The Photo That Triggered China’s Disastrous Cultural Revolution (1966)

In 1958, Mao Zedong launched the Great Leap For­ward. Eight years lat­er, he announced the begin­ning of the Great Pro­le­tar­i­an Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion. Between those two events, of course, came the Great Chi­nese Famine, and his­to­ri­ans now view all three as being “great” in the same pejo­ra­tive sense. Though Chair­man Mao may not have under­stood the prob­a­ble con­se­quences of poli­cies like agri­cul­tur­al col­lec­tiviza­tion and ide­o­log­i­cal purifi­ca­tion, he did under­stand the impor­tance of his own image in sell­ing those poli­cies to the Chi­nese peo­ple: hence the famous 1966 pho­to of him swim­ming across the Yangtze Riv­er.

By that point, “the Chi­nese leader who had led a peas­ant army to vic­to­ry in the Chi­nese Civ­il War and estab­lished the com­mu­nist Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of Chi­na in 1949 was get­ting old.” So says Cole­man Lown­des in the Vox Dark­room video above. Worse, Mao’s Great Leap For­ward had clear­ly proven calami­tous. The Chair­man “need­ed to find a way to seal his lega­cy as the face of Chi­nese com­mu­nism and a new rev­o­lu­tion to lead.” And so he repeat­ed one of his ear­li­er feats, the swim across the Yangtze he’d tak­en in 1956. Spread far and wide by state media, the shot of Mao in the riv­er tak­en by his per­son­al pho­tog­ra­ph­er illus­trat­ed reports that he’d swum fif­teen kilo­me­ters in a bit over an hour.

This meant “the 72-year-old would have shat­tered world speed records,” a claim all in a day’s work for pro­pa­gan­dists in a dic­ta­tor­ship. But those who saw pho­to­graph would­n’t have for­got­ten what hap­pened the last time he took such a well-pub­li­cized dip in the Yangtze. “Experts feared that Mao was on the verge of kick­ing off anoth­er dis­as­trous peri­od of tur­moil in Chi­na. They were right.” The already-declared Great Pro­le­tar­i­an Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion, now wide­ly known as the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion, saw mil­lions of Chi­nese youth — osten­si­bly rad­i­cal­ized by the image of their beloved leader in the flesh — orga­nize into “the fanat­i­cal Red Guards,” a para­mil­i­tary force bent on extir­pat­ing, by any means nec­es­sary, the “four olds”: old cul­ture, old ide­ol­o­gy, old cus­toms, and old tra­di­tions.

As with most attempts to ush­er in a Year Zero, Mao’s final rev­o­lu­tion wast­ed lit­tle time becom­ing an engine of chaos. Only his death end­ed “a decade of destruc­tion that had ele­vat­ed the leader to god-like lev­els and result­ed in over one mil­lion peo­ple dead.” The Chi­nese Com­mu­nist’s Par­ty has sub­se­quent­ly con­demned the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion but not the Chair­man him­self, and indeed his swim remains an object of year­ly com­mem­o­ra­tion. “Had Mao died in 1956, his achieve­ments would have been immor­tal,” once said CCP offi­cial Chen Yun. “Had he died in 1966, he would still have been a great man but flawed. But he died in 1976. Alas, what can one say?” Per­haps that, had the aging Mao drowned in the Yangtze, Chi­nese his­to­ry might have tak­en a hap­pi­er turn.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Col­or­ful Wood Block Prints from the Chi­nese Rev­o­lu­tion of 1911: A Gallery of Artis­tic Pro­pa­gan­da Posters

Won­der­ful­ly Kitschy Pro­pa­gan­da Posters Cham­pi­on the Chi­nese Space Pro­gram (1962–2003)

Long Before Pho­to­shop, the Sovi­ets Mas­tered the Art of Eras­ing Peo­ple from Pho­tographs — and His­to­ry Too

Why the Sovi­ets Doc­tored Their Most Icon­ic World War II Vic­to­ry Pho­to, “Rais­ing a Flag Over the Reich­stag”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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  • Jonathan says:

    “Though Chair­man Mao may not have under­stood the prob­a­ble con­se­quences of poli­cies like agri­cul­tur­al col­lec­tiviza­tion” Noth­ing like excus­ing a mass mur­der­ing psy­chopath. Nice job OC! Oh, and you’re com­ment about “1 mil­lion died” WAS ONLY OFF BY A FACTOR OF 50!

  • Ray Collins says:

    Come on, Jonathan! Don’t you know that TRUMP is Hitler? Being “mean” is WAY worse that killin’ 50 mil­lion or so. Got­ta break a few eggs to make an omelet…

  • karl says:

    I think he means that 1 mil­lion died in the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion alone, not dur­ing the whole of Mao’s reign. And as for Mao’s not “under­stand­ing” how his poli­cies would inevitably fail: when you think you’re a god, you don’t have to wor­ry about get­ting things right (or care, if they don’t).

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