Chapter 19: The Cultural Revolution Begins

This is the next installment of my book, The Cultural Revolution: Then and Mao.
To read the previous installment, click this link.
To start at the beginning, click this link.


Chapter 19
The Cultural Revolution Begins

Jiang Qing had been an actress in the 1930s and this, along with being Mao’s wife, enabled her to serve as head of the Film Section of the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department in the 1950s. She became an expert in propaganda, and her husband needed such an expert, and one whom he could trust.

Peng Zhen, the most powerful supporter of China’s leader, Liu Shaoqi.

In February of 1965, Mao secretly commissioned Jiang and literary critic Yao Wenyuan to publish a critique of the play, Hai Rui Dismissed from Office. The author of this play was Wu Han, the Vice Mayor of Beijing. Wu’s direct superior was Peng Zhen, who was the First Secretary of the Beijing Communist Party. Peng was a very powerful official within the Communist Party. Not only that, but Peng was State Chairman Liu Shaoqi’s strongest supporter. Liu needed Peng’s support, to remain the leader of China.

A discerning reader may notice by now, that this plot of Mao’s involved a lot of people and moving parts. It was highly complex.

Mao calculated that if he could discredit Wu, the playwright and Vice Mayor, then Wu’s direct superior, Peng, would also be discredited. By taking down Peng, who was Liu Shaoqi’s strongest supporter, Liu would lose much of his support within the Party, and be vulnerable. Liu could then be taken down. This would be a complicated coup, and many dominoes would have to fall correctly, but Mao had set those dominoes up carefully.

Yao, the literary critic working with Jiang Qing, was instructed by Mao to write a critique accusing Wu, the playwright, of attacking Mao. So in Yao’s article, he claimed that the play Wu wrote, about a Ming Dynasty civil servant who was purged from office after criticizing the emperor, was actually a political allegory. He claimed that the honest civil servant symbolized General Peng Dehuai, who had criticized Mao’s Great Leap Forward, and then was subsequently purged by Mao. And he alleged that the corrupt emperor in this play, symbolized Mao.

Yao’s article left Peng Zhen feeling very nervous. Pay careful attention to some dominoes Mao had set up, and you’ll understand why.

Mao had recently appointed Peng to be the head of a “Five-Man Group” commissioned by Mao to study the potential for a Cultural Revolution. The writer of the play, Wu, had been under Peng’s direct supervision when the play was written. This implicated Peng as a co-conspirator in the attack on Mao, and made him vulnerable to the accusation of being a counterrevolutionary.

And now the plot thickens: Peng knew that the Cultural Revolution would be all about persecuting those suspected of being counterrevolutionaries. He worried that he would become a target of the very campaign he was helping Mao to set up. Peng also had some control over the publication of Yao’s article that critiqued Wu’s play.

So Peng decided to forbid the publication of Yao’s article in any major newspaper under his control. This included the nationally distributed People’s Daily. He only allowed publication in a few, small, locally distributed newspapers. He hoped it would go unnoticed and be quickly forgotten.

Meanwhile, Mao pushed over a few more dominoes. He went after those he expected to come to Peng’s defense. As Chairman of the Communist Party, he was able to fire Yang Shangkun, who was a senior leader of the Central Committee, on bogus charges of spying on Mao. He replaced him with a staunch Mao loyalist.

Mao then had his loyal ally, Defense Minister Lin Biao, accuse the chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army, General Luo Ruiqing, of being anti-Mao. Luo was denounced and dismissed. This ensured that the rest of the military command would be loyal to Mao.

The next domino was the sacking of the Propaganda Department chief, Lu Dingyi, who was a Peng ally. This helped to isolate Peng, and gave Mao unrestricted access to the press.

Now Peng was in Mao’s crosshairs. Peng’s Five-Man Group had recently issued a report that claimed the Hai Rui play was merely an academic discussion, and had nothing to do with politics. But at a high-profile meeting of the Politburo, Mao got two of his supporters, Kang Sheng and Chen Boda, to call bullshit on this. They brought Yao’s damning article to the Politburo’s attention, they showed how Peng had tried to suppress this article, and they claimed that this was evidence that Peng had revisionist tendencies.

Revisionist was one of the most damning names you could call a Communist. It’s used for people who try to revise the interpretation of Karl Marx’s writings to satisfy capitalist motivations.

Without Peng’s allies to come to his defense, the Politburo was convinced, and Peng was deposed from office. Then on May 16, 1966, the Politburo released an official document condemning Peng, disbanding his Five-Man Group, and replacing it with a new committee, called the Cultural Revolution Group (CRG).

Chen Boda was named Chairman of the CRG, with Jiang Qinq as Vice-Chairman. Other members included Kang Sheng and Yao Wenyuan. With Peng out of the picture, the CRG could go after Liu Shaoqi, leader of China, without any interference.

These actions by the Politburo are often cited as the official start of the Cultural Revolution.


Come on back in a few days for the next installment, entitled Chapter 20: Rise of the Red Guards.

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