Sociology Chinese Cultural Revolution
Fei Yan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 July 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0172


The Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) marks a watershed in the study of Chinese politics. Arguably the most extreme period in modern Chinese history, the Cultural Revolution involved internecine mass conflict and left deep scars on Chinese society. What began as a struggle between Mao Zedong and other top party leaders for dominance of the Chinese Communist Party eventually went on to affect the entire country. In mid-late 1966, when Mao personally called on students to rebel against local authorities, there was a sudden relaxation of the state’s political control as individuals were encouraged to participate in the political process. Tens of millions of people were killed, injured, or imprisoned as insurgent groups split into rival factions that clashed violently in schools, factories, and neighborhoods, spreading anarchy through large parts of China until late 1968. This decade of political turbulence changed the entire political, economic, and cultural landscape of contemporary China. The national madness and the absurdity of the official doctrines compelled post–Cultural Revolution leaders to adopt reform policies and open China both politically and economically.

General Overviews

A number of works have examined the unfolding of the decade-long Cultural Revolution and analyzed its ideological and political origins. One group of works, such as Barnouin and Yu 1993, MacFarquhar and Schoenhals 2006, Walder 2015, and Yan and Gao 1996, focuses on elite power struggles, particularly those between Mao and the bureaucracy prior to and during the Cultural Revolution. These studies frame the Cultural Revolution as a series of persecutions by Mao and his followers. As the principal instigator of this political movement, Mao’s political style was crucial in determining the subsequent form of the revolution. Another group of works, for example Esherick, et al. 2006; Bu 2008; and Wu 2014, focuses on the origins and forms of political participation of the masses, emphasizing the rebel Red Guards’ personal and group grievances and their ideals of pursuing a more egalitarian society.

  • Barnouin, Barbara, and Changgen Yu. 1993. Ten years of turbulence: The Chinese Cultural Revolution. London: Routledge.

    This study examines the unfolding of the Cultural Revolution over a period of ten years, focusing on Mao’s ideology and political role. Barnouin and Yu argue that Mao was the principal instigator of this political movement, as Mao perceived a constant danger of capitalist restoration and used the Cultural Revolution as a means to eliminate those he considered to be his political adversaries.

  • Bu, Weihua. 2008. Zalan jiu shijie: Wenhua da geming de dongluan yu haojie. Hong Kong: Chinese Univ. Press.

    Based on publicly available materials, Bu provides a panoramic overview of the chaos of the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1968, with a detailed survey of factional conflicts and bureaucratic interplays across twenty-seven provinces. Bu also provides detailed statistical reports of mass violence during several key political events, revealing the cruelty and tragedy of political struggles during the period of Mao’s leadership.

  • Esherick, Joseph, Paul Pickowicz, and Andrew Walder, eds. 2006. The Chinese Cultural Revolution as history. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

    This edited volume deliberately avoids central elite politics, but focuses instead on the ways in which ordinary people and rural locales became engulfed in the Cultural Revolution. The articles in this collection show that the revolution was not just a decade of chaos and random violence, but also a product of the agency and collective choices of mass participants, sometimes in agreement with, sometimes in resistance to the broader movement.

  • Joseph, William A., Christine Wong, and David Zweig, eds. 1991. New perspectives on the Cultural Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    In this edited volume, thirteen scholars present “new perspectives” on political, economic, and cultural aspects of the Cultural Revolution. In particular, they focus on the mass violence, policy coercion, central-provincial relations, and the gap between the ideology of the revolution and the harsh and contradictory reality that was its outcome.

  • MacFarquhar, Roderick, and Michael Schoenhals. 2006. Mao’s last revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    MacFarquhar and Schoenhals provide an exhaustively documented portrait of Mao’s manipulation and near destruction of the Communist Party during the Cultural Revolution. The authors draw a complex and nuanced picture of Mao’s motivations in launching the Cultural Revolution and his obsession with the continued revolution, ultimately concluding that “officials counted for more than institutions in China” (p. 452).

  • Teiwes, Frederick C., and Warren Sun. 2007. The end of the Maoist era: Chinese politics during the twilight of the Cultural Revolution, 1972–1976. New York: M. E. Sharpe.

    This book documents political developments during the last four years of the Cultural Revolution. Teiwes and Sun demonstrate Mao’s continued dominance in local politics, even as his ability to control events ebbed away. They also question the orthodox view that the so-called radicals under the leadership of the Gang of Four were the sole sinners, arguing instead that the veteran revolutionaries were also responsible for the historical tragedy.

  • Walder, Andrew. 2015. China under Mao: A revolution derailed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.4159/9780674286689

    Walder’s latest work narrates the rise and fall of the Maoist revolutionary state from 1949 to 1976. With the focus on Mao, Walder details the development of the Cultural Revolution and addresses the questions of “what Mao wanted to accomplish, how he hoped to do so, and what ideas and commitments motivated his actions” (p. 6). Walder concludes that the political doctrines and bureaucratic organization Mao built post-1949 generated the violent destruction and stagnation of the Cultural Revolution.

  • Wu, Yiching. 2014. The Cultural Revolution at the margins: Chinese socialism in crisis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Wu contends that the Cultural Revolution was not merely a decade of Mao’s campaign to smash his enemies, but also a period in which millions of young people “at the margins” responded to Mao’s call for continuous revolution. According to Wu, a series of political crises that emerged during the Cultural Revolution led rebellious youth to develop their own thoughts and eventually led, in turn, to the momentous changes in Chinese politics and society a decade later.

  • Yan, Jiaqi, and Gao Gao. 1996. Turbulent decade: A history of the Cultural Revolution. Honolulu: Univ. of Hawai‘i Press.

    Yan and Gao adopt an elitist focus in this book, emphasizing a history of elite initiatives, elite political struggle, and elite manipulation of the masses during the Cultural Revolution. According to the authors, the causes of the Cultural Revolution were economic centralization and political dictatorship, political schisms between Mao and Liu Shaoqi, habitual inner-party struggles, and a lack of democratic mechanisms to ameliorate the relations between people and government.

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