1966: The Red August Holocaust
Whereas the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961) had witnessed between 30 and 45 millions of deaths, from famine, murders, raping, suicides and cannibalism, the Cultural Revolution focused on a different type of victim: cultural artifacts. On August 8, 1966, the Chinese Communist Party started a terrible campaign against any trace of traditional culture and Western capitalism. The “Red Terror” that developed during its first two months resulted in the greatest cultural disaster any country or empire has ever suffered –the Red Guards, young students seduced by the Maoist ideology, wandered around China destroying their own heritage.
In these two months, 397.000 Chinese citizens were charged on different grounds: from “bourgeois” (communist code-name for “westernized”) to intellectuals (usually called choulaojiu or “old stinky ninths”) to “monsters” (niugui sheshen or “goat-headed demons and snake-body spirits”), many were the names these victims were called –an excuse to purge dissident elements in society, repatriate them to their provinces and torture or kill them in the name of the working class. Two thousand people were killed just in Peking between August 18 and September 15. Their homes were searched and their property confiscated. 33.695 families lost their homes in the capital, and 84.222 in Shanghai. In Peking alone, authorities seized 5,7 tons of gold, 12 tons of silver, the equivalent to more than 55 million yuan, and 613.600 ancient artifacts. In Shanghai these numbers were, once more, higher: 3,3 millions in American dollars, a similar quantity in other foreign currencies, 2,4 millions of dollars in silver and 370 millions of yuan in silver. The “bourgeois gold” confiscated by the authorities in just one month across the whole country probably surpassed 65 tons.
During the second week of these incidents, the Red Guards also burst into the Literary Federation of Peking (Beijing shi wenlian) and the Department of Cultural Affairs (Wenhua ju dayuan), destroying everything, burning antiquities and arresting and torturing “aristocrats.” Historians estimate that, in only two months, 538.000 cultural artifacts were lost in Peking alone, and 4.922 of the 6.843 historical locations officially recognized by the government were destroyed by the indoctrinated, communist mobs.
But the most important altercation took place on August 26, 1966, when the Red Guards tried to destroy the most important symbol of “Chinese feudalism”: the Temple of Confucius. However, a rather important group of local people, the same low-class of uneducated fellow citizens the Red Guards were supposed to be representing, defended the Temple and their artifacts, beating up and expelling the little Maoist soldiers from China’s most sacred sanctuary. The troops reassembled and, after some months, they gained the support of 200 teachers and students from the local university. They marched unmatched on Confucian soil, and between November 9 and December 3 they demolished thousands of stones, burned 6.618 relics –including 929 paintings and 1.000 statues– and 100.000 books, and desecrated more than 2.000 tombs from the Temple’s cemetery. Something that even the Japanese invaders respected was finally plundered and destroyed in less than one month by the Chinese people.
The result of this month of “Red Terror” can be seen today in many places across China, and it only takes a bit of common sense and a dozen of documentaries from the History Channel to realize that many ancient constructions in modern China are in fact modern reconstructions from the 1970s and the 1980s. In what follows, I offer a noncomprehensive list of the “cultural achievements” of the Red Guards and the communists during the Cultural Revolution:
Desecrated graves. On August 27, 1966, the tomb of Wu Xun (1838-1896), a pioneer who championed education of the low-class citizens of China, was desecrated following Mao’s orders. His bones were exhumed, exposed and finally burned. Kang Youwei’s (1858-1927) tomb was also desecrated during the “Red Terror,” and although he was a reformist that opposed Chinese traditions in many ways, his bones were publicly exposed and his skull engraved with the following words: “Kang Youwei’s dog-head, China’s most important advocate of the Emperor.” Many other tombs met similar fate, with bones reduced to dust and ashes –among them, the Ming Emperor Wang Li (r. 1572-1620) and his family, and also Confucius’ tomb.
Burning of books. Books and jades were confiscated and burnt in many Chinese cities: 2.000 books, 200 paintings, and many artifacts from museums were burnt in Heshan (Sichuan); massive burnings were carried on in Fangcheng (Guanxi), Honghe (Yunnan), Urumqi (Xinjiang) and Ningbo (Zhejiang). Historians believe 80 tons of paper were burnt in Ningbo alone. After 1966, libraries stopped receiving funding and almost 360 were closed and then plundered. Therefore, more than 7 million books were lost in Liaoning, Jilin, Henan, Jiangxi and Guizhou alone.
Destruction of Buddhist paintings. Many Buddhist paintings from Turpan, which had not been acquired or saved by foreign archaeological expeditions, were destroyed or damaged. Something similar was also conducted in one of the symbols of anti-imperialist propaganda: the Summer Palace, once attacked by British and French troops, was now ruined by the Red Guards, who covered their walls with white painting.
Destruction of statues of animals. Because they were seen as representation of Confucian feudalism, many statues of lions and phoenixes were destroyed or damaged in temples and bridges, including the New China’s Gate built by Yuan Shikai, Dalian’s Xinhai Park, Liaoning Provincial Museum, the Temple of Guandi, the Yongjiang Bridge in Guangxi, or the famous Marco Polo Bridge.
Destruction of Buddhist statues. Many statues of Buddha were burnt and destroyed in the temples of Biyun and Wofo (Xiangshan, Peking), Tanzhe and Jietai (Mentougou, Peiking), etc. Some of them were decapitated or their faces tore off. In Zhejiang, the statue of Yu, a hero from Chinese mythology, was also decapitated. Only a modern reconstruction remains.
Temples and buildings. Many temples and buildings were totally or partially destroyed. In just a few days, 67 mosques and 17 temples were demolished in Haiyuan (Ningxia). Many ancient houses, once home of eminent scholars, were destroyed, including Xu Wei’s (1521-1593) residence or Wu Cheng’en’s (1500?-1582?) home, the author of Travel to the West. The well-known Orchid Pavilion in Shaoxing (Zhejiang) was also destroyed by the Red Guards. Tibet saw the destruction of 45 monasteries and more than 680.000 documents were burned to eradicate Lamaism.
Destruction of capitalist objects. Cologne, shoes and pants were also destroyed and burnt on the streets, together with flashlights, dresses or foreign cars –any capitalist object was seen as unsuitable for workers..