Mao’s Hundred Flowers Campaign Begins Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Mao Zedong’s slogan “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend” was an invitation to China’s intellectuals to criticize the Communist regime. The campaign backfired, however, and Mao instituted a repressive campaign against intellectuals, namely dissident scholars and students, who went too far in their criticism of the party.

Summary of Event

By the beginning of 1956, China had experienced three years of drastic changes in the process of transforming itself into a communist state, Communism;China Economic systems;communism as outlined by the Chinese Communist Party Communist Party, Chinese (CCP) in the First Five-year Plan First Five-year Plan, Chinese[First Five year Plan] China;First Five-year Plan[First Five year Plan] (1953-1957). The plan was based on the Soviet model, which emphasized industrialization at the expense of the agricultural sector. Mao Zedong’s policy of rapidly ending private enterprise in industry and agriculture faced opposition from other CCP leaders such as Gao Gang Gao Gang , Liu Shaoqi, and Peng Dehuai Peng Dehuai . [kw]Mao’s Hundred Flowers Campaign Begins (Spring, 1957)[Maos Hundred Flowers Campaign Begins] [kw]Hundred Flowers Campaign Begins, Mao’s (Spring, 1957) Hundred Flowers Campaign China;Hundred Flowers Campaign Dissent;China Hundred Flowers Campaign China;Hundred Flowers Campaign Dissent;China [g]Asia;Spring, 1957: Mao’s Hundred Flowers Campaign Begins[05430] [g]China;Spring, 1957: Mao’s Hundred Flowers Campaign Begins[05430] [c]Government and politics;Spring, 1957: Mao’s Hundred Flowers Campaign Begins[05430] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;Spring, 1957: Mao’s Hundred Flowers Campaign Begins[05430] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Spring, 1957: Mao’s Hundred Flowers Campaign Begins[05430] [c]Social issues and reform;Spring, 1957: Mao’s Hundred Flowers Campaign Begins[05430] Mao Zedong Liu Shaoqi Ding Ling Zhou Enlai Zhu De

Chinese propaganda poster paying tribute to Mao Zedong.

(Library of Congress)

In the agricultural sector, Mao’s plan of forming advanced cooperatives similar to the Soviet collective farms saw dramatic changes in 1956. For example, in January only 4 percent of the peasant households were members of advanced cooperatives, but by December about 88 percent of peasant households had joined the advanced cooperatives. For the First Five-year Plan to succeed, the CCP had to force changes on the population. The CCP and its huge bureaucracy imposed rationing on food, clothing, and other necessities. Jobs were assigned by the state and there were restrictions on residence and movement. People’s lives came increasingly under bureaucratic control, which also tried to regiment art and literature. Censorship;China

One of the early victims of the need for intellectuals to adhere to the party line was Hu Feng Hu Feng , an author and CCP member who also had seats on the executive boards of the Writer’s Union and the National People’s Congress. Hu’s mistake was to charge that the party’s use of Marxism to judge works of art was crude and would stifle creativity. Mao had him arrested and charged as an imperialist and a counterrevolutionary. In order to speed up his own agenda of land reform, Mao instituted a campaign of repression Human rights;China called the suppression of hidden counterrevolutionaries (1955-1956). This campaign demoralized thousands of intellectuals (high school graduates) who had thought they could work with the CCP to build a better China. Consequently, the party leadership itself became bitterly divided over how to deal with intellectuals.

According to Mao’s estimation, out of the five million intellectuals, only about 3 percent were hostile to the CCP. With this small number in mind and with his new theoretical contribution “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People” "On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People" (Mao)[On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People] in April, 1956, Mao believed that the intellectuals could be used to build socialism. Thus, on May 2, Mao introduced the slogan “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend.” This sudden and curious change of heart to encourage intellectuals to criticize the CCP by Mao, who up until a few months before was persecuting intellectuals in the suppression of hidden counterrevolutionaries campaign, resulted from his analysis of the changes that were taking place in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and his need to shake up the leaders of the CCP.

In February, Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev Khrushchev, Nikita S. [p]Khrushchev, Nikita S.;de-Stalinization had denounced Joseph Stalin for his oppression of the Russian people and his practice of the cult of personality. Khrushchev was also in favor of peaceful coexistence rather than constant conflict and projected a more liberal regime for the Soviet Union. Then came the Polish riots in June, followed by the Hungarian rebellion against the Soviet Union in October. Mao must have interpreted the Polish and Hungarian revolts as a sign of too much repression. He worked to provide a safety valve for China by urging the country to begin what would soon be called the “Hundred Flowers Campaign.”

The opportunity for Mao to convince intellectuals to provide input into the building of China came with his conciliatory speech before eighteen hundred invited Communist and non-Communist delegates to the Supreme State Conference. By early May, 1957, almost a year after Mao had introduced the slogan of “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend,” the full weight of the press and other propaganda Propaganda;China organs formally started the Hundred Flowers Campaign. The intellectuals, once convinced that they could officially air their grievances against the CCP, did so with enthusiasm.

Abuses by party cadres in the form of corruption, cruel labor practices, and foolish experiments in production were aired in closed forums attended by CCP delegates. The state-controlled press, wall posters, and street demonstrations aired public anger against the cruelty of previous campaigns and the shameless copying of Soviet systems and models. The violations of human rights and the tyranny of the communist system were condemned.

The students at Beijing University set up a “Democratic Wall” on which were plastered criticisms against the CCP. By the beginning of June, students were so incensed by the revelation of abuses by the CCP that protest movements were coordinated throughout the major cities of China. Students rioted, went on strike, ransacked files, beat up cadres, and demanded more educational freedom. One fiery student leader, Lin Xiling Lin Xiling , a twenty-one-year-old law student at Beijing University, revealed how alleged counterrevolutionaries were brutalized when she worked in district courts. She charged that about 700,000 people had been executed Executions;Chinese counterrevolutionaries based on trumped-up charges and tampering of records by public-security personnel during the early 1950’s.

Workers demanded better working conditions and wages with the right to form labor unions; they went on strike or work slowdowns to emphasize their needs. In defiance of rural collectivization, large numbers of peasants decided to leave the cooperatives. Taxes were also withheld by many, who charged that the communist government taxed them more than their old landlords had.

Famous scholars used the new freedom to do comparative research. Sociologist Fei Xiaotong Fei Xiaotong published in June his observations of a remote village in Jiangsu. He concluded that the villagers were less well off in the 1950’s than they had been in the 1930’s, because many of the economic and agricultural programs were unsuitable and forced on the peasants by overzealous cadres.

Mao’s Hundred Flowers Campaign, whose goals were to inspire the lethargic and bureaucratic CCP with the skills of those involved in the creative arts and humanities (the flowers) and to boost China into a higher stage of socialism with those skilled in the areas of science and technology (the schools of thought), had backfired. The most articulate groups, the scholars and college students who had always been identified as allies of the CCP, became its most vehement critics. They resented the dictatorship of the CCP, the corrupt and incompetent party cadres, the lack of civil liberties, and the regimentation of all aspects of life. Mao was overwhelmed by the barrage of criticisms from the very people he thought would support his liberalism.

To strengthen his position and to stop the intellectual rebellion without making himself appear as a hypocrite, Mao made some changes in a new publication of “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People” (June 18). The revised text listed several criteria that must be taken into account in all future criticisms. Thus, it appeared that intellectuals could still criticize, but with certain conditions. The conditions for criticism included the ability to benefit social transformation and to strengthen democratic centralism and the CCP.

With this move, Mao won over the support of party hard-liners such as Liu Shaoqi, Zhu De, and Peng Zhen Peng Zhen , who were skeptical about the Hundred Flowers Campaign because it allowed outsiders to criticize the CCP, which to them was the leading force of the people. The momentum of criticism could not be changed by Mao’s new requirements. Mao and the party hard-liners came down ruthlessly on dissident intellectuals by invoking the Anti-rightist Campaign Anti-rightist Campaign, Chinese (1957-1958)[Antirightist Campaign, Chinese] of late June, 1957, through 1958.


More than 300,000 intellectuals were branded as “rightists,” an unforgiving and scornful label that would ruin careers and obstruct any opportunities for a better life in China. For example, Fei Xiaotong was made to repudiate his Jiangsu report and was forbidden to teach, do research, or publish about Chinese society. Ding Ling, the famous feminist author, was stripped of her party membership and was banished to labor on a farm in Manchuria. She was charged with ambitions of taking over the Writer’s Union and using her position to attack the CCP.

More telling was the plight of the Liang family. Liang Yar Zhi-de Liang Yar Zhi-de , a devout party member and a respected public security officer, was branded a “rightist.” During the Hundred Flowers Campaign, the Changsha Public Security Bureau held nightly meetings at which everyone was urged to express feelings. Liang had no reason to criticize the CCP, but her section head insisted that she say something to fulfill a quota. Liang did not criticize the party, but she did say that her boss sometimes used crude language and did not follow consensus opinion in making pay raises. When the Anti-rightist Campaign started, her boss took revenge. He reduced her cadre rank, cut her monthly salary from fifty-five to fifteen yuan, and sent her to a farm to labor. Although her husband Liang Ying-qiu Liang Ying-qiu was an important journalist and a trusted party member, he had to divorce her to save their children. “Rightist” children could not attend good schools or have good positions in life.

Another case of a loyal party member who was discredited and branded a “rightist” was Yang Kang Yang Kang , who was assistant editor of the government’s paper, People’s Daily, in Beijing. Apparently, a journal that she had kept showed her admiration of certain political and economic characteristics of the United States when she was there in 1946 and 1947. This made her vulnerable under questioning. With her love and faith for the CCP shattered, she killed herself.

The Anti-rightist Campaign worked to “cleanse” other CCP members, cadres, and students of “rightist” wrongs by instituting the hsia fang, the “sending down” to the farms and countryside to do productive labor. About 1.3 million cadres participated in hsia fang, and several million more students were forced to do physical labor under similar programs. In total, about 1.7 million people were investigated for antiparty activities. About one million party members were rebuked, put on probation, or dropped from membership.

The Hundred Flowers Campaign ended with the Anti-rightist Campaign, which caused untold hardships on the Chinese people. Many lives were lost, and survivors learned to distrust the government, fellow workers, friends, and even relatives. Subsequent efforts to seek reform in China would recall this era, and the later failure of Gorbachev in the Soviet Union to achieve simultaneously economic restructuring (perestroika) and openness (glasnost). Later efforts at reform in China would emphasize restructuring while repressing freedom of expression. Hundred Flowers Campaign China;Hundred Flowers Campaign Dissent;China

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fairbank, John King. The Great Chinese Revolution. New York: Harper & Row, 1986. An excellent condensed account of modern Chinese history with personal anecdotes about Chinese friends or colleagues who had suffered from the Hundred Flowers Campaign.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harrison, James Pinckney. The Long March to Power: A History of the Chinese Communist Party, 1921-72. New York: Praeger, 1972. Mao’s leadership of the CCP and his concept of permanent revolution is well chronicled in chapter 22. Good statistics are provided on the different categories of purges after the Hundred Flowers Campaign.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Heng, Liang, and Judith Shapiro. Son of the Revolution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983. This book covers the life of Liang Heng from the 1950’s to the 1980’s. Although the bulk of the book is on the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, the section concerning the circumstances under which his father divorced his mother covers the Anti-Rightist Campaign very well.
  • 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 China saw major changes in political ideologies—to the first years of the twenty-first century. Includes chapters on the Hundred Flowers Campaign, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">MacFarquhar, Roderick. The Hundred Flowers Campaign and the Chinese Intellectuals. New York: Octagon Books, 1974. Provides useful documents and helpful commentary on the Hundred Flowers Campaign and intellectualism in China.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meisner, Maurice. Mao’s China and After: A History of the People’s Republic. 3d ed. New York: Free Press, 1999. Examines Chinese history during the time of Mao’s leadership of the country, with a chapter on the Hundred Flowers Campaign and other national “programs,” including the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Solomon, Richard H. Mao’s Revolution and the Chinese Political Culture. 1971. New ed. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan, 1998. Includes discussion of Mao’s theory on “contradictions” and permanent revolution. Includes a good discussion of his reactions to destabilization and the Hungarian rebellion and his motives for the Hundred Flowers Campaign.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spence, Jonathan D. The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution, 1895-1980. New York: Viking Books, 1981. Chapter 12 provides very good examples of famous intellectuals who suffered under the Hundred Flowers Campaign. Ding Ling’s ordeal, humiliation, and punishment are well described.
  • 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 Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution.

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