Songs Tied onto the Chariots-Revolutionary Songs of the Cultural Revolution of China (1966-1976)

By Lau, Wai-Tong | Journal of Historical Research in Music Education, April 2008 | Go to article overview

Songs Tied onto the Chariots-Revolutionary Songs of the Cultural Revolution of China (1966-1976)


Lau, Wai-Tong, Journal of Historical Research in Music Education


Jiang Menglin, President of Peking University during the May Fourth Movement in 1919, describes in his autobiography The West Wave how life in the villages of old China remained unchanged as the political scene was changing drastically. "For hundreds of years," he wrote, "no matter how dynasties changed, no matter at time of peace or war, the morals, beliefs, and customs in the Chinese villages remained the same." (1) This statement reflects how little political upheavals in the history of China affected the thinking and way of life of the common people who lived in farming villages all over the country. For thousands of years, throughout the history of China, most political upheavals have been limited to high officials and aristocrats of court. There might be changes of regimes or dynasties, but the Chinese peasants, who comprise the vast majority of citizens of the country, live calmly in the same manner as in past generations, unaffected by court politics.

In 1966, Mao Zedong initiated the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution Movement (1966-1976), commonly known as the Cultural Revolution, on a nationwide scale. It involved all common citizens of China in political fights and chaos, deeply influencing the mindset of the entire Chinese people as never before in the history of China. Officially launched in 1966 and lasting until 1976, with an intense period between 1966 and 1969, the Cultural Revolution of China was a political power struggle aroused and directed by Mao in order to unseat his political rivals, then powerful people of the Communist Party of China, including Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, and their followers. (2) This movement as never before triggered political humiliation, persecution, torture, and murder all over the country among people on all levels of society, friends, neighbors, co-workers, schoolmates, teachers, and even family members. It is regarded as the worst manmade disaster in modern Chinese history.

The Cultural Revolution as Motivated by Rhetoric

Shaorong Haung, in his book To Rebel Is Justified, pointed out: "The Cultural Revolution Movement in China was a revolution, a social upheaval, a political drama, and above all, a rhetorical movement." (3) In Haung's opinion, rhetoric has tremendous power and influence on its audience in any movement. Haung cited Leland M. Griffin's theory to explain that men as beings moved and were moved through speech, the rhetorical power of the word, and the persuasive power of language. (4)

Judged from this aspect, the Cultural Revolution of China was truly motivated, sustained, and completed using rhetorical propaganda. However, all sorts of persecuting and violent activities of the movement were performed on the basis of the teachings of Mao Zedong, which were mostly written in the Dialogue of Mao Zedong (the "Little Red Book"), accompanied by political slogans, propaganda posters, revolutionary dances, and songs. The rhetoric of the movement, Mao's teachings, was presented and promoted most often in the form of paintings, dances, and songs at the gatherings of the masses. The arts were thus highlighted to such an extent that they became the integral and essential part of the Cultural Revolution.

During the ten years of the Cultural Revolution, with school systems in China mostly paralyzed and non-functioning, teenagers from all over the country were organized by Mao and his followers to become Red Guards. Their function was to persecute followers of Mao's political rivals. On August 8, 1968, one million Red Guards gathered at Tiananmen Square in Beijing to pay tribute and claim loyalty to Mao Zedong. (5) For ten years, especially between 1966 and 1969, countless political fights occurred all over the country among groups of people belonging to opposing political backgrounds. (6) These fights usually took place in the form of public gatherings, where individuals or groups were accused of being anti-revolutionary and then persecuted by the Red Guards.

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