Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Chinese cultural revolution brings about massive educational change 

In 1966, a decade and a half after the Communist Party of China took power in China, significant changes began to be implemented in field of education. The Cultural Revolution, a major political movement that lasted an entire decade, would constitute the most important educational reform experimented by Chinese people during the twentieth century.

In the late 1965, Mao Zhedong, the chairman of the Communist Party of China, felt that his party was creating a new and privileged elite, which was hindering the socialist revolution. He was concerned that the socialist principles of the revolution were threatened by people like Liu Shaoqi, the number one capitalist roader, and Deng Xiaoping, Liu’s major supporter. Mao accused those sectors of the party for having capitalist tendencies, bureaucratism, elitism, inefficiency, and loss of revolutionary enthusiasm.  In 1966, he launched the Cultural Revolution by calling young people in China to revive the revolutionary spirit.

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution began with intense fervor.  Millions of teenagers, organized into brigades of Red Guards, took Mao at his words: “ Bombard the headquarters!”. Then, Party officials and managers of factories and communes were dragged from their offices and beaten up, and revolutionary offices were set up to replace the old: “Destroy poisonous weeds!”. Intellectuals and 'capitalist-roaders' were bullied and humiliated  publicly, and sent to work in remote areas to learn from the people. “Sweep away the old to bring forth the new!”, the Red Guards were told, and museums and libraries were sacked, temples and historic sites vandalized (Major, 1989). 

As students, workers, commune members and people from all walks of life were busy participating in the Cultural Revolution, almost everything was shut down in the country.  Production declined drastically, and the country became stagnated.  Schools were closed (they would not reopen until 1970 ) so that teachers and students could concentrate on “destroying the four olds”: old culture, old ideology, old customs, and old habits.  All forms of the old- -- old textbooks, literature, music, movies, plays, and Chinese paintings were banned in schools.

There was a revival of interest in Confucian ideas in the early 1960s to an extent not seen in China since 1949. To revolutionize the Chinese education system, Mao believed that people would have to part with their Confucian past. He believed that at that time, education was dominated by Confucian ideas and did not fit with the goal of building a socialist country. Confucius was criticized for trying to use education to restore a slave society that had declined in his times.  Education was believed to be oppressive and discriminatory to the children of the working class. A key component of the state structure with considerable impact on social and economic development, the educational sector became a major target of attacks. 

The main educational reforms that took place during the Cultural Revolution can be summarized as follows:

l         Admission Policy:  The traditional entrance examination was abolished at all levels of schooling.  Students were chosen for admissions to higher level schools by the revolutionary committee of their factory, commune, or other place of work.  According to Mao Tse-Tung’s directive, China’s colleges and universities should enroll students from among the workers, peasants, and soldiers. This new enrollment policy opened accessibility of previously excluded sectors, but at the same time it downgraded academic standards and to emphasize political qualifications in the selection of college students.

l         Length of Education: Another reform consisted in shortening the time of schooling at each level of education.  Education in both the primary schools and secondary schools was cut from six to five years. In the colleges, the length was cut from four or five years to, in most cases, three and a half.   Mao believed that students can learn more by work, and not only by reading texts and attending classroom lectures.

l         Substance of Education:   The education administered under the stewardship of Liu Shao-ch’i was attacked for having divorced itself from proletarian politics, production, and practice. Mao’s prescriptions were that teachers and students at each level should regard practical activity as the prime focus in education, should orient classroom study towards social, political, and production needs, and should concentrate only on those parts of the textbook which have a practical value.

l         Governance of Schools:   The administration of schools was moved from the hands of bourgeois intellectuals to committees made up of local workers, soldiers, peasants, and to those students and teachers who were active members or sympathizers of the Party.

l         Teaching Method and Curriculum:  The classroom ceased to be a stage from which teachers display their vast erudition to a passive audience. The traditional cramming method was replaced. Instead, analytical, critical and creative ability were stressed.  Examinations were used primarily to test the effectiveness of the curriculum, and discussion and criticism were a regular part of the testing process. New textbooks were written with faculty, students, and workers participating in the curriculum committees. These were called “democratic meetings for the discussion of teaching and studying”.

The controversies over this radical reform and its impact on Chinese education and society started in the late sixties and will probably continue throughout the 21rst century. No matter how people looks at it,  and from which perspective they undertake their analysis, there is a general agreement that few educational reforms during the 20th century were as far-reaching and generated so many changes in such a short period of time as the 1966-1976 Chinese Cultural Revolution.


Parries H. Chang   “The Cultural Revolution and Chinese Higher Education: Change and Controversy”    The Journal of General Education   V26, N3, 1974/75

Guofang Wan    “ The Educational Reforms in the Cultural Revolution in China: A Postmodern Critique”     A paper presented at AERA Annual Meeting held in San Diego, CA in April 13-17, 1998

Joseleyne S. Tien     “A lesson from China: Percy Bysshe Shelley and the Cultural Revolution at Wuhan University”     Harvard Educational Review  V45, N2, 1975

Major, J.S.  The Land and People of China   New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers  1989

Prepared by Jiazhen Chen  (OISE/University of Toronto)

December 2001

Citation: Chen, Jiazhen (2001). 1966: Chinese cultural revolution brings about massive educational change. In Daniel Schugurensky (Ed.), History of Education: Selected Moments of the 20th Century [online]. Available:  (date accessed).

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  Number of visits to the 1960s