This photo triggered China’s Cultural Revolution


In 1966, Mao Zedong had a problem. 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. Worse, his radical policies had devastated
the country, and triggered the deadliest famine known to human history. By the early 1960s, Mao’s once-great influence
and public presence were at an all time low, and there were rumors that he was dying, or
even dead already. He needed to find a way to seal his legacy
as the face of Chinese communism. And a new revolution to lead. It started in a river. The Great Leap Forward was a disaster. It was Mao’s 1958 plan to quickly industrialize
China by working its massive peasant population nonstop. ARCHIVE: He promises to transform the People’s
Republic into an instant paradise through sheer force of numbers. Forcing workers in the countryside to farm
crops on government-run communes. And millions more to manufacture crude steel
in homemade blast furnaces. And even though Mao told the world that the
plan was succeeding… NARRATOR: Everywhere, the communists report,
production records are being broken. … the truth was much more desperate. ARCHIVE: They flood the fields, exhaust the
soil, and farm production instead of going up, goes down. The Chinese people were being forced to work
tirelessly on land they once owned themselves — and they were starting to lose morale. And despite reports of widespread famine,
with millions of people starving to death, Mao kept production quotas high. ARCHIVE: The pace grows more frantic. Ceaselessly, without rest, one observer writes. Mao’s Great Leap Forward ended in 1962. By that time somewhere between 23 and 55 million
people had died in the famine. Over in the Soviet Union, a different political
upheaval was happening. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, who Mao modeled
himself after, was dead. And Mao watched as Nikita Krushchev, Stalin’s
successor, implemented a period known as “de-Stalinization.” Where Krushchev set out to reverse many of
Stalin’s policies and dismantle the personality cult that had formed around him. Mao saw his own legacy potentially suffering
the same fate. His Communist Revolution was long over, and
his ideas weren’t taken as seriously after the disaster of the Great Leap Forward. It was starting to look like Mao’s place
in the pantheon of powerful communist figures, like Vladimir Lenin and Karl Marx, was in
peril. This is where the river comes in. Mao had a reputation for being a strong swimmer. And even used it as a symbol of his ideology. In 1956, he swam across China’s biggest
river, the Yangtze, in three highly-publicized swims. To demonstrate that big things – like US
imperialism – didn’t intimidate him. 10 years later, Mao took on the Yangtze again,
to dispel rumors of his failing health. This time with cheering crowds swimming alongside
him. He brought his personal photographer, who
snapped this photo of the aging dictator in the river. And another one showing Mao waving to his
fellow swimmers, with the landmark Wuhan Yangtze River Bridge behind him. An iconic architectural achievement of the
communist government, and proof that he was at the Yangtze. The swim made the front page of China’s
state newspaper, reporting that Mao swam around 15 kilometers, a little more than 9 miles,
in a span of 65 minutes. Which meant the 72-year-old would have shattered
world speed records. A lot of people outside of China laughed at
the outlandish story, but some saw the swim for what it was: a sinister sign. Pointing out that Mao’s swims from a decade
earlier preceded the catastrophic Great Leap Forward. Experts feared that Mao was on the verge of
kicking off another disastrous period of turmoil in China. They were right. Two months before the swim, Mao had announced
the beginning of his Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. A call to hunt down and eliminate the “bourgeoisie
who [had] sneaked into the party.” Basically to purge the government of anyone
who strayed from principles of Maoism. And it kicked into high gear after his historic
swim. Which prompted a craze for swimming in swept
China, but more importantly, a craze for Mao. Especially among the group that Mao wanted
to influence the most: China’s youth. Writer Liang Heng recalled that seeing Mao
as “human flesh and blood” after the Yangtze swim resolved him to “serve him with all
his heart.” Millions of Chinese youth organized into the
fanatical Red Guards, a paramilitary force concentrated mostly in Chinese cities. And, with Mao’s blessing, they wreaked havoc
in the name of Cultural Revolution. Their mission was to destroy the four olds: ARCHIVE: Old culture. Old ideology. Old customs. Old traditions. The idea was basically to tear down the vestiges
of Imperial China and rewrite history centered around Mao Zedong. Renaming buildings and streets, destroying
cultural sites, and violently humiliating, and often torturing and murdering, anyone
they accused of opposing Mao’s ideas. Which they plastered all over the cities. And carried in their pockets in the form of
Mao’s “Little Red Book” a collection of his sayings and principles. And although the violent Red Guards were basically
dissolved by 1969, the Cultural Revolution is considered to have continued until Mao’s
death in 1976. Ending a decade of destruction that had elevated
the leader to god-like levels. And resulted in over 1 million people dead. The chaos of the Cultural Revolution scarred
China for generations. But Mao basically got what he wanted. Even though the Chinese Communist Party condemned
the Cultural Revolution in 1981, and Chinese communism diverted away from Maoism, they
didn’t denounce Mao himself. The Cultural Revolution solidified Mao’s
cult of personality, and that influence has lasted. Mao’s swim, which is still commemorated
each year in China, was more than a display of strength. It was a message: to get behind Mao as he
began his last revolution.

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