Fifty years ago one of the bloodiest eras in history began in which as many as two million people died.
But who started it and what was it for?
What was it and when did it begin?
The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was a decade-long period of political and social chaos caused by Mao Zedong’s bid to use the Chinese masses to reassert his control over the Communist party.
Its bewildering complexity and almost unfathomable brutality was such that to this day historians struggle to make sense of everything that occurred during the period.
However Mao’s decision to launch the ‘revolution’ in May 1966 is now widely interpreted as an attempt to destroy his enemies by unleashing the people on the party and urging them to purify its ranks.
When the mass mobilisation kicked off party newspapers depicted it as an epochal struggle that would inject new life into the socialist cause.
‘Like the red sun rising in the east the unprecedented Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution is illuminating the land with its brilliant rays’ one editorial read.
In fact, the Cultural Revolution crippled the economy – ruined millions of lives and thrust China into 10 years of turmoil bloodshed hunger and stagnation.
Gangs of students and Red Guards attacked people wearing ‘bourgeois clothes’ on the street – ‘imperialist’ signs were torn down and intellectuals and party officials were murdered or driven to suicide.
After violence had run its bloody course the country’s rulers conceded it had been a catastrophe that had brought nothing but ‘grave disorder – damage and retrogression’.
An official party reckoning described it as a catastrophe which had caused ‘the most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the party – the country and the people since the founding of the People’s Republic’ in 1949.