Who were the Red Guards?
Students who answered Mao’s call for continuing revolution, Red Guards formed large groups that targeted political enemies for abuse and public humiliation. Sometimes the groups even battled one another. Under a campaign to wipe out the “Four Olds” — ideas, customs, culture, habits — they carried out widespread destruction of historical sites and cultural relics. As the Red Guards grew more extreme, the People’s Liberation Army was sent in to control them.
Who were the ‘sent-down youth’?
In the early years of the People’s Republic, educated young people from the cities were sent to the countryside to work on farms. The movement accelerated during the Cultural Revolution, partly as a way to disperse the Red Guards. More than 16 million young people were sent to the countryside, including Xi Jinping, China’s current president.
What was the toll?
During the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards targeted the authorities on campuses, then party officials and “class enemies” in society at large. They carried out mass killings in Beijing and other cities as the violence swept across the country. They also battled one another, sometimes with heavy weapons, such as in the city of Chongqing. The military joined the conflict, adding to the factional violence and killing of civilians. The pogroms even included cannibalization of victims in the southern region of Guangxi.
The exact number of dead is not known, but a figure of one million or more is most commonly cited. Estimates range from 500,000 to eight million dead, according to a 2011 paper by Song Yongyi, a scholar of the Cultural Revolution. The number of people persecuted is usually estimated in the tens of millions.
The chaos of the period, mass relocations and the closing of schools are believed to have sharply curbed economic output.
Who were the major participants?
Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic of China and chairman of the Communist Party, is the key figure. The Cultural Revolution began at his behest, and factions battled in his name. He called on Red Guards to “bombard the headquarters,” which was seen to mean other top leaders like Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping.
Liu Shaoqi, China’s president, relaxed collectivization to undo some of the damage of the Great Leap Forward and became the leading target of Cultural Revolution attacks. He died in custody in 1969, after two years of abuse and denial of medical treatment.
Zhou Enlai, the second-most senior leader, managed to survive by showing loyalty to Mao. Many in China credit him for curbing the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, but he could act on important matters only with Mao’s approval. His death from cancer in 1976 touched off protests and widespread mourning.
Jiang Qing, a former actress, was able, as Mao’s wife, to claim authority during the Cultural Revolution, particularly over the arts. She was the leading figure of the Gang of Four, radicals who reached the peak of political power during the Cultural Revolution. She was arrested after Mao’s death and committed suicide in 1991.
Lin Biao was the leader of the People’s Liberation Army and played a crucial role in promoting the cult of Mao, including ordering the compilation of the “Little Red Book” of the chairman’s sayings. Lin was designated Mao’s successor, but died in 1971 when his plane crashed in Mongolia. He was apparently trying to flee after learning that Mao was turning against him, but the circumstances of his death remain unclear.
Deng Xiaoping was a People’s Liberation Army veteran and leader who was twice purged during the Cultural Revolution. He returned to power after Mao’s death, pushing drastic economic reforms in the next decade.Continue reading the main story
Zhou acted to stabilize China by reviving educational system and restoring numerous former officials to power. In 1972, however, Mao suffered a stroke; in the same year, Zhou learned he had cancer. The two leaders threw their support to Deng Xiaoping (who had been purged during the first phase of the Cultural Revolution), a development opposed by the more radical Jiang and her allies, who became known as the Gang of Four. In the next several years, Chinese politics teetered between the two sides. The radicals finally convinced Mao to purge Deng in April 1976, a few months after Zhou’s death, but after Mao died that September, a civil, police and military coalition pushed the Gang of Four out. Deng regained power in 1977, and would maintain control over Chinese government for the next 20 years.
Some 1.5 million people were killed during the Cultural Revolution, and millions of others suffered imprisonment, seizure of property, torture or general humiliation. The Cultural Revolution’s short-term effects may have been felt mainly in China’s cities, but its long-term effects would impact the entire country for decades to come. Mao’s large-scale attack on the party and system he had created would eventually produce a result opposite to what he intended, leading many Chinese to lose faith in their government altogether.