rapidly develop agriculture. This sense of urgency and speed among the top leaders, aggravated by false or exaggerated reports, foregrounded the lead-up to the Great Leap Forward.

China’s attempt to copy the Soviet model of development was an additional factor in the lead-up to the Great Leap Forward. We were inspired by their victories, from their achievements in World War II to the successful testing of the atomic bomb in 1949 to Sputnik in 1957. Given the overwhelming significance of Lenin to Marxism and the anchor status of the Soviet Union in the Third International, we tried to emulate them as much as possible. This was especially true of China’s first Five Year Plan. However, due to the relative disparity in capital and labor inputs in China, implementing this plan in China meant that China’s rural areas were disproportionately relied upon to subsidize the development of heavy industry — to an even greater extent than in the Soviet Union. This forced China to explore ways to raise agricultural yields to accelerate the expansion of food concurrent with industrial output.

It was not that top leadership was totally bereft of a sober assessment of the situation. Chen Yun, a top economic policymaker, generally understood the conditions in the countryside and was skeptical of China rapidly industrializing, short of a miracle. However, Chen’s proposals, which emphasized a more gradual, planned development program, were defeated in favor of Mao’s strategy of mass mobilization (where ordinary people were galvanized to achieve military or political or economic objectives) and the Yan’an model (of internal party discipline). Irrigation facilities were put up at an incredible pace, stretching over vast areas of land and supporting the formation of communes and the unification of co-operatives into communes. This was viewed as a testament to the power of mobilizing the energies of 100 million peasants. Meanwhile, years of Anti-Rightist movements and the Hundred Flowers Campaign had narrowed the general scope of influence of intellectuals, including those trained in economics and figures. This meant there were few voices willing and able to effectively challenge Mao’s approach.

The changing relationship between China and the Soviet Union added further pressure to China and factored into the Great Leap Forward. Our relationship with the Soviet Union was not simple. Before 1949, the Soviet Union had put overseas students and their own handpicked people in leadership roles in the CCP who may not have adequately understood the Chinese situation. They were viewed as partly responsible for a number of tactical errors starting in 1927, while subsequent victories were attributed to Mao later assuming leadership within the party. After 1949, when Mao visited the Soviet Union, it was with the hope that they would restore China’s rights to its ports and railways and withdraw the only foreign garrison left in the territory. Stalin allegedly made all kinds of excuses at this meeting, citing the Russo-Japanese War in Northeast China, the wartime sacrifices made by the Russian people, and other reasons for delaying their withdrawal. It took Mao two months, after making major concessions, to persuade Stalin to sign the China-Soviet Treaty of Friendship. To us, this meant that the Soviet Union was not acting like the leader of the Third International but more like a Great Power confronting weaker nation-states. In other words, we had to be like them, but we had to go at it alone.

In 1957, at a conference of international socialists in Moscow, Khrushchev declared that the Soviet economy would overtake the American economy in 15 years. Mao immediately declared that China’s steel yield would overtake Britain’s in 15 years. This declaration became an order, and in successive speeches, “15 years” was shortened to “3 years.” These dynamics undoubtedly strengthened Mao’s resolve around the pace of agricultural and industrial development in China.

Thus, rather than continue the Soviet-style planned economic development of China’s Five Year Plan of 1953-1957, the Great Leap Forward commenced in 1958, based on wartime strategies of mobilizing the masses and achieving internal discipline in the party. Our slogan was “Overtaking Great Britain and Catching Up with the United States.” Even as far from the capitol as where I lived, the biggest rock on the tallest hill in the city was engraved with “Overtaking Great Britain Within Ten Years” in characters, each as large as a person. To smelt iron and steel, we mobilized, contributed all household iron products, felled countless trees, and launched an epic campaign of “eliminating the four pests” (sparrows, flies, mosquitoes, and mice). By 1958, cooperatives began amalgamating into people’s communes. We ate as much as we wanted from the canteen as the food supply became exhausted and agricultural yields plummeted.

But the lies continued, from the local level on up. In the national competition for yield per unit area, officials from commune-level cadres to provincial level-cadres falsely reported agricultural yields to higher-level officials to express their loyalty and enthusiasm. The central government embraced these false reports. Some local cadres, unwilling to falsely report their output, were considered right-leaning. (At the time, “right-leaning” described cadres who were thought to be misled and needed to be reformed, with varying degrees of seriousness, while “rightists” designated enemies of the revolution who needed to be purged.) Reports exaggerating or falsifying output made the situation worse: capital was repurposed away from agriculture toward industry while agricultural production targets were increased, forcing peasants to hand over more grain to the national government. The perception of high agricultural output and healthy yields led to directives to reduce areas to sow by 10 percent, according to some estimates from 1957 to 1959.

In 1959, we missed an opportunity to reflect upon the situation at the Lushan Conference. Problems with the Great Leap Forward had already sprung up in the past year. In smaller format meetings before this, even Mao had cautioned against being “too left”—too zealous in the pursuit of the Great Leap Forward—but such meetings had evidently been unsuccessful. So the Lushan Conference was convened to arrest the aggressive pace of the movement. In this large format meeting, however, the tone shifted suddenly from “correcting left” to virulently “anti-right,” culminating in a crackdown on Marshal Peng Dehuai (Defense Minister and Commander-in-Chief during the Korean War) and his supporters.

The tone shift of this meeting merits some attention. Before this meeting in 1958, Peng had traveled to rural Hunan and received first-hand reports from local peasants. There, a disabled Red Army veteran had passed a note to Peng. The note said that the rice had rotted in the fields because there weren’t enough people around to harvest it. There weren’t enough people because so many had been sent off to construct steel plants. Every commune had been forced to contribute their quota of workers for what turned out to be value-destructive ventures. Based on these and other observations, Peng wrote an extensive report to Mao surfacing serious concerns about the Great Leap Forward and actively criticized the movement in front of the party at the start of the Lushan Conference. Complicating the circumstances around Peng’s report was his recent visit to the Soviet Union in 1959, which undoubtedly made Mao more insecure because Khrushchev had criticized the People’s Commune a few days earlier.

In response, Mao had Peng’s report printed for all the attendees at the conference and directed them to discuss the report among themselves. Some attendees supported the report, while others opposed it. It is important to note that at this time, there were relatively democratic practices among the party leaders: any leader could speak freely in meetings without reprimand as long as he formally accepted the final resolution reached. Those that supported Peng shared his concerns about the Great Leap Forward. Those that opposed argued that the report undermined the party’s image by criticizing one of the “Three Red Flags” of Mao. These “Three Red Flags” consisted in a General Path (build socialism; do it quickly), the Great Leap Forward, and the People’s Commune. According to the opposition to Peng’s report, we should focus more on our achievements and less on our shortcomings.

Then, Mao gave his view. He claimed that a “force” was attacking the party. While Mao did not refer to Peng and his supporters by name, everyone knew of whom Mao spoke. This “force” was only “30 kilometers away” from being bourgeois rightists (meaning, they veered dangerously close to being bourgeois rightists). Mao said that the criticism of the Great Leap Forward was not unconnected with the Soviet Union, given Khrushchev’s recent criticisms of the People’s Commune. Mao asked the attendees at Lushan to choose between Mao and Mao’s opponents. After Mao’s speech, all group discussion collapsed, from two points of view into one: criticizing Peng. Lin Biao, another army commander, and many other top leaders passionately defended Mao against his “opponents.” Peng and three of his major supporters were said to be engaging in factionalism. Lin later replaced Peng as Defense Minister, while Peng and his supporters, including Zhang Wentian (who had been the head of the CCP in 1933 during the Great March) never held important positions again.

All efforts to “correct left” had been summarily replaced with “anti-right.” The Great Leap Forward ascended to a new high after Peng’s criticism was defeated at the Lushan Conference. The opportunity to reassess the situation in 1959 on the basis of opposing points of view backed by open debate among party leaders was closed for now, and the movement intensified.

The consequences of the Great Leap Forward cannot be overstated, nor can my words do them justice. From 1959 to the beginning of 1962, famine killed tens of millions of people, especially in the rural areas of Sichuan, Henan, Anhui etc. Many still remember a world of bloated bodies and dysplasia. Peasants tried to walk into the cities in search of food, only to fall and die on the roads before they got there. Their bodies were littered on the sides of the road. Despite all this, China continued to export grain. Mao refused foreign aid to save face. In 1960, the Soviet Union withdrew its aid to China and pulled out experts it had staffed on various economic development projects in China. The Soviet Union was trying to stop the Great Leap Forward. At the same time, China continued to repay its debts to the Soviets as scheduled in the form of agricultural output.

When we spoke of the situation among ourselves, we were not allowed to use the term, famine. Instead, we spoke of the “difficult time of three years,” which were explained away by two reasons: first, natural disaster; second, being forced to pay back our debt to the Soviet Union. It was not until 1981 that we spoke openly about the famine and the mistakes of the party in the Great Leap Forward.

The Great Leap Forward dealt a tremendous blow to Mao’s prestige both internationally and domestically. Khrushchev published an article in Pravda that criticized the People’s Commune and the Great Leap Forward. In 1960, Vietnam removed Contents of Mao Zedong Thought from its party constitution.

In 1960, party leaders convened in a pivotal meeting to address the disaster of the Great Leap Forward, the cessation of Soviet aid, the damage to Mao’s prestige, and the economic crisis in the countryside. First, they stopped the Great Leap Forward officially. Second, Lin Biao suggested a mass dissemination of Mao Zedong Thought through the publication of Quotations from Chairman Mao (what would later be known as the “little red book”). Third, Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping suggested the party investigate and review the conditions in the countryside and provide programmatic policy documents for pursuing recovery in each field (agriculture, industry, education, etc).

Mao, Liu, and Deng worked together to prepare the programmatic policy document on agriculture (“Sixty Points on Agriculture”), which laid out a series of changes to increase efficiency in the countryside. These changes included bringing decision-making power down from the commune level to the collective-unit level, granting each peasant a piece of tax-free private land, and permitting peasants to raise their own pigs and chickens and do handicrafts on the side. These changes were meant to improve resource allocation and decision-making in the countryside. But Mao became uneasy about the implications of the reforms suggested in these policy documents, while also becoming more optimistic that he wouldn’t need them due to reports that a recovery had already begun in the countryside. Meanwhile, other leaders believed that such reports were not representative of aggregate conditions. From 1960 up to 1962, the situation in many areas continued to worsen, much-needed reforms were delayed, and the peasants continued to suffer.

The great price the Chinese people paid afforded a significant opportunity for reflecting on which way forward for the revolution. Open debate within the party entertaining different points of view and reflecting on the organization of people post-communization could have occasioned this reflection.

Such an opportunity arose at the beginning of 1962 when seven thousand cadres at or above the county party committee level convened. At this meeting, Liu Shaoqi stated that most of the fault for the Great Leap Forward catastrophe lay with the central government. This was consistent with the findings of Peng Zhen and Deng Tuo in Beijing. Liu Shaoqi also emphasized the importance of democratic centralism, opposed purges and anti-purges, demanded the vindication of Peng Dehuai and others, and expressed strategic differences with Mao. On the other side, Lin Biao, Zhou Enlai, and others made speeches upholding Mao’s prestige and gave the Great Leap Forward a positive overall evaluation. Lin Biao stated that if we don’t follow Chairman Mao’s words, we will be headed toward disaster. Deng Xiaoping maintained the correctness of Mao Zedong Thought while also supporting Liu Shaoqiu and calling for the vindication of those who had suffered from the previous anti-right-leaning campaign. As in other meetings, Mao was able to set the tone of the discussion, suppressing minority opinions and dissent. After securing the general direction of the meeting, he left the convention for Wuhan.

Mao’s departure occasioned a meeting led by Liu Shaoqi, referred to as the “West House” meeting, where he and Deng Xiaoping agreed with Chen Yun’s evaluation of the struggling countryside and the difficulties of advancing the policies of heavy industry favored by Mao and Lin Biao. Liu and Deng called for implementing the household contract in the hardest-hit areas. Under the household contract, even as land was the property of the co-operative, peasants could contract the land as long as they paid an annual grain tax. Putting decisions such as what to grow, when to grow it, and whether to use fertilizer or not back into the hands of the peasants could save lives and reduce starvation.

Liu and Deng brought the takeaways from their discussion to Mao, who reportedly agreed with them. Indeed, in some of the worst-hit areas, local cadres had not waited for the central government to issue these changes but had already secretly implemented them in a desperate bid to save some of the peasants’ lives. In addition to the economic reforms, Liu, Deng, and Chen made additional reforms in both the cities as well as the countryside. They allowed showings of some “left”-leaning movies from Hong Kong, permitted certain old operas to be put on, and formally recognized the ability of peasants to trade among themselves and contract land. Zhou Enlai and Chen Yi gave talks where they showed respect and appreciation for the contributions of intellectuals and supported free speech attitudes.

These changes represented substantial improvements in most people’s lives and drove significant recovery in food production. A semblance of the dialogue between the masses, the intellectuals, and the students that had been closed out since the Hundred Flowers Campaign reappeared. Liu, Deng, and Chen became increasingly popular among grassroots cadres, ordinary people, and intellectuals—no doubt to Mao’s growing wariness of their support.

The reforms, however, were not rolled out evenly throughout the country. In Sichuan, the local chief, Li Jingquan, delayed reforms which delayed recovery and caused additional suffering for many people. During the famine, he had made false reports to the central government about the conditions in Sichuan, which was among the worst-hit areas. Not only was not punished for this, but he retaliated against those who tried to expose him at the 7,000-member large format meeting in early 1962. Many think that the reason he was allowed to stay in power was that he was active in opposing Peng Dehuai during the previous Lushan Conference in 1959; in other words, his loyalty to Mao protected him.

Perhaps some would denigrate these reforms as bourgeois. But I disagree: they were all within the proletarian movement. Liu, Deng, and Chen were not simply people with better solutions; they represented the proletarian movement reflecting on itself through the political party. They made an assessment of the historical situation enabled by the organization of the Chinese people into a class under a decade of communization. The debates between Liu, Deng, Mao, and others at the 1962 convention and the subsequent atmosphere of the reforms and relatively freer thinking could have reopened the transformative potential of the revolution. This would not have addressed the problematic status of the Soviet Union in the international struggle, but it would have been something.

After the planned economy implemented Liu and Deng’s reforms, the problem of food and clothing in most areas was temporarily solved. At the Beidaihe Conference in 1962, Mao and Liu Shaoqi maintained different opinions about the economic recovery but reached a compromise. They emphasized the proletarian ideology advocawere accused of “taking the capitalist road.”

The Four Cleanups Movement of 1963 could not resolve the crisis of prestige Mao suffered due to the Great Leap Forward, but it did significantly deepen the differences between Mao and Liu and their respective supporters.

Prelude to Cultural Revolution (1962-1966)

There is a poem from the Tang Dynasty: “The wind sweeping through the tower heralds a storm rising in the mountain.” This was often quoted in the newspapers during the Cultural Revolution.

The Cultural Revolution of 1966 was preceded by a “prelude” over 1962 to 1966 led by Mao’s literati (including his wife Jiang Qing and an individual named Kang Sheng etc.). The goal was to assess whether culture was following a proletarian or a bourgeois line.

A novel about Liu Zhidan, published serially in 1962, was said to be anti-party. Liu Zhidan was a local Red Army leader in the Yan’an area who died in 1936. Stories about his Red Army base had functioned as a source of inspiration for leaders and soldiers on the Great March. In 1962, Kang Sheng (one of Mao’s literati) stated the novel was implicitly trying to overturn the verdict against Gao Gang. Gao was one of the leaders in Liu Zhidan’s division and was Vice Chairman in the Central Government and Central Army Committee before he committed suicide in 1954. Gao was charged with conspiracy to sow discord within the party. Another local leader, Xi Zhongxun (the father of Xi Jinping), along with many others, were charged with being “anti-party” in 1962.

In 1965, a play called “Hai Rui’s Dismissal from Office ” was censored. The play depicts the story of Hai Rui (a Ming Dynasty official who was dismissed from office after ably representing to the emperor the grievances of the people) and rampant corruption among the officials. The play, which was written by Deputy Mayor of Beijing Wu Han, was accused of implicitly defending Marshal Peng Dehuai.

Wu Han, Deng Tuo (former editor-in-chief of People’s Daily), and Liao Mosha (an early revolutionary writer and high-ranking official in Beijing) were frequent contributors to “Notes of the Three-Family Village.” Their contributions often implicitly questioned Mao’s cult of personality and the Great Leap Forward. Because of this, starting in April 1966, they were criticized.

The censorship and criticism of the above-mentioned publications and related figures remind one of “literary prisons” from ancient times, a form of censorship that peaked during the Qing Dynasty. The goal of censorship during the Qing Dynasty was to align folk culture with the indomitable rule of the emperor.

In February 1966, Beijing Mayor Peng Zhen organized a group to resist the censorship of “Hai Rui’s Dismissal from Office.” Meanwhile, Liu Shaoqi presided over a meeting to pass the “February Outline” document and communicate it to the party. He and his supporters argued that academic and theoretical discussions should not be closely identified with political positions (and thereby closely scrutinized). But such efforts to resist the “prelude” proved to be too little too late, and the “prelude” soon spilled over into overt suppression.

The storm rising from the mountain had arrived. The party debates, brief reform period, and modestly intellectual culture of the atmosphere occasioned by the disaster of the Great Leap Forward had come to a close.

The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976)

From May 4th to May 26th, 1966, the Party Central Committee convened a meeting to criticize four senior leaders, including Peng Zhen; it identified them as anti-Party groups. The “5.16 Notice” was passed at that meeting, announcing the start of the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.” The memo, which became the program for the Cultural Revolution, expressed Mao’s views on class struggle in the “socialist period.” It maintained that representatives of the bourgeoisie had infiltrated the party, the government, the army, and cultural production. One such infiltrator was Khrushchev. These were people who were sleeping beside us, and were being trained to be our successors — the purpose of the Cultural Revolution was to criticize and purge them.

A big-character poster soon appeared at Beijing University, posted by a Party branch secretary with the signatures of several other instructors accusing some leaders (individuals) within the school of taking the capitalist road. Mao called it the country’s first big-character poster of Marxism-Leninism. A few days later, the Central People’s Broadcasting Station broadcasted the poster’s full text to the entire country. This triggered a nationwide revolt of Red Guard students. Years later, I would learn that this big-character poster was inspired by Kang Sheng (one of Mao’s aforementioned literati).

At the August 1966 party meeting, Mao published his own big-character poster after a public argument with Liu Shaoqi: “Bombarding the Headquarters: My Big-Character Poster.” He pointed out that for more than fifty days, from the central to the local level, certain leaders wished to suppress the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. These leaders were defending the bourgeois standpoint and were “reminiscent of the right deviation in 1962 and the fake ‘left’ and actual ‘right’ in 1964.” Even at its inception, therefore, the Cultural Revolution revised and repressed the reflection that took place within the party in 1962. At that point, the party began to formally criticize Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. In my opinion, this marked the beginning of the end for the liberal opportunity of the revolution and the self-reflection of society through the party, as demonstrated by intra-party debates.

When the Red Guards in Beijing attacked local leaders and scholars in August 1966, the People’s Daily printed the headline, “It’s very good.” This ignited a nationwide debate on whether, in fact, it was “very good” or “very bad,” but that debate was extremely limited. The country possessed poor information, as censorship was the norm with the major newspapers. Consequently, the “political” debates and disputes among the people were not about agricultural or economic reforms, nor about the status of China in the international working-class movement, and, of course, they avoided altogether the subject of the recent famine and its causes.

My city reacted strongly. Over a few months, two groups gradually formed: one group was made up of students and some urban people, while the other was made up of peasants and other urban people. Both factions said that they were defending Chairman Mao. Both criticized the bourgeoisie and engaged in “literary struggles” (debates) in public that eventually, by the spring and summer of 1967, developed into “violent struggles” (local fighting).

When I was in elementary school, I saw two groups fighting on the roof of the adjoining middle school. We learned that a school on the outskirts of the city had just been “captured” by peasants from the surrounding fields. After this, I saw chairs piled onto the stairs of the teacher’s building to ward off a coming attack. A few days later, a big group of peasants had been galvanized and surrounded the city. Some of the besieging men wore miners’ hats and brought their steel drills to the fight. I watched as the people “defending” the city mobilized to block off traffic points and the ferry crossing. We went to live for several weeks with a family friend who lived closer to the city center.

One battle took place at a different middle school. This middle school was built into the side of a hill, with one part of the school in the lower part of the hill and another in the upper part. The two parts were connected by a road and there was a wall along the road up the mountain. The defenders of the school (largely students) were stranded when the besieging peasants blew up a section of the wall in the middle of the night. This cut off the retreat for the students. The next day, we heard that some of the students were captured, though a few of them had shouted “Long Live Chairman Mao” before jumping off from the upper half of the school to their deaths. We were told that they were heroes.

Much of the fighting occurred around the city borders, occasionally breaking out throughout the city. Students, workers, and peasants used everything from sticks to drills to guns. Many were killed. I remember watching more than a dozen young students buried in a garden in the center of the city. Soon after they were buried, the bodies had to be relocated because the hastily dug pits were too shallow and produced a bad smell in the summer. I remember the image of a white lab coat drenched in blood. The man displaying it said that the doctor who wore it had been killed while trying to rescue injured “defenders” of the city. After dozens of days of fighting, Mao sent in the army to restore order. We were told then that the city defenders were the “leftists,” while the peasants who attacked them were “demon bandits.”

Armed fighting broke out nationwide. In the first period of the Cultural Revolution, any distinct points of view about the co-operative movement, the Great Leap Forward, China’s relationship with the Soviet Union, and so much more were dissolved in a bloodbath of armed fighting among people with competing claims to be the true defenders of Chairman Mao. This went on from the summer of 1967 through the summer of 1968, with extremely heavy casualties.

Eliminating the “Four Olds” (old ideas, old culture, old traditions, and old habits) was a watchword of the Cultural Revolution. Numerous historical sites across the country, including the tombs of Confucius and his descendants, were destroyed. More than two-thirds of Beijing’s historical sites and cultural institutions were destroyed. Historical artifacts seized by the state were appropriated by and enriched people with select political power. Many artifacts were sold to the West. I personally witnessed the smashing of the five hundred Arhat sculptures in a Buddhist Arhat Hall near my city. Countless ancient books, calligraphy, and paintings were burned, as well as playing cards and anything else associated with “feudalism.” If traditional or ancient literature was discovered in people’s homes, the owners might face trouble. Of course, Mao’s bookshelves in this period were full of wire-bound old books of the previous thousand years.

In the first three years of the Cultural Revolution, amidst violent social turmoil, Mao accomplished his goal of “seizing power” and mobilizing the masses from top to bottom. They destroyed what he deemed the “bourgeois headquarters” of the party. Liu Shaoqi was accused of being a traitor, a spy, and a scab. After being repeatedly criticized and tortured, Liu fell ill but was denied admission to a hospital and died in Kaifeng in 1969, about 400 miles from Beijing. After his death, he was secretly sent to a crematorium under a false name. Peng Dehuai underwent similar persecution. In 1967, someone beat him while repeatedly demanding, “Why did you go against Chairman Mao at the Lushan Conference?” His ribs were broken by the beatings he received. He died in 1974 and was also cremated under a false name.

In the years following the army’s occupation of my city, order was restored. Students above middle school returned to school carrying with them the experience of the wild early days of the Cultural Revolution — free travel, free board and lodging, the proliferation of propaganda, seizing people from the streets to persecute them, etc. But our education had changed irrevocably: the school system was shortened (elementary from six years to five, high school from three years to two, college from four years to three), the number of subjects was reduced, teaching materials were revised, and, starting in elementary school, military discipline was given a much-expanded role. We were organized through military discipline to help with harvests in the countryside, to turn open ground into sports fields, and, for high schoolers, to participate in factory work.

The training at my elementary school was led by a veteran of the Sino-Indian War. He taught us to make our beds and carry them on our backs while marching and holding a Red Sakura Gun (a pointed end of wood with a red streamer). Once, after walking about five kilometers, we slept overnight in a classroom on the outskirts of the city. At midnight, we were awakened by the instructor to gather. We walked half-awake along the road in the moonlight and met an old peasant with a cow. As the metallic-looking tips of our Red Sakura Guns glinted under the moonlight above our heads, we watched the instructor interrogate the old man at length on the suspicion that he was conducting illicit trade at night. Once the instructor finally let the old man go, he turned to us and said, “The class struggle cannot be relaxed.”

The father of one of my classmates was a teacher in our school. They locked him up in one of the classrooms to write a long confession because he had come from a landlord family. I remember watching my classmates spitting at him and throwing things at him through the lattice windows whenever they passed that room. One day, I passed by his window alone and just looked in. I met his gaze, and it was unforgettable: resistance and resentment.

In the countryside, peasants were organized to study Mao Zedong Thought in political night schools. But it was all for show. Dozens of peasants sat here smoking or dozing off, while female peasants brought darning and other manual work to finish. If anyone failed to attend, points would be deducted from their work record. This was a far cry from the peasant night schools held in Guangdong in the 1920s when the speeches and analysis were very popular and could readily attract peasants.

Even in these simple instances, it is evident how people were not empowered in their own lives but empowered to make other people’s lives worse. Petty tyranny abounded. Innumerable opportunities presented themselves for dominating others or being dominated by them.

During the Cultural Revolution, there were limited debates of principle among the people. After the early years of armed fighting in the Cultural Revolution, the education of students and peasants was simply performative. How much did we learn, after all, from other places filled with poor people armed against one another and given a “reason” to destroy each other? If anything, the opportunity to “learn from workers, peasants, and soldiers” may have only been for the “educated youth” to learn from poor peasants how to survive dire situations. But such a practice only leads to a poorer society, distorted personalities, and makes one a slave to power.

Social Consequences of the Cultural Revolution

There are four major ways in which the Cultural Revolution failed to advance the self-reflection of society and served instead to cover up social antagonisms and engender new resentments.

1. Obscuring the nature of rural poverty

The first is in the standard of living. While the party debates around the Great Leap Forward between Mao and his supporters, on one side, and Liu and his supporters, on the other, could have facilitated substantive reflection on how to improve the standard of living under the Cultural Revolution, the hardships the people experienced were largely glossed over.

Although large-scale famines had been effectively eliminated by the time of the Cultural Revolution, most people lived on the brink of starvation, with no end in sight. The urban population relied on ration cards to obtain a limited supply of goods, such as clothing, food, and cooking oil. People in the countryside were impoverished. When I became a peasant in 1975, I was given a small plot of private land (about one-fifth of an acre), where I planted potatoes, peanuts, and wheat. Collectivization meant dozens of peasants living in remote areas had to gather together to work. What they received had nothing to do with the amount of work they did. There was no incentive to cultivate new rice varieties that required greater labor. An old peasant I knew would dig for potatoes in his own field after a day of collective work. We worked for the collective, but to fill our bellies, we had to rely largely on what we were able to grow in our private plots on our own time. The senselessness of the system — in which every peasant was overworked, yet production was incredibly inefficient; where they had to work for the collective, yet were responsible for coming up with their own meals — was not up for discussion fairly during the Cultural Revolution.

Peasants, meanwhile, were bound by law to rural areas and lacked the freedom to move to cities and even to other rural areas (except through marriage to people in other rural areas). The children of peasants could only be peasants. This might have been a fact of Chinese society, but it remained unchallenged, a dead reality that was simply accepted.

The peasants had a hard life: no medical care, no pension, and partial elementary-level education. Rural cadres were not wealthy, but to a great extent, what they said passed for law, and the peasants feared them. Many cadres had the final say in deciding who held what position, who could drive the tractor, who could teach at the rural school, and so on. They could be bribed with articles such as a watch, a pair of pants, or a pair of shoes. The relatives of these cadres or those that bribed the cadres might become urbanites by being recruited to factories in the cities or being recommended for college admissions.

In 1975, I went to the countryside and became a peasant through the educated youth policy. According to this policy, every urban family was allowed to keep one child by their side, while all the others had to go to the countryside after middle or high school, settle down there, and remain a peasant forever. Their children would also be peasants forever. Mao said the countryside is a vast world, and we could do great things there in addition to being reeducated by experiencing the condition of the poor peasants. Because of this experience, I saw things that most people cannot imagine. I went to the countryside with the idea that I would remain there forever. I saw the severe drawbacks of the people’s commune and learned that the peasants were in a state of semi-starvation; they lacked the strength to resist their circumstances.

It was only much later that I learned why we were sent to the countryside: because there weren’t enough jobs in the cities, the food supply was insufficient, and the party did not want to risk the social consequences of having too many unemployed students in the city. This was one of the many lies that made the course of the revolution unintelligible and unavailable to debate.

Urban people lived in housing units, whereas the peasants lived in whatever they built themselves. If a family-owned “three turns and one sound” (bicycle, watch, sewing machine, and radio), they were considered wealthy in the 1970s. Most urban families owned some or all of these expensive things, but in the homes of rural cadres, one rarely ever saw more than one or two of these things. Most peasants lacked basic furniture. One peasant took me to his house but told me to wait outside the door. He then brought out a simple bench and let me sit outside. It was dark behind the door, and I could see nothing inside. In the production team, I was in, an adult male on the collective made about 4 yuan per month (compared with 18-30 yuan for the typical urban worker). Although peasants had their own small plots and did side jobs, they could only cultivate them outside of collective labor. People commonly worked every waking hour, especially female peasants. From light work to heavy work, their hands were never idle.

A second social division existed between army cadres and ordinary urban people. Mao had called upon the whole country to learn from the PLA. The army was always correct when dealing with local conflicts, effectively representing Chairman Mao. Two military units remained stationed in our city after the fighting ended. Military children received preference in being admitted to high school. Only one-fourth of my middle school got the opportunity to attend high school, and a little under half of my high school classmates were from military families. People across the country yearned to wear military uniforms, caps, and shoes and to carry military water bottles and satchels. Local children envied the standard Mandarin-speaking children in military families, as well as their mysterious distant hometowns. At that time, most of my local classmates and I had never traveled far. We had never seen trains or planes on the ground. Military children’s self-confidence and sports and dance participation were much higher than those of ordinary children.

A third social division existed between ordinary people and the people who were purged (and their families). Anyone who experienced the Cultural Revolution knows the implications of the phrase “your political future.” It meant the possibility of being trusted at work and potentially promoted versus being criticized and persecuted again and again. Your political future was typically determined by family background and politics. It could mean the difference between being dragged out of your home by your clothing or your hair at every single political rally (if you had the good fortune to remain in your hometown rather than being sent to a remote labor camp) — and being the one doing the dragging. From 1949 to the 1960s, there were the “black five categories” (landlords, rich peasants, counterrevolutionaries, scoundrels, rightists, etc., who amounted to an estimated 6 percent of the population) and Korean War Captive Returnees (those who surrendered instead of fighting to the death), etc. — a list that only grew with time. At political rallies, those designated the “black five” were forced to stand in the middle and be lectured, spat on, etc. During the ten years of the Cultural Revolution, the struggle and criticism against the black five and their relatives continued apace. Living on the fringes, they were no longer regarded as members of society. When they passed on the street, they walked hunched over so as to not to attract notice. Many chose to commit suicide rather than go on.

The children of stigmatized people were considered politically unreliable. As such, they encountered great obstacles in education and employment. Some preferred to go to the countryside, hoping to clear themselves politically through the experience of being an educated youth. I recall an excellent language teacher in middle school. She took the risk of recommending a few students with problematic family backgrounds but outstanding records to enter high school. But because she was also born into a troubled family, she always had to tread very carefully to avoid falling under suspicion herself.

Many people who cherish the memory of the Cultural Revolution think that the economic level of the people during the Cultural Revolution was generally balanced. But this is romantic. There were serious differences between urban people and rural people, and there were political differences between cadres, military families, city residents, and peasants. The main difference was in politics and power. These differences did not serve the revolution but instead served to suppress the participation of people in society as members of a working-class committed to their emancipation.

4. Deepening the cult of Mao

Lastly, during the Cultural Revolution, people came to worship Mao in a way that perhaps exceeded the worship of any emperor. This fulfilled the ambition expressed in Mao’s poems written in Yanan in the 1930s: “Qin Huang [First Chinese Emperor], Han Wu [First Han Emperor]…Tang Zong, Song Zu… Chengjie Sihan [Ghenghis Khan]…only know how to bend the bow and shoot the big eagle. All of them are gone, and there are many romantic figures, but now all look at the present.”

During the Cultural Revolution, young and old danced the loyalty dance and sang political hymns frequently. At every gathering, a quotation from Chairman Mao was recited. Before the meeting, we sang “The East is Red” and, at the end of the meeting, “Sailing the Sea Depends on the Helmsman.” Slogans such as “Long Live Chairman Mao” were often seen on walls across the country. Mao’s poems accounted for no fewer than three-quarters of the total number of poems our generation learned. The army commander Lin Biao said at the party meeting: “Chairman Mao’s words are true; every sentence is true; and one single sentence exceeds our ten thousand sentences.”

Once, the people in our city lined up and waited to get a look at a mango placed on the city stadium’s podium. We heard that Mao had sent it to the people. When we were steps away from the mango, we were incredibly excited. Our area did not grow such tropical fruits, and there was limited interregional trading of agricultural products at the time. Years later, I learned that a foreign leader had sent it as a gift to Mao.

Mao stood at Tiananmen eight times to meet the Red Guards in the square. In August 1966, for the first time, the number of Red Guards from middle schools, high schools, and universities reached one million. Chairman Mao waved his hand gently. The students’ reaction when they saw him was as if they had seen a deity — they were very moved. There was a sea of red tumbling. It was also during “Red August” that the Beijing Red Guards began to get violent, resulting in the deaths of thousands of cadres, teachers, intellectuals, and the black five. It was the beginning of the “Cultural Revolution Massacre.” Other cities followed.

We were taught in the classroom that many early revolutionaries were “on the wrong side in the previous line struggles” — in other words, they were not on Mao’s side. We were taught that in the ten major line struggles after the founding of the party, Mao defeated ten bad leaders. The first was the CCP founder Chen Duxiu, the ninth was Liu Shaoqi, and the tenth was Lin Biao. These ten bad leaders were either too left or too right. Liu Shaoqi, a large number of early party leaders, and many local cadres died in the persecution in the Cultural Revolution’s early days. Senior leaders such as Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun were sent away from the capitol to do manual labor.

Lin Biao, who had once been identified as Mao Zedong’s successor, died in a plane crash in 1971 along with his wife and son. It is said that their plane turned around after reaching the Mongolian-Soviet border. Many senior military cadres were implicated because of their association with him.

Some in the West think that the Cultural Revolution unleashed the revolutionary fervor of the people so that the party could learn from them. But by wielding the masses to suppress dissent on Mao’s behalf, the Cultural Revolution effectively guaranteed we would learn nothing from the Chinese working class.

Post Cultural Revolution

After Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, China’s politics, economy, and education continued to operate according to his model for nearly a year. Even after the resumption of the college entrance examination in 1978, when I was admitted to university and thus finally liberated from the countryside, our English teachers were still teaching us how to chant, “Long Live Chairman Mao.” English teachers and the head of the English department harbored lingering fears about the consequences that would ensue if they didn’t. Some college students still wore military uniforms and carried military satchels. Each freshman received a full month of military training. We were still living in the Cultural Revolution’s shadow. The lives of the suffering Chinese people, especially the peasants, continued to be shrouded in darkness.

After Mao interrupted Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping’s rural reforms in the early 1960s, in 1978, poor peasants in mountainous areas spontaneously undertook similar rural reforms with the acquiescence of local cadres. At the same time, high-level figures in China began a great debate about truth standards in the media, democracy within the party, means of opening up the economy, and general economic reform, from rural reform to industrialization. This was called “the discussion of standards of truth” led by Hu Yaobang (the liberal party leader whose death catalyzed the Tiananmen incident in 1989). All around from 1977 to 1989, there was renewed optimism. But what if these reforms and the reflective moment had not been passed over in the early 1960s? Could liberalization within communization have played out differently compared to liberalization within reintegrated global capitalism? Would globalization have played out differently if the Chinese revolution had taken a different course? Would the impact of integrating cheap overseas labor in the 1990s and 2000s on American and European workers have been different if Chinese social organization had been different?

By 1987, China had basically solved the problem of food and clothing for hundreds of millions of people. Rural laborers increasingly entered cities to work or were employed by local enterprises. With the help of foreign investment, various enterprises sprang up like bamboo shoots after the rain. In 2001, China entered the WTO, and the industrial boom broke out. Rural people (including educated youth) could run enterprises, work in other places, and live in cities. The previous systematic differences in recruitment and school admissions quietly fell away. People started to travel abroad and to find alternative sources of information and ideas without worrying that much about being locked up for thought crimes.

For thousands of years, China sustained complex relationships of authority, from emperors to central ministers to local officials. Of course, the modern age brought with it mass democracy and, with it, new challenges. But the intra-party democracy advocated by the early Communists was extremely short-lived.

During the Civil War, the CCP won many important battles, turning the tide of war despite foreign aid to the Guomingdang. In the end, the occupation of the mainland came unexpectedly soon. Then, with vast disparities in equipment and no air force, the CCP fought against the US military in the Korean War, winning a seat at the negotiating table and laying down the North-South boundary at the 38th parallel. These victories, together with land reform, the early completion of the co-operative movement, and the rectification in Yan’an, all helped Mao and his supporters build confidence. They did things in the nation as they did things in war. Dissent was treated domestically as it would have been treated with an enemy at the gates. But, in so doing, they missed the purpose of our struggle: to build a new society capable of reflecting on itself and on the direction of humanity.

Given their experience, people might rightly wonder whether there’s been progress at all, or whether we have had Qin-style rule under the banner of Marxism-Leninism. Among the top leaders around Mao, some were unabashed sycophants, while others attempted to uphold some degree of party democracy and to tell the truth about the course of the revolution. Perhaps Mao’s victories, starting in Jinggangshan through the Korean War, convinced some sycophants of his infallibility. Even Liu Shaoqi did a lot to bolster Mao’s absolute authority from 1943 onward—all the way until 1962.

Below the top leaders, many tried to demonstrate their loyalty and enthusiasm. The various movements starting in 1951 taught people to say they are “left,” not right, and, of course, most officials only needed to understand the general policy direction to know how they ought to behave. They took limited risks if they over-penalized the “bad guys” or exaggerated the successes of the “good guys” or “good things.” The Cultural Revolution was the culmination of these bureaucratic tendencies. The outcome was a relentless flood of inauthentic messages, making the situation on the ground, as well as the historical situation, opaque to the people as well as to the party. The constant assurances that Mao and his supporters were “going from victory to victory” made the people more and more cynical.

When the head of the State Department, Zhou Enlai suffered from cancer, Mao allowed Deng Xiaoping to preside over routine work there in 1973 with the hopes of spurring economic recovery. Deng attempted to systematically address certain economic issues along with education. But Mao’s nephew reported Deng’s “mistakes” to Mao. In 1975 in the final days of the Cultural Revolution, Mao launched yet a