From the Preface

In August 1963, Chairman Mao received a group of African guerrilla fighters in the State Council meeting hall, an elegant wood-panelled pavilion in the heart of the leadership compound in Beijing. One of the young visitors, a big, square-shouldered man from Southern Rhodesia, had a question. He believed that the red star shining over the Kremlin had slipped away. The Soviets, who used to help the revolutionaries, now sold weapons to their enemies. ‘What I worry about is this,’ he said. ‘Will the red star over Tiananmen Square in China go out? Will you abandon us and sell arms to our oppressors as well?’ Mao became pensive, puffing on his cigarette. ‘I understand your question,’ he observed. ‘It is that the USSR has turned revisionist and has betrayed the revolution. Can I guarantee to you that China won’t betray the revolution? Right now I can’t give you that guarantee. We are searching very hard to find the way to keep China from becoming corrupt, bureaucratic and revisionist.

Tree years later, on 1 June 1966, an incendiary editorial in the People’s Daily exhorted readers to ‘Sweep Away All Monsters and Demons!’ It was the opening shot of the Cultural Revolution, urging people to denounce representatives of the bourgeoisie who were out to ‘deceive, fool and benumb the working people in order to consolidate their reactionary state power’. As if this were not enough, it soon came to light that four of the top leaders in the party had been placed under arrest, accused of plotting against the Chairman. The mayor of Beijing was among them. He had tried, under the very nose of the people, to turn the capital into a citadel of revisionism. Counter-revolutionaries had sneaked into the party, the government and the army, trying to lead the country down the road to capitalism. Now was the beginning of a new revolution in China, as the people were encouraged to stand up and flush out all those trying to transform the dictatorship of the proletariat into a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

Who, precisely, these counter-revolutionaries were, and how they had managed to worm their way into the party, was unclear, but the number-one representative of modern revisionism was the Soviet leader and party secretary Nikita Khrushchev. In a secret speech in 1956 that shook the socialist camp to the core, Khrushchev had demolished the reputation of his predecessor Joseph Stalin, detailing the horrors of his rule and attacking the cult of personality. Two years later, Khrushchev proposed ‘peaceful coexistence’ with the West, a concept that true believers around the world, including the young guerrilla fighter from Southern Rhodesia, viewed as a betrayal of the principles of revolutionary communism.

Mao, who had modelled himself on Stalin, felt personally threatened by deStalinisation. He must have wondered how Khrushchev could have single-handedly engineered such a complete reversal of policy in the mighty Soviet Union, the first socialist country in the world. Its founder Vladimir Lenin had, after all, successfully overcome concerted attacks from foreign powers after the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, and Stalin had survived the assault of Nazi Germany a quarter of a century later. The answer was that too little had been done to remould the way people thought. The bourgeoisie was gone, but bourgeois ideology still held sway, making it possible for a few people at the top to erode and finally subvert the entire system.

In communist parlance, after the socialist transformation of the ownership of the means of production had been completed, a new revolution was required to stamp out once and for all the remnants of bourgeois culture, from private thoughts to private markets. Just as the transition from capitalism to socialism required a revolution, the transition from socialism to communism demanded a revolution too: Mao called it the Cultural Revolution.

It was a bold project, one that aimed to eradicate all traces of the past. But behind all the theoretical justifications lay an ageing dictator’s determination to shore up his own standing in world history. Mao was sure of his own greatness, of which he spoke constantly, and saw himself as the leading light of communism. It was not all hubris. The Chairman had led a quarter of humanity to liberation, and  had then succeeded in fighting the imperialist camp to a standstill during the Korean War.

The Chairman’s first attempt to steal the Soviet Union’s thunder was the Great Leap Forward in 1958, when people in the countryside were herded into giant collectives called people’s communes. By substituting labour for capital and harnessing the vast potential of the masses, he thought that he could catapult his country past its competitors. Mao was convinced that he had found the golden bridge to communism, making him the messiah leading humanity to a world of plenty for all. But the Great Leap Forward was a disastrous experiment which cost the lives of tens of millions of people.

The Cultural Revolution was Mao’s second attempt to become the historical pivot around which the socialist universe revolved. Lenin had carried out the Great October Socialist Revolution, setting a precedent for the proletariat of the whole world. But modern revisionists like Khrushchev had usurped the leadership of the party, leading the Soviet Union back on the road of capitalist restoration. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was the second stage in the history of the international communist movement, safeguarding the dictatorship of the proletariat against revisionism. The foundation piles of the communist future were being driven in China, as the Chairman guided the oppressed and downtrodden people of the world towards freedom. Mao was the one who inherited, defended and developed Marxism-Leninism into a new stage, that of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong thought.

Like many dictators, Mao combined grandiose ideas about his own historical destiny with an extraordinary capacity for malice. He was easily offended and resentful, with a long memory for grievances. Insensitive to human loss, he nonchalantly handed down killing quotas in the many campaigns that were designed to cow the population. As he became older, he increasingly turned on his colleagues and subordinates, some of them longstanding comrades-in-arms, subjecting them to public humiliation, imprisonment and torture. The Cultural Revolution, then, was also about an old man settling personal scores at the end of his life. These two aspects of the Cultural Revolution – the vision of a socialist world free of revisionism, the sordid, vengeful plotting against real and imaginary enemies – were not mutually exclusive. Mao saw no distinction between himself and the revolution. He was the revolution. An inkling of dissatisfaction with his authority was a direct threat to the dictatorship of the proletariat.

And there were many challenges to his position. In 1956, some of the Chairman’s closest allies had used Khrushchev’s secret speech to delete all references to Mao Zedong Thought from the constitution and criticise the cult of personality. Mao was seething, yet had little choice but to acquiesce. The biggest setback, however, came in the wake of the Great Leap Forward, a catastrophe on an unprecedented scale directly caused by his own obstinate policies. Mao was hardly paranoid in believing that some of his colleagues wanted him to step down, holding him responsible for the mass starvation of ordinary people. Plenty of rumours were circulating, accusing him of being deluded, innumerate and dangerous. His entire legacy was in jeopardy. The Chairman feared that he would meet the same fate as Stalin, denounced after his death. Who would become China’s Khrushchev?

There were quite a few candidates, starting with Peng Dehuai, a marshal who had written a letter in the summer of 1959, criticising the Great Leap Forward. But Liu Shaoqi, the number two in the party, was a still more plausible contender for the title, having described the famine as a man-made disaster before thousands of assembled party leaders in January 1962. The moment the conference was over, Mao started clearing the ground for a purge. As he put it in December 1964, ‘We must punish this party of ours.

But Mao carefully concealed his strategy. The rhetoric of the Cultural Revolution was deliberately vague, as ‘class enemies’, ‘capitalist roaders’ and ‘revisionists’ were denounced in general terms. Few leading party officials would have felt threatened, since by 1965 there were no real capitalist roaders’ inside the upper ranks of the party, least of all Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, the party’s general secretary. Although they were the main targets of the Chairman’s wrath, they had no inkling of what was coming. Liu, between 1962 and 1965, presided over one of the most vicious purges of the communist party in modern history, punishing 5 million party members. He was desperate to prove himself a worthy successor to the Chairman. Deng, on the other hand, was one of the most vociferous critics of Soviet revisionism. Leonid Brezhnev, who assumed power in 1964, called him an ‘anti-Soviet dwarf’. Both men were vocal supporters of the Chairman, assisting him in purging the early victims of the Cultural Revolution, including the unwitting mayor of Beijing.

Mao set about ensnaring his enemies with the precision of a trapper. But once the stage was set and the Cultural Revolution erupted in the summer of 1966, it took on a life of its own, with unintended consequences that even the most consummate strategist could not have anticipated. Mao wished to purge the higher echelons of power, so he could hardly rely on the party machine to get the job done. He turned to young, radical students instead, some of them no older than fourteen, giving them licence to denounce all authority and ‘bombard the headquarters’. But party officials had honed their survival skills during decades of political infighting, and few were about to be outflanked by a group of screaming, self-righteous Red Guards. Many deflected the violence away from themselves by encouraging the youngsters to raid the homes of class enemies, stigmatised as social outcasts. Some cadres even managed to organise their own Red Guards, all in the name of Mao Zedong Thought and the Cultural Revolution. In the parlance of the time, they ‘raised the red flag in order to fight the red flag’. The Red Guards started fighting each other, divided over who the true ‘capitalist roaders’ inside the party were. In some places, party activists and factory workers rallied in support of their besieged leaders.

In response, the Chairman urged the population at large to join the revolution, calling on all to ‘seize power’ and overthrow the ‘bourgeois power holders’. The result was a social explosion on an unprecedented scale, as every pent-up frustration caused by years of communist rule was released. There was no lack of people who harboured grievances against party officials. But the ‘revolutionary masses’, instead of neatly sweeping away all followers of the ‘bourgeois reactionary line’, also became divided, as different factions jostled for power and started fighting each other. Mao used the people during the Cultural Revolution; but, equally, many people manipulated the campaign to pursue their own goals.

By January 1965 the chaos was such that the army intervened, seeking to push through the revolution and bring the situation under control by supporting the ‘true proletarian left’. As different military leaders supported different factions, all of them equally certain they represented the true voice of Mao Zedong, the country slid into civil war.

Still, the Chairman prevailed. He was cold and calculating, but also erratic, whimsical and fitful, thriving in willed chaos. He improvised, bending and breaking millions along the way. He may not have been in control, but he was always in charge, relishing a game in which he could constantly rewrite the rules. Periodically he stepped in to rescue a loyal follower or, contrariwise, to throw a close colleague to the wolves. A mere utterance of his decided the fates of countless people, as he declared one or another faction to be ‘counter-revolutionary’. His verdict could change overnight, feeding a seemingly endless cycle of violence in which people scrambled to prove their loyalty to the Chairman.

The first phase of the Cultural Revolution came to an end in the summer of 1968 as new, so-called ‘revolutionary party committees’ took over the party and the state. They were heavily dominated by military officers, concentrating real power in the hands of the army. They represented a simplified chain of command that the Chairman relished, one in which his orders could be carried out instantly and without question. Over the next three years, they turned the country into a garrison state, with soldiers overseeing schools, factories and government units. At first, millions of undesirable elements, including students and others who had taken the Chairman at his word, were banished to the countryside to be ‘re-educated by the peasants’. Then followed a series of brutal purges, used by the revolutionary party committees to eradicate all those who had spoken out at the height of the Cultural Revolution. The talk was no longer of ‘capitalist roaders’, but of ‘traitors’, ‘renegades’ and ‘spies’, as special committees were set up to examine alleged enemy links among ordinary people and erstwhile leaders alike. After a nationwide witch-hunt came a sweeping campaign against corruption, further cowing the population into submission, as almost every act and every utterance became potentially criminal. In some provinces over one in fifty people were implicated in one purge or another.

But Mao was wary of the military, in particular Lin Biao, who took over the Ministry of Defence from Peng Dehuai in the summer of 1959 and pioneered the study of Mao Zedong Thought in the army. Mao had used Lin Biao to launch and sustain the Cultural Revolution, but the marshal in turn exploited the turmoil to expand his own power base, placing his followers in key positions throughout the army. He died in a mysterious plane crash in September 1971, bringing to an end the grip of the military on civilian life.

By now, the revolutionary frenzy had exhausted almost everyone. Even at the height of the Cultural Revolution, many ordinary people, wary of the one-party state, had offered no more than outward compliance, keeping their innermost thoughts and personal feelings to themselves. Now many of them realised that the party had been badly damaged by the Cultural Revolution. They used the opportunity quietly to pursue their lives, even as the Chairman continued to play one faction against the other during his final years in power. In the countryside in particular, if the Great Leap Forward had destroyed the credibility of the party, the Cultural Revolution undermined its organisation. In a silent revolution, millions upon millions of villagers surreptitiously reconnected with traditional practices, as they opened black markets, shared out collective assets, divided the land and operated underground factories. Even before Mao died in September 1976, large parts of the countryside had abandoned the planned economy.

It was to be one of the most enduring legacies of a decade of chaos and entrenched fear. No communist party would have tolerated organised confrontation, but cadres in the countryside were defenceless against myriad daily acts of quiet defiance and endless subterfuge, as people tried to sap the economic dominance of the state and replace it with their own initiative and ingenuity. Deng Xiaoping, assuming the reins of power a few years after the death of Mao, briefly tried to resurrect the planned economy, but soon realised that he had little choice but to go with the flow. The people’s communes, backbone of the collectivised economy, were dissolved in 1982.

The gradual undermining of the planned economy was one unintended outcome of the Cultural Revolution. Another was the destruction of the remnants of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought. By the time Mao died, not only were people in the countryside pushing for much greater economic opportunities, but many had also broken free of the ideological shackles imposed by decades of Maoism. Endless campaigns of thought reform produced widespread scepticism even among the party members themselves.

But there was also a much darker heritage. Even if, in terms of human loss, the Cultural Revolution was far less murderous than many earlier campaigns, in particular the catastrophe unleashed during Mao’s Great Famine, it left a trail of broken lives and cultural devastation. By all accounts, during the ten years spanning the Cultural Revolution, between 1.5 and 2 million people were killed, but many more lives were ruined through endless denunciations, false confessions, struggle meetings and persecution campaigns. Anne Thurston has written eloquently that the Cultural Revolution was neither a sudden disaster nor a holocaust, but an extreme situation characterised by loss at many levels, ‘loss of culture and of spiritual values, loss of status and honour, loss of career, loss of dignity’, and, of course, loss of trust and predictability in human relations, as people turned against each other.

The extent of loss varied enormously from one person to the next. Some lives were crushed, while others managed to get through the daily grind relatively unscathed. A few even managed to flourish, especially during the last years of the Cultural Revolution. The sheer variety of human experience during the final decade of the Maoist era, one which resists sweeping theoretical explanations, becomes all the more evident as we abandon the corridors of power to focus on people from all walks of life. As the subtitle of the book indicates, the people take centre stage.

A people’s history of the Cultural Revolution would have been unimaginable even a few years ago, when most evidence still came from official party documents and Red Guard publications. But over the past few years increasingly large amounts of primary material from the party archives in China have become available to historians. This book is part of a trilogy, and like its two predecessors, it draws on hundreds of archival documents, the majority of them used here for the first time. There are details of the victims of Red Guards, statistics on political purges, inquiries into conditions in the countryside, surveys of factories and workshops, police reports on black markets, even letters of complaint written by villagers, and much more besides.

There are, of course, many published memoirs on the Cultural Revolution, and they too have found their way into this book. In order to complement some of the more popular ones, for instance Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai or Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, I have read through dozens of self-published autobiographies, a relatively recent publishing phenomenon. They are called ziyinshu in Chinese, a literal translation of samizdat, although they are a far cry from the censored documents that were passed around by dissidents in the Soviet Union. Many are written by the rank and file of the party or even by ordinary people, and they offer insights that cannot be gleaned from official accounts. An equally important source are interviews, some openly available, others gathered specifically for this book.


A wealth of secondary material is also available to readers interested in the Cultural Revolution. From the moment that the Red Guards appeared on the stage, they captured the imagination of both professional sinologists and the wider public. Standard bibliographies on the Cultural Revolution now list thousands of articles and books in English alone, and this body of work has immeasurably advanced our understanding of the Maoist era. But ordinary people are often missing from these studies. This book brings together the broader historical sweep with the stories of the men and women at the centre of this human drama. From the leaders at the top of the regime down to impoverished villagers, people faced extraordinarily difficult circumstances, and the sheer complexity of the decisions they took undermines the picture of complete conformity that is often supposed to have characterised the last decade of the Mao era. The combined total of their choices ultimately pushed the country in a direction very much at odds with the one envisaged by the Chairman: instead of fighting the remnants of bourgeois culture, they subverted the planned economy and hollowed out the party’s ideology. In short, they buried Maoism.

12th October 1966: Over a million Red Guards, carrying flags and a huge statue of Chairman Mao, at the 1st of October celebrations in Beijing. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)