Following the failure of Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward—a disastrous attempt to accelerate the Chinese economy that left as many as 45 million dead from famine between 1958 and 1962—the founder of the People’s Republic of China sought to reassert his authority, eliminate his political enemies and revive the country’s revolutionary fervor. On May 16, 1966, Mao launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution to purge the country of “representatives of the bourgeoisie who have sneaked into the Party, the government, the army and various spheres of culture” and destroy the “Four Olds”—old ideas, old customs, old culture and old habits.
Thousands of party leaders, including Chinese President Liu Shaoqi, were jailed for “crimes against the state.” Millions of young radicals who formed the paramilitary Red Guards shut down schools, destroyed religious and cultural relics and killed intellectuals and party elites believed to be anti-revolutionaries. Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, led the effort to purify the arts by banning music, literature, film and theater, such as Shakespeare, too closely tied to the West. A cult of personality grew around Mao as millions of copies of the “Little Red Book” filled with his thoughts were forced to be read by those in need of “re-education.” When cities descended into anarchy as competing Red Guards factions began to battle each other, the People’s Liberation Army disarmed the student groups and banished them to work on communes in the countryside.
The Cultural Revolution waned in the years before Mao’s death on September 9, 1976, and came to a close weeks later with the arrest of Jiang and three of her collaborators, known as the Gang of Four, who were subsequently convicted of “counter-revolutionary crimes.” The Cultural Revolution crippled the Chinese economy and resulted in the deaths of approximately 1.5 million people and the banishment of approximately 20 million others, including China’s current president, Xi Jinping. The Chinese Communist Party condemned the Cultural Revolution in 1981, but laid most of the blame on the Gang of Four. Public discussion of the Cultural Revolution remains prohibited in China today, in part to protect Mao’s legacy.