China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, to give it its full title, was one of the most extraordinary and perhaps least understood political, social and economic convulsions of a century scarred by too many of them. One reason for this is that it was so protracted. The upheaval began in the summer of 1966, when Mao incited people to re-radicalise the revolution he had himself largely created and overthrow those he had, for the most part, placed in power. It ended only with his death in September 1976, and even then not completely.
No less remarkable was its complexity. Throughout this ten-year period, there were constantly shifting factional struggles at every level of national life, from elite politics in Beijing to factories and farms in distant provinces. The ‘ideological line’ was rarely consistent, save for mandatory adulation of Mao and the nurturing of his personality cult, which often reached fantastical lengths.
Leading figures in the Communist Party, state and military – the three main organs of power – were engulfed in the storm and many of them were destroyed. The institutions themselves sometimes teetered on the brink of collapse. So too, at times, did the entire economy. Throughout, the toll on