Confucius and the Cultural Revolution – 50 years on

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Monday marked the 50th Anniversary since the start of former Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. During this devastating period in China, immense cruelty was demonstrated between the country’s citizens, resulting in over 1.5 million deaths across the nation and over 36 million people suffering some form of political violence.

In 1973, Mao launched a political propaganda campaign against Confucianism named ‘Criticize Lin (Biao), Criticize Confucius Campaign’, where he openly criticized Confucius and his teachings. Red Guards attacked the Temple of Confucius, Qufu and vandalized the Cemetery of Confucius as part of the campaign.

Anti Confucius

An anti-Confucius poster printed in 1974 by Shanghai Renmin Chubanshe (Shanghai People’s Press). Source:

Traditional Confucian values of filial piety and existing in harmony were acted against to the extremes, with one lawyer admitting in 2013 that he had sent his mother to her execution in 1970 by writing a letter to the authorities informing them she had called Mao a ‘traitor’.  The strong Confucian values of the relationships between teacher – student, emperor – people, father – son, husband – wife and importance of family unity were deemed by Mao as inferior, and citizens were encouraged to turn against each other through betrayal and violence. Young people challenged authority and respect at home, school, university and in their workplaces.

This vitriolic denunciation of Confucius continued until the demise of Mao, ending the Cultural Revolution in 1976.

The views on Confucianism from the leaders of China has come a long way, as reflected with President Xi Jinping personally endorsing the philosophy in his keynote speech at the 2565th birthday anniversary commemoration in 2014. He stated that “Confucianism and other schools of thought in Chinese history all adhered to the principle that theories must serve the management of state affairs and benefit real life.”


President Xi Jinping, points at a bust of Confucius in the China pavilion of Frankfurt Book Fair he attended while still serving as Vice President in 2009. Source:

Furthermore, in 2013, China introduced the “Elderly rights law” which attempts to enforce adult children to visit their elderly parents, which mirrors the strong Confucian emphasis on filial piety.  The government has even extended the use of Confucian philosophy to prisoner rehabilitation, unveiling the first Confucius classroom in a prison last week.

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