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The Cultural Revolution at 50

A Round-up of Resources


This month marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution, a political campaign launched by Chairman Mao. The purpose was supposedly to give a new generation the experience of revolution; however, it was actually an outcome of a power struggle between Mao and the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.

During the ten years that it lasted (ending with Mao’s death in 1976), the nation was thrown into chaos. Schools and colleges were closed, intellectuals were persecuted, religious activities were banned, and there was little economic activity, much less growth. A cult of personality was built up around Chairman Mao that allowed him to rule as an absolute dictator.

By the time Chairman Mao died, the country was on the brink of economic bankruptcy and the people were emotionally exhausted. Chinese young people who came of age during that time period are sometimes (still) referred to as “the lost generation.”

To many working in China today—a land of skyscrapers, shopping malls, and high- speed trains—the Cultural Revolution may seem like ancient and irrelevant history. That is not the case, however, since the scars left on Chinese society, politics, and individuals remain today.

Two recent articles provide an interesting perspective on the Cultural Revolution and it’s enduring legacy today, even though it is still considered a “sensitive topic” to discuss or research.

Evan Osnos, writing for The New Yorker in a piece titled "The Cost of the Cultural Revolution, Fifty Years Later," says this:

In examining the legacy of the Cultural Revolution, the most difficult measurement cannot be quantified so precisely: What effect did the Cultural Revolution have on China’s soul? This is still not a subject that can be openly debated, at least not easily.

On May 3, The New York Times published a Q and A with Rod MacFarquhar, a Harvard scholar of Chinese history and politics, in which he discusses the enduring legacy of the Cultural Revolution today:

However, there is a strong resemblance with the Cultural Revolution in Xi’s anticorruption drive. Mao tried to make the country revolutionary by unleashing the Red Guards. Xi Jinping tries to make the people good, to purify them, by the anticorruption campaign. Both Mao and Xi wish to change the Chinese people.

It is my belief that having at least a working knowledge of the Cultural Revolution is important for anyone serving Chinese people today, whether in China or in their home countries. 

For those of you who like to learn by listening and or watching, these are your best places to start: 

The China History Podcast: The Cultural Revolution (an 8-part series)

This is one of my favorite sources of anything related to Chinese history. Hosted by the indomitable Lazlo Montgomery, and California-based businessman, these podcasts are a great way to soak up history while driving or exercising or doing whatever it is you like to do while listening to podcasts. The 8-part series on The Cultural Revolution is outstanding.

Video: China: A Century of Revolution, 1949-1976 (PBS)

This excellent series produced by PBS traces the upheavals in China from 1911 to the 1990’s. This particular episode looks at the early days of the People’s Republic of China, as well as the Cultural Revolution.

And if you prefer to expand your knowledge base the old-fashioned way, by reading a book, these are the ones I would recommend.  Some are historical accounts, and others are memoirs.

The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History 1962-1976, by Frank Dikotter

Mao’s Last Revolution, by Roderick MacFarquar

Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution, by Ji-Ji Jiang

Son of the Revolution, by Liang Heng and Judith Shapiro

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Cheng

The Secret Piano: From Mao’s Labor Camps to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, by Zhu Xiao-mei

Colors of the Mountain, by Da Chen

Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now, by Jan Wong

Finally, if you are a Twitter user,  track the campaign "in real time" as @GPCR50 live-tweets the Cultural Revolution. 

Image credit: Mao Buttons, by Joann Pittman, via Flickr.
Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Senior Vice President of ChinaSource. She is the editor of ZGBriefs and Chinese Church Voices, as well as a regular contributor to ChinaSource publications. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and most recently,... View Full Bio


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