Cultural Revolution Begins in China Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

China’s Cultural Revolution, a power struggle within the Communist Party of China, resulted in political and economic chaos, with massive disruptions in industry and commerce.

Summary of Event

The Cultural Revolution was a complex political and socioeconomic upheaval that began in 1966 and lasted until 1976. Some analysts perceived it as a struggle between Mao Zedong and Liu Shaoqi for dominance of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that went on to affect all of China with its call for “continuing revolution.” Cultural Revolution, Chinese China;Cultural Revolution Communist Party, Chinese Civil unrest;China [kw]Cultural Revolution Begins in China (May, 1966) [kw]Revolution Begins in China, Cultural (May, 1966) [kw]China, Cultural Revolution Begins in (May, 1966) Cultural Revolution, Chinese China;Cultural Revolution Communist Party, Chinese Civil unrest;China [g]Asia;May, 1966: Cultural Revolution Begins in China[08880] [g]China;May, 1966: Cultural Revolution Begins in China[08880] [c]Government and politics;May, 1966: Cultural Revolution Begins in China[08880] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;May, 1966: Cultural Revolution Begins in China[08880] [c]Social issues and reform;May, 1966: Cultural Revolution Begins in China[08880] Mao Zedong Liu Shaoqi Zhou Enlai Deng Xiaoping Lin Biao

In the early 1950’s, China followed the Soviet pattern of centrally planned economic development. In 1958, Chinese leader Mao started the Great Leap Forward, which aimed at developing the Chinese economy based on popular mobilization. The Great Leap Forward ended in failure because of poor planning, overextension, and famine. During the early 1960’s, China’s economic policy shifted to a more orderly development program. Policy debate among leaders focused on two alternative development strategies. The left, led by Mao, chairman of the Central Committee of the CCP, demanded mass mobilization for crash programs, while the moderates, supported by President Liu Shaoqi, called for orderly planning with more modest growth targets. The debate culminated in the Cultural Revolution upheaval, when the pendulum swung to the left.

The Cultural Revolution became a struggle over policy and power, each side convinced that its approach to economic development was the best for China and that the opposition’s strategy would lead to disaster. In mid-1966, Mao, frustrated by party obstruction and sabotage of his initiatives, turned the Cultural Revolution into a mass movement to remove opponents from power. Cadres of all levels were thrown out of office between 1966 and 1969. Liu Shaoqi and CCP general secretary Deng Xiaoping were singled out as the most prominent “persons in authority taking the capitalist road.”

The Politburo meeting of the CCP Central Committee in May, 1966, officially launched the Cultural Revolution, which was defined as a struggle against the revisionist line. The Cultural Revolution was an attempt by Mao and radicals to maintain their view of a continuing revolution. It began in August with mass criticism and purges of top party and military leaders. As the revolution spread, so-called Red Guard organizations of high school and college students, led by the radicals, conducted criticism sessions and purges throughout the country. Large numbers of leaders and intellectuals were sent to the countryside for political education and manual labor.

The Cultural Revolution moved to university campuses and into the streets, dominated by the activities of the Red Guard youth militia, who attacked “capitalist roaders” in party, government, and school administrations, as well as manifestations of the “four olds”—old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits. It was at this point that the movement became fractious and sometimes violent, as each locality saw the movement split into contending factions.

During this period of chaos and violence, many regular party and government operations came to a standstill. In January, 1967, the People’s Liberation Army People’s Liberation Army, Chinese[Peoples Liberation Army, Chinese] (PLA) was called out to restore order and to establish revolutionary committees to fill the power vacuum. There emerged many revolutionary committees consisting of a triple alliance of mass organization representatives, cadres, and PLA officers. The PLA was called on to put a stop to the disruptive and often violent struggles between rival mass organizations and to prevent these struggles from developing into all-out civil war. Throughout much of the year, the army found itself embroiled in the fight, attacked politically by some of the Cultural Revolution leadership and attacked physically by rebels carrying weapons seized from army arsenals.

In September, Mao issued a directive in the name of all of the top party, state, and military organs, calling on the PLA to restore order and ordering the masses to submit. Having brought down chief targets in the leadership, especially Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, the Cultural Revolution now turned against the “ultra-left” and purged a number of leaders associated with the radical factions and with the assault on “capitalist roaders” in the army.

Throughout the first half of 1968, the effort to create unity among the factional organizations was compromised by continuing disputes within the leadership as well as by widespread disillusionment, vengefulness, and resentment among rebel groups. Local violence continued to flare, and serious fighting between armed student groups occurred on Beijing campuses until Mao sent workers and soldiers into the universities to end the chaos. In the summer and autumn of 1968, an estimated 1.75 million urban secondary-school graduates and college students were sent to the countryside, commencing a flow that reached a cumulative total of 12 million by 1975. This “rustication” in 1968 was not confined to students; thousands of cadres also were sent to May Seventh Cadre Schools May Seventh Cadre Schools where, through physical labor and political study, they were expected to shed bureaucratic and elitist attitudes.

Although the Cultural Revolution started partly as a struggle for power, the leadership’s new emphasis on Maoist values and concepts had significant effects on economic policies. First, material incentives, which had constituted the cornerstone of the post-Great Leap policy, were openly condemned as capitalist “economism.” Second, mass participation in industrial management was encouraged. College-trained engineers and technicians were downgraded. Many technical regulations were discarded, and production procedures were simplified. Many prominent scientists and scholars were humiliated and tortured. Third, small-scale industry was in favor again. The switch to labor-intensive, small-scale industry linked to domestic technology was intended to use the surplus workforce in each locality and to achieve regional self-sufficiency. In 1973, fourteen hundred small chemical fertilizer plants reportedly produced more than half of China’s chemical fertilizers. Some twenty-four hundred small plants turned out half of China’s total cement output.

Agricultural production continued to grow at a slow pace, but industrial output was disrupted and showed significant decline, particularly for 1967-1968. The Cultural Revolution decade, 1966-1976, also saw severe disruptions in education. Politically, it was a period of instability and internal dissent.


In the early stages of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1969), the focus was on the Maoists’ seizure of political power from party power holders. Many party leaders who previously had expressed opposition to Mao’s policy were purged. Of the twenty-three members of the Politburo before the Cultural Revolution, only nine retained membership. Approximately two-thirds of the members of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee elected in 1956 were ousted.

In industry, the director-responsibility system was abolished. Revolutionary committees composed of workers, cadres, and army representatives and technicians replaced administrative committees and performed the functions of directors. Many traditional work rules and regulations were discarded, and managerial personnel were downgraded. The consequences bordered on a management debacle.

These radical policies caused output to decline. Industrial output dropped 13 percent in 1967, and by 1968, it was still below that of 1966. As China’s population continued to grow, per capita income declined. To arrest the economic decline, Mao charged Premier Zhou Enlai in 1971 with the responsibility of reviving the ailing economy. Although Zhou had allied with Mao, his outlook and commitment were more closely akin to those of the purged leaders than to those of the radicals. Zhou took advantage of this opportunity to rehabilitate hundreds of experienced administrators, including Deng Xiaoping. Between 1973 and early 1976, Zhou was stricken with terminal cancer, and Deng became the de facto premier. Firmly determined to eliminate the most radical elements from the government, Deng put forward a set of programs that amounted to a total denial of the radicals’ philosophy and a challenge to the ultra-leftists, led by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, who was the revolution’s deputy director. The new policy substantially revised the self-reliance doctrine advocated by Mao.

Mao sought in ideology, decentralization, mass campaigns, and collective incentives an alternative to the highly bureaucratized planning regime the country started in the early 1950’s. He was unable to provide the organizing principles for a nonbureaucratic socialism that could unite the Chinese people. Instead, his programs gave rise to a violent and repressive episode in which heady idealism degenerated into warfare between dogmas and factions. Despite hard work by millions of people, the economy as a whole drifted, cut loose by the disintegration of rational planning, and veered sharply away from meeting the needs of the population.

On one hand, market mechanisms were criticized and condemned. On the other hand, the centrally planned system was disrupted. As a result, the Chinese economy entered a period of chaos. By the end of the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese economy was on the verge of bankruptcy.

The Cultural Revolution contributed to Chinese political and economic reforms. In sharp contrast with the Soviet Union, the economic changes initiated from above in China met with enthusiastic popular response. The trauma of the Cultural Revolution in China exceeded by far the effects on the Soviet citizenry of Leonid Brezhnev’s ten years of stagnation. Whereas in China the citizenry responded enthusiastically to calls for radical economic changes, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s impassioned pleas for restructuring the economy went unheard.

The Cultural Revolution disrupted the process of China’s political and economic development. It greatly damaged the shape and authority of the country’s political institutions. It brought about a long-term economic depression and reduced living standards of the majority of the population. It also intensified political tensions and conflicts between society and the state and undermined official ideology and legitimacy. As a result, the post-Cultural Revolution leadership in China came under strong popular pressure to raise living standards and expand individual freedom.

During the Cultural Revolution, China had a strong tendency toward autarky, or self-reliance. Since 1978, the thrust of Chinese international economic policy has been to open the country to the world. Fundamental domestic reforms and growing interdependence with the world economy have dramatically transformed the Chinese economy and society. Since the end of the Cultural Revolution, there has been a deep fear of social upheaval and a strong desire for stability and prosperity in China. Cultural Revolution, Chinese China;Cultural Revolution Communist Party, Chinese Civil unrest;China

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barnett, A. Doak. Cadres, Bureaucracy, and Political Power in Communist China. New York: Columbia University Press, 1967. Examines the party/state system as it operated on the eve of the Cultural Revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chang, Jung, and Jon Halliday. Mao: The Unknown Story. New York: Knopf, 2005. A biography of Mao Zedong based on ten years of research in newly opened archives and on interviews with those who were closest to Mao. Argues that his policies were not based on his personal ideologies or idealism but by a desire to rule the world. Also argues that he was responsible for the deaths of more than 70 million Chinese people, all during “peacetime.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dittmer, Lowell. China’s Continuous Revolution: The Post-Liberation Epoch, 1949-1981. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. Analyzes the theory and practice of the “continuous revolution” with an emphasis on the inner logic of cultural revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fairbank, John K., Edwin O. Reischauer, and Albert M. Craig. East Asia: Tradition and Transformation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989. A broad sweep of Chinese history by two leading scholars. Contains a detailed account of events and trends through the Cultural Revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lawrance, Alan. China Since 1919: Revolution and Reform, a Sourcebook. New York: Routledge, 2004. A history of China from 1919—the year that saw major changes in political ideologies—to the first years of the twenty-first century. Includes chapters on the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lee, Hong Yung. The Politics of the Chinese Cultural Revolution: A Case Study. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978. A useful study of the interaction of social tensions and political developments during the Cultural Revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">MacFarquhar, Roderick. Contradictions Among the People, 1956-1957. Vol. 1 in The Origins of the Cultural Revolution. New York: Columbia University Press, 1974. In-depth analysis of the background to the Cultural Revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Great Leap Forward, 1958-1960. Vol. 2 in The Origins of the Cultural Revolution. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983. Examines the connections between the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spence, Jonathan D. The Search for Modern China. 2d ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999. Discusses Chinese historical development in the last four centuries. Chapter 21 examines the Cultural Revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weatherley, Robert. Politics in China Since 1949: Legitimizing Authoritarian Rule. New York: Routledge, 2006. A study of the history of authoritarian government in China, with chapters examining the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">White, Lynn T. Policies of Chaos: The Organizational Causes of Violence in China’s Cultural Revolution. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989. Provides an insightful analysis of social, political, and organizational sources of the Cultural Revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zweig, David. Agrarian Radicalism in China, 1968-1981. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989. Analyzes the process of policy and institutional change in rural areas as a result of the Cultural Revolution and the reasons for the failure of the radicals’ program.

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Categories: History