After students engage with some of the terrifying history of this period it will be necessary to guide them towards offering their own evaluation of events. This can be modelled through source analysis of what historians say about the Cultural Revolution. Students should read over the following opinions; assess them for their content, and usefulness and reliability, and then arrange them into an order of personal agreement.
Craig Dietrich, author of People's China, 1986
The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution took the whole world by surprise. Suddenly, China was at war with itself... Nobody could quite understand what was going on or why, partly because systematic reporting was impossible. Millions of students were on the march; entire cities were festooned with wall posters; mighty leaders were wearing dunce caps; thousands of victims were dying in pitched battles; foreign embassies were being mobbed, even burned to the ground. And always words, a Niagara of rhetoric, slogans, accusations, denials, directives, and, above all, Mao Zedong Thought. Clearly, it was a power struggle... Mao Zedong occupied the centre of this maelstrom. It was declared to be his personal revolution. Only gradually did it become clear that he had a rational purpose, albeit an audacious one.
Richard M. Pfeffer, author of China in Ferment, 1971
The Cultural Revolution was really three things in one: an enigmatic multiple power struggle, wrapped in a crusade, and superimposed on a scattering of more or less spontaneous, more or less politicised student riots, strikes, peasant uprisings, mutinies, and palace coups.
Anne Thurston, author of Enemies of the People, 1987
The Cultural Revolution was an extreme situation characterised by loss - loss of culture, loss of spiritual values and religion, loss of status and honour, loss of career, loss of dignity, and loss of trust.
Maurice Meisner, author of Mao's China and After, 1999
Unity was to prove an elusive goal, and the nature of the victory was hard to define. The Cultural Revolution had begun with a wholesale attack on the Communist Party; it had ended with the resurrection of the Party in its orthodox Leninist form, albeit shorn of Mao's more prominent opponents. In 1966-67 a massive popular movement had flourished on the basis of the principle that 'the masses must liberate themselves'; by 1969 the mass movement had disintegrated, and selected remnants of it had been absorbed by old bureaucratic apparatuses. Much blood had been shed, but what had changed? The Cultural Revolution not only failed to produce permanent institutions of popular self-government but also failed to resolve the more immediate problems of political succession. One of the original aims of the Cultural Revolution was to 'train revolutionary successors'.
Alexander V. Pantsov, author of Deng Xiaoping, 2015
Strange to say, the nightmare that was the Cultural Revolution at least had the positive effect of restraining the potential for self-indulgence of the Chinese ruling elite.
Immanuel C. Y. Hsu, author of China Without Mao, 1990
Mao sought ideological purity through intensified class struggle and the purge of high party and government leaders and intellectuals.
Frank Dikotter, authorof The Cultural Revolution, 2016
The Cultural Revolution was about an old man settling persona scores at the end of his life. Mao had a great capacity for malice and revenge, and had little regard for loss of human life. Mao's ego meant that he saw little distinction between himself and the revolution - he was the revolution. If someone wronged him, they wronged China. Any dissatisfaction with his authority was a direct threat to the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Most of the above information can be found on the downloadable sheet below. As mentioned earlier, students should analyse and engage with the opinions by comparing and contrasting their differences and similarities, and acknowledging possible reasons for bias. It would also be useful to link the content of the sources with the identified causes for the Cultural Revolution. For example, Dikotter's opinion just above links quite neatly with the idea that Mao's personality was a primary factor behind the Cultural Revolution.
Resource: Evaluations of the Cultural Revolution
I would recommend all of the above texts are great teacher resources for anyone looking to read up on the Cultural Revolution in support of the new Modern History Stage 6 syllabus.