With zealous efforts to eradicate Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and all other established religions from China under the Destruction of the Four Olds campaign during the Cultural Revolution, the revolutionists under Mao Zedong subsequently established a “new religion” of Maoism. The atheistic revolutionists denied the existence of any real God, deities or supreme powers over mankind and nature. In place of a real God or traditionally worshipped deities, Chairman Mao himself was exalted to a divine status, an object of compulsory worship whose writings were treated with gospel-like reverence in daily living.
Indeed, during the Cultural Revolution, there was no God, no Jehovah, no Jesus, no Mary, no Abraham, no Buddha, no Guanyin, no Jade Emperor, no Mazu, no Allah, no Muhammad; there was only Mao Zedong. Mao was the Almighty God, the Supreme Ruler, the Messiah, the Prophet, the Heavenly Messenger, the God of Wealth, the God of Mercy, the God of Longevity, the God of Health, the Ultimate Guardian, and the list goes on. Should anyone desire peace, he/she should pray to Chairman Mao. Should anyone wish for safety on a journey, he/she should pray to Chairman Mao. Should anyone want good health, he/she should pray to Chairman Mao. Should anyone expect for a good harvest, he/she should pray to Chairman Mao. Such was the degree of reverence and adoration for Chairman Mao that existed during the Cultural Revolution, albeit under compulsion and fear of punishment.
Chairman Mao’s “divine presence and protection” graced every home, workplace, factory, office, street and public square. Families were required to hang portraits of Mao in their homes, and altars had to be erected to them. These home altars had to be filled with various copies of Mao’s works, which could either be bought or were distributed free-of-charge to “good citizens who had contributed diligently to the Revolution.” Busts and statues of Mao were literally the only forms of sculpture-based home décor permitted in homes. In fact, statues of Mao also became a common sight in almost every public square throughout the country.
A propaganda poster featuring a family living happily under the "protection" of Chairman Mao. Written in Chinese above the poster are the words: "The happy life that Chairman Mao gives us"
If Chairman Mao was venerated as the Supreme Ruler of the Heavens, Earth and the Universe, then his works must have become the Bible, the Quran and the Dhammapada of the people. No doubt, ‘Quotations from Chairman Mao’ (毛主席语录, Máo Zhŭxí Yŭlù), more commonly known as ‘The Little Red Book,’ or ‘The Treasured Red Book’ (红宝书, Hóng Bǎoshū) in Chinese, became the most popular “scripture” or “holy book” throughout China. This pocket-size book became a compulsory item for everyone to possess and carry along wherever he/she went. The Red Guards would often conduct spot checks in the streets, and whoever found not to be in possession of the book often found themselves being brutally beaten by the Red Guards.
The Little Red Book contains a vast collection of quotations from Mao’s speeches and written works in the past. It became compulsory during the Cultural Revolution for everyone to read and memorize his sayings in order to practice them in daily life. Studying the book became a mandatory subject in schools, whereas workplaces allocated special hours for workers to gather and study the book together. Lunch breaks were also sometimes committed to the study of the book. Chairman Mao’s quotations from the Little Red Book became so paramount that any literary work or scientific essay produced during the era must include at least a quotation from the book. Even simple visits to a sundry shop had to include Chairman Mao’s quotations as greetings and in business transactions, otherwise the transaction would be deemed invalid.
'Quotations from Chairman Mao', more commonly known as 'The Little Red Book'
The “divine” veneration and worship of Mao Zedong also spun off various forms of rituals that had to be adhered to everyday during the Cultural Revolution. In the morning, before leaving the house for work or school, people had to present themselves before the home portrait of Mao and say out loud what they intended to do for the day to contribute towards the Revolution. Upon returning home in the evening, people were required to present themselves once again in front of Mao’s portrait and proclaim their successes and failures of the day, besides making new resolutions to improve their efforts for the next day. Each time they presented themselves before Mao’s portrait, they were to bow three times, sing the national anthem and a few songs of praise to Mao, recite Mao’s words from the Little Red Book and finally wishing him “ten thousand years.”
A propaganda poster featuring Chinese citizens shouting happily at Chairman Mao while holding the Little Red Book. Written in Chinese are the words: "Long live Chairman Mao! May he live ten thousand years!"
“Religious” gatherings were also common in workplaces, educational institutions and villages. Similar to how Christians often have Bible studies and prayer meetings, these Maoist meetings involved singing of hymns of praise to Chairman Mao and studying his words from the Little Red Book. Participants in such meetings often took time to compare their own daily conduct with Chairman Mao’s words, reflecting upon them and repenting with tears over past actions which were not in line with his words, as if they were grave sins. Even before having a meal, people were required to say a “prayer” of thanksgiving to Chairman Mao for providing them with a means of subsistence.
Some temples, churches and mosques which were cleared of their former religious occupants were converted into places of worship dedicated to Mao. Huge portraits, statues and various images of Mao were placed there for public worship and reverence. Every day, large crowds would converge in these “Maoist temples” to burn incense and offer prayers to Chairman Mao. Additionally, shrines were also erected in various locations throughout China which bore importance in Mao’s life. Every year, people from all over the country would throng to these shrines, fulfilling their vows and offering special prayers as they went on such “pilgrimages.”
A propaganda poster promoting the study of Marxism and socialist/communist theories. Written in Chinese are the words: "Large troops upholding Marxist theories are born amidst the struggles"
Indeed, even a common Chinese living during the era could not match up to the “religious fervour” that the Red Guards displayed in their everyday lives. From time to time, the Red Guards would organize long marches from every corner of China to Tiananmen Square (天安门广场, Tiān’ānmén Guǎngchǎng) in Beijing to pay homage to Chairman Mao. Whether it was through shine or rain, mountains or valleys, lakes or rivers or any other obstacle that may come their way, the Red Guards marched zealously onwards to Beijing without giving up.
Once gathered in Tiananmen Square, the Red Guards would wait for hours and sometimes even days before Mao himself made a public appearance from atop the building to deliver his “homily” and wave his hands to “bless” the people. Those gathered there would shout “Long live Chairman Mao!” at the top of their voices while waving their copies of the Little Red Book. They would continue doing this for hours long until hoarseness and exhaustion overtook their voices and bodies respectively, by which time their faces were drenched with tears of joy. No doubt, some observers described the fervour of the Red Guards’ gathering in Tiananmen Square as being comparable to that of Muslims worldwide converging in Mecca annually to perform the hajj pilgrimage.
Large numbers of Red Guards from all over the country gathering in Tiananmen Square and waving their Little Red Books as they listen to Chairman Mao's speech
During the era of the Cultural Revolution, Maoism effectively became the “state religion” and the sole “faith” that was permitted to exist on Chinese soil. Mao Zedong became the sole “Chinese God” and a deity much adored by the masses. Almost everywhere in China, people often wore badges of Mao’s portrait wherever they went, so as to “keep Mao close to their hearts.” Pictures of Mao also adorned dashboards and screens on cars, stemming from the belief that Chairman Mao would protect them and bless them with success wherever they went.
It is clear that Mao Zedong’s venerated status as a “living god” and an object of widespread worship did not just stem out of pure respect and adoration for him from the people’s hearts. Rather, it was the work of tireless propaganda and brutal enforcement by the Red Guards that established Mao’s glorified status in the hearts and minds of the people. As religions were eliminated or driven underground one by one, Maoism became forcibly impressed upon the people, so much so that “infidels” who did not accept Chairman Mao’s “divinity” were subject to ruthless punishments and beatings by the Red Guards. As time passed after the commencement of the Cultural Revolution, the minds of many became more and more brainwashed by repeated propagandas, up to the extent that people even became willing to betray their own family members and report them to the authorities if they spoke out against Chairman Mao. As a result, no one dared to voice out their thoughts against Mao Zedong, his principles and his presumed “divinity,” although everyone knew in their hearts that the Chairman simply couldn’t be divinely almighty.
Chairman Mao meeting U.S. President Richard Nixon during a state visit to China in 1972
Throughout the entire period of the Cultural Revolution, many suffered and lost their lives, either due to starvation, exhaustion by being worked to death, suicide or murder in the hands of the Red Guards and the revolutionist authorities. Exact numbers remain unknown till this day, but many experts and independent observers estimate that the number of people persecuted during the entire 10-year period of the Cultural Revolution could be anywhere between 30 million to 100 million throughout China, of which at least 1 million and perhaps at most 20 million lost their lives.
In addition to that, the Cultural Revolution resulted in the destruction of numerous historical relics and elements of China’s rich cultural heritage, as mentioned earlier. Numerous artefacts, historical records, classical literary works and cultural landmarks were brutally destroyed by the revolutionists who clearly did not appreciate the wealth of their own cultural heritage. Many cultural practices such as the wearing of traditional Chinese dresses for weddings, the study of classical Chinese literature and the use of the traditional Chinese calendar became almost nonexistent in China during the era. Indeed, some writers assert that if it wasn’t for the Chinese communities thriving in countries and territories outside mainland China such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macao, Singapore and Malaysia, where these customs were still kept very much alive throughout the Cultural Revolution in the mainland, Chinese culture might never have fully recovered again.
Artist's impression of the Red Guards' persecution against anyone deemed to be anti-revolutionists, anti-government or anti-Mao
Although Chairman Mao himself officially declared the Cultural Revolution to have ended in 1969, the movement nonetheless remained effective for several years until his death and the subsequent arrest of the Gang of Four in 1976. Thus, it was for slightly more than 10 years, beginning from May 16, 1966 to October 6, 1976, that the people of the People’s Republic of China generally suffered in one form or another under the Revolution which was supposedly launched to spur the Chinese nation to further progress. Evidently, the end of the Cultural Revolution, marked by the arrest of the Gang of Four, brought celebrations and merriment to almost every street and public square in China throughout the weeks that followed.
The Gang of Four at their trial in 1981
A propaganda poster claiming that the Cultural Revolution would supposedly bring progress to the people of China. Written in Chinese are the words: "The path of the arts and literature will become victorious and progressive by following Chairman Mao's revolution"
It is undeniably true that the 10-year Cultural Revolution resulted in Chinese culture and heritage being virtually extinct in mainland China. Doubtless to say, almost all traces of China’s rich cultural heritage were lost by the time the Cultural Revolution actually ended in 1976. In the wake of such a disastrous blow to one of the world’s oldest existing culture, the Chinese Communist government under subsequent presidents after Chairman Mao reversed its anti-cultural policies and began commissioning massive restorative efforts to reconstruct historical landmarks that perished during the Revolution. Strict laws were enacted and government bodies established to preserve all surviving relics of Chinese culture and prevent a similar catastrophic episode from befalling upon them in the future. Active efforts were also taken to repurchase and bring back to China valuable articles of Chinese history that were smuggled overseas during the Cultural Revolution in efforts to protect them.
And indeed, these efforts have successfully aided in China’s cultural recovery, as we can evidently see today.
Dance performances from China's dynastic era as part of Chinese culture