50th Anniversary of the Chinese Cultural Revolution

Growth and prosperity are evident everywhere. But to build this economic miracle country, the people endured terrible suffering, hardships and even death.

I was a little girl of about 8 or 9 years old when I first read about the Chinese Cultural Revolution in my fourth grade Weekly Reader and later in Junior Scholastic Magazine. People of a “certain age” will remember those elementary school news magazines.  Reading about China sparked some peculiar interest in me and ever since then, I have been fascinated with China.

This year, China marks the 50th anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution – a period of social and political turmoil, massive suffering and struggle over 10 years.  The Revolution was the brainchild of Mao Zedong and shook the nation and people to their very core.

The official death toll from political conflict during this time is reported to be 1.7 million, but it is likely that many more people died in work camps where they were sent to be “rehabilitated” in their thinking. This Revolution came on the heels of Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the resulting famine (1958-1962) where reportedly 45 million people starved to death, mostly because of Mao’s farm policies. What a difficult struggle this was for all of China.

Just imagine about 50 million people dying from starvation or political ostracization over a period of about 15 years.

During the Cultural Revolution, (1966-1976) Universities were closed and teachers were paraded in the streets and beaten because they were considered counter-revolutionaries, teaching the old ways of thinking. Mao wanted everything – systems, education, processes, art, and work – to be new.  Out with anything old and in with new ways of working and thinking.

Scientists, researchers, artists and many other established professionals and social leaders were tried by Communist Party leaders and young Red Guards, beaten, starved and imprisoned or sent to work camps in the countryside to be “re-educated” and reinvented as proletariat workers. Many never came back to their families.

So many people suffered great physical, emotional and economic hardships. Yet, the view of the Cultural Revolution inside China today is one of resignation. The people who lived through it are now in their 60s, 70s and 80s and will tell you the revolution was necessary for China to evolve from an Imperial State ruled by Emperors, to a country ruled by the people.  Mao Zedong, whose body can be viewed today in his Tiananmen Square mausoleum, is still revered.  Chinese people like to say that Mao was 70% right and 30% wrong.

The Chinese people’s work ethic and desire to get ahead, sparked by the Revolution, is evident in every city and every factory across the country today. There is no question that Mao revolutionized China, but at what cost?

I am still fascinated with China and try to soak up as much culture and history as I can, every time I visit. I am also astounded with the growth of megalopolises like Shenzhen-Dongguan-Guangzhou and Shanghai-Pudong, and the industriousness of the hard-working Chinese people. Growth and prosperity are evident everywhere. But to build this economic miracle country, the people endured terrible suffering, hardships and even death.