Religion Reinvented The Cult of Mao and Societal Change in China's Cultural Revolution

Despite having its culture being notably influenced by a wide variety of religious and philosophical thought, the modern-day People’s Republic of China and its ruling apparatus remains officially atheist. Although the country’s constitution guarantees the freedom of religious belief, the ruling party remains firmly committed to Marxist–Leninist atheism to this day, as evidenced by President Xi Jinping’s speech to fellow party cadres in 2016. Yet the inherent ability of religion or pseudo-religious doctrines to garner the support of the population has always been a phenomenon that the Communist Party has sought to co-opt and appropriate.

Political religion, formed by combining the mass-mobilization abilities that accompanies religion together with a party’s political ideology, has often served as a means by which the Communist Party of China legitimizes its rule and policies. Despite a formal adherence to atheism, nowhere was this contradiction more obvious than during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. State-sanctioned attempts to at apparent state-building were in-fact solely driven by a political variant of religion: The Cult of Mao Zedong.

What is Political Religion?

Political religion, according to Phillipe Burin, is the instrumentalization of religion by a ruling power with the aim of “encompassing the entire life of society in the political (sphere)”. This can take place due to the commonalities that exist between traditional religion and politics, such as the provision of an identity and a common goal. Political scientist, Hans Maier, takes the concept further and claims that political religion often involves the “…creation of an empire ‘of this world’ where the gods of this empire are human and worldly…” Although the concept of political religion was mainly used in the context of Europe, scholars such as Zuo Jiping have managed to use the concept to analyse China.

Anti-religious Sentiment in China’s Formative Years

The Marxist ideology that laid the ideological framework for the multitude of communist movements had considered the very existence of religion to be the antithesis of human self-realization. Arguing that “religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature”, Karl Marx believed that religion merely provided the proletarian with a temporary relief and drained their capacity to confront the horrifying nature of capitalism. Thus, communist movements around the world such as the Communist Party of China (zhongguo gongchangdang 中国共产党), or CPC in short, had adopted the same policy stances.

However, it is worth noting that such anti-religion stances were not at all aberrant to the nascent stages of modern Chinese society. Even in the very last days of the 19th century, social and political policies aimed at modernization were already in place. For example, the movement to “destroy/confiscate temples to build schools” (huimiao banxue 毁庙办学) demonstrated the increasing delegitimization of religion in state-building even in years prior to CPC rule. By the early 1920s, such delegitimization was not limited to local, traditional religions but had been extended to other religions such as Christianity, which was viewed as an extension of foreign imperialism. Thus, the CPC could be argued to be merely “carrying the torch” when it came to power in China in 1949.

The Birth of Mao Zedong Thought

In contrast to following the Marxist tradition of atheism and rejecting religion (termed by Marx himself as “the opium of the masses”), the emergence of a political religion in China could be seen in the early 1940s. Having risen to power by replacing Bo Gu (who was then-leader of the CPC) with his surrogate Zhang Wentian at the 1935 Zunyi Conference (zunyi huyi 遵义会议), Mao consolidated political power in the early 1940s during the Yan’an Rectification Movement (yan’an zhengfeng yundong 延安整风运动) by being appointed as the Chairman (zhuxi 主席) of the CPC with ultimate decision-making authority.

With Mao’s authority having no challenger, other leading party cadres quickly got in line and proclaimed their fealty to Mao Zedong. Despite having once been Mao’s superior in the party hierarchy, Zhou Enlai, too, declared that Mao’s leadership was flawless and that any direction dictated by Mao is the direction of the party. The Yan’an Rectification Movement also saw party cadres, new and old alike, studying Mao’s Zedong Thought (mao zedong sixiang 毛泽东思想). It was this studying of Mao’s works as a Marxist theoretician that would mark the start of ideological divergence of the CPC away from the Communist International (‘Comintern’) organization, as historian Maurice Meisner argues.

These events in Yan’an would lay the foundation of the popular worship that Mao could constantly count on for the next 30-odd years of his rule. Mass movements had always inspired Mao and his popular following amongst the masses gave him the legitimacy needed for his next course of political action. Standing atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Tiananmen Square, he would launch political campaigns to purge his political opponents by utilizing his popular following amongst the masses. This was the Weberian concept of charismatic authority taken to the extreme. To the people, Mao was a living prophet who could single-handedly deliver salvation to the people. And the political religion that was Mao would reach its peak during the Cultural Revolution (wenhua dageming 文化大革命) starting in the mid-1960s.

The Worship of a Living God

Having lost the lion’s share of his political capital by the early 1960s with the failure of the Great Leap Forward (da yuejin 大跃进), Mao set out to reconsolidate his political power. Then-Defence Minister of the People’s Republic of China, Lin Biao, initiated numerous campaigns to ameliorate Mao’s image, the most successful of which was the “Learn from Comrade Lei Feng’s Good Example” (xuexi leifeng haobanyang 学习雷锋好榜样) in which recently-deceased soldier, Lei Feng, was portrayed by the party apparatus as a role model whom the masses should seek to emulate. In fact, a now-iconic song written as part of the Lei Feng campaign actively called on citizens to follow Lei Feng’s example and “internalize Mao Zedong’s teachings” and to use those teachings to as a weapon to defend the motherland.

If Mao was popular amongst the citizenry before, the official institutionalization of this new “political religion” that revolved around Mao would set him on the path to becoming a living god. Similarly, during the Eleventh Plenary Session of the Eighth Central Committee in 1966, the groundwork for societal change was reinforced when Lin Biao proclaimed that party members had to either adhere to Mao Zedong Thought or leave the party.

Shortly afterwards, on the eve of the Cultural Revolution, Mao launched his campaign against chief rival, Liu Shaoqi, by attacking Shaoqi’s deputy, Peng Zhen. Claiming that Peng was a major proponent of revisionism in the CPC, Mao mobilized a revolutionary movement against him. The Central Cultural Revolution Group (zhongyang wenge xiaozu 中央文革小组) was formed in early 1965 and populated by Mao’s supporters. By May of that year, the now-infamous May 16 Circular had purged Peng Zhen and his allies and called on party members to “follow Comrade Mao’s instructions…(and)thoroughly criticize and repudiate the reactionary bourgeois ideas in the sphere of academic work, education, journalism, literature and art, and publishing, and seize the leadership in these cultural spheres”. In short, this meant that Mao now held the reins and could directly dictate the Cultural Revolution.

The Red Guard as the Army of God

With the state’s organizations thrown into a state of turmoil, a group of students from Tsinghua Middle School (qinghua fuzhong 清华附中) and Peking University (beijing daxue 北京大学) brought forward handwritten posters with large-sized Chinese characters accusing the school’s administrators of being “anti-revolutionaries”. By the middle of June 1966, students from at least 5 other schools in Beijing formed organizations known collectively as the Red Guards. Viewing Mao as their prophet, the oath of the Red Guard (as translated) was:

We are the guards of red power. Chairman Mao is our mountain of support. Liberation of all mankind is our righteous duty; Mao Zedong Thought is the highest guiding principle for our actions. We vow to protect the Party Central and our great leader Chairman Mao. With resolution, we will shed our last drop of blood!

Thus, what started as a group of students was now a collective political force on the scene known as the Red Guards. Liu Shaoqi, as Vice Chairman of the CPC, had reckoned that all top-down political efforts should be managed through work teams despatched from the party. To Liu, such work teams could serve as a guide to students and prevent any worsening of the rapidly deteriorating situation on the ground. This worsened his already terrible relationship with Mao, who had sided with the Red Guards and expressed his warm support to them though a return letter. He had written: “…your posters (…) state clearly your anger (..) I want to extend you warm support (…) Whether in Beijing or the whole country, whoever adopts the same revolutionary attitude as yours will have our uniformly warm support…

With the public revelation of the letter, the Red Guards became an unstoppable political force: hordes of Red Guards sprang from schools and officers all over the state. Newspapers such as the People’s Daily and Liberation Army Daily rapidly increased their coverage of Mao. His quotes were plastered on the front page of newspapers, with one editorial going as far as stating that “…regardless of time or authority, those who dare to oppose Mao Zedong will be hunted and eliminated by our Party and country“. Chairman Mao’s Quotations (mao zhuxi yulu 毛主席语录), or the Little Red Book, was regarded as a Bible, and highly sought after by both CPC cadres and Red Guard alike. Daily study sessions were made compulsory for both students and workers. No one was permitted to challenge or question the Little Red Book’s contents, as it would mean questioning the wisdom of infallible Mao Zedong. Anyone who dared do so possibly faced the death penalty.

The final seal of approval for the Red Guards came two months later in the middle of August when Mao stood atop the Tiananmen Gate and personally reviewed nearly half a million Red Guard personnel who had travelled to Beijing from all over China. Through his audiences with the Red Guard, the worship and portrayal of Mao as a living god reached even greater heights.

Smashing the Old World to Create a New One

With Cultural Revolution now underway, societal change rapidly followed. As part of the campaign to Destroy the Four Olds and Establish the Four News (posijiu li sixin 破四旧立四新), traditional customs, culture, habits and ideas soon came under existential threat by this sudden wave of pseudo-religious fervour. Red Guards swept through the country, wrecking destruction upon places that had been spared by previous Red Guards. In the town of Qufu, Red Guards damaged anything Confucius-associated in their attempt to “bring down the Confucian establishment” (dadao kongjiadian 打倒孔家店).

According to scholars, Yan Jiaqi and Gao Gao, certain Red Guard segments even attempted to turn China into a “Red Sea”. By mobilizing representatives, houses and shops lining the streets were given a coat of paint. Revolutionary slogans and posters pledging allegiance to Mao were plastered on all walls where available. Public humiliations and beatings as part of “self-struggle” sessions were widespread with confessions wrought from victims through repeated abuse. As former Red Guard, Zheng Zisheng, recalls, inter-factional fighting amongst the Red Guards also occurred, often with fatal consequences, as all factions sought distinctly to preserve Mao’s revolutionary lineage. In the political religion in which Mao was God, routine chaos and destruction was now the norm.

Yet the impact of Mao’s desire to eliminate traditional elements extended far beyond what has been described thus far. State symbols were also not spared. With its composer politically purged and dead whilst in prison, the “March of the Volunteers” (yiyongjun jinxingqu 义勇军进行曲) ceased to be used as the official national anthem in China. Rather, the de facto national anthem was “The East is Red” (dongfanghong 东方红), a song containing lyrics praising Mao. An examination of the opening chorus (translated into English) of the song gives some insight to the extent of the deification of Mao:

“The East is Red, the Sun rises.

From China, Mao Zedong emerges.

He strives for the people’s happiness,

Hurray, he is the people’s Messiah!”

Similar songs also emerged, branding Mao as “the Great Helmsman (duoshou 舵手), “the Great Leader (lingdaoren 领导人)” and the like. Names of people and streets were also changed to remove any feudal connotations. The famous Chang’an Avenue in Beijing was renamed “East is Red Avenue (dongfanghongjie 东方红街)”. Other similar changes included renaming roads to include references to the ongoing “revolution” such as “Cultural Revolution Road” (wengejie 文革街) or “Worker Street (gongrenjie 工人街). Store owners also began to change the names of their businesses along similar lines for fear of being labelled as a “anti-revolutionary capitalist roader” (zou zipai de fangemingfenzi 走资派的反革命分子).

Beyond the name changes, businesses opted to halt the supply of luxury goods in favour of cheap commodities. Under Mao, the Red Guards had sought to turn commercial businesses into living examples of Mao Zedong Thought, where socialist business ideas would be embraced, and capitalist ideas shunned.

Life after the Living God

Having discussed the rise of Maoism, the question of whether Mao had truly attained the atheism in the Marxist sense appears to be a foregone conclusion. Despite religion being something antithetical to Mao Zedong Thought and Marxism, the very reverence of Mao and his works leads to the suggestion that China was not on the path Mao had hoped it to be. On the contrary, the very idea of Mao as a messiah and the claim that his teachings could deliver mankind from all ills point towards the undoubted presence of a political religion during the very heights of the Cultural Revolution. Traditional beliefs and customs were simply replaced with the ideology that was Mao Zedong Thought, with Mao himself occupying the place once reserved for ancient deities such as Confucius.

However, with the passing of Mao in 1976 and the rise of Deng Xiaoping as China’s next paramount leader, policy shifted away from political religion and towards “liberating the thoughts of the mind” (jiefang sixiang 解放思想) laying the groundwork for the elimination of the political religion that once revolved around the now-deceased Mao. However, as Pulitzer Prize winner, Ian Johnson, reported, China is currently experiencing a religious revival despite the presence of an officially atheist ruling party. Despite the CPC banning retired members from adhering to any religious faith, the increased search by Chinese citizens for spiritual guidance might very well set the stage for a religious transformation of society, and, subsequently, impact the political stage