June 22, 2024

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Photos reveal what China looked like before the Cultural Revolution

Opium smokers in China at the early 20th century.
Opium smokers in China at the early 20th century.

Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

  • On October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong declared the foundation of The People’s Republic of China, following a 20-year civil war.

  • In the decades that followed, China experienced an intense cultural and political revolution from 1966 to 1976 that transformed the country and left millions dead.

  • The “Cultural Revolution” resulted in the destruction of old customs, culture, habits, and ideas in order to make way for the spread of Zedong’s brand of communism. 

  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Beginning in 1966, a decade-long Cultural Revolution sought to eradicate old ideas and customs in order to make way for a new, revolutionary China.

Radical youths known as Red Guards were encouraged to rid China’s cities of “class enemies,” eliminate western ties, and destroy outdated traditions. In a matter of decades, the country was transformed from an Imperialist nation to an atheist, communist society. 

As the People’s Republic of China attempted to erase their own history, religious texts were destroyed, places of worship shut down, and traditional garments demonized.

Old texts and art objects were vandalized in the streets, and Mao’s “Little Red Book” became a staple in Chinese homes.

But what did China look like before this? 

From traditional braids to smoking opium, photos reveal a look into Chinese culture during the Qing Dynasty, and the rise of communism in 1949.

The Qing Dynasty, China’s last imperial dynasty, ruled from 1644 to 1912.

Qing Dynasty art
Qing Dynasty art

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Source: BBC

The dynasty was originally established by the Manchus, a group of people who mostly occupied Northeast China. Early into their rule, they made great efforts to preserve traditions of the past.

Manchu Bowman
Manchu Bowman

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Manchu rulers supported Confucian politics and attitudes and undertook a strong period of collecting and preserving old ideas through art, music, clothing, and literature. 

During the early half of the dynasty, the country experienced rapid growth, adopted Confucian methods of leadership, and created the largest production of Chinese history and language books.

Qing Empresses
Qing Empresses

Chusseau-Flaviens/The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

Source: Culture Trip

Two major forms of art in the Qing dynasty included porcelain and painting. Artists were typically categorized into three groups: individualists, traditionalists, and professionals.

Qing Dynasty painting
Qing Dynasty painting

Barney Burstein/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Of these three categories, the individualists focused on personal works and often made political art, while the traditionalists stuck to reinventing techniques of the past, and professionals served the Manchu court.

One of the dynasty’s most notable contributions to music was the development of the Peking opera, which included many regional theater traditions, and often incorporated flute, lute, drums, and wind instruments.

Peking opera
Peking opera

China Photos/Getty Images

Source: Encyclopedia Britannica

Men during this period were ordered to wear their hair in traditional braids, known as a “queue.” When the dynasty was overthrown in 1912, it was encouraged to cut off this hairstyle in an act of political revolution.

Qing men with braids
Qing men with braids

Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Source: Culture Trip

Religion was an important aspect of the Qing Dynasty, and many temples were built for worship around the country.

Qing dynasty temple
Qing dynasty temple

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Source: Ancient History Encyclopedia

The main religion under the Qing Dynasty was Confucianism, but Buddhism and Daoism were also recognized throughout the country.

Temple of heaven complex in beijing
Temple of heaven complex in beijing

Carl Simon/United Archives/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Source: The Qing Dynasty.com

Traditional clothing for women throughout the Qing Dynasty consisted of long, high-collared robes, and the qipao dress, a garment that has evolved with modern Chinese style.

Chinese women in traditional dress
Chinese women in traditional dress

FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Source: Museum of Applied Sciences and Arts, New York Times

Head wear was also common during the Qing Dynasty, and court hats were largely distinguished by season. Winter hats were typically comprised of black skull caps with upturned rims, while summer hats were cone-shaped and had bamboo and silk woven within them.

Qing dynasty hair fashion women
Qing dynasty hair fashion women

Photo by John Thomson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Source: Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences

Foot-binding became ubiquitous during the early Qing Dynasty, and any woman who wished to marry was subjected to the process of having her feet bent, broken, and wrapped in order to restrict movement and enhance beauty.

woman with bound feet
woman with bound feet

adoc-photos/Corbis via Getty Images

Sources: The Atlantic, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences

Smoking opium became outlawed by the Qing Dynasty following a series of opium wars between China and the Western world. Despite this ban, Chinese people regularly participated in the recreational use of the drug.

Opium smokers
Opium smokers

Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Sources: History.com, Encyclopedia Britannica

From 1850 to 1864, the Qing Dynasty was threatened by the Taiping Rebellion, a movement led by Hong Xiuquan, which killed 20 million people and cost the Qing rulers millions of dollars to end.

Taiping Rebellion
Taiping Rebellion

Felice Beato/Getty Images

Source: Encyclopedia Britannica

Following the Taiping Rebellion, the Qing Dynasty was ruled for roughly 40 years by Empress Dowager Cixi, who is credited with the early stages of modernizing China.

Cixi
Cixi

Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Source: The Guardian

In 1898, Empress Cixi declared war on the west by siding with the Boxer Rebellion, a movement initiated by a secret Chinese society that strongly opposed foreign and Christian influence in China.

Boxer rebellion
Boxer rebellion

The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

Source: History.com, The Guardian

By 1900, thousands of Chinese Christians and foreign nationals were killed in the rebellion. But in 1901, foreign powers defeated the Imperial Army and Qing rule began to significantly weaken.

US Cavalry during Boxer rebellion
US Cavalry during Boxer rebellion

Photo by MPI/Getty Images

Sources: Encyclopedia Britannica, The Guardian, History.com

In 1908, Puyi, the Last Emperor of China, took the throne when he was just two years old.

Last emperor of China
Last emperor of China

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Source: South China Morning Post

In 1912, military revolts overthrew the Qing Dynasty and the Republic of China was formed. Throughout the next three decades, nationalist and communist groups competed for power.

Headquarters of republic of China
Headquarters of republic of China

Getty Images

Source: BBC

But in 1949, Mao Zedong announced a victory for the Communist Party, and The People’s Republic of China was born.

Mao Zedong
Mao Zedong

Getty Images

Source: BBC

In 1966, Mao launched the “Cultural Revolution,” a project to rid the country of “class enemies,” western ties, and traditional values that ended with Mao’s death 10 years later.

The Cultural Revolution China 1966
The Cultural Revolution China 1966

Getty Images

Source: New York Times

The revolution was largely based around class politics. Mao enlisted radical students, known as Red Guards, to target political enemies and wipe out the “four olds” — ideas, customs, cultures, and habits.

china red guards little red book mao
china red guards little red book mao

circa 1970: Chinese Red Guards reading from the little red book of Thoughts of Chairman Mao before starting their day.

Photo by Keystone/Getty Images

Source: The New York Times

During this time, Mao’s “Little Red Book” — a collection of over 200 quotations outlining the communist leader’s ideology — became practically mandatory to own.

Reading of Mao's little red book
Reading of Mao’s little red book

hoto by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Daniel Leese, a professor of modern Chinese history and politics at the University of Freiburg, told BBC News that owning the book “became a way of surviving.”

According to a New York Times report in 1971, the Cultural Revolution saw an end to traditional clothing, celebrations, art, religious practices, and literature.

Cultural Revolution destruction of buddha
Cultural Revolution destruction of buddha

AP Photo, File

Source: The New York Times

Red Guards rampaged Beijing and other cities, destroying historical sites and cultural relics, and mass killing enemies of communism. Though the exact number is not clear, over one million are estimated to have died.

Religous structures destroyed by Red Guard
Religous structures destroyed by Red Guard

AP Photo, File

Source: The New York Times

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