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Economics and Trade • Rise of China

The Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) was the most important period of political change in China since the creation of the People's Republic of China in 1949. The movement, orchestrated by the Chinese government, was intended to eradicate precommunist Chinese culture and to halt the increasingly capitalist leanings of the Chinese people.

Mao's Revolution

Known officially as the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution," the brutal reform movement was the brainchild of Mao Zedong, then the Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party. The revolution officially began in August 1966 after the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee passed a resolution calling for a purge of Western influences from Chinese culture. Mao relied heavily on the Red Guards, an organization of violent cultural critics sanctioned by the government. Mao viewed the Cultural Revolution as a useful way to train another generation of communist youth to fight against capitalism at home and abroad.

The first phase of the revolution entailed the control of cities, factories, and university campuses by the Red Guards. Workers and students were uprooted as Mao took over and shut down cultural institutions previously tolerated by his regime. By late 1967, chaos compelled Mao to order the Red Guards to stabilize production. Overly zealous, the Red Guards ran amuck. They were soon sent into the countryside to free urban China from their marauding influence, which had crippled the Chinese economy.


By the mid-1970s, when both Maoism and the Cultural Revolution had waned in influence, China became a military-controlled state. From Mao's point of view, the revolution was largely a success. It had been an excuse for Mao to purge the Communist Party of any threatening reformers. Moreover, Liu Shaoqi, Mao's largest opponent in the Communist Party, had been labeled a traitor and a "revisionist" and was exiled from the party. Liu was imprisoned by Mao's forces in 1967, and had died under harsh conditions by the end of the revolution. Mao thus was able to remain in power. Although Deng Xiaoping, considered by Mao supporters as a friend to capitalist reforms, lost power as a result of the revolution, he escaped death through alliance with military leaders and would later lead the Chinese nation. Other leaders also survived the revolution and would exert influence following Mao's death in 1976.

The Cultural Revolution led to 2 million deaths, mostly the professional and educated class of Chinese people. Some professors were even killed by mobs of their own students. Chinese youth had become a major force within the revolution due to young people's greater susceptibility to indoctrination than adults.

Remembered as a time of wasteful destruction and death, the Cultural Revolution is now viewed by the Chinese in a less favorable light. Since 1978, many of the institutional changes wrought by Mao during the revolution have been overturned. Some believe that capitalism will one day overtake communism in China.

"Great Revolution," "revisionist"

Further Reading

Dillon, Michael, ed. China: A Historical and Cultural Dictionary. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, 1998; Harrison, James Pinkney. The Long March to Power: A History of the Chinese Communist Party, 1921-1972. Stamford, CT: International Thomson Publishing, 1972; Hsu, Immanuel Chung-yueh. The Rise of Modern China. 6th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

MLA Citation

"Cultural Revolution." World History: The Modern Era, ABC-CLIO, 2019, worldhistory.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/309644. Accessed 23 Aug. 2019.

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Entry ID: 2171567

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