After the disastrous results of the Great Leap Forward, Mao was stripped of his respected status in the Communist Party. However in 1966, determined to salvage his position and reinstate his authority over the party, Mao called for a Cultural Revolution that was in part aimed to purge communist rivals that had jumped on his weakness and were looking to shut him out of the movement. By launching the Cultural Revolution, he was also assured in preserving his egalitarian vision for China; he didn’t trust a new elite to carry on the spirit of the revolution he had fostered. He wasn’t so sure that they wouldn’t destroy it, alter it beyond the original intent, or slow the movement at best. He had intended to reconstruct society from the ground up with his own form of Marxism; to achieve the pure, undiluted society he wanted he would aggressively purge the influences left behind by China’s old regimes as well as the knowledge introduced by the West.
Mao decided the best way to remain in control was to develop his own personal and political strongarm, which came to be known as the The Red Guards. They were used to keep party officials in line, punish bourgeois opponents, push Maoist propaganda, and dismantle the old Chinese culture. The Red Guard comprised of many fractured groups, primarily the youth and the educated, that only shared common allegiance in their fanatical subservience to Mao and Maoist thought. The youth that lacked in wealth or a prestigious communist background that was an entry point for the official Red Guard, formed their own factions and referred to themselves as rebels or “the Red Guards of Mao Zedong thought.” They had been radicalized by organizations that had spread through institutions of learning across China. These organizations persuaded people to rebel against “anti-Maoist counter-revolutionaries” by taking down bourgeoise intellectuals. The Red Guards were at the helm of “struggle sessions,” which entailed public meetings in which educated people with traditionalist or capitalist leanings were publicly humiliated whether verbally or through physical violence. Many students that were interrogated in these sessions died or were sent to the countryside for years of reeducation. Eventually, students became so engrossed in their support of the Red Guard that schools and universities were closed to accommodate their burgeoning movement. During the ten year span of the Cultural Revolution, many people were left without an education, leading to an entire generation experiencing job inequities due to lack of academic qualifications. Mao encouraged the increasingly radical students to harass and assault others that would not accept his communist subversion of the nation; even members from within the communist party weren’t safe from punishment if they were suspected of going outside of Mao’s narrative. He used this new following to oust political opponents such as Deng Xiaoping and Zhou Enlai from his party, and to cast out or jail moderate officials.There were many different kinds of people that fell under the ire of the new Communist government: government officials, those with foreign connections, and professors. These groups were prime targets, paraded around and beaten in public. It’s been estimated that little under half a million of these people died.
Mao also extended the Cultural Revolution beyond schools In the name of cultural purity. Mao had the Red Guards destroy objects and sites pertaining to pre-Communist China. Mao targeted the “Four Olds”, an umbrella term for the four pillars of the Chinese way of life: customs, culture, habits, and ideas. Buddhist temples, mosques, churches, religious statues, museums, and libraries were either destroyed or were refashioned for some other use. Much of China’s high culture was targeted, including the Chinese classics, sacred texts, old relics, and lauded intellectual works – this purge destroyed much of original Chinese culture, and the effects on the country are still devastating today. Since the Communists were trying to preserve purity, they also went after any artifacts or sites that exuded Western influence, and many peoples homes were searched for items that could incriminate them.
In 1967, the Cultural Revolution snowballed into an exponentially more powerful movement due to government backing. The country fell into extreme disorder as the movement was pushed to excess, resulting in a factional warfare and civil war period. The Red Guard began to rise up against their local authorities all across China. They had the full support of Mao, who actively encouraged their uprising by proclaiming it was the next crucial step in the revolution. Though eventually any semblance of cohesion the Red Guard once had started to break down as factions began to compete for local power as soon as their common enemy was neutralized. Many factions had strong ideological differences and fought over which one had the closest resemblance to Maoist thought. Army units would add fuel to the chaos by supplying many different opposing factions.
Only in 1968, when chaos in urban areas erupted into total Civil War was Mao’s hand forced. He urged the factions to cease their fighting, and they did due to their common adherence to Mao. Shortly soon after, under the excuse of wanting to create a more egalitarian society by bridging the gap between disparate groups, Mao sent many students of the Red Guard to the countryside to become reeducated by the peasants. Though this decision was more about spreading out the Red Guard base so it would be more difficult for them to destabilize the country again. Once in the countryside, the Red Guards would encourage the peasants to struggle against their local officials.
Mao’s infallibility was challenged when it was discovered that Lin Biao, one of Mao’s closest associates and potential successors, was involved in a conspiracy to assassinate him. Though Lin Biao died in a plane crash in an attempt to flee China, his plot had a long lasting impact on Mao’s image. People started questioning Mao’s ability to choose what was best for the country after unknowingly associating with a traitor for so long; his competence now in question, he seemed less like a god, and people’s fanaticism wavered. People were slowly becoming disillusioned with extremism, which helped set the stage for a more politically tepid society in the future.
The Cultural Revolution was adverse in many ways. The decade long class struggle destroyed millions of lives, disfigured traditional Chinese culture (a lot of it lost in the purges), and stagnated the Chinese economy. It forced a generation of Chinese out of education, creating a large, disadvantaged class of people that struggled due to lack of credentials. The revolution also created a generation of people maladjusted to society that had always prioritized rebellion over work. Though it can be noted that the burden the Cultural Revolution reaped on the economy did encourage future communist leaders to adopt more sensible economic reforms. People were more apt to avoid policies that would reintroduce any kind of social disorder, which was reflected in China’s future domestic and international practicality.