Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution

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Were Political, Ideological, or Economic Considerations behind Mao’s Decision to Launch the Cultural Revolution in 1966?

Cultural Revolution was a common phenomenon throughout the history of the world. Typically, a revolution is characterized by ideological, political and economic differences amongst leaders in the authority. In the year 1966, China underwent a cultural revolution during the reign of Mao. The event took place after China failed to induce the famous Great leap forward that took place in 1961(Mackerras, C., 2014). According to critics, the event marked a significant milestone in China’s development as it aided in recognition of the Modern  Chinese economic, socialism and cultural revolution. The failure and loss of political status and social inequalities, as well as bureaucratic privileges in China, was the prime reason behind the beginning of a cultural revolution by Mao. This essay will be providing illustrations about political, ideological, and economic that Mao applied in his efforts regarding Cultural Revolution.

Since 1950, after the communists’ victory, China has experienced a radical change in its economic and industrial areas. The rule of the socialists in China set disagreements with their counterparts, capitalists. Despite being referred to as the “era of madness” since it led to severe bankruptcy, the Chinese intellectuals believed in China’s Cultural Revolution. A significant difference was felt in “social inequalities as well as bureaucratic privileges” aspects (Wu, Y., 2014, 1). A new economy was born in the race to secure back power by the capitalists. During the “second golden age,” 1950-1973, the Chinese economy competed with Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. A group of about one million students with all the crucial elements necessary for a successful radical movement waged destructive demonstration throughout the country. They worked with the Red Guard with the intention of controlling the key resources that were used as weapons to wage the mobilization and the base for the leaders that were revolutionary unified under Mao’s ideological ideas. They caused a lot of destruction during the mobilization. This unique method was aiming at replacing “the market economy with large modernized cooperative, collective and state institutions” to ensure full commitment to the new economy by the government of China (Li, X., 2001).

            According to research, Mao believed in the essence of revolutionary arts. From his perspective, a group of people in the society exercised an organized political line of thought in the context of art and the literature. Hence, through art and as well literature, there existed political influence that was highly decisive in the decision making policies. From Mao’s reasoning, politics was merely the “proletarian policy of the masses” as well as minority leadership policy. Therefore, he considered criticism as a significant issue in the struggle in art and the literature. It stimulated an intensified implication of conferring to the communists' theory and the politics of the supreme importance (Zhang, R., 2008). The art and literature based policy by Mao highly encouraged the hypothesis which aided in serving many people within the society who were peasant workers as well as the soldiers. He thus believed that a superior and vital method of empowering the useful Cultural Change was merely revolutionizing art and the education.

A drastic evolution was experienced in the school policy. Mao came up with several important directives that set the pace for Chinese education. He wrote to Piao on May in the year 1966 expressing the significance of children competency in knowledge acquired through learning (Carpenter and Dom, 2003, 34). According to him, this was one way to meet his objective; “to struggle against and crush those persons in authority who are taking the capitalist road... to facilitate the consolidation and development of the socialist system.” He expected that his suggested directive would be summarized and reflected in the learning system by the “bourgeois” intellects hence looking at the more extended control within the school environment. Mao’s contributions inspired education policies for the proletariat to oppose the existing models thus help in the determination of the expected education program.

         The Cultural Revolution strive was also grounded in the existing link between the political and the economic issues. The main aim of the state was the achievement of concrete business policies as well to modernize its economy. Mao's system and ideologies were grounded on promising future strategies to the Chinese economy through proper decision-making techniques. Mao perceived China to have “suffered so much from foreign aggressors that it felt an urgent need o develop its economy and gain national strength” (Carpenter and Dom, 2003, 9). According to him, political inspirations and milestones were vital in fostering production in China. Therefore, combining the three aspects; political, ideological and economic issues, the political influence was significant for the goal in the form of departmentalism, routinization, as well as commands and routines (Schoenhals, M., 2015, 54). His aspirations were thus crucial in the achievement of appropriate political ideologies necessary for the induction of the health politics.  Despite a series of challenges in the political arena, Mao entirely concentrated on the application of the combination of useful studies, theories, and practices that were sufficiently fruitful to the economy of China.

            To Mao, the Cultural Revolution was something to exist forever, constantly kept alive through endless class struggle. However, this effort plunged China into a “calamity on the national economy” (Carpenter and Dom, 2003, 11).  Unseen enemies in the Communistic party and elite circles had to be identified and eliminated with the focus on dealing with social inequalities among ordinary Chinese citizens. Mao’s considerations were widely conceived as a “revolution to touch people’s souls.” The revolution focused on the four old ideologies in ideas, culture, customs, and habits. The prime focus of Mao to eradicate the old perspectives was to align the areas of education, art, and literature in line with the party's ideology. Research indicates that Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife was compelled with the determination of her husband and she took over all cultural productions. The ideas that she advocated through eight “Model Operas” were involved in all kinds of arts. These arts were performed often, and it was mandatory to attend (Zhang, R. 2008).      

Students highly received Mao's call for the Great Cultural Revolution to eliminate those leaders who opposed him especially after the fall of his Great Leap Forward policies. Schools were considered better sources of “excellent infrastructures for mobilization” (Kwong, J. 1988, 8). They organized themselves into groups identified as the “Red Guards” or the “red terror.” Workers and soldiers later joined the Red Guard to enhance the movement. The initial target of the Red Guards was focused on sacred places such as temples, churches, and mosques. The red terror caused massive destructions where consecrated texts, and other writings, were burned, together with various religious statues. The aim was cleansing China, and all objects which were linked with China’s pre-revolutionary past were to be demolished. In their enthusiasm, the Red Guards began to harass people who they considered to be “counter-revolutionary” or “bourgeois.” The terror group had to conduct what they called “struggle sessions” in which they abused and humiliated the individuals who were regarded to keep capitalist thoughts (Wu, L. 2013).

            As one way of attaining some political status, Mao did not propel the Cultural Revolution alone. Instead, he was aided by people like Lin Biao. With the focus on building new China without Communistic ideologies, during the early phases, some leaders such as President Liu were thoroughly beaten and imprisoned (Chang, H., 1999). As it is evident in most occasions in political arenas, Mao had to direct Lin to make use of army troops in the process of restoring order as the Red Guard movement was fighting for supremacy. The army had to force educated urban inhabitants of the Red Guards into rural regions, where the campaign was lowly spread. Within the chaos, China’s economy plunged, with industrial manufacture dropping by approximately twelve percent (Meisner, M. 1999). In 1969, in Biao was officially declared Mao’s successor. However, with Lin’s untimely power grab, Mao noticed it and he decided to move against the attempt with assistance from Zhou Enlai. The above is a precise illustration of how Mao used political ideology to call for the Cultural Revolution in China (Dorrill, W., 1968).

            What happened next after Mao had realized that his approach was not bearing fruits he intended the Chinese to enjoy? By late 1968, Mao had pointed out that his revolution had “spiralled out of control.” He ordered the army to restore order, a move that resulted in the transformation of China into a military autocracy, which spanned into 1971. A significant portion of members of Mao’s command was subsequently removed, and Zhou took over substantial control of the government. He (Zhou) acted with the aim of stabilizing China by introducing several changes in the educational system and reinstating many past officials to power. Lin’s brutal end caused a majority of Chinese people to develop the feeling of disillusionment over the path of Mao’s high-minded “revolution,” which appeared to have submerged in favor of universal power struggles. ((Ho D.Y, 2011, 687-705).


Finally, after using political approaches such as the Red Guards that made a difference on the free worker mobilization and making an effort in establishing an active link between political and economic aspects, the revolution ended in the fall of 1976, after the death of Mao. Among the implications of the Cultural Revolution were massive deaths, displacements of millions of people, and the total disruption of the Chinese economy. During the Cultural Revolution, an enormous killing of many people took place, and a million people were jailed as other were tortured. The implication of the Mao’s revolution was mainly experienced in China’s cities in a short-term period, but the long-term consequences would affect China country for decades (Herberer, T 2009, 168). From the illustration in this essay, it is evident that Mao’s considerations and decisions would eventually produce adverse outcomes to what was his initial intentions, and therefore several Chinese people would lose trust in their government.


Carpenter, T.G., and Dorn, J.A. eds., 2000. China's future: constructive partner or emerging threat? Cato Institute.

Chang, Tony H. China during the Cultural Revolution: 1966-1976: a Selected Bibliography of English Language Works. Westport, Conn. [u.a.: Greenwood, 1999. Print.

Dorrill, W.F., 1968. Power, Policy, And Ideology in the Making of China's' cultural Revolution' (No. Rm-5731-Pr). Rand Corp Santa Monica Ca.

Herberer, T 2009, ‘The “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”: China’s modern trauma,             Journal of Modern Chinese History, Vol. 3, no. 2, pp. 165-181

Ho, D.Y., 2011. Revolutionizing antiquity: the Shanghai cultural bureaucracy in the Cultural Revolution, 1966–1968. The China Quarterly, 207, pp.687-705.

Kwong, J., 1988. Cultural Revolution in China's Schools: May 1966–April 1969. Hoover Press.

Li, X., 2001. The Chinese cultural revolution revisited. China Review, pp.137-165.

Mackerras, C., 2014. China in transformation: 1900-1949. Routledge.

Meisner, M., 1999. Mao's China and after A history of the People's Republic. Simon and Schuster.

Schoenhals, M., 2015. China's Cultural Revolution, 1966-69: Not a Dinner Party: Not a Dinner Party. Routledge.

Wu, L 2013, Cultural Revolution (China), Blackwell Publishing Ltd., USA

Wu, Y., 2014. The Cultural Revolution at the Margins. Harvard University Press.

Zhang, R., 2008. The Cinema of Feng Xiaogang: Commercialization and Censorship in Chinese Cinema after 1989 (Vol. 1). Hong Kong University Press.

November 24, 2023

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