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1.12  Mao's Theories and Past Campaigns on Culture

1 July 2018

Mao’s Chinese-style Marxist Culture Theory


As early as in the late 1920s, Mao already paid much attention to cultural issues. In one of his articles talking about the Chinese society, he pointed out that "In China, 90 percent of the people have no culture or education, and of these the overwhelming majority are peasants". Mao further indicated that in China culture and education "have always been reserved exclusively for the landlords, and the peasants were denied access to them," but "the culture of the landlords is created by the peasants, for its source is the sweat and blood of the peasants".[1]


By the late 1930s and the early 1940s, when China's Anti-Japanese War was entering a critical moment, the debate too reached a climax. By then, the CCP not only had to fight the bourgeois but also the imperialists which became the more immediate tasks. Questions were being asked, for example, about the appropriate forms of culture when a nation was being invaded and whether writers and artists should debase the "high" culture to meet the mass criteria, just in order to mobilize the masses to fight the invaders.


In 1940, Mao published an article in which for the first time he systematically laid out his blueprint of the "new democratic culture". Mao asserted that the culture of a given society is the ideological reflection of the prevailing state of politics and economy. Hence, the culture in China then was a combination of imperialist culture and semi-feudal culture. It was a reflection of the political and economic control of imperialism and feudalism which advocated old ideologies and opposed new ideologies. That old culture must therefore be swept away, particularly when the Anti-Japanese War was entering a new stage.


Two years later in May 1942, Mao made a well-known speech at the Yanan Forum on Art and Literature (“在延安文艺座谈会上的讲话”) that initiated his Chinese-styled Marxist culture theory aimed to help tackle the country's social problems. Besides once again stressing the importance, purpose and nature of the new mass culture, Mao also elaborated the content, forms, means and many other aspects of his proposed new mass culture.[2] He reasserted that workers, peasants and soldiers, which made up 90% of the population, were illiterate and uncultured as a result of the prolonged rule of the feudal and bourgeois classes. A widespread campaign of enlightenment, comprising of culture, knowledge, art and literature, was badly needed to gradually reduce and weaken the influence of the feudal culture disguised as "traditional culture". In their struggle for the liberation of the Chinese people, culture thus constituted another front in addition to the military front for CCP. Victory could only be achieved with not only armed troop but also a cultural army to popularize a proletariat culture.[3] For half of a century, Mao's talk at the Yanan Forum was regarded as the basis for a fundamental culture theory of Chinese-styled Marxism.


The Yanan Rectification Campaign (1942 – 44)


Soon after the talk at the Yanan Forum, the CCP also initiated its first ideological mass movement known as the Yanan Rectification Campaign (YRC, 延安整风运动), lasting from 1942 to 1944, to carry out “systematic remolding of human minds”. During this period, Yanan was not seriously threatened by either the Japanese or the Nationalists. The Party therefore “chose to re-emphasize its basic principles during this period, in an evident determination to maintain its Leninist foundations in the midst of all the changes brought about by the war."[4] A second, equally important aspect of the movement was the elimination of the blind imitation of Soviet models and obedience to Soviet directives. By doing so, Mao hoped to formulate a development model based on Marxist principles but customized to China’s environments which were uniquely different from those of the Soviet Union. Finally, it has also been said in a highly controversial book that Mao sought, through the campaign, to mold the Party into an “unquestioning machine" in preparation for the all-out civil war against the Nationalists that was expected to follow the defeat of the Japanese.[5]


Mao's primary "target" for the campaign was the hundreds of thousands of new volunteers who had arrived in Yanan after the Long March. The campaign was to give them a basic grounding in the Marxist theory and the Leninist principles of party organization. Most of the Long Marchers and rural recruits from within the Communist bases were illiterate peasants. In contrast, these young volunteers, comprising of urban youth, students, and intellectuals, were relatively well educated and were therefore vital to Mao as competent administrators to staff his future regime. They were not only disillusioned by the increasingly corrupt Nationalist government but also doubted its resolve in fighting the Japanese. They were therefore drawn by communist propaganda that portrayed the CCP as "the saviors of the nation", promising democracy and liberal reforms. In their bid to save China, these volunteers had joined the Party in territories controlled by the Nationalists before later departing for Yanan. Many of these volunteers were teachers, artists, writers, and journalists. Their enthusiasm and expertise were useful for the revolution, but only after they had undergone a thorough process of political re-education and ideological reform.[6]


In the years following Mao’s talk at the Yanan Forum, the Party founded an art school in Yanan to train these "new revolutionary writers and artists." Most of the trained writers and artists were then assigned to the Anti-Japanese War frontier or the vast rural areas to deliver the new mass culture to millions of soldiers and peasants. Numerous novels, films, operas, and other artistic works emerged, in which soldiers, workers, peasants and petty bourgeoisie were treated as the leading roles and appeared as heroes. The goal of establishing a new democratic mass culture, based on Mao’s conception, was therefore basically achieved.


But the cadres who had survived the Long March and "proven their revolutionary credibility" were also not spared from the campaign. For them, the objective of the re-education was to indoctrinate them with the newly established "Mao Zedong Thought" in order to ensure their high compliance with the new leadership and the new party ideology. In order to secure his power, Mao supported his political authority with ethical and moral rhetoric.[7] Indeed, the Yanan Rectification Campaign saw Mao consolidate his position of preeminence in the CCP.


Moulding a New Socialist Mass Culture after 1949


Mao’s concerns with the role played by mass-culture in China’s socialist revolution persisted despite CCP having taken power in 1949. Even though the Party had won the basic victory in transforming the ownership of the means of production and the socialist system had been established in our country, he asserted that complete victory on the political and ideological fronts remained elusive. In the case of New China, Mao maintained that contradiction between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie would remain the principal contradiction. Hence, he argued that even though the large-scale, turbulent class struggles of the masses of the previous revolutionary periods had ended, there was still need for very acute class struggle though mainly on the political and ideological fronts.[8] Quoting Marxist theory, he declared endless class struggle as the real and only dynamic that would drive a class society to move forward until the society became classless. So, even if the Chinese socialist society was entering a new historical period, class struggle would still exist and it would be unavoidably reflected in various cultural respects. It would be wrong not to understand this and to give up ideological struggle.


Moreover, that ideological struggle between the proletarian and bourgeoisie would be a long term battle because of at least two factors. First, the new social system had only just been established and time was needed for its consolidation to take place, step by step. To achieve its ultimate consolidation, it was necessary not only to bring about the socialist industrialization of the country and persevere in the socialist revolution on the economic front, but also to carry on constant socialist revolutionary struggles and socialist education on political and ideological fronts. The process would therefore be long and arduous. Second, the process of consolidation would inevitably face resistance from bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie who would not cease to express themselves in every way possible on political and ideological questions. Hence, the influence of the bourgeoisie and of the intellectuals from the old society would remain as the ideology of a class for a long time to come. “Failure to grasp this, or still worse, failure to understand it at all, can lead to the gravest mistake–to ignoring the necessity of waging the struggle in the ideological field".[9]


Indeed, after several years of both political and economic recoveries from the Anti-Japanese War, the Civil War, and the Korea War, China was entering a new era of "socialist development" based on the First Five-Year Plan (1953 – 57). To speed up socialist economic development, there was an urgent need to address the rightist mind-sets not only of some Party members but also of the masses. Questions were raised as to what the new socialist mass culture should be like, especially when the "turbulent class struggle" was over; whether it should be based on traditional culture or built on a base of politicized culture with a class nature; and whether writers and artists should be left alone to do their own work or be placed under the Party’s guidance.


In that regard, Mao asserted that the new socialist mass culture should be a proletariat culture. To reinforce his argument, Mao cited Lenin's perspective: "Literature must become part of the common cause of the proletariat, 'a cog and a screw' of one single great social-democratic mechanism set in motion by the entire politically-conscious vanguard of the entire working class".[10] Specifically, Mao listed six criteria for his proposed new socialist mass culture:[11]

  1. It should help to unite, not to divide, the people of our various nationalities;

  2. It should be beneficial, not harmful, to socialist transformation and socialist construction;

  3. It should help consolidate, not undermine or weaken, the people's democratic dictatorship;

  4. It should help consolidate, not undermine or weaken, democratic centralism;

  5. It should strengthen, not cast off or weaken, the leadership of the Communist Party;

  6. It should be beneficial, not harmful, to international socialist solidarity and the solidarity of the peace-loving peoples of the world.


Mao’s Mass-Movement Campaigns Leading up to the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution


In its quest to establish socialism after the birth of the People’s Republic, the CCP had carried out, in accordance to Mao’s thinking, several campaigns in the 1950s and early 1960s, including the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries (中共反革命运动) in 1950; the Three Antis Campaign (三反运动)[12] and Five Antis Campaign (五反运动)[13] as well as the Intellectual Thought Reform Campaign (知识分子思想改造运动)[14] in 1951; the Hundred Flowers Campaign and the Anti-Rightist Campaign (1954 – 1956); the Anti-Right Deviation Campaign (1959); and the Socialist Education Movement (1963 – 1966).


By early 1960s, however, Mao was dismayed that, despite all the re-education efforts, the practices in the cultural and ideological field had not changed fundamentally. Mao thus severely criticized the situation, saying it was unthinkable that the "socialist culture stages" were still occupied, to an "intolerable degree", by "ghosts, monsters, ancient emperors, kings, general and officials, but not the workers, peasants and soldiers". He therefore stressed that all erroneous ideas, all poisonous weeds, and all ghosts and monsters (referring to feudalism and capitalism) must be subjected to criticism. In no circumstance should they be allowed to spread unchecked.


To be sure, Mao’s concerns at this stage were also motivated in no small part by the Party's internal struggle. His position as the supreme leader had been under challenge since the Great Leap Forward fiasco. Some Party leaders stood on the opposite of Mao and supported the other cultural line – the so-called "bourgeois line within the Party" adopted by Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping.  Hence, in his quest to re-monopolize political power, he was driven to use some of the rectification tactics that had been proven to work with great success in Yanan era.[15]


By the mid-1960s, his determination to act was fortified by what he perceived as Soviet-style revisionism practised by the new CCP leadership led by Liu Shaoqi. To put a stop to the right deviation brought about by the Liu-Deng revisionist policies, Mao planned and staged the disastrous Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution (GPCR) with the help of Jiang Qing (his wife), Lim Biao (the Minister of Defence), Kang Sheng, Chen Boda, Yao Wenyuan, Wang Hongwen, and Zhang Chunqiao, each of whom had hoped to gain politically in some way from the fall of Liu and his associates. Thus, the GPCR was the culmination of a drawn out process that had been building up for years under the cover of the Socialist Education Movement and of the various drives for cadre rectification. It did not happen out of a whim overnight.

PREVIOUS: 1.11  Evolution of China’s Feudalistic Culture before Mao's Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution

NEXT: 1.13  Mao's Cultural Revolution Phase I (1966 - 68) - The Activist Phase



[1] See Mao Zedong. (1927). "Campaign For Education and Culture," in Mao Tse-Tung on Art and Literature , Calcutta: Ava Press. Quoted in Hong Junhao. (1994)

[2] See Hong, Junhao. (1994). “Mao Zedong's Cultural Theory and China's Three Mass-Culture Debates: A Tentative Study of Culture, Society and Politics.” Intercultural Communication Studies IV:2.

[3] See Mao Zedong. (1942). “Talks at the Yan'an Forum on Art and Literature."

[4] See Brandt, Conrad, Benjamin Schwartz, and John K. Fairbank. A documentary history of Chinese communism, New York : Atheneum, 1971

[5] See Chang, Jung. (2003) Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China. Simon & Schuster. Notably, Chang’s book has been criticized by some of the world's most eminent scholars of modern Chinese history as one that is out to thoroughly destroy Mao’s reputation. Among other things, the book contains “stupendous number of quotations out of context, distortion of facts and omission of much of what makes Mao a complex, contradictory, and multi-sided leader”. See Hamish McDonald. (2005). “A Swan’s Little Book of Ire.” The Sydney Morning Herald. October 8, 2005.

[6] See Cheng, Yinghong. (2009). “Creating the ‘New Man’: From Enlightenment Ideals to Socialist Realities”. University of Hawaii Press, 2009. All references from pp. 59-70, starting at section "The Yan'an Period: Beginning the Systematic Remolding of Human Minds"

[7] See Cheng, Yinghong. (2009).

[8] See Mao Zedong. (1957). "Speech at the Chinese Communist Party's National Conference on Propaganda Work," in Mao Tse-Tung on Literature and Art (2nd ed.), Peking: Foreign Language Press; Quoted in Hong, Junhao. (1994).

[9] See Hong, Junhao. (1994).

[10] See Lenin. (1962). "Party Organization and Party Literature." in Eng (ed.) Collected Works of Lenin. Moscow: FLPH.

[11] See See Hong, Junhao. (1994).

[12] See Baidu百科. “三反运动.”

[13] See Baidu百科. “五反运动”.

[14] See Baidu百科. “知识分子思想改造运动

[15] See Lieberthal, Kenneth. (2003).

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