As a prologue to the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s first move was a rather unexpected one. In the early autumn of 1965, the chairman suddenly disappeared from public view. While speculation mounted about his well-being, Mao had in fact quietly left Beijing to prepare for attacks against his adversaries.
Chairman Mao calculated that if he could not launch an effective attack against his opponents from the nation’s capital, where Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, and their allies enjoyed its strongest support from the Communist Party bureaucracy, then he’d have to go elsewhere.
Mao left the capital and moved his temporary headquarters to his private villa in the resort city of Hangzhou, near Shanghai. There, he gathered around him a group of loyal left-wing supporters. It was November of 1965, and Mao was now 72 years old.
With a brain trust consisting of his wife, Jiang Qing, his defense minister, Lin Biao, his security chief, Kang Sheng, his chief theoretician, Chen Boda, and the Shanghai Municipal Party leader, Zhang Chunqiao, the chairman now mapped out his coming campaign.
This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Critique of Wu Han’s Opera by Yao Wenyuan
The opening salvo was delivered on November 10, 1965. A young left-wing propagandist in the Shanghai party organization, by the name of Yao Wenyuan, published a biting critique of Wu Han’s opera, “The Dismissal of Hai Rui”.
Yao’s article, which appeared in a Shanghai newspaper, accused Wu Han of “using the past to ridicule the present”. Specifically, Wu Han was charged with manipulating historical events in a veiled attempt to “demolish the people’s communes and restore the criminal rule of the landlord class”.
Implicit in Yao Wenuyan’s critique was an even more serious charge: namely, that Hai Rui was, in reality, a stand-in for the disgraced Marshal Peng Dehuai, and the vindictive emperor, by extension, was a stand-in for Mao Zedong.
Learn more about Mao’s program to rebuild China’s economy.
The Impact of Yao Wenyuan’s Article
With the publication of Yao Wenyuan’s attack, an instant chill of anxiety went through the Beijing literary establishment. Most deeply disturbed, aside from Wu Han himself, was Wu’s boss and principal patron, the mayor of Beijing, Peng Zhen.
A member of the party’s inner Politburo elite, Peng Zhen was a close associate of Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. He had also been a patron of Wu Han and the “Three Family Village” writing group. Was Mao now preparing to go after Peng?
Peng Zhen on Defensive Mode
Peng Zhen stalled for time. He ordered Beijing’s newspapers not to reproduce or even to mention Yao Wenyuan’s article.
But when Zhou Enlai pressured him to reverse this directive, Peng Zhen instinctively knew that the premier was speaking on Mao’s behalf. So he lifted the publication ban and ordered the People’s Daily to reprint Yao’s article, accompanied by a mitigating editor’s note in which he tried to limit the damage by explaining that the controversy surrounding Wu Han’s opera was entirely academic in nature, not political.
He added a caveat to the effect that if there were any political errors in the opera’s underlying libretto, then they were due to the author’s inadequate understanding of history rather than any subversive political intentions or motives.
To deflect further attacks from the left, Peng Zhen urged Wu Han to write a pro-forma self-criticism. Wu Han dutifully obeyed.
Learn more about Mao’s confrontations with Peng Dehuai.
Outline Report by Peng Zhen to Mao
However, convinced that Peng Zhen had trivialized Wu Han’s errors in order to protect himself from criticism, in December of 1965 Mao instructed Peng to conduct a thorough investigation into Wu Han’s misconduct and to report back his findings in two months’ time.
Peng Zhen knew that Mao was putting him to the test. Assembling a small group of five veteran Beijing politicians and propaganda specialists, Peng and his colleagues tried hard to defend Wu Han against the charge of lèse majesté.
When their completed Outline Report was delivered to the party Central Committee on February 12, 1966, Mao’s suspicions were confirmed. Peng Zhen was shielding Wu Han, downplaying the seriousness of his mistakes.
At a Politburo meeting held in Hangzhou, Mao labeled “The Dismissal of Hai Rui” as a “poisonous weed”, and personally denounced Wu Han for being “no better than a member of the Guomindang”.
The Effects of Mao’s Test
Fearful of Mao’s intentions, Peng Zhen tried to distance himself from the “Three-Family Village” writing group. He sent Wu Han on an inspection trip to the provinces of agricultural products, while Deng Tuo, another member of the group, was quietly sacked as editor of the People’s Daily.
Despondent over his sudden disgrace, Deng Tuo committed suicide. Thereafter, his immediate boss and chief literary patron, the party’s head of propaganda, Lu Dingyi suffered an anxiety attack so severe that he took indefinite medical leave, spending the next several months convalescing at a clinic in faraway Guangdong Province.
Mao’s Ongoing Attack
Meanwhile back in Beijing, Liu Shaoqi thought of seeking a brief respite from the capital’s increasingly volatile political climate. So, he took his wife on a three-week state visit to south and and southeast Asia in early April 1966.
Within two days of Liu’s departure, the chairman denounced Peng Zhen and his entire Beijing Municipal Party Committee by name, calling for their dismissal. For good measure, he demanded Lu Dingyi’s dismissal as the head of the central propaganda department.
Mao convened an enlarged Politburo meeting in early May. At his initiative, a strongly-worded circular was adopted, announcing Peng Zhen’s dismissal and the reorganization of the entire Beijing Municipal Party Committee.
Furthermore, Mao instructed Liu Shaoqi, who had just returned from his trip, to announce the official verdict on his old friend, Peng Zhen.
Peng’s downfall marked the climactic end of the first stage of Mao’s “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” and the beginning of its even more dramatic second stage.
Common Questions about the Beginning of Mao’s “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”
Mao’s brain trust consisted of his wife, Jiang Qing, his defense minister, Lin Biao, his security chief, Kang Sheng, his chief theoretician, Chen Boda, and the Shanghai Municipal Party leader, Zhang Chunqiao.
Yao Wenyuan was a young left-wing propagandist in the Shanghai party organization, who published a biting critique of Wu Han’s opera, “The Dismissal of Hai Rui” in November, 1965.
Zhen ordered the People’s Daily to reprint Yao’s article, accompanied by an editor’s note in which he explained that the controversy surrounding Wu Han’s opera was entirely academic in nature, not political. He added that any political errors in the opera’s underlying libretto were due to the author’s inadequate understanding of history rather than any subversive political intentions or motives.