1966: China’s Cultural Revolution

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Robert Elegant ’51

Robert Elegant, who covered East Asia and served as Hong Kong bureau chief for Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times, gave Western readers a detailed and comprehensive look at how Mao Tse-tung’s brutal Cultural Revolution changed China in his book “Mao’s Great Revolution.”

“Mao’s Great Revolution” – 1971
XIV: Destroy The Old World

By Robert Elegant

The Red Guards were re-enacting in miniature in the autumn of 1966 the eight-thousand-mile Long March of the Red Army in 1934 and 1935. The instructions ran for five pages in the Canton Red Guard Journal. The Disciple Lin Liao was determined that his shock troops would maneuver under precise discipline. He further issued a 25-page atlas “for use in exchanging revolution experience,” the official euphemism for the destructive Long Marches of the Red Guards.

Like any good military manual, the painstaking instructions to the insurgent adolescents assumed that the readers were, by and large, idiots. The People’s Liberation Army, having organized the Red Guards, continued to oversee their peregrinations. Official reception centers were established in major cities under Army officers called “political advisers.” Transportation was assigned, as were quarters and rations at destinations. The chief railway station of Peking was reserved solely for the millions of Red Guards who attended the Eight Great Mass Rallies. The Liberation Army Daily was not indulging in metaphor when it hailed the Red Guards as “the powerful reserve force of the People’s Liberation Army.” It was intended that their “disorder and rebellion” would be stringently controlled by the Army.

The guerrilla general, who had become the second man in China by intimidation, used the Red Guards as his private political army. The single most powerful force in the country, the People’s Liberation Army, had been his personal fief as Minister of Defense since 1959. But the army had been systematically “corrupted” by the Securityman, Chief-of-Staff Lo Jui-ching, appointed to purge non-Maoist officers. Besides, Lin Piao did not wish to wage open war against the Chinese people, but a limited war against the opposition. He therefore hurled his Red Guard guerrillas at the structures of the Communist Party, the People’s Government—and all fundamental institutions of Chinese society. He was, however, driven by the same compulsion that has driven other generals fighting other political wars. He longed for the “total victory” that is the Holy Grail of all generals.

The Disciple, the field commander, and his mentor, Mao the grand strategist, ordered a massive assault on the institutions built by 18 years of Communist rule—and on the intellectual and social remnants of the past. Their assault troops were the Red Guards. Their objective was the “four olds—old habits, manners, custom, and culture,” in sum really the entire extant civilization of China. The Mao-Lin faction decided to burn down the house in order to smoke out their enemies. Utopia would rise “on the ashes of the old society.”

But the opposition was entrenched in “local strongholds” everywhere in China. The initial attacks had combined the chief aspects of Peking Opera and traditional Chinese battles. The Disciple was using tactics proved in the distant past and the recent present to demoralize his enemies. Fierce display of weapons, igniting firecrackers, clanging cymbals, and firing cannon before a traditional Chinese battle sought to break the enemy’s will by demonstrating the immensely superior force he opposed; tens of thousands of guerrilla pinpricks had broken the nerve of Japanese and Nationalists opponents during the long struggle for power. The first Red Guard terror sought the same results, but failed. Despite much shouting of criticism and blowing of bugles and chanting of slogans, the “stubborn bourgeois element within the Party” was not sufficiently terrorized by the Children’s Crusade.

On September 15, 1966, the Third Great Mass Rally assembled a million “rebel revolutionaries” in the Plaza of Heavenly Peace. Lin Piao issued new orders. It was time to alter his tactics. As he had done in his formal battles, he concentrated his attack upon the center of enemy resistance.

The Disciple ordered the Red Guards to “bombard the headquarters” of his opponents within the Communist Party everywhere in China. The men who still dared resist would be broken by frontal assault.

In the gathering dusk of the Peking autumn, the Disciple spoke “on behalf of Chairman Mao,” who was again present, but again did not speak. Lin Piao praised the Red Guards for creating consternation among “the handful of men in power who take the capitalist road”; for terrifying the “reactionary bourgeois scholarly authorities”; and for paralyzing the “blood-suckers and parasites.”

“You have done well!” The Disciple’s tone and manner marked him as the master of China. “The present movement’s main target of attack is now those men within the Party who are in power and who are taking the capitalist road. You must bombard their headquarters.”

Minister Chou En-lai struck a note of caution. He emphasized the necessity to maintain production in order “to advance the revolution”—and admonished the insurgent adolescents not to interfere with industry or agriculture. Nascent fear that Red Guard violence might escape control was reflected by The People’s Daily’s subsequent instructions:

“Production must not be interrupted. The Cultural Revolution in the factories and rural areas should be carried out in connection with the original arrangements for the Four Purifications Movement.” Since the general urban public was sufficiently terrorized, the Maoists wished to concentrate Red Guard violence directly on the “power-holders” within the Communist Party. They still believed they would avoid injuring the economy, since it was not necessary to attack workers and peasants.

In mid-September, the Cultural Revolution had encountered greater resistance than was anticipated, yet it was still proceeding as planned. While the Red Guards were exhorted to “destroy the old civilization in order to establish the new civilization,” a new administrative structure was being constructed to displace the People’s Government. The “Groups and Committees of the Great Cultural Revolution” were quietly established in colleges, schools, factories, and Communes throughout China. They were to be the basis of “true proletarian rule,” inspired by the Paris Commune of 1871. But the Communist Party itself was originally not marked for destruction. The Revolutionary Committees would manifest “extensive democracy,” which the Party would guide under “democratic centralism.”

By the end of September, a totally new strategy was forced on the Maoists. They would if necessary destroy the Communist Party itself. The “reasoned approach,” the calculated use of limited terror, was failing. The non-Maoists entrenched in the Communist Party—and, for want of more attractive objects, in the affections of the masses—were too strong and too determined. By the end of September, the rampages of the adolescent Red Guards had become a spectacle of mindless, indiscriminate terror. The Red Guards had, in part, escaped central control, but, equally, the Maoists were compelled by circumstances to press the total, vicious assault on all stable institutions.

Although it may appear somewhat absurd, the total offensive was not wholly Quixotic within its own particular context. The Maoists had been frustrated time and time again by the most tenacious civilization and the most stubbornly conservative race on earth. Although they had striven since 1949, they had failed to smash the world’s oldest living culture. They had neither created the ideal China they envisioned, nor made their own power absolute. Since they did not recognize universal “human nature” but only “class nature,” they could not acknowledge that their enemy was the essential character of the human being. Instead, they concluded that their ambition was frustrated by the “bourgeois thought patterns” of the unregenerate “bourgeois elements” within and without the Communist Party. They therefore determined to destroy the old culture by force in order that a new “proletarian class nature” might burgeon. The decision was rigorously logical within their own philosophical framework, however ludicrous it may appear to non-Maoists.

The peregrinations of the newly hatched Red Guards were essential to the grand Maoist design. The adolescents would not only “remold” their own nature by enduring hardships and “learning from the proletariat,” but would inspire the masses by their sterling example. Transferring the shock troops was also a tactical necessity. The “vigorous attack” on the entire established order could not be mounted by youths in their native areas. The “revolutionary rebels” were still restrained by ingrained respect for officials, teachers, and parents who had brought them up.

Since every city and town was to be invaded by “outside” Red Guards, all China was astir with the movement of earnest youths and maidens wearing the crimson armband in the autumn of 1966. Whether to Peking to draw inspiration from mass rallies at which the silent Chairman Mao was exhibited like an animate idol or to the provinces to “make revolution,” millions of Red Guards stalked across the vast nation like hordes of enraged soldier ants. They traveled by railroad, bus, and airplane until the transportation system began to collapse under their weight. Then they were ordered to emulate the heroic Long March on foot.

In the beginning, an efficient system provided food, lodging, and specific assignments to the errant Red Guards the insular Chinese called “foreigners” when they were 50 miles from their homes. Their assignments varied: “reforming” schools; ridiculing Party officials; humiliating professors; and destroying all objects and manifestations of the “old civilization”—to the accompaniment of choral readings from Quotations From Chairman Mao; staging propaganda playlets; and composing “great-character posters” attacking “bourgeois diehards.” From September through December 1966, the Red Guards’ “campaign” was the emotional heartbeat and the chief administrative activity of the People’s Republic of China. Sometimes they were orderly, but determined. Sometimes they were frivolous or venal. Often they were violent and cruel, with the special relish of youths exacting vengeance upon the unsatisfactory world of the elders’ creation—and upon their elders, too.

The Red Guards came close upon midnight in early October to a Nanking home. Mrs. Yang was the widow of a senior member of the Democratic League, one of the splinter “democratic parties” that had previously propped the façade of “coalition rule.” Ten young men trooped into her anteroom and read aloud the rump Central Committee’s Sixteen-Point Directive commanding the “destruction of the old world.” Having been briefed from dossiers, they knew the family’s history well. The Yangs, the adolescents, declared, were a nest of rightists, a-virulent “bourgeois infection.” They then searched for “decadent objects,” which might be anything from a reproduction of a Western painting or a non-Maoist book to Nationalist flags or propaganda.

Mrs. Yang had learned to bow before the wind, unlike those foolhardy householders who resisted, verbally or physically, and were beaten or killed for their courage. She assured her inquisitors that she was eager to destroy any bourgeois artifacts they might find.

She felt reasonably certain that she possessed no incriminating objects, except letters and photographs from her daughter, who had fled to Hong Kong three years earlier. She had not been able to bring herself to destroy those mementoes. The Red Guards did so for her. They then carried away every piece of furniture, even the old lady’s bed and small radio. All her belongings, except for a few garments, were adjudged “bourgeois objects of pleasure.” They did not, however, molest her further because she had not opposed their search. Later, two families of workers were quartered on Mrs. Yang. They helped her buy a few essential pieces of furniture with money her daughter sent from Hong Kong.

Perhaps harassing elderly “bourgeois elements” helped create an earthly Utopia. But many other antics appeared only perverse “self-education.” Girls wearing tight trousers were restored to modesty with razor blades, while boys or girls wearing long hair were “proletarianized” with scissors. Colorful clothing, pointed shoes, or bright make-up, whistling Western songs, and reading nonrevolutionary novels—all non-Maoist diversions were forbidden. The “revolutionary rebels” severely punished all those outward manifestations that mark young rebels in the West.

Homes were purged of “reactionary objects”—reproductions of Western or traditional paintings, non-Maoist literature, jewelry, and classical, popular, or jazz records—all ornaments, in sum, except portraits of Chairman Mao and Deputy Chairman Lin, and all objects that touched non-Maoist intellectual or emotional chords. The total ideological purification also cleansed public buildings, and even the streets—in its own way. The ideal human being was the hard-working farmer or laborer. The entire physical environment was, therefore, to be transformed to harmonize with his presumably austere and simple needs.

All “bourgeois luxuries” were destroyed. The signboard of the Wing On Department Store in Shanghai was toppled because its name, Eternal Peace, offended revolutionary militants. Wing On was, thenceforth, to be known as the People’s Department Store. Morrison Road in Peking became People’s Road because it recalled “foreign imperialism.” Signs that evoked the classic Chinese tradition were also pulled down in the assault on “the four olds.” The Moon Terrace Tea Shop became Food Shop Number Two, and the Moon and Pine Pavilion became Food Shop Number Three.

Zeal often outdistanced even the magic carpet of Maoist logic. Shanghai’s Peace Hotel, so called after the city’s “liberation” in 1949 because Cathay Hotel was repugnantly “imperialist,” was again renamed because the word “Peace” was “revisionist.” But the Fragrant Shrimp Restaurant, faintly evocative of the classical tradition, was renamed the Peace Restaurant. One becomes two and two becomes one—as Mao Tse-tung teaches. Hundreds of East-Is-Red streets appeared—and scores of Anti-Revisionism alleys and Anti-Imperialism roads.

One of the first casualties of the paralysis of authority and the proliferation of “revolutionary” street names was the Chinese Postal Service, China’s most faithful civil servants were hindered by Red Guards or condemned to wander about with packets of letters they could not deliver. That dislocation of communications may seem minor amid the total disruption of the Cultural Revolution, but it was not.

The Postal Service was among the most efficient institutions in China. The Mongol Dynasty (c. 1280-1368) had stationed relays of swift posthorses and built straight roads to maintain rapid communication throughout their enormous Empire. After half a millennium, the Postal Service was re-created in the nineteenth century by the Chinese Maritime Customs, organized and administered by foreigners. In the twentieth, letters mailed in Japanese-occupied Shanghai were delivered to the provisional capital of Chungking on a regular schedule, and even the Civil War did not disrupt the service. Like secular heralds, the postmen were immune to harassment as had been the sacred heralds of ancient Greece.

The breakdown of the Postal System demonstrated the “destruction of the old civilization”—and the disintegration of order. Letters from Shanghai to Chungking took six to eight weeks. They had normally taken a week—and, even during the wars, no more than two or three. Drab-uniformed postmen wandered bewildered through the maze of “revolutionary” streets, wondering in which of dozens of East-Is-Red streets, Anti-Imperialism alleys, or Anti-Revisionism roads they might find the particular Mr. Wang or Mrs. Li they sought.

Their patient, frustrated plodding typified the Cultural Revolution as much as the public rampages of the Red Guards. Like everything that smacked of the past, the Postal Service was to be “remade”—regardless of social or economic effects. It was as much a relic of the old imperialism as were the buildings on the riverfront Bund in Shanghai.

“The tall buildings along the Bund, which was once the center of the Imperialists’ criminal activities aimed at plundering the Chinese people,” Peking reported, “have also been the targets of the revolutionary rebels, who have made a clean sweep of every vestige of imperialism. They removed the bronze lions placed in front of the entrances of buildings by the imperialists and took away the foreign signs on the walls.”

Major vandalism of buildings was unusual, but the total purge of every physical, emotional, or spiritual aspect of China that evoked the old days and the old ways was unremitting. Nothing in the physical environment was to distract from total attention to the greatness of Chairman Mao and his “closest comrade-in-arms and best disciple, Deputy Chairman Lin Piao.” No diversion was to impede the ceaseless study of the sacred Thought of Mao Tse-tung.

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