Socialism Is Much Better Than Capitalism, and Communism Will Be a Far Better World

Part 14: The Cultural Revolution—Accomplishments in Education and Culture

Revolution #044, April 23, 2006, posted at

The “master narrative” that guides most contemporary Western studies of the Cultural Revolution, and that is more or less the “official history” put out by the anti-Mao regime in China, is that the Cultural Revolution ushered in a "dark age." The accomplishments of the Cultural Revolution are systematically distorted.

But extraordinary things happened.

Education: Expansion and Innovation

We can start with education. It’s a common charge that Mao was anti-learning and anti-education. Jung Chang and Jon Halliday in Mao: The Unknown Story go so far as to say that Mao’s approach to education was to consign the bulk of the population to a fate of “illiterate or semiliterate slave laborers.” Once again, they completely turn reality on its head.

Exhibit 1:Educational resources were vastly expanded in the rural areas.

Between 1965 and 1976, elementary school enrollment increased from 115 million to 150 million, and secondary school enrollment grew from 15 million to 58 million—almost a four-fold increase. Peasants had access to a network of village primary, joint village middle school, and commune high school systems. In mountainous areas, there were traveling classrooms. By 1973, 90 percent of school-age children attended school. Worker and peasant enrollment soared in the universities in the 1970s.

Exhibit 2:Attacking elitism in higher education.

Before the Cultural Revolution, the universities were the province of the sons and daughters of party members and the privileged classes. Children would compete in examinations to enter a hierarchy of increasingly selective college-preparatory schools. China had a long history of a feudal-Confucian educational system that created a small privileged elite, divorced from the common people and productive labor in society.

The Cultural Revolution abolished this system of elite tracking and competitive exams. Upon completing high school, students would live and work in rural areas or take up work in factories. After two or three years, students of any background could then apply to go college. Part of the college admission process involved evaluation and recommendations from young people’s work units.

The old curriculum was overhauled as part of breaking down elitism. Study was combined with productive labor. People took up revolutionary theory and revolutionary politics. The old teaching methods of students being passive receptacles of knowledge, and teachers and instructors being absolute authorities, were criticized.

The Cultural Revolution challenged the bourgeois-elitist idea that education is a ladder for individuals to "get ahead,” or a way to use skills and knowledge to gain advantageous position over others. This was not anti-intellectualism, but rather a question of putting knowledge in the service of the society that was breaking down social inequalities.

Exhibit 3:“Open door” research.

One of the most exciting breakthroughs of the Cultural Revolution was what was called “open door” research. In the countryside, scientific stations were set up close to the fields. Peasants, alongside specialists from the cities, carried out experiments in hybrid grains, conducted studies of insect-life cycles, and other aspects of science in agriculture. This helped the masses come to understand scientific questions and the scientific method; and helped scientists gain a better sense of conditions in society, including in the countryside.

In the cities, leading educational institutions and research institutes developed relationships with factories, neighborhood committees, and other organizations. People came to the laboratories and the laboratories went to the people. And you had innovative arrangements like women from a neighborhood factory producing parts for advanced computers—not as exploited Third World outsourced labor—but in a cooperative relationship with a lab or institute, and learning about the science of it all.

Professionals Going to the Countryside

During the Cultural Revolution, artists, doctors, technical and scientific workers, and all kinds of people were called on to go among the workers and peasants: to apply their skills to the needs of society, to share the lives of the laboring people, to exchange knowledge, and to learn from the basic people.

We are told that going to countryside was a form of punishment against professionals. Well, does that apply to the peasants? Who asked the peasants if they wanted to live in the countryside? The fact is: this policy of sending professionals to the countryside was part of a conscious attempt to break down the lopsidedness of society and to reduce the cultural and resource gaps between town and country.

How was this policy carried out? At the point of a gun? No. First of all, there was an appeal to people's higher interests and aspirations of serving society. Second, ideological struggle was waged. It was made a mass question: what’s more important, that a skilled doctor have the “right” to a privileged life in the city, or that health care be made widely available? Third, there were many people who took this up with enthusiasm and commitment and set examples for others. Finally, there was a degree of coercion. The policy of sending people to the countryside was institutionalized. But not all coercion is bad. For instance, is it wrong for a government to mandate school desegregation, even if some object to it?

Now, as I said, many professionals and youth responded with great enthusiasm to this call to go to the countryside. I would strongly recommend that people take a look at a recent book, Some of Us (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001). It has several essays written by Chinese women, now living in the West, who took part in the Cultural Revolution. They talk about how positive and life-changing this experience was of going to the countryside: how they learned from the peasants, did things they never thought they could, and gained a sense of their strength as women, and how the Cultural Revolution promoted a spirit of critical thinking.


Let’s turn to culture. We’re told that the Cultural Revolution led to a cultural wasteland. But the truth is quite different. There was an explosion of artistic activity among workers and peasants—poetry, painting, music, short stories, and even film. Mass art projects and new kinds of popular and collaborative artistic undertakings spread, including to the countryside and remote areas. Large-scale collective sculptural works, like the Rent Collection Courtyard figures, reached a very high level of artistic expression and revolutionary content.

The Cultural Revolution produced what were called “model revolutionary works.” They were pacesetters which the people all over China could use as models in their development of numerous and artistic works. Model operas and ballets put the masses on stage front and center. They conveyed their lives, and their role in society and history. These model works were of extraordinarily high level, combining traditional Chinese forms with western instruments and techniques. Significantly, strong women figured prominently in the revolutionary operas.

Different Peking Opera companies would tour in the countryside, helping local culture groups to develop and learning from local performances. Let me read from an account by someone talking about how the model revolutionary works and the general spread of revolutionary culture affected his village.

He says: "I witnessed an unprecedented surge of cultural and sports activities in my own home village, Gao Village. The rural villages, for the first time, organized theater troupes and put on performances that incorporated the contents and structure of the eight model Peking operas with local language and music. The villagers not only entertained themselves, but also learned how to read and write by getting into the text in plays, and they organized sports meets and held matches with other villages. All these activities gave the villagers an opportunity to meet, communicate, fall in love. These activities gave them a sense of discipline and organization, and created a public sphere where meetings and communications went beyond the traditional household and village clans. This had never happened before and it has never happened since."*

Next Week: The Cultural Revolution: Health Care and the Economy


*Mobo Gao, “Debating the Cultural Revolution,” Critical Asia Studies, 34:3 (2002), pp. 427-28.

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