The Cultural Revolution – or the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, as it was officially known – is a particularly notorious period in the history of Maoist China. Although it influenced a generation of Chinese citizens, relatively few firsthand accounts have come out of the Revolution, which remains a sensitive topic in modern China. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is one of the few works of fiction by a Chinese writer to directly address the period. However, its explanation of the Revolution is limited to the perspective of one character in extremely specific circumstances. This section will give historical context for the period.
In the early 1960s, Mao Zedong was the Chairman of the Communist Party, and thus the most powerful man in China. However, he had lost much of his influence among the ruling class due to his aggressive foreign policy and the country’s failed Great Leap Forward, an attempt to modernize China's economy while integrating communist policies into everyday life. Between 1960 and 1963, Mao denounced many of China’s Communist allies, including Yugoslavia, Albania, and the Soviet Union. This placed the country in an awkward diplomatic position that was only exacerbated by the domestic problems caused by the Great Leap Forward. Specifically, the Great Leap Forward set high production quotas for steel and agriculture, but did not provide these industries with the infrastructure and technology necessary to meet the quotas. Combined with bad weather and a decrease in worker motivation, the country suffered extreme famine, inefficiency, and thousands of deaths.
In response to these difficulties, Mao attempted to consolidate the Party by both purging officials he distrusted and persecuting prominent artists who had made real or imagined threats against the regime. In 1966, the Central Committee of the Party published the “16 Points,” announcing that China must eradicate bourgeois culture. In practice, this meant aggressively elminating all traces of Western, non-Communist, or traditional Chinese influence. The Party encouraged the development of the Red Guards, grassroots youth groups that enforced the government’s cultural proclamations, often through violence and intimidation. The movement spread quickly, until many people – the exact number is unknown – were denounced and labeled ‘class enemies.’ At the movement’s height, more than 20 million high-school and college students served in the Red Guards. Educational curriculum was completely altered to make it less ‘elitist,’ although within a few years, all schools and universities were closed regardless of their curriculum. Eventually, the government turned against the Red Guards, who were spiraling out of control. Even prominent government officials were arrested and jailed as a result of the rampant paranoia.
The Cultural Revolution caused millions of civilian deaths, and crippled China’s economic development for years. Mao declared the Revolution complete in 1969, although many of the period’s policies continued until his death in 1976 – the year acknowledged by most sources as its actual end date. The final years of the Revolution were characterized by squabbling amongst the upper echelons of the Party as candidates vied to be considered Mao’s successor.