The image of George Washington’s statue facing the ground after being toppled and vandalized in Portland fills my heart with immense sadness. The imagery set forth a wave of baleful nostalgia of a similar incident 54 years ago. During China’s Cultural Revolution, a prominent statue of Confucius was dismantled by militant university and high school students who referred to themselves as the “Red Guards.” It seems, in many respects, 2020 may be a repeat of 1966.
What drove Chinese Communist Party dictator Mao Zedong to launch the Cultural Revolution in May 1966 was his unquenchable desire to seize and maintain power. After his disastrous economic policy resulted in a three-year famine (1959-1961) and an estimated 20-30 million deaths, Mao temporarily retreated from the power center and let his relatively moderate colleagues take charge. But, in 1966, he was ready to seize power again in the name of a proletariat revolution in culture.
In an editorial for the People’s Daily, Mao’s propaganda chief, Chen Boda, explained the aims of this proletarian cultural revolution:
…not only at demolishing all the old ideology and culture and all the old customs and habits, which, fostered by the exploiting classes, have poisoned the minds of the people for thousands of years, but also at creating and fostering among the masses an entirely new ideology and culture and entirely new customs and habits — those of the proletariat.
Following this rallying cry, a campaign to get rid of the “four olds” — old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas — was launched across on college campuses in Beijing. Professors and leaders with western educational backgrounds, as well as those who demonstrated any traditional Chinese cultural influence, were quickly denounced and publicly humiliated as “monsters and demons” by their enthusiastic students.
Soon, denouncing college deans and professors was not enough. The Red Guards needed a bigger target to send the shockwave to the rest of the nation.
Selecting the Ultimate Target
For the target of their cultural revolution, the Red Guards chose Confucius (551–479 BC), who had been worshiped as a great teacher and philosopher for establishing the system of morality and proper conduct that dominated China for more than 2,000 years and for generations was regarded as the ultimate embodiment of Chinese culture.
In November 1966, Tan Houlan, founder of the Red Guard faction at the elitist Peking University, led 200 Red Guards to Qufu, Shandong province, the home of the Confucius temple where Confucius’s family cemetery and historical living quarter resides. The local Communist Party forced the town to hire 300 local workers, who were paid 50 cents a day to assist the Red Guards for the planned destruction.
It’s no surprise that this mass destruction was led by those well-educated. As American author Cynthia Ozick wrote, “Stupid mobs are spurred by clever goaders: The book burners were inspired by the temperamentally bookish — who else could know which books to burn?” Of course, the well-educated also like to think too highly of themselves to do the dirty work.
On November 15, after a massive rally called “Annihilate the Kong Family Business” transpired, the destruction began. The Confucius statue was toppled and later paraded around the village to be vilified. The Red Guards further directed the villagers to pull stone stelae and commemorative arches positioned along the spirit way leading to Confucius’s tomb.
Relics that could be burned were thrown into bonfires, including the plaque bearing inscription gifted to Confucius from Qing Emperor Kangxi, which read “Teacher of Ten-thousand Generations.” Relics that couldn’t be burned were smashed into pieces. Unfortunately, the destruction didn’t stop there.
From the beginning, the Red Guards wanted to destroy all the tombs inside the Confucius family cemetery. However, they were told by locals that the cemetery was massive, and contained 70 tombs of Confucius and his direct descendants as well as more 2,000 clan members, which would take up to months to dig up.
To save time, the Red Guards decided to dig up the first three generations. The targets became Confucius, his sons, and grandsons, as well as the last three generations of Confucius’s direct lineage: Kong Lingyi, his father, and grandfather. By doing so, the Red Guards could declare that they had destroyed Confucius’s family “from the beginning to the end.”
According to a report, “on the first day the grave was flattened, on the second day a three-meter deep trench was dug, but by the third day, the rebels had run out of patience so they used dynamite to blow up the site. The grave was effectively obliterated.” Valuable objects buried with the corpses, such as gold and jewelry, were looted; the Red Guards and the proletariats had no objections in keeping treasures for themselves. Corpses were mutilated and displayed for days before they were thrown into a ditch and burned.
The final tally of the damage consisted of 100,000 volumes of classical texts, of which 1,700 rare items were burned, as well as the destruction or vandalism of some 6,618 cultural artifacts. One thousand stelae were smashed. The Red Guards’ destruction inspired a tomb-digging frenzy. In the months that followed, more than 2,000 tombs in the Confucius family cemetery were looted.
A Parallel and A Warning
The destruction of Confucius’s temples and family cemetery in the early days of the Cultural Revolution was meant to send the message to the rest of the country. If someone who had been revered for thousands of years, one of the ultimate symbols of China and her culture, could be humiliated and destroyed in such a way, nothing and no one else would be safe.
In retrospect, that November marked the beginning of the darkest decade in China’s history, during which many more places would be destroyed, many more books burned, and many more families torn apart after children denounced their parents and spouses denounced each other in a desperate attempt to survive by demonstrating “ideological purity.” An estimated two million Chinese were either executed or driven to suicide as a result. Millions more suffered malnutrition due to famine fueled by a broken economy. Only later would people finally come to realize that the Cultural Revolution not only destroyed the culture but also ruined the country.
History may not repeat itself exactly the same way, but it does rhyme. The destruction we’re witnessing in America today is beginning to resemble 1966 China more every day. Washington’s statue was toppled not simply because of his personal failings for being a slave owner. Washington represents the ultimate symbol of the United States of America in a similar way Confucius was for China.
By pulling down his statue, the mob wants to send a message: they reject all founders of the United States and denounce the founding principles that this nation was built upon. If Washington can be condemned and humiliated in this way and what he stood for can be rejected with no resistance, no one else in this country is safe.
Just like Mao and his Red Guards, today’s mob is hungry for power. They seek the power to rule over us, and the power to impose a rigid conformity so the rest of us can only think and behave in the ways they alone approve. Ultimately, the annihilation we’re witnessing is a manifestation of their unwavering desire for this power.
The dismantling of Washington’s statue — and the dismantling of all historical statues — won’t stop the mob. More obliterations will come. Each destructive act that is left unchallenged will embolden the mob further.
Annihilation comes in many shapes and forms beyond the demolition of physical objects. More people who refuse to conform to the mob’s demand will lose their jobs and see their lives be ruined. The mob won’t stop until they destroy everything we hold dear and attain complete power over us.
Knowing this is where our nation is heading, one question we need to urgently ask ourselves right now is: am I going to sit back and hope the destruction will spare me (reality check: no one will be spared), or am I going to step forward and say “no” to the mob?