In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cultural Revolution

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies, Primary Documents, and Reference Works
  • Origins and Prelude
  • Ideology
  • Mass Politics and Red Guard Factionalism
  • Violence and Political Victimization
  • Education and Culture
  • Mao Zedong and His Cult
  • The Cultural Revolution in the Provinces

Chinese Studies Cultural Revolution
Yiching Wu
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0125


The Cultural Revolution, launched by Mao Zedong in 1966 and ended with the close of the Mao era in 1976, was the most profound crisis that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has ever undergone. The sight of widespread rebel attacks on the party-state authorities, instigated by the head of the same apparatus, was extraordinary. Beginning in the late 1950s, Mao’s increasing dissatisfaction with the Soviet model of centralized, bureaucratic socialism was exemplified by his theory of “continuous revolution,” which stressed that taking state power was not the end point of the revolution. He had also lost faith in the methods of top-down mobilization that had been the hallmark of party campaigns. The ferocious movement erupted in 1966 with Mao mobilizing the country’s youth to attack the alleged “capitalist power-holders” in the ruling Communist Party and remnants of prerevolutionary elites, who he believed had corrupted the revolutionary ranks. Within months, party and state authorities across the country became paralyzed and virtually collapsed, and the Red Guard movement unleashed by Mao degenerated into rampant factional conflicts. Only slowly and painfully was demobilization of the divided mass movement, restoration of order, and political recentralization achieved by deploying the Chinese army, and by establishing the so-called “revolutionary committees” as new organs of local administrative power. While the freewheeling mass politics had been largely terminated by 1968–1969, militant ideological rhetoric continued, and radical educational and cultural policies were advocated until the end of the Mao era. In post-Mao China, scholarly and public discussion of the Cultural Revolution in particular and the Mao era in general is subject to severe restrictions. History textbooks continue to abide by the official view of party history originally formulated in the early 1980s (collected in Schoenhals 1996, cited under Bibliographies, Primary Documents, and Reference Works). Government archives from the mid-1960s onward remain largely inaccessible. That the Chinese government displays heightened sensitivities around the subject is indicative of its anxiety that academic probing and popular discussions may undermine the legitimacy of the ruling party in a rapidly changing country fraught with social and political tensions.

General Overviews

A number of scholarly works in both English and Chinese aim to provide an overview of the Cultural Revolution; its origins and causes; key figures, events, and developments; and consequences. Students and general readers new to the topic will gain the most by starting with Kraus 2012, in which a veteran scholar of the Mao era provides the most concise and accessible account of the Cultural Revolution. Wang 2006 (originally published in 1988) is an early general account published in China. Even though it was authored more than a quarter of a century ago by a CCP party historian, this well-researched and detailed account still provides one of the best accounts in the Chinese language. MacFarquhar and Fairbank 1991 synthesizes the status of the field of Cultural Revolution scholarship of the 1970s and 1980s, and MacFarquhar and Schoenhals 2006 and Bu 2008 provide the most detailed and authoritative general accounts of the Cultural Revolution to date, in English and Chinese, respectively. Esherick, et al. 2006 represents the new wave of scholarship on the Cultural Revolution that draws from a wide variety of recently available primary sources. Providing comprehensive coverage of the Mao era in its entirety, both Meisner 1999 and Walder 2015 also contain detailed discussions of key developments and events of the Cultural Revolution decade, as well as its aftermath and multifaceted legacies in post-Mao Chinese society and politics.

  • Bu Weihua 卜伟华. Zalan jiushijie: Wenhua dageming de dongluan yu haojie, 1966–1968 (砸烂旧世界:文化大革命的动乱与浩劫, 1966–1968). Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2008.

    A highly detailed account of the most turbulent years of the Cultural Revolution, authored by one of the most respected Cultural Revolution scholars in China. The best and most up-to-date general account of the Cultural Revolution published in the Chinese language.

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

    A collection of eight case studies that explore how the Cultural Revolution was experienced by ordinary people. The volume represents the wave of scholarship that draws from a wide range of newly available materials including local gazetteers, archival sources, biographies, and memoirs, as well as interviews of participants.

  • Kraus, Richard. The Cultural Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    Condenses the extraordinarily complex history of the Cultural Revolution into a slim, highly lucid volume. Offers readers a quick overview of topics ranging from Mao and elite politics, to changes in everyday life, culture and art, the economy, and foreign relations.

  • MacFarquhar, Roderick, and John King Fairbank, eds. The Cambridge History of China. Vol. 15, The People’s Republic, Part 2: Revolutions within the Chinese Revolution, 1966–1982. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

    Includes thirteen essays by veteran China scholars commissioned to synthesize the status of knowledge in the study of the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath. The volume is divided into four parts, examining, respectively, political, diplomatic, economic, and cultural and educational aspects of Mao’s last decade.

  • MacFarquhar, Roderick, and Michael Schoenhals. Mao’s Last Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.

    Based on extensive reading in primary sources, this 800-page book provides a comprehensive account of the entire Cultural Revolution decade, with a special focus on high-level politics around Mao and those close to him. Authored by two of the most respected experts of the Cultural Revolution.

  • Meisner, Maurice. Mao’s China and After: A History of the People’s Republic. 3d ed. New York: Free Press, 1999.

    A widely used textbook on the history of the Mao era, covering the PRC’s early years, the Hundred Flowers movement, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution decade, and early post-Mao transitions. Part Four of the book (over 120 pages) provides a comprehensive and mostly balanced account of the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath.

  • Walder, Andrew. China under Mao: A Revolution Derailed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.4159/9780674286689

    A synthesis of the scholarship on Mao’s China, authored by one of the most established experts in the field. More than one-third of the book (chapters 9–13) is devoted to the Cultural Revolution years, based on both secondary scholarship and the author’s own extensive research.

  • Wang Nianyi 王年一. Dadongluan de niandai (大动乱的年代). Zhengzhou: Henan renmin chubanshe, 2006.

    Originally published 1988. A chronologically arranged general history of the Cultural Revolution, authored by a prominent Chinese party historian. Based on research conducted and primary sources available in the first decade after the closure of the Mao era.

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