Four Olds

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The remains of the Wanli Emperor (r. 1572–1620) at the Ming dynasty tombs. Red Guards dragged the remains of the emperor and of his empresses to the front of the tomb, where they denounced and burned them.[1]

The Four Olds (simplified Chinese: 四旧; traditional Chinese: 四舊; pinyin: sì jiù) refer to categories used by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution to characterize elements of Chinese culture prior to the Chinese Communist Revolution that they were attempting to destroy. The Four Olds were 'old ideas', 'old culture', 'old customs', and 'old habits'.[a][2] During the Red August of 1966, shortly after the onset of the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards' campaign to destroy the Four Olds began amid the massacres being carried out in Beijing.[3][4]


The term "Four Olds" first appeared on June 1, 1966, in Chen Boda's People's Daily editorial, "Sweep Away All Cow Demons and Snake Spirits", where the Old Things were described as anti-proletarian, "fostered by the exploiting classes, [and to] have poisoned the minds of the people for thousands of years".[5] However, which customs, cultures, habits, and ideas specifically constituted the "Four Olds" were never clearly defined.[6]

On August 8, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party used the term at its 8th National Congress. The term was endorsed on August 18 by Lin Biao at a mass rally, and from there it spread to Red Flag magazine, as well as to Red Guard publications.[6]

Calls to destroy the "Four Olds" usually did not appear in isolation, but were contrasted with the hope of building the "Four News" (new customs, new culture, new habits, new ideas).[6] Newborn socialist things were said to struggle against the Four Olds.[7] The idea that Chinese culture was responsible for China's economic backwardness and needed to be reformed had some precedent in the May Fourth Movement (1919), and was also encouraged by colonial authorities during the Second Sino-Japanese War.[8]

Campaign to destroy the Four Olds[edit]

The campaign to Destroy the Four Olds and Cultivate the Four News (Chinese: 破四旧立四新; pinyin: Pò Sìjiù Lì Sìxīn) began in Beijing on August 19 during the "Red August".[5][9] Academic Alessandro Russo writes that the destruction of the Four Olds was an ambiguous campaign from the perspective of the Chinese Communist Party.[10] He argues that in a time of increasing political pluralization, the Party sought to channel student activism towards obvious class enemies and less relevant objectives to make it easier for the Party to contain the situation.[10]

The "re-naming" campaign[edit]

A 1968 map of Beijing showing streets and landmarks renamed during the Cultural Revolution. "Āndìngménnèidàjiē" (Stability Gate Inner Street) became "Dàyuèjìnlù" (Great Leap Forward Road), "Táijīchǎngdàjiē" (Táijī Factory Street) became "Yǒnggélù" (Perpetually Ousting Road), "Dōngjiāomínxiàng" (East Cross People Lane) was renamed "Fǎndìlù" (Anti-Imperialist Road), "Běihǎigōngyuán" (North Sea Park) was renamed "Gōngnóngbīnggōngyuán" (Worker-Peasant-Soldier Park) and "Jǐngshāngōngyuán" (View Mountain Park) became "Hóngwèibīnggōngyuán" (Red Guard Park). Most of the Cultural Revolution-era name changes were later reversed.

Across China, signs bearing old road names were vandalized.[11][12] The first things to change were the names of streets and stores: "Blue Sky Clothes Store" to "Defending Mao Zedong Clothes Store", "Cai E Road" to "Red Guard Road", and so forth.

In Beijing, the name of the road where the embassy of the Soviet Union was stationed was changed to "Anti-revisionism Road."[10] The Peking Union Medical College Hospital, founded in 1921 by the Rockefeller Foundation, was re-named "Anti-Imperialist Hospital".[13]

In Huangpu district of Shanghai, the city's commercial center, Red Guards tore down 93 percent of shop signboards (2,166 of 2,328), and renamed restaurants, schools and hospitals.[11] Red Guards also took Nanjing Road as their revolutionary headquarters in Shanghai, renaming it the "Anti-Imperialism Street".[11]

Many people across China also changed their given names to revolutionary slogans, such as Zhihong (志红, "Determined Red"), Jige (继革, "Following the Revolution") and Weidong (卫东, "Safeguard the Orient or Protect Mao").[6][12][14]

Public sites[edit]

The Cemetery of Confucius was attacked in November 1966, during the Cultural Revolution, when it was visited and vandalized by a team of Red Guards from Beijing Normal University, led by Tan Houlan.[15][16] The corpse of the 76th-generation Duke Yansheng was removed from its grave and hung naked from a tree in front of the palace during the desecration of the cemetery in the Cultural Revolution.[17]

The Chinese government stopped short of endorsing the physical destruction of products. In fact, the government protected significant archaeological discoveries made during the Cultural Revolution, such as the Mawangdui, the Leshan Giant Buddha and the Terracotta Army.[8]

The Forbidden City in Beijing was renamed the "Palace of Blood and Tear".[18]

Upon learning that Red Guards were approaching the Forbidden City, Premier Zhou Enlai ordered the gates shut and deployed the People's Liberation Army against the Red Guards. After this incident, Zhou attempted to create a more peaceful code of conduct for the Red Guards, with the support of cadres Tao Zhu, Li Fuchuan, and Chen Yi. This plan was foiled by the ultra-leftists Kang Sheng, Jiang Qing, and Zhang Chunqiao. Although many of Zhou's other initiatives to stem the destruction failed because of their or Mao's own opposition, he did succeed in preventing Beijing from being renamed "East Is Red City" and the Chinese guardian lions in front of Tian'anmen Square from being replaced with statues of Mao.[19]

In later stages of the campaign, examples of Chinese architecture were destroyed, classical literature and Chinese paintings were torn apart, and Chinese temples were desecrated.[6]

Personal harassment and private properties[edit]

Other manifestations of the Red Guard campaign included giving speeches, posting big-character posters, and harassment of people, such as intellectuals,[20] who defiantly demonstrated the Four Olds.[5] This escalated from accosting people in the streets due to their dress or hairstyle, to widespread murder, assault, arbitrary detention and the ransacking of private homes.[11] Red Guards broke into the homes of the wealthy and destroyed paintings, books, and furniture; all were items that they viewed as part of the Four Olds.[21]

Many artists and other cultural professionals were persecuted by vigilantes, although some cultural advances came about because of the period, including the integration of "new" western instruments and ballet into Peking opera.[citation needed]

Attacks on ethnic minorities and book burnings[edit]

Languages and customs of ethnic minorities in China were labeled as part of the Four Olds and texts in ethnic languages were burned.[22][23][24] Bilingual education was suppressed.[22]



Appraisal of damage[edit]

No official statistics have ever been produced by the Communist party in terms of reporting the actual cost of damage. By 1978, many stories of death and destruction caused by the Cultural Revolution had leaked out of China and became known worldwide.[27]


Starting in the 1990s and continuing into the 21st century, there has been a massive rebuilding effort under way to restore and rebuild cultural sites that were destroyed or damaged during the Cultural Revolution. This has coincided with a resurgence in interest in, and demand for, Chinese cultural artifacts.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 旧思想; jiù sīxiǎng
    旧文化; jiù wénhuà
    旧风俗; jiù fēngsú
    旧习惯; jiù xíguàn


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