The Cult of Mao and the Critics
Mao Zedong was in a bad place in the early 60’s. China was coming off of some controversial events (Great Leap, Sino-Soviet relations tanking, etc), and many of his former colleagues had become less reliant on him and less radical than he was. He had declined in popularity, and that “threatened” him. However, Lin Biao, an army commander turned head of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), would help change that, first by compiling and releasing Quotations from Chairman Mao, later by pushing the Diary of Lei Feng. Both books would be studied throughout the army, and eventually throughout China. The first would help Mao attain a new level of reverence from Chinese citizens. The second, a faux diary concocted by propagandists to spread communist values, would eventually be taught in schools, with the fictitious Lei Feng held up as a model citizen and communist throughout the country.
Lin had gained power and respect through these actions and others, and he continued to push for communist ideals in the PLA. In 1965, he would get rid of military ranks, making every soldier equal. He became a political ally with Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, a former actress, both of whom had concerns with how the art in China was anti-Mao or “feudal” in some manner.Wu Han became a catalyst for this crew. He had published an essay that used the historical figure Hai Rui to allegorically criticize the current government, eventually adapting those ideas into the play The Dismissal of Hai Rui from Office (first published and performed in 1961). In addition to Wu, a group of intellectuals that were critical of China’s communist government began publishing writings with the shared pseudonym “Three-Family Village”. These writings and others angered some communists, which eventually led to Yao Wenyuan publishing an article attacking Wu Han’s play, saying that it went against basic Marxist theory.
Launching the Cultural Revolution
The debate ramped up in early 1966, where Peng Zhen (the mayor of Peking) began leading the newly founded Group of Five, a group of bureaucrats who wanted to avoid any sort of radical change. They put out a report that spoke out against Wu Han, but downplayed the issue as academic, not political. On the other hand, Jiang Qing and some PLA cultural workers began hosting a forum in Shanghai, discussing radical ideas about how to “purify” Chinese art. They found examples of radicalized opera, but condemned writings like Wu Han’s. Mao endorsed this so called “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” saying that many governmental figures had taken “the capitalist road.” Many leading communists like Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, Chen Yun, and Peng Zhen were opposed to these proposed changes. In May 1966, things began to progress quickly as the Central Committee took a stance against the Group of Five and started removing bureaucrats (including Peng Zhen). By the end of the year, Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping would be removed from office, humiliated.
These sentiments were applied to the educational system when philosophy professor Nie Yuanzi from Peking University put up a poster criticizing the school’s administration, which led to radical ideals being spread throughout the campus and eventually to local high schools. The radicalized high school students would brand themselves “Red Guards” and would become a substantial part of the Cultural Revolution. In August of 1966, Mao would attend a Red Guard rally, endorsing their ideas and actions and becoming an icon of the movement. By the back half of the year, all schools would be closed, leaving the youth to destroy buildings and objects from a bourgeois era and attack/humiliate people they saw as enabling hierarchy or criticizing them. Many were beaten to death, many committed suicide to avoid the Red Guard’s attacks, and many more were imprisoned or moved to the countryside.
Eventually, there were more and more calls for more extreme leftist ideas to be implemented (evicting landlords, nationalizing all industry, abolishing anything resembling a private economy, etc). This eventually reached its climax in 1967’s “January power seizures,” where various Red Guard groups attempted to stage hostile takeovers for various party members’ positions and organizations. There was little to no coordination between any of these people, and several people who “took over” governmental areas were people in power who either overthrew some of their colleagues (Shanxi’s vice governor did this) or pretended have a shift in power while keeping their old duties intact (Zhao Ziyang in Guangdong). Around this time, infighting between radical groups began, notably in Shanghai, where workers who demanded higher wages (and the people that granted those wages, among other demands) were accused of “economism.” In that case, Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyan, and the PLA wound up fighting certain Red Guards to put things back in order and established the Shanghai People’s Commune.
Party Retrenchment and the Death of Lin Biao
But by that February, Mao began to backtrack on his more extreme ideas with newly published guidelines, including one saying that “power seizures” without government approval were no longer acceptable. Students were told to go back to school, and the chaos of the time, while still present, was downplayed. He also told Zhang to turn Shanghai’s commune into a committee with a “three-way alliance” between the general public, PLA, and “correct” acting cadres (making industrial workers less important in the government). The PLA in particular began to be used more as a typical army and a force of the status quo than it had been. By the end of that January, the PLA was told to disband “counter revolutionary organizations,” which manifested in them killing any group with different views from theirs. The “Wuhan Incident” that summer, involving the PLA killing 1,000+ people protesting against some of their actions in that area, sparked violence from angry radicals. That also led to different radical groups fighting each other, sometimes killing each other.
It got bad enough that, by that September, most of the instigating leaders (including Mao and Jiang Qing) realized things had gone too far, with Jiang going back on previous statements and praising the PLA. The “three-way alliance” established in Shanghai became a model for many other revolutionary committees, with opposing radicals vying to get representation on these committees. A particularly deadly incident in 1968 marked the turning point where the turbulence of that period began to subside, and order was somewhat restored. Because of how weakened much of the country was, the Campaign to Purify Class Ranks began, led by a group that included people like Mao, Jiang Qing, and the PLA. The campaign looked to investigate suspected anti-communists, including landlords, “spies,” and so on. These investigations were held in “May Seventh Cadre Schools,” which combined studying Mao’s work and agricultural labor to re-educate/indoctrinate the “students,” while providing little food or freedom for “students” of the “school.” This sort of blend was honestly common throughout the cultural revolution for some villages, albeit with more of an air of normalcy by the end of it. Mao (and Lin Biao to some extent) were basically worshipped by people in these villages.
Lin Biao had become even more prominent in this time, with him being named Mao’s successor in 1969 and exaggerated headlines of the PLA saving China from the Soviet Union. So it was a surprise to many when, in late 1971, he died in a plane crash in disgrace. Mao had started to grow wary of Lin, and eventually implemented policies (including the three part “throwing stones, adding sand to mud, and undermining the cornerstone” policy) to undermine the PLA, and Lin by extension. Lin, according to CCP documents, became desperate, plotted an assassination attempt on Mao, and when that failed, attempted to flee the country for the Soviet Union. The plane apparently did not have the proper amount of fuel, or a navigator/radio operator, and crashed as a result, killing Lin and everyone onboard. All in all, the Cultural Revolution was a violent mess, and revealed that there was no plan for how China would go forward.