Literature of the Cultural Revolution

Authored by: Lena Henningsen

Routledge Handbook of Modern Chinese Literature

Print publication date:  September  2018
Online publication date:  September  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138647541
eBook ISBN: 9781315626994
Adobe ISBN:


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The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was an epoch of political turmoil, traumatic suffering, and dehumanization of Chinese society. It occurred as a result of many factors including power struggles among the political elites who mobilized the population, especially the young Red Guards, for their purposes. 1 After the first years of intense political struggle, these young people spent the next years as educated youth (zhishi qingnian or zhiqing) in the countryside in order to receive re-education from Chinese farmers. The Cultural Revolution was also an era of economic deprivation as resources were diverted to the cause of the revolutionary struggle, and many, among them a large number of educated youth, suffered from material, emotional and spiritual impoverishment. 2 Despite all this, the ten-year period was indeed a cultural revolution, with far-reaching implications for literary and artistic production, distribution and consumption. The power struggle was acted out in the field of literature and arts as Mao’s wife Jiang Qing condemned most literary productions of the past “seventeen years” (1949–1966, i.e. the early years of the People’s Republic of China until the breakout of the Cultural Revolution) as reactionary and revisionist. The Cultural Revolution was triggered by Yao Wenyuan’s criticism of Wu Han’s drama “Hai Rui dismissed from office” with an editorial in Wenhui Gazzette (Wenhuibao) on November 10, 1965. One of its first proclamations included a call to produce literature and art for the masses of the people. During that period, contact with the outside world was limited. Most literary works from both the “West” and what were now considered revisionist Socialist countries were banned. The degree of control, censorship and propaganda in the cultural field increased, and literary and cultural production became more and more uniform in their propagation of the ideals of Communism and the Revolution, bringing about what appeared as a literary and cultural desert. Nevertheless, in this “desert,” flowers of literature did not die entirely; they grew tenaciously in the nooks sheltered from ideological control or survived underground in a remarkable variety.

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