Chinese Cultural Revolution: Facing History and Shaping Today

Editor’s Note:  A revised version of this article has been posted on “Psychology, Propaganda, and the Chinese Cultural Revolution“.

What we know as propaganda uses a constructed language on media to implant ideas in the minds of individuals.  It creates public trends on how susceptible we are to authorities at the individual level.  Unfortunately, the human tendency to trust in an authority is well known, and often exploited.

Widespread propaganda played a central role in encouraging youth activism through a variety of techniques during the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).   Examples include art, literature, government publications, newspapers, and television.  Propaganda of this era used various techniques to distinguish the just from the opposed.  Some frequently recurring techniques included visually disfiguring and dehumanizing opponents, distorting proportions to make favored groups look larger than their opponents, and giving preferred physical traits such as a muscular build to the favored groups.   Often these stylistic devices are accompanied by blatant practices of propaganda and marginalization of the opposition.  These devices included targeting and intimidating individuals, repeating certain ideas, using depictions of large crowds to encourage the audience to join the ”bandwagon”, emphasizing colors associated with violence, among other tactics.

Propaganda in different and more subtle forms such as omission of information, and use of discriminatory language still plays a central role today, albeit to discourage such extreme levels of activism practiced during the Revolution.

In my later blog posts, I will demonstrate several functions of propaganda that encouraged the youth to criticize important political figures of their time.  I will do this by analyzing a struggle for political power within the 1960’s-70’s Communist Party of China (CPC), as narrated by propaganda posters, and finally I will discuss how subtler propaganda in national history textbooks affects the contemporary public opinion in China, particularly that of youth.

I interviewed delegates of governmental authority in the classrooms (specifically, high-school history and political education teachers), current high school students, their parents, and the generation that was at least 10 years old at the time of the Revolution to measure the success of such methods of propaganda in engineering public opinion.

First, we need to understand the dynamics that fueled the Cultural Revolution, as well as the true motivations behind it to understand that Mao started the Cultural Revolution to affirm his grasp on the Chinese political scheme.  The “Great Leap Forward” (1958-1961) that Mao Zedong hoped would push China to “surpass Britain and catch America” had left the country in great economic and social devastation.  Mao envisioned measures that would create the communist utopia: communal farms, communal access to the work force, placement of metal ovens within each settlement to encourage local steel production, etc. His scheme, which included a communal land ownership policy, not only failed to produce high quality steel that had any industrial use, but more significantly led to a decrease in harvest production as the steel manufacturing industry consumed all tools that that would otherwise have aided in harvesting.  Consequentially, potentially 40 million civilians1 died in the resulting great famine, yet such apparently unsound methods were maintained for three years. The public was falsely reassured by propaganda posters that depicted fruits larger than humans, as well as abundant produce at farms, and bountiful communal farms and dining.  As the public began to recognize the propagandistic ruse, it was no coincidence that faith in Mao’s guidance declined greatly.  In the aftermath, he resigned from his duty as State Chairman of PRC at 1959, and the party saw a transfer of political power from Mao to reformists such as Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping.

In the aftermath of the Great Leap Forward, the party was clearly divided between the Mao loyalists and the revisionists; the former faction enjoyed Mao’s god-like reputation with the people, and the latter disliked Mao’s poor economic and social leadership, and therefore wanted to impose a more liberal economic model.  With the revisionists slowly gaining more repute, Mao started to see the revisionists and the path the CPC could follow as the primary enemy against the Communist Revolution of China.  As he declared the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, Mao urged young civilians to from armed militias called the “Red Guards” to physically harass his political rivals.  Just as significantly, he urged militia that were guided by his “Little Red Book” — of which individuals were encouraged to memorize and apply to all aspects of their lives — to return to the countryside once his adversaries were eliminated. This delocalization of the militias was not only an attempt to regain the trust and authority he had lost in the rural areas as a result of the Great Leap Forward, but also served to decrease the damage they were doing in the cities by scattering the mobs.

Posters that encouraged Mao’s supporters in the working class to attack the revisionists — such as Liu Shao Qi and Deng Xiaoping — were used in great abundance.  These posters that depicted the revisionists as public enemies were soon found everywhere.  Repeating themes in these posters, such as excessive usage of red in the background, invites the audience to violence.  The armband worn by the proletarian figures mark them as members of the infamous “Red Army,” and show their devotion to Mao.  The big red letters on a white background became the preferred design of posters issued by the state, as well as of those created by the people who hoped to convey the zealous devotion of the people towards Mao; they conveyed their frustration that had grown throughout the last decade.  Significant revisionist figures are targeted and accused with treason as the scapegoats of failed economic policies and the great famine.  Effectively pinpointing names in these propaganda posters gave the public an outlet and target to discharge the built up frustration of poverty and famine, whilst renewing their zealous devotion to Mao.  Use of various tools, such as shovels, painting brushes, pens, and guns, aimed to appeal to all members of the proletariat and to spread the revolutionary spirit to an audience as large as possible.  Indeed, both genders are equally represented in all posters for the same purpose.  Another significant aspect of these posters is that Mao and his “revolutionaries” are portrayed disproportionately bigger than Mao’s political rivals.  This is significant in showing that the proletariat — depicted muscular, and looking down upon their enemies — is much more powerful than their disfigured and significantly smaller enemies.  Portrayals of Mao either as an overarching shadow in the background or in the form of a sun shining above the gazing over the revolutionaries with a satisfied look show Maoist approval and the support of extreme public activism.

These posters clearly invited the Chinese youth of 1960’s and early 1970’s to actively influence and interfere with the flow of Chinese politics.  Even more significantly, the government actively encouraged extreme youth activism, albeit to cleanse itself from opposition.  In my further blog posts, I will show how the use of propaganda has changed into active discouragement of youth activism.


  1. Dikötter, Frank. Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62. Walker & Company, 2010. ISBN 0802777686.
  2. Image: “Our cause is just, the just cause has to be victorious!” Chinese Posters, last modified March 1, 2012,
  3. Image: “The renegade traitor and scab Liu Shaoqi must forever be expelled from the Party!” Chinese Posters, last modified March 1, 2012,

Deniz Cem Ozensoy is a first-year student at the University of Chicago majoring in Economics. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.