Lessons From History – Mao’s Cultural Revolution

Coming to a campus near you.


The alarming parallels between today’s student censors and Mao’s Red Guards.

It is a very popular ploy these days to dub your political opponents ‘fascists’, or to suggest their views herald a return to the dark days of the 1930s. This kind of hyperbole is as galling as it is tedious.

But after living in China for six years, and observing from a distance the illiberal tendencies present on many university campuses in the West, some historical parallels do illuminate the contemporary situation. That is to say, it is not mere rhetorical bluster to suggest that the student-led witch-hunts against academics who criticise their politics, the student-dictated curriculum changes, the prevalence of trigger warnings and so on, carry an echo of events in 20th-century China.

The Cultural Revolution

Fifty years ago, as Mao Zedong’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution took hold, TIME magazine ran with the headline, ‘China in Chaos’. In his memoirs written exactly 25 years ago, Ji Xianlin describes a ‘dizzying descent into hell’. Ji, a leading Beijing academic, suffered injustice, humiliation and brutality. He published his memoirs so that lessons could be learned. Entitled The Cowshed, the memoirs are a testament to a world turned upside down. It should be a must-read for everyone in academia, a tragic lessons-from-history primer. It is guaranteed to send a shiver down the spine.

Students were at the forefront of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. They were officially empowered to denounce tutors who refused to follow official speech codes; to punish any criticism of the regime; to undermine teachers who refused to fall into line; and to shame dissenters. These students were intolerant of established authority and elitist intellectual ideas. It was an anarchic era based on ‘thought-reform’, enforced by public humiliation, mental and physical intimidation, and self-criticism aimed at ensuring conformity.

Fifty years on, it’s worth assessing this moment of collective madness and comparing it to the strange inversion of educational authority occurring in Western, predominantly American, universities today.

Of course, the differences between 1960s Communist China and 21st-century Western academia are as profound as the similarities. But, in the spirit of Ji, maybe it is worth emphasising the dangers so that we might learn something. China, after all, was attempting to mobilise a new generation to be involved in politics and the Cultural Revolution was intended to purge society of its politically backward and dated ideas. The Cultural Revolution’s ambassadors thought they were acting with the best possible motives.

The Cultural Revolution began on 8 August 1966, and lasted for 10 brutal years. During that time, hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs, their homes, their dignity, their minds, their lives. The Chinese Communist Party waged this nihilistic crusade in order to ensure that older generations and established ideas did not undermine the creation of its new vision of society. This would be a new society purged of ‘the four olds’: old customs, old habits, old culture and old ideas. They would, of course, be replaced by new progressive versions. It resulted in a decade of destruction where students took up cudgels against their teachers, professors, intellectuals and other ‘problematic classes’ in order to produce their version of the good society. The devastation wrought is only now being admitted and acknowledged in Chinese polite society.


One thought on “Lessons From History – Mao’s Cultural Revolution

  1. Godfrey Elfwick says:

    This is not the correct history. Mao was a generous spirit who wanted everyone to be happy, working towards the common good.

    He did not slaughter all those people. Anyone who says he did is a racist.



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