What the 50th anniversary since the Cultural Revolution means to China today

By James Brennan on March 17, 2016
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Propaganda poster showing Mao Zedong, godlike and first among equals. Caption reads: "Follow Chairman Mao and advance through the wind and the waves." (Image credits: CC)

May 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (文化大革命). Initiated by Mao Zedong with his “May 16th Notification,” the Cultural Revolution had the aim of consolidating Mao's authority over the government at a time when he felt the purity of Communist doctrines were being diluted by experts and privileged elite. This utopian revolution threw China into chaos as young, impressionable people were encouraged to rebel against their teachers and elders – a decade-long uprising that resulted in millions of deaths.

The desire for an ideological class struggle led Mao – the Great Helmsman – to publish a “big character poster” (大字报) which encouraged revolutionaries across the country to “bombard the headquarters” (炮打司令部); for Mao, this was both an ideological and political tactic that would assert his dominance in China. He and other top leaders in the Communist Party believed that “socialism does not end the struggle between antagonistic classes,” – a roundabout way of saying that this Revolution would not only condemn enemies outside the Communist Party, but would also persecute the enemies within.

On August 8th, 1966, the party's Central Committee passed what came to be known as the “Sixteen Points.” This was a call for the proletariat to rise up, because:

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 stage a comeback. The proletariat must do just the opposite: It must meet head-on every challenge of the bourgeoisie [...] to change the outlook of society.

The bourgeoisie did not only include intellectuals, but also landowners, writers, ethnic minorities and other elements of society who were subjected to torture, public humiliation, and death. Ironically, while the elite and bourgeois were being persecuted, Mao became worshiped like a god making the entire raison d'être of the Cultural Revolution a paradox. Ancient ideals like Confucianism and historical relics became targets of destruction and, by the most conservative estimates, 400,000 people died during the ten years from the beginning of the Cultural Revolution to Mao's death in 1976. Soon after his death, Deng Xiaoping took the helm and attempted to repair the damage caused by Mao's Cultural Revolution.

An unresolved grief

Fifty years later, modern China is almost unrecognizable from the one that engendered the Cultural Revolution. Prosperity and economic reforms, led by Deng Xiaoping, changed China, its people, and the world. The ideological battles of the early days of the PRC have been more-or-less forgotten as, according to the Pew Research Center, 76% of “Chinese agree that most people are better off in a free-market economy.” And this even continues to the next generation as 85% of the population “think the younger generation will be better off financially than their parents.” At no point in human history have more individuals been elevated out of poverty and into the modern world. This is quite a departure from the pure Communist ideals that Mao had envisioned.

Prosperity has allowed some of the darker corners of modern China's past to be left unresolved – the Cultural Revolution foremost among them. In the early 80s, the Communist party declared the failure of the Cultural Revolution and Mao's erroneous plan for class struggle. Attempts were made for restitution to the victims of the event. However, China under Deng Xiaoping preferred to look forward and craft the narrative of history so to retain the confidence and control of the Chinese people.

To understand why the Cultural Revolution is hardly mentioned in today's China, it is important to understand these two principles and how they worked in tandem: trying to recover from the disastrous event, the government deliberately downplayed the uprising's horrors in order to retain its legitimacy. Then, as the economic reforms by Deng Xiaoping started to bring unprecedented prosperity into the country, people's focus shifted from the terrible tragedy of the past to the promising prospect of the future. The Cultural Revolution was both deliberately and conveniently forgotten. This dichotomy is summed up by Hu Rongfen, who was sent to a farm collective during the Revolution:

If the Cultural Revolution came back and I were to be dispatched again, I'd rather commit suicide. I stayed awake night after night at the commune, worrying if I’d ever return to any city. [...] I live a happy life now. I want to live every day like (I were still in my) youth because I was never able to enjoy my teens and 20s.

Economic prosperity loomed, while blotches in the nation's past were swept away under newfound wealth. Memories from particularly difficult periods started to fade and events like the 30th anniversary, the 40th anniversary, and the upcoming 50th anniversary will go largely un-memorialized. There were and are still many academics who call for the sins of the past to be reckoned, yet whether their voice will be allowed to make a larger impact on society is yet to be seen.

This is a curious occurrence, especially since many of the top leaders in China were themselves victims of the Cultural Revolution. The silence on the Cultural Revolution even extends all the way up to the President Xi Jinping. According to The Diplomat, President Xi was relocated to a re-education camp in Shaanxi province from his elite school in the heart of Beijing. The article continues, “What little he has said of the late 1960s and early 1970s has been mostly negative. His colleagues in the Standing Committee had roughly similar experiences. They too have maintained silence.”

Interestingly, because of these patriotic surges, old rhetoric and ideals have reemerged. According to preeminent Sinologist David Leese, the rhetoric and ideals of the time are making a resurgence in popular culture. Leese explains, “some other aspects of the [Cultural Revolution] period are remembered and even romanticized. The recently purged politician Bo Xilai tapped into heroic memories of revolutionary fervor and revolutionary ideals for example by way of singing 'Red songs'”. Especially as anti-Japanese sentiments are occasionally whipped into a frenzy, patriotism flares, and the idyllic class struggle rhetoric surges to the forefront of Chinese society.

In part, the lack of a deeper recognition and official memorialization of the Cultural Revolution is because it was a solely internal phenomenon – a civil war that tore through the national psyche. During the Cultural Revolution, there were no extraneous threats like the Japanese or Europeans to blame for China's misery. The history ingrained in every Chinese student, writes the New York Times, “is that China was humiliated by Western powers. Then some well-meaning but misguided patriots took up the fight until they were properly led by the Communists, whose inevitable victory in 1949 started China's recovery.”

Forbidden to remember, terrified to forget

Mao's Revolution is still a taboo in today's China. If one visits the two-million-square-foot exhibition on the country's modern history at the National Museum next to Tiananmen Square, they will see that the party acknowledges the Cultural Revolution with just one photograph and a three-line caption. For this 50th anniversary, it is highly unlikely that the Cultural Revolution will truly be forgotten, nor will it be properly confronted either.

Though it is not solemnly recreated in a museum or eulogized every year on May 16th, it is still there, a harrowing and unforgettable tragedy in Chinese history. Although there is a Cultural Revolution Museum in the southern city of Shantou, the chances are small for a national-level museum with the somber gravitas of the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall. But, as young Chinese grow into old Chinese, demographics, cultural norms and perhaps even China's collective self-image will change; eventually, the ghost of the Cultural Revolution may be duly confronted.

Edited by the East Asia Gazette.