The true story of the Chinese cultural revolution, in which “The Three Body Problem” is set

The sci-fi series The three-body problemrecently available on Netflix, is set in the period of Chinese history called cultural revolution Chinese. It was the political process, developed in the People's Republic of China between 1966 and 1969through which the leadership of Mao Zedong and one was imposed rigorous and inflexible ideology. Participating in the revolution were thered guards”, that is, students of universities and schools who completed atrocities and brutalities against anyone suspected of not adhering to Maoist orthodoxy. Estimates of overall casualties range from 400,000 to several million people. The cultural revolution ended in fact in 1969, but it was renounced only after Mao's death in 1976 and the rise to power of Deng Xiaoping.

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Chinese Cultural Revolution
  • 1The internal struggle within the Communist Party
  • 2The beginning of the cultural revolution
  • 3The Red Guards and the repression of dissent
  • 4The massacres and the number of victims
  • 5The end of the cultural revolution

The internal struggle within the Communist Party

To understand the cultural revolution, we must remember that in 1949 a socialist regime was established in mainland China, in which power was concentrated in the hands of the Communist Party and its leader Mao Zedong (Mao Tse Tung according to another transliteration of Chinese characters).

In 1958 Mao proposed a new economic plan, called “Great Leap Forward”, which was supposed to transform China into a modern, industrialized socialist country. The “leap”, however, turned out to be a disaster and was the cause of a famine that caused millions of deaths. The plan failed lose prestige to Mao. His leadership was questioned by other Communist Party leaders, among them Liu ShaoqiPresident of the People's Republic of China, e Deng Xiaopingfuture leader of the state and the party.

Since 1962 Mao, while formally retaining his positions, lost much of its effective power. Deng and Liu gained support within the party and sought to impose a more pragmatic approach to politics and economics.

Liu Shaoqi
Liu Shaoqi

The beginning of the cultural revolution

Mao did not intend to give up and already in 1962 launched serious accusations against him the “revisionists”, that is, the leaders accused of moving away from the “orthodox” political line. In the 1966 started the real cultural revolution. In August, during a session of the central committee of the Communist Party, he appealed to young people to rebel against the “four old men”: old currents of thought, old cultures, old habits and old traditions. In essence, he invited young people to fight in the name of a political and economic system based onMaoist orthodoxy. Anyone who opposed his vision was accused of being an enemy of the people.

The Red Guards and the repression of dissent

Mao secured the support ofPeople's Liberation ArmyChina's military, and the support of most of the university and high school students, who organized themselves into Red Guard groups, being responsible for violence and atrocities against non-aligned political leaders. Among the most frequently targeted categories were intellectuals and professors, accused of slowing down the revolutionary process.

Students at Beijing University prepare posters against the revisionists
Peking University students prepare posters against the revisionists

However, Mao's opponents also had numerous supporters and in many cities they took place clashes between opposing factions. For this reason, between 1966 and 1967 China found itself on the brink of civil war, but the conflict was avoided because the People's Liberation Army regained control of the main cities, forcing the Red Guards to return to schools and universities.

Mao, moreover, obtained one clear victory and fully regained power. In 1968 Liu Shaoqi was stripped of all political positions and relegated to a work camp, in which he died the following year. Deng Xiaoping was instead sent to the rural province of Jangxi as a simple party employee.

The massacres and the number of victims

During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards carried out large-scale massacres and were guilty of very serious atrocities and brutalities. One of the most notorious massacres was that which occurred in Guanxi, a province in southern China, in which between 100,000 and 150,000 people were brutally killed. In the course of the massacre, they were committed cruelty and violence of all kinds: people buried alive, disemboweled, blown up with dynamite. They even occurred cases of cannibalismdue not to lack of food, but to pure sadism.

Massacres and massacres also took place in other Chinese provinces. The total number of victims of the cultural revolution is not known and estimates are very different from each other: from 400,000 to twenty million deaths.

Red Guards in Shanghai
Red Guards in Shanghai

The end of the cultural revolution

The “acute” phase of the cultural revolution ended in 1969, but the political system that emerged from it remained in force as long as Mao was alive. After his death in 1976, he rose to power Deng Xiaopingwho returned to the national political scene in 1973 and, after defeating the other factions of the Communist Party, managed to establish himself as leader of the People's Republic of China.

Deng he repudiated the cultural revolution and initiated a vast program of economic reforms, but he wanted save the memory of Mao and, while acknowledging some of his mistakes, he attributed responsibility for the massacres and political errors to other leaders.

Deng Xiaoping in 1979. American President Carter in the background
Deng Xiaoping in 1979. American President Carter in the background


Austin Ramzy, China's Cultural Revolution, Explained, The New York Times, 14 May 2016 Marina Miranda, On the Cultural Revolution fifty years later: the polarization of the debate, XVI Conference of the Italian Association of Chinese Studies, 2019,