Suicide and the Chinese Cultural Revolution

David Lester. Archives of Suicide Research. Volume 9, Issue 1. 2005.

The Communist Party, under the control of Mao Zedong, won control of China in 1949. In 1958, Mao tried to force China into the modern world with his Great Leap Forward, a massive industrialization, which would push China to surpass Western nations in 15 years. It failed, and millions died of starvation when the production of food and the other basic necessities of life dwindled. Mao lost power and withdrew, leaving the bureaucrats to run the country, with the first task being increasing food production. Mao had become a relic, no more than a figurehead (Bloom, 1995).

Mao resented this, and he used the rebellious adolescents to regain the power he had lost. He encouraged them to criticize government officials and the bureaucrats and to uncover bourgeois tendencies and heresies in their teachers. They began by writing essays, then turned to making posters, gradually resorting to physical violence. They attacked their teachers and then moved on to Magistrates, Mayors and Local Party Heads. They interrogated, shaved heads, beat and tortured all who opposed them.

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, as it came to be known, began in 1966 and continued until Mao’s death in 1976. Train (undated) noted that there are many interpretations of this societal upheaval. Some view it as Mao and the left-wing factions of the Communist Party purging the right-wing factions. At the street level, it was a popular uprising against the bureaucracy of the Communist Party and of the government.

Mao had wanted to transform the Chinese society into a classless society, but by the mid-1960s, after the failure of the Great Leap Forward, some in the party thought that Mao’s goals and methods were not appropriate for the creation of a modern state. These “right-wing” members wanted planned economic development administered by professional managers and civil servants.

Mao saw this as a continued threat both to his power and to his views, and he chose the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to eliminate his opposition. The new head of the PLA, Lin Biao, eliminated ranks and insignia and edited a book of quotations from Mao, which came to be known as the Little Red Book. Mao organized a “cult of personality” centered on himself, and the educational system indoctrinated adolescents, especially in rural areas, with his ideas. These adolescents soon became the core of the “Red Guard,” gangs who would purge the society of reactionaries and entrenched bureaucrats and professionals. They attacked the four “olds”: old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits.

From 1966 to 1969, the Cultural Revolution flourished in violence. The Red Guards took over government offices and called in their opponents for debates and public trials, after which they were exiled to other regions of China or imprisoned. People died of maltreatment in prison, some were beaten to death, while others committed suicide. The government admitted later that at least 35, 000 had died from all causes, but the number may have been closer to 400, 000.

The Red Guards soon broke into many factions, and internecine fighting took over. Mao saw the danger in this and withdrew his support for the Red Guard. In 1968 Mao authorized the PLA to restore order. Most members of the Red Guards were sent into the rural areas for “re-education.” By 1969, the Cultural Revolution was over, and the PLA was in charge of China, under the leadership of Lin Biao.

Mao now began to fear a military takeover. Lin Biao, along with other senior PLA officers, fled the country after a rumored, unsuccessful coup d’etat, dying in a plane crash in Mongolia. Mao then purged the PLA of his opponents, thereby undermining the radical, left wing elements of the party. Mao died in 1976, leaving a struggle between the pragmatic elements (led by Zhou Enlai, Hua Guofeng and Deng Xiaoping) and the radicals led by Mao’s wife (Jiang Qing) and the “Gang of Four.” The pragmatic elements won quickly and decisively. Jiang Qing was arrested, convicted of counter-revolutionary crimes in 1981 and committed suicide in prison in 1991. By the mid-1970s, the Cultural Revolution was over.

This brief summary of the events of the Cultural Revolution fails to capture the chaos and, more importantly, the brutal treatment of the professionals by the Red Guards. The period of 1966–1969 was symbolized by a disorganized civil war, in which the youth of the country violently persecuted, assaulted, tortured and killed the educated professionals.


Suicides rose dramatically during the Cultural Revolution. In the memoirs of those who survived the chaos, there are stories of teachers jumping to their death from the rooms in which they were confined. Luo (1990) notes that the Red Guards would often write slogans on the ground where the teachers fell: “Good riddance, traitor! Even death cannot pay for your sin.” Wen (1995) reports the case of a boy who found the carcass of a suicide victim outside the walls of a town (whom he later found out was his mother), left to lie there for 10 days as a reminder of what happens to those who do not cooperate with the Red Guards.

Lo (1989) tells of a teacher locked up who tried to commit suicide by jumping from a second-floor window, but managed only to injure himself. The injured teacher was not allowed treatment or gifts of food. The teacher’s “crime” was to have told a joke the previous year that was now seen as a criticism of the government policies of the 1950s.

Cheng (1986) was a wealthy widow of a party official who was imprisoned in solitary confinement for over six years. After her release, she discovered that her daughter had committed suicide by jumping from a 9th floor window (although she might have been murdered). She was told that hundreds of suicides occurred each day in Shanghai during the early days of the Cultural Revolution.

A famous botanist, trained at the University of Pennsylvania with her husband, returned to China during the Korean War. She was working at the Shanghai Science Institute upon her arrest by the Red Guards. She was accused of working for the CIA and locked up in a basement. They tortured her in order to persuade her to name other scientists who were working for the CIA. Her husband was told later that they immersed her up to her neck in stinking slime, but she managed to tear her clothes into strips in order to hang herself (Heng & Shapiro, 1983).

Additionally, some Red Guards committed suicide as martyrs in order to show their loyalty to Mao (Min, 1994). One wonders whether any of the Red Guards later committed suicide out of shame or guilt for what they had done? In a novel, The Golden Era, by Wang Xiaobo, a professor who joined the Red Guards in his youth, committed suicide perhaps due to his behavior during the Cultural Revolution (Johnson, 1996). However, there is no documentation of actual suicides of this type.

The Chinese Holocaust Memorial

Documenting suicide during the Cultural Revolution is difficult because the term “suicide” (zi sha) became a linguistic taboo. During the Cultural Revolution, the term was replaced by “Zi jue yue dang he renmin” which means to alienate oneself from the Party and the people.

Youqin Wang (McMurtrie, 2002) has developed a website to document the educators who were murdered or who committed suicide during the Cultural Revolution ( She interviewed students and teachers, as well as their relatives, at 96 schools in China. Here are a few of her cases.

Wang (1997) noted that teachers were humiliated and beaten, tortured and murdered by their students. Many were imprisoned. Furthermore, at Beijing University in 1966, eight classrooms were turned into a prison, and two hundred professors were locked up for a year.

On July 31, 1966, at the Middle School4 attached to Beijing University, the students attacked a pregnant vice-principal. They cut her hair, put dirt in her mouth and beat her. She was forced to crawl on the ground and say that she was a poisonous snake. Later she was forced to kneel on a table and then kicked off. Her baby died after birth from prenatal injuries. Similar incidents occurred at Beijing 4th Middle School on August 4, when more then 30 teachers were attacked, after which two of them committed suicide.

Wang (undated, b) recorded many suicides:

  • A 26-year old chemistry teacher (Lin Shuhua) at the Middle School attached to Qinhua University plunged to his death on August 26, 1966.
  • Shen Xianzhe, a teacher of Chinese, committed suicide on August 22 at Beijing 3rd Girls Middle School after a beating.
  • Zheng Shiwan, a female teacher at the Middle School attached to the Chinese People’s University, committed suicide after being tortured.
  • At Beijing University, Cheng Xiance killed himself on September 2 by drinking insecticide after being tortured.
  • Shen Naizhang, a professor of psychology, killed himself on October 9.

In the summer of 1966, Wang estimated that 27 educators were murdered at the 96 schools she studied, but she found it difficult to estimate the number of suicides. However, she reports 11 suicides in addition to the 5 noted above. Wang notes that in a teacher dormitory for 11 families at Beijing Agriculture University, 5 people committed suicide between 1966 and 1968.

Wang noted that, toward the end of August 1966, the student violence spread beyond the schools and universities to the society at large. Factory workers and small business owners, artists and writers, were attacked as well. On August 24, for example, the writer Lao She committed suicide after being beaten by middle school students, along with 20 other individuals.

The persecution also spread to the students themselves, when those from “good” families (for example, their fathers were revolutionary cadres) began to attack those from “bad” families (such as landlords or rich peasants). Some of these students also committed suicide. For example, at Qinghua University, a 19-year-old (Guo Lanhui), whose father was a “rightist,” killed herself by drinking insecticide.

Not all students could become Red Guards. Red Guards could come only from families that were revolutionary cadres, military men, martyrs, factory workers, or poor peasants. Only about 20% of the students were so qualified (Wang, undated b). The remaining 80% of the students were permitted to help the Red Guards and were known as the Red Periphery.

A second wave of persecution took place in 1968 (the “cleansing of the class ranks” campaign). However, this time the students were supervised by military representatives and “revolutionary committees” (often made up of factory workers). Wang (1997) recorded 38 suicides among teachers, and in two cases the wives of the suicide victims also committed suicide. Wang noted that reports from the universities are certainly incomplete since the size of the staff was large enough that survivors from one department did not know what happened in other departments. Wang identified 13 suicides by name from Beijing University but noted that at least 23 staff members probably committed suicide. Wang estimated that perhaps one teacher in a hundred committed suicide, a rate of about 1, 000 per 100, 000 per year.

Li Jigu was a 71-year old history professor at Huadong Teachers University. He was interrogated for several days in July 1968 but would not “confess” his crimes. On the final day, he was forced to kneel on the floor for an entire day, and the students burned his back and neck with cigarettes. He was allowed to go home that night, and he drowned himself in a river.

It was not only teachers who were persecuted and committed suicide during the Cultural Revolution. Even high-up people did so. For example, one of Deng Xiaoping’s brothers committed suicide in 1967 (Anderson, 1997), while his son, Pufang, attempted suicide leaving him a paraplegic [Mirsky & Pringle, 1995] and Tian Jiaying, a historian who was Mao’s secretary and friend for 18 years, committed suicide on May 26, 1966, perhaps being opposed to the philosophy and goals of the Cultural Revolution and foreseeing the tumult that the Cultural Revolution would bring (Yu, 2003).

Why Was There No Protest Suicide?

Protest suicide has been quite common in Asian countries. In South Vietnam during the 1960s, Buddhist monks immolated themselves in protest against the government, as did some peace activists in the United States to protest the Vietnam War. Protest suicide has also occurred in South Korea in the 1980s and 1990s (Park, 2004). Protest suicide is not unheard of in China. In recent years, members of the Falun Gong sect who have been persecuted by the government have committed suicide in protest, even self-immolating in Tiananmen Square (MacLeod, 2001).

Park (2004) has noted that, in Confucianism, the government is supposed to set moral values for the society, and so self-immolation shames the government and is a type of revenge. Thus, it is all the more surprising that protest suicide did not occur in China during the Cultural Revolution.

Some of the suicide notes written by victims of the Cultural Revolution do make a private protest. Here are four suicide notes from high- ranking officials and military officers from 1966 and 1967.

“I was betrayed by J and C. I could never have imagined that I have worked diligently for eighteen years and ended up like this. The old saying goes that kindness will be repaid by kindness and evilness will be repaid by evilness. I do not believe that these people will be facing something good in the future. I believe the Party will clarify the mess. I believe that I will not be blamed falsely forever.”

“To the Chairman: I and my whole family have not committed the crime of maintaining illicit relationships with foreigners. For this, I appeal to the Central Committee to investigate and examine the details of the case in order to get to the truth.”

“My record is clean. Do not suspect that I am an enemy. Please allow my last cry: Long Live the Chinese Communist Party! Long Live Chairman Mao!”

“In order to preserve the socialist society and Chairman Mao’s revolutionary path, I am willing to offer everything I have.”

Wang noted that the teachers she interviewed admitted to silently enduring the brutality and cruelty. Wang commented that public protest by the teachers was impossible for three main reasons: (1) the police had been ordered to ignore the student violence, (2) the Red Guards were organized and supported by the authorities while the teachers were isolated individuals, and (3) resistance and protest could result in further beatings and torture.