Did Anyone Benefit from the Cultural Revolution?
Did Anyone Benefit from the Cultural Revolution?
Few people would deny that the Cultural Revolution is one of the most significant events in China’s history, with its extraordinary effects on many groups of the population. The main aim of the revolution was simple: having risen to power, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) wanted to reform the Chinese population so that they followed the communist ideology – the favour of absolute social equality. While the initial impression of this aim seems positive, many people nowadays consider that there were few benefits of the Cultural Revolution, due to the turbulence that it caused between 1966 and 1976. Whilst it could be considered that there was initially some reform of the Chinese people, it is now widely considered that these reforms did not bring about benefits. The group that the CCP wanted to help most was the lower class, especially the peasants in the countryside. Meisner (1986, p.373) points out that initially, the Cultural Revolution hardly affected the countryside, with the Red Guards banned from entering the peasant villages, presumably because virtually all peasants were already loyal followers of Mao.
Mao tried to restore peasant associations in an attempt to bring more political power to rural areas. Nevertheless, in general, if these peasant associations tried to participate in their villages, higher powers intervened. Therefore, all in all, peasants did not really gain power from the Cultural Revolution (Meisner 1986 p.375). Some argue that there were benefits of the Cultural Revolution for rural areas. Meisner (1986 pp.376-378) states that a main aim of the revolution was to promote rural industrialisation to narrow the gap between urban and rural living and to make use of the local labour forces. Thanks to this project, almost 20 million peasants became industrial workers. However, one aspect that certainly did improve in rural areas was the availability of health care.
According to Byong-joon Ahn (1976 p. 155), in the early 1960s, more than 200,000 health clinics were closed in rural areas of China. However, as Meisner (1986 p.379) mentions, Mao changed this by reducing the program of study of doctors from six years to three in order to encourage more rural students to join the health care. In spite of the decrease in the number of study years, the knowledge and ability of the doctors was generally sufficient, as they were only trained to deal with the most common problems. It is worth considering the changes in the education system in rural areas. According to Meisner (1986 p. 380), Mao’s attitude was that the book-learning technique that had been used before the Cultural Revolution should be replaced by a system which combined education with productive labour.
Additionally, monetary aid given by the state to richer areas was cut and more support was given to rural areas, thus increasing the number of primary school students from 116 million to 150 million and secondary school students from 15 million to 58 million (Pepper 1986 pp. 6-7). “Tuition fees, entrance examinations and age limits on student attendance were abolished” (Meisner 1986 p.381), thus making education more accessible for those of lower social classes. However, in spite of these changes, Meisner (1986, p.382) also points out that the living conditions and incomes of the peasants in rural areas showed little improvement. Therefore, it is questionable whether the improvements made brought true benefits to society. The Cultural Revolution was frustrating for many as China underwent turmoil and disruption to industry and education, yet without much positive change. As Meisner (1986 pp.382-385) states, during the Cultural Revolution, many demands were made by the working class which were not responded to.
For example, producers, who were frustrated by the dominance of the state which prevented them from making their own decisions, demanded more control over the means of production. However, there was little change, even with the new factory revolutionary committees. What happened was that factory revolutionary committees were given less importance than the factory party committees, meaning that the state continued to make the decisions in these industries. Prior to the Cultural Revolution, there was a “highly exploitive system of temporary and contract workers” (Meisner 1986 p.383). This system was denounced for being capitalist and for not promoting the egalitarian state that the CCP desired. Thus, both the workers (who would have been better off with permanent jobs to guarantee a constant income) and the CCP suffered because of the fact that this system remained (Meisner 1986 p.383). It is also worth considering the state and government workers.
Initially, these had more privileges than the average Chinese person, with much higher salaries and meals provided and some even had houses, servants and personal drivers (Meisner 1986 p.391). However, Mao wanted change this as it was preventing the country from achieving egalitarianism. He therefore ordered government officials to engage in productive labour in order to narrow the gap between classes. Whilst this did happen, all in all, the officials were still treated as officials, having higher salaries and official titles (Meisner 1986 p. 391). Therefore, these officials did not benefit from the Cultural Revolution, as their status and standard of living remained the same. Few would disagree that the most harmed individuals during the Cultural Revolution were the intellectuals.
Meisner (1986 p. 386) points out that Maoism was particularly anti-intellectual, as it was these intelligent people that were considered the most “bourgeois” in society, with their superior knowledge and possessions. Meisner (1986 p.387) describes the suppression that these intellectuals underwent: “their homes (were) frequently ransacked, their books burned and manuscripts destroyed…they themselves were often subjected to physically as well as psychologically agonizing “study and criticism” sessions”. Like the state workers, many were sent to the countryside to carry out menial work or were arrested. Due to this maltreatment, many feared to continue with their studies and research, which led to a dampening in the Chinese intellectual level. Whilst it could be argued that rural students benefited from the Cultural Revolution, few would deny that urban students suffered. In fact, Mao sent them off to the countryside to be educated by the peasants, whose knowledge was inferior to the intellectuals in the cities. Again, the aim was to narrow the gap between the city and the countryside by putting all members of society on a similar level.
But by doing so Mao harmed the future of these youngsters by refusing them a good education (Meisner 1986 p.388). Meisner (1986 p.389) states that this generation of urban youngsters regarded themselves as “the lost generation”. Likewise, those that worked for the arts, such as writers, painters and playwrights, suffered in the Cultural Revolution. Very few writings were accepted, except those of Mao, and there were declines in the number of paintings produced and in the number of actors and musicians performing. The only accepted art forms were those that were considered “revolutionary”, such as Chiang Ch’ing’s ballets and operas (Meisner 1986 p.388). However, one person who did benefit from the Cultural Revolution was Mao himself.
Previously, Mao’s reputation was weak due to the failure of the Great Leap Forward, when he “moved too fast”, for example, with his optimism in the peasants to produce high-quality steel without good-quality resources (Spence 1990 pp.550-1). Many people disapproved of his lifestyle, as he seemed to be living like an emperor. His doctor Li Zhisui (1994) provides details, describing Mao to have a personal swimming pool (p.132) and to indulge in sexual pleasures with multiple women (p.358). However, the views of Mao significantly changed in the years ahead. Timothy Cheek (2002 p.229) describes how Mao was viewed like a god during the Cultural Revolution, saying that people “paid homage to his image, sang Mao quotation songs, chanted his sayings, performed the Loyalty Dance”.
Additionally, the Cultural Revolution solidified Mao’s power. During the Great Leap Forward, Mao was marginalised by the CCP while Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping rose to power. Another key figure was Lin Biao, who Mao originally trusted with the role of Minister of National Defence, but who became an enemy. However, his death in a plane crash helped Mao to eliminate this enemy. As for Liu and Deng, Mao removed their threat to his power by removing them from the communist party. Therefore, the Cultural Revolution allowed Mao to grasp more power. In conclusion, few would deny that the Chinese Cultural Revolution was a period of turmoil in so many ways.
For many, the standard of living remained unchanged, even if certain aspects, such as the availability of education and health care in rural areas, were improved. For some, such as intellectuals, urban students and those who worked for the arts, the situation was dampened, with their activity disrupted and many were subjected to violent torture or imprisonment. The only person who definitely benefited was Mao himself, as he gained power and popularity. All in all, it is no wonder that Chinese people regard the Cultural Revolution as a period of disaster.
Byong, J.A. 1976. Chinese Politics and the Cultural Revolution. Seattle: University of Washington Press. Cheek, T. 2002. Mao Zedong and China’s Revolutions. New York: The Bedford Series in History and Culture. Li, Z. 1994. The Private Life of Chairman Mao. New York: Random House. Meisner, M. 1986. Mao’s China and after: A History of the People’s Republic, 1st Edition. London : Collier Macmillan. Spence, J. 1999. The Search for Modern China, 2nd Edition. London: W.W. Norton & Company Ltd. Journals:
Pepper, S. 1980. Chinese Education After Mao: Two Steps Forwards, Two Steps Back and Begin Again. The China Quarterly. 81 (March 1980)
Word count: 1484 words (excluding reference list)
University/College: University of Arkansas System
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 20 November 2016
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