The ‘May 16th Notification’ of 1966 effectively started the Cultural Revolution in China. The notification suggested that the Communist Party had been infiltrated by enemies of Communism, and that only Mao Zedong’s leadership could remove the traitors.
Even senior party officials were subjected to the purges of the Cultural Revolution, although the greatest suffering occurred within the greater population at the hands of fanatical Red Guards – groups of Communist Party members, many of them still at school.
The Red Guards were moved by revolutionary fervour to rid China of the so-called ‘Four Olds’ – old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas. Spurred on by Mao’s desire for a ‘great disorder’, the Red Guards shut down and sometimes looted religious buildings, burned books, destroyed historical sites, and even desecrated the grave of Confucius himself.
If the Red Guards needed a guide it came in the form of the Little Red Book, a collection of quotes from Mao of which 350 million copies had been printed by December 1967. However, the Red Guards often interpreted the words to suggest the most extreme actions – public humiliation, torture, and even murder.
By the time the Cultural Revolution had completely ended in 1976, an estimated minimum of 400,000 people had died through torture, execution, or suicide. However, the number is likely to be much higher. In 1981, the Communist Party itself declared that the Cultural Revolution had “brought serious disaster and turmoil to the Communist Party and the Chinese people.”