The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (shortened to Cultural Revolution) that disrupted and ruined life, destroyed innumerable cultural artifacts, and caused the deaths of countless people between 1966 and 1976 was a power struggle within the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The background for this event was the catastrophic economic losses suffered in the Great Leap Forward that the chairman of the CCP and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung), instigated between 1958 and 1960. It led to a successful challenge to Mao’s power by pragmatic senior leaders in the party and compelled Mao to give up his state chairmanship to his second in command, Liu Shaoqi (Liu Shao-ch’i), and actual running of the CCP to Party Secretary Deng Xiaoping (Teng Hsiao-p’ing). These men—called pragmatists—dismantled the communes, scrapped the backyard furnaces, and restored private plots to peasants. Their measures led to a gradual economic recovery but left Mao seething impotently.
To recover power, Mao turned to his wife, Jiang Qing, who had been out of the limelight and held little power until now. She went to Shanghai and formed an alliance with local Communist leaders Zhang Chunqiao (Chang Chun-ch’iao), Yao Wenyuan (Yao Wenyuan), and a young factory activist named Wang Hongwen (Wang Hung-wen)—they would later be labeled the Gang of Four. Mao next called on young people, mostly students in secondary schools and universities, to form Red Guard units. Using Mao’s sayings, collected in a little Red Book, as their “Bible,” they became his vanguard in denouncing and harassing party bureaucrats, intellectuals, and anyone in power who might oppose Mao. They also destroyed anything they considered “old” and therefore bad, including countless cultural treasures. Jiang took charge of the media. She banned most forms of cultural expression, including Western classical music (Beethoven was denounced as a counterrevolutionary), Chinese operas, movies, and so on, and replaced them with so-called revolutionary operas. Schools were closed, and intellectuals were sent to forced labor camps and for “reeducation.”
The Red Guards attacked Liu Shaoqi as a revisionist; he was dismissed and humiliated, and later died in prison. Deng Xiaoping was also purged, as were countless others. Among top leaders Premier Zhou Enlai (Chou En-lai) was only one of a few who retained his post. At the height of their power between August and November 1966, Mao eight times reviewed the Red Guards at Tiananmen Square in Beijing (Peking) and lauded them for their revolutionary zeal. While most senior CCP leaders were ousted and imprisoned, the star of Minister of Defense Lin Biao (Lin Piao) rose. When the Red Guards became totally uncontrollable and began battling among themselves Mao called on Lin to use the army to put them down. Most Red Guards were then “sent down” to the countryside for “reeducation.” Lin was elevated to vice chairman of the Central Committee of the CCP in 1968 and was designated Mao’s “closest comrade-in-arms and successor” in the revised CCP constitution.
A power struggle next developed between Mao and Lin, each plotting to eliminate the other. In September 1971 Lin, his powerful wife Ye Qun (Yeh Chun), and their son, an air force officer, plotted to assassinate Mao and seize power in a coup d’état. Upon the plan’s discovery they fled toward the Soviet Union in an air force jet piloted by the younger Lin, which crashed in Outer Mongolia, killing them all. Several of Lin’s confederates were arrested but the news of the attempted coup and Lin’s death was kept a secret until 1973. With Lin dead Jiang Qing and her allies became even more powerful, and Jiang pressured the ailing Mao to confirm her as his successor. Zhou Enlai and other senior party leaders opposed her and rehabilitated the disgraced Deng Xiaoping, whom Zhou groomed as successor.
When Zhou died in January 1976, Deng’s position became insecure and he disappeared from public view, seeking refuge in southern China, where a local military commander protected him. Finally, just before he died Mao chose a dark horse to succeed him with the words “with you in charge I am at ease” scribbled on a sheet of paper. He was former minister of public security, Hua Guofeng (Hua Kuo-feng). Mao died on September 9, 1976. A power struggle ensued among Jiang and her allies, and Hua Guofeng and the resurfaced Deng Xiaoping and other CCP elders. On October 12 the Gang of Four were arrested in a dramatic showdown. These events ended the Maoist era, the succession struggle, and a decade of unprecedented turmoil called the Cultural Revolution.