The Cultural Revolution: Ethics in Perspective

When I first landed in China this summer, I was given a small red book by my host family which contained a series of quotations. They were quotations of Mao Zedong, former Chairman of the Communist Party. In the book, he mentions various topics, but there is one chapter which caught my attention; the need for a Cultural Revolution. In this, Mao mentions how purging today’s society could lead to a better society in the future. This led me to many questions about practicality, and societal response; but above all it led me to question ethics behind this.

If Chairman Mao says:

purging today’s society will lead to a great society in the future

What would be purged and to what extent? After considering the knowledge through history about his Cultural Revolution, I believe he is referring to destroying or changing traditional institutions such as religion, social hierarchy, and family. This assumes that there is something presently wrong about these institutions. But this would also mean that humans living in the present would lose their lives to benefit human lives in the future. If so, why is it not better to just improve the current institutions and human lives instead of destroying them? Why is it better to let current human sciences (such as economics) decay to improve future human sciences? Considering this question led me to a broader quandary: How ethical is it to waste or destroy the present in order to expect a better future? We never leave the present, so would this be a continuing cycle of destroying the present? Is it practical to plan for the future even though we never are in it? Should human lives be lost now to protect human lives in this so called future? If not, why are we fighting wars? It is exactly for the same reason; so we can save American lives from being lost in the future. But does this practice of sacrifice for future gain work? Well, analyzing Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution through historical knowledge, around 1.5 million Chinese lost their lives because of government policy (“Cultural Revolution”). However, these same government policies increased the life expectancy by 20 years (“Life Expectancy”). This has made China have the 1.4 billion people it has today (“China Population”). But then, how ethical is it to compare the value of human life through simple numbers? It may be ethical to me to have 1000 babies saved at the expense of an old man, but how ethical would it be the old man’s family? Who then justifies what is a valuable amount of human life?

In the book, Mao Zedong calls for the tearing down of the present to build the future. I assume he is referring to primarily human science related fields, such as economics and political science, since Mao was a Communist revolutionary (Zedong 63). As a Communist, I know from history Communism is often (sometimes wrongly) attributed to killing many people, however, it has changed fledgling, completely non-industrialized nations into developed countries, a feat capitalism has difficulty in accomplishing. This led me to ponder about whether experiments in human sciences become more ethical to carry out as history progresses. The answer isn’t immediately clear. For example, most of us Americans still do not believe that Communism is ethical enough to implement. But then how long will it take to achieve this level of ethics? It is now an acceptable practice to attack civilians in war, but it wasn’t in 1776. So does this then mean that Mao Zedong was a thinker ahead of his time? His proposals for changes to human sciences aren’t ethical now, nor were they viewed ethically in the past, so is it not logical to believe that his level of ethics can only be achieved in the future. Nevertheless, does an ethic have to be overcome in the future? Are there any ethical values that have been held consistently through various human populations? In order to truly understand this, we would have to study the history of ethics and use human sciences to understand why those societies held them. I believe it is an understandably complex issue and may possibly never have an accepted answer, because, of course, we haven’t lived in the future; we have no way to know what they will come to accept in terms of vehicle transportation let alone ethics. But through all of this consideration, we may find new ways to write our future through re-writing the past.

Works Cited

By Analyzing Three Data Sets of Twins from the US, Sweden and Denmark, They Determined That Genetic Factors Contributed the Most to the Correlation between Lifespan and Intelligence. “Life Expectancy.” Our World In Data Comments. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Sept. 2016. <>.

“China Population (LIVE).” China Population (2016). N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Sept. 2016. <>. Staff. “Cultural Revolution.” A&E Television Networks, 2009. Web. 21 Sept. 2016. <>.

Mao, Zedong. Quotations from Chairman Mao. New York: Universal-Award House, 1971. Print.

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