The Cultural Revolution at 50

Publication: China Brief Volume: 16 Issue: 17

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the official start of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Though for many of China’s youth it is a little-remembered period or a vaguely described part of history books, the political turmoil of the time has continued to have a profound influence on modern society. An examination of Chinese treatment of the period provides useful insights into the current political climate.

Although by no means exhaustive, this analysis illustrates several distinct trends in China’s modern interpretation of the Cultural Revolution. Most visibly, there is a clear desire by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to look past the Cultural Revolution and limit coverage of the period since it harms the Party’s overall image. A second notable trend is the general lack of interest in the period among younger Chinese scholars. The last theme, ironically, is the continued salience of the legacy of political violence in contemporary Chinese discourse and the use of the Cultural Revolution in various contemporary information campaigns.

Changes in the Official Narrative

In May of this year, both the People’s Daily and the Party’s theoretical journal, Qiu Shi (Seeking Truth/求是), ran official statements on the Cultural Revolution (Seeking Truth, May 17). The language was terse and reiterated that the ten-year period was a mistake and that similar errors will not be tolerated again. The articles followed a familiar formula and called for history to be used as a reference to improve the pace of current national development. Common to almost every article on the issue were references to the watershed 1981 “Resolution on Certain Historical Issues” (历史问题决议) which unequivocally repudiated the Cultural Revolution and criticized Mao Zedong for various excesses, paving the way for a significant scale down of his cult of personality. Noticeably absent, however, was commentary on the legacy of the Cultural Revolution and its long-term effects on Chinese society and political thought. This has not always been the case.

In contrast with the official comments made this year, the 1981 Resolution left no doubt about how Deng Xiaoping and the second generation of Chinese political leaders viewed the Cultural Revolution’s place in China’s history:

 (19) From 1966 to 1976, the Cultural Revolution caused the Party, the country, and the people to endure the most serious setback and loss since the [founding of the PRC]. The Cultural Revolution was launched and led by [Mao Zedong]… (20) The history of the Cultural Revolution demonstrates that the main tenets of the Cultural Revolution, which were put forth by [Mao Zedong], are incompatible with Marxism-Leninism and China’s reality. [Those tenets’] appraisal of China’s class conditions, as well as Party and state political conditions at the time was completely incorrect. [1]


The 1981 conference convened at a time when the more liberal elements of the CCP wanted to take criticism even further and directly denounce Mao Zedong. In the immediate years prior to the conference, several prominent victims of the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward such as Liu Shaoqi and Peng Dehuai were rehabilitated while some of the perpetrators were put on trial. The final position adopted then, represented a compromise, and should not be seen as outside the norm of what the Party would normally tolerate. Although some of China’s most ardent critics at the time said the resolution did not go far enough, the conference generally succeeded in its initial objective to admit, study, and correct mistakes of the past. Thirty years later, China’s official position on the Cultural Revolution, while still critical, does not begin to approach the previous levels of criticism and reflection, particularly when it comes to assigning blame for its origins.

Growing disinclination to address in depth sensitive topics in China’s history can also be seen in the coverage of this year’s 95th anniversary of the CCP’s founding. Despite the heavy focus on Party history this year, most publications glossed over or omitted entirely any direct mention of Mao’s culpability in unleashing the Cultural Revolution (Seeking Truth, July 21). The Xinhua special video production for the 95th anniversary of the CCP’s founding, “Red Spirit,” made no mention of the Cultural Revolution or the Great Leap Forward, only stating that the Party had gone through “great difficulties” on its road toward building socialism in China (Xinhua, June 20). Even when the editorial line admits to mistakes such as the Cultural Revolution and reiterates calls for using history as a mirror, no discussion is made of the mistakes’ origin or how to guard against their reoccurrence (Xinhua, August 12).

Although Party history is once again covered in almost exclusively positive language, the Cultural Revolution itself is paradoxically not taboo for Chinese official outlets. In fact, the period is sometimes evoked in rather unexpected places. A Qiu Shi article criticizing “Western universal values” argued that the experiences of the Cultural Revolution show China the dangers of dogmatism and following theories not grounded in China’s reality (Seeking Truth, August 5). While at first glance it may seem strange that the Cultural Revolution is conjured up in an argument extolling China’s own development model, the reference suggests that Chinese authorities are keenly aware of just how visceral any associations with the period are for most Chinese citizens. By putting the Cultural Revolution with its discredited universal applicability side by side with “Western universal values” China’s state outlets are hoping the domestic Chinese audience will associate the chaotic process of democratization with the chaos endured from 1966–76.

The Cultural Revolution and China’s Elite

The narrative that Xi Jinping has taken China on a “left turn” is quite popular among the mainstream media and many China watchers. Indeed, under Xi Jinping’s leadership terms such as the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” or “against the Party and against socialism” (反党反社会主义) have remerged in official discourse for the first time since Deng Xiaoping’s reforms and opening of the country (China Media Project, December 30). Despite an increase in “red” rhetoric, it is unlikely that Xi Jinping or anyone else in senior leadership looks favorably upon the years of the Cultural Revolution. In 2000, while still a provincial official, Xi Jinping spoke candidly about the personal hardships endured by him and his family during the Cultural Revolution (People’s Daily, September 11). When it comes to official pronouncements, Xi Jinping is far more fond of quoting Han Feizi (韓非子) and other Chinese classical legalist scholars who stressed strict abidance of the law than rehabilitating the political rhetoric of the Red Guards (People’s Daily, March 1).

That does not mean however that the ghosts of the Cultural Revolution have been fully expunged. For one, Xi Jinping has been clear that he does not support efforts to revisit the pre-reform period, stating that: “One cannot use the subsequent thirty years to repudiate the preceding thirty years (不能用后三十年否定前三十年) (BBC Chinese, May 10).” In addition, among many party elders and rank-and-file members, the defense of the Party’s history is much more than just an effort to preserve legitimacy and power, it is a deeply personal mission. Outside the Party, the period is also romanticized by some who lived through it. As a result, it is unsurprising that the disgraced former Chongqing head Bo Xilai, was able to build a considerable popular following by playing Maoist songs and using 1960s slogans.

One particularly burdensome legacy of the Cultural Revolution, crude political discourse, while never entirely went away, has witnessed a clear resurgence. For instance, several iterations of “[We cannot] allow the eating of the Communist Party’s food by those who smash the Communist Party’s pots” (不允许吃共产党的饭,砸共产党的锅) appeared in various official publications starting from late 2014 [2]. Such language has direct antecedents to slogans used by the Red Guards during struggle sessions. Chinese intellectuals have noted the language of violence and hate directed toward political opponents as one of the most deleterious long-lasting effects of the Cultural Revolution.

Views among China’s Intellectuals

Despite apparent pressure to curtail coverage of the anniversary, the Cultural Revolution has received a more thorough analysis in non-state media outlets (Duowei News, May 15). Consensus Net (共识网), a news and commentary portal that aggregates content and also features original contributions from commentators and public intellectuals ran several articles on the Cultural Revolution coinciding with the anniversary. Although the publications discuss different aspects of the Cultural Revolution, they all demonstrate its continued importance to China’s contemporary society and politics. A consistent theme in several intellectual publications is the dismay at the general lack of interest in the period among China’s younger scholars. This observation is indicative of a broader apathy to contemporary Chinese history among the post-1980s generation that has been noted elsewhere. [3]

Since formal education was severely disrupted during the Cultural Revolution, an entire generation was largely shaped and educated by the struggles of the Cultural Revolution; when combined with the fact that the subsequent generations have only been partially exposed to the history of the period, a ripe environment has been created for invented and mythologized interpretations of the period. Du Yingguo (杜应国), a retired researcher from Guizhou’s provincial literature and history research center has shown how several myths regarding the root causes of the Cultural Revolution have emerged over the years. One, is the mistaken belief that Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution as an effort to fight growing bureaucratism (Gong shi, May 3). This view is particularly popular among Western scholars and obscures linkages between the rhetoric of the Cultural Revolution and earlier Anti-rightist purges of the 1950s. According to Du, the Cultural Revolution was the culmination of an increasingly extreme hunt for “capitalist roaders,” “revisionists,” and other enemies inside and outside the Party. Du’s observation is not a pedantic one: it discredits today’s leftist revisionist narratives in China extolling the pre-Reform period which in the context of modern anti-corruption campaigns and bureaucratic indifference are quite popular among some segments of the population. Du also takes issue with the characterization of the Cultural Revolution as a mass movement (文革大民主的形式). Even though millions of people were swept up in the tidal wave of struggle, the movement was centered on cities and served political aims of Mao and other Cultural Revolution backers.

Wuhan University’s Dr.Yu Chongsheng’s (虞崇胜) work addresses the continued effects of the Cultural Revolution most directly (Gong Shi, April 19). Dr. Yu sees the root of violence during the Cultural Revolution in Maoist rhetoric. Class struggle, the obsession in rooting out enemies (with an emphasis that identifying enemies precedes identifying allies) all predetermined that the Cultural Revolution was going to be a bloody internecine conflict. Unfortunately, the language and consciousness of struggle has persisted in China long after the end of the Cultural Revolution. And even though reforms from above have made significant legal and ideological changes such as formally abolishing the criminal charge of being a counterrevolutionary (反革命) in 1997 or revising the Party position away from calling for class struggle, change has been slower in the people’s consciousness. In fact, Yu Chongsheng’s argument can be taken a step further in light of the steady return to fore of old communist slogans from the pre-reform era and the propensity for using crass comments mentioned earlier.

The liberal Chinese journal Yanhuang Chunqiu (炎黃春秋), which recently closed after undergoing an editorial reshuffle at the behest of the Chinese National Academy of Arts, has until now been willing to take up highly iconoclastic positions on numerous issues surrounding Party and state history. The journal was run by retired Party cadres and has long held a position of particular importance among China’s liberal intelligentsia. Due to its small circulation and Party roots, the magazine was tolerated by Chinese authorities. Perhaps tellingly, there are rumors that the recent closure was prompted by the magazine’s planned special issue for the Cultural Revolution’s anniversary (Duowei News, May 15).

The magazine limited its coverage of the anniversary to an article by Jin Daliu (金大陆), an expert on the Cultural Revolution. Jin lamented the polarization of views on the Cultural Revolution in today’s China (Yanhuang Chunqiu, May 13). According to him, Leftists are willing to steadfastly defend the Cultural Revolution because they wish to preserve the legacy and image of PRC’s early history. On the other end of the spectrum, right wing sentiment calls for collective punishment and contrition which is unfeasible and highly divisive. Both views are ultimately counterproductive and make it more difficult for genuine reconciliation. As is the case with other Chinese intellectuals, Jin is worried that the new generation of Chinese scholars are uninterested in Cultural Revolution. This can be explained in part by the risks of jeopardizing academic careers, but the result is that Chinese historians may actually fall behind their Western counterparts in the research of this crucial period in China’s history.

In addition to running Jin Daliu’s commentary, Yanhuang Chunqiu also republished Zhang Wentian’s (张闻天) recollections from the later stages of the Cultural Revolution (Yanhuang Chunqiu, April 9). Zhang was part of the 28 Bolsheviks and filled several important posts in the PRC before being denounced during the Cultural Revolution. [4] Under great personal risk, he kept a private journal throughout the period where he criticized the social and political strife of the time. His writing, offering lucid analysis at a time of great unrest, explores the role of the separation between the Party and the masses in fomenting the Cultural Revolution. According to his observations, there was a need to renounce the use of violence to settle disputes. Going further, Zhang saw the need for real ability to criticize and supervise Party and state activity by the people. Moreover, concern for the people’s material wellbeing in his words is not “taking the capitalist road” and comports with Leninist ideals. Throughout his diary, he emphasizes that the Party is the servant of the people and the people are masters, not the other way around. Even when reprinted, such rhetoric coming from a personage of impeccable revolutionary credentials is still a direct challenge to the political status quo in China.


In Western media and China circles, the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution was met with noted interest. Most of the commentary focused on the question of could a similar calamity happen again in contemporary China. When looking at China’s discourse around the 50th anniversary, one finds little concern among either state or intellectual sources for a repeat of the Cultural Revolution. However, the Cultural Revolution continues to influence political rhetoric and popular understanding of state affairs. Despite its importance to China’s reality, one sees general disinterest among younger Chinese experts and the slow but steady effort by the state to reduce coverage of the Cultural Revolution. Such trends while not exactly portentous, ensure that the long shadow of the Cultural Revolution will not be lifted anytime soon.

Yevgen Sautin is a modern Chinese history Ph.D. student at the University of Cambridge where he is a Gates Scholar. He speaks and reads Chinese and Russian. Previously Mr. Sautin was a David L. Boren Fellow at the National Taiwan University and a Junior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC.



  1. Full text of the 1981 “Resolution on certain questions in the history of our party since the founding of the People’s Republic of China.” Chinese Here. English Here.
  2. In 2014, the PLA Daily ran an article criticizing Party members who besmirch the Party and abuse their positions. The article used the bowl metaphor and was quickly picked up by many other outlets.
  3. See for example, Lim, Louisa. The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014)
  4. A faction of Moscow-trained CCP members who played an important role in the Party’s pre-Long March history. Their defeat at the Zunyi conference (遵义会议) marked the ascent of Mao Zedong to power.