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by William H. Benson

May 18, 2006

     In 1966 Chairman Mao Zedong, the leader of the Communist Party in the China, was seventy-three, and he was still very dedicated to the task of seeing the revolution through in China during his lifetime.  So dedicated was he to socialism for socialism’s sake that he cared little about the practical consequences or the real-world human suffering that his theories and policies brought about.  The name for his new revolution, which began on May 18, 1966, was the Cultural Revolution.

     Chairman Mao told children and teenagers, those nine to eighteen, that it was acceptable to rebel against authority figures: their parents, teachers, bosses, village government bosses and even communist party officials.  Mao then dispensed armbands, and called them Red Guards.

     They responded to his urging.  They left school and took to the streets where they criticized anyone who dressed or acted like a foreigner, who was less than zealous for Communist ideals, or who had even a smattering of Western education.  Without students or teachers, the schools and colleges closed down.  Mao had tipped upside down China’s social structure, and anarchy erupted.

     Throughout that summer and fall of 1966, the Red Guards demonstrated in Tiananmen Square, shouting their praise for Mao, calling him “our great teacher, great leader, great supreme commander, and great helmsman.”  Each waved high their own little red copy of Quotations of Chairman Mao.  The largest rally was held in November of 1966 when more than 2.5 million attended.  The Revolution had deteriorated into a personality cult.

     “Bomb the headquarters,” and “learn revolution by making revolution,” he told his Red Guards, and they responded with violence.  They especially liked to burst into their former teachers’ homes in search of anything that could possibly prove them an enemy of Mao.  People who aroused the least suspicion were forced to endure a “struggle session” in which they were required to wear a dunce hat and endure verbal and physical abuse before large crowds of accusers.

     The Red Guards would expect their victim to stand in the “airplane” position, bent forward with their arms extended behind them.  Then, they would force them to bow down at the name of Mao.  One victim who refused to bow said, “What kind of Cultural Revolution is this?  There is nothing ‘cultural’ about it!  There is only brutality!”

     By the fall of 1966 Mao was shocked by the viciousness of the attacks upon the teachers and other authorities, but he did little to rein them in for three years.  After all, it was he who had said, “A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle.”

     And then Mao turned on the Red Guards.  In 1969 he sent millions of these former students, who had lashed out at others in blind obedience to him, to work on the farms, dealing with pigs and night soil.  There in the countryside they learned little but bitterness for Mao, who, they now believed, cared little now that he no longer needed them.

     In the spring of 1969, Mao officially ended his Cultural Revolution, but in reality some remnants of it continued until his passing in 1976.  Estimates of the number of victims of the Cultural Revolution now hover around a million, and of them tens of thousand did not survive.  Many simply chose suicide.  The Cultural Revolution was Mao’s grand social experiment, and it proved a colossal failure.

     Forty years now separate the Chinese people, some 1.2 billion, from the lunacy and madness that marked the beginning of Mao’s call for the students’ to revolt.  China has since clearly outgrown Mao whose mistakes are today recognized.  In the process of re-establishing their schools, they learned that respect for teachers and for education are necessary.  And now China today is an economic miracle, a beehive of activity.


     In the United States this is the season when teachers and school officials honor those students who have obeyed the rules, met the schools’ requirements, and now are graduating.  Fortunately, no one along the way suggested that they “learn revolution by making a revolution.”