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Taboos and Sensitive Issues in the History of Modern China

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Cho, Yeon Ju
Term Paper, AP Worldn History Class, June 2010

Table of Contents

I. Introduction
II. Taboos
II.1 Hundred Flowers Campaign
II.1.1 About Hundred Flowers Campaign
II.1.2 Perspectives of Chinese
II.2 Great Leap Forward
II.2.1 About Great Leap Forward
II.2.2 Perspectives of Chinese
II.3 Tiananmen Square Massacre
II.3.1 About Tiananmen Square Massacre
II.3.2 Perspectives of Chinese
III. Sensitive Issues
III.1 Relationship with Japan
III.1.1 About China's relationship with Japan
III.1.2 Perspectives of Chinese
III.2 Taiwan issue
III.2.1 About Taiwan Issue
III.2.2 Perspectives of Chinese
III.3 Cultural Revolution
III.3.1 About Cultural Revolution
III.3.2 Perspectives of Chinese
IV. Conclusion

I. Introduction
            This paper will firstly deal with taboos in the history of Modern China, especially focusing on the Hundred Flowers Campaign, the Great Leap Forward, and the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Then the paper will elaborate on sensitive issues such as relationship with Japan, Taiwan issue, and the Cultural Revolution. This paper will also show perspectives of Chinese about each event.
            The word 'China' in this paper refers to the People's Republic of China; otherwise there will be a specific description on wording. Likewise, the word 'Chinese' in this paper refers to people of the People's Republic of China unless there is a specific description.

II. Taboos

II.1 Hundred Flowers Campaign

II.1.1 About Hundred Flowers Campaign
            The Hundred Flowers Campaign, also called the Hundred Flowers Movement, is the campaign begun in May 1956 that the Chinese Communist Party allowed variety of views to political issues. At that time, intellectuals and local bureaucracies who were not related to the Communist Party denied to speak out about the policies and the problems of the central government.
            At first, Premier Zhou Enlai started the small campaign aimed at those people to criticize more openly. The Hundred Flowers Campaign was motivated by this small campaign. Mao Zedong found this idea interesting that he promoted intellectuals to more openly criticize the policy thus granted greater freedom of thought and speech. Mao Zedong invited criticism of the Communist Party's policies by anti-Communist intellectuals with the famous slogan from Chinese classical history "Let a hundred flowers bloom, and a hundred schools of thought contend." [1] Although this was based on the idea to have intellectuals discuss the country¡¯s problems in order to promote new forms of arts and new cultural institutions, Mao also believed that after discussion it would be apparent that socialist ideology was the dominant ideology over capitalism, even amongst non-Communist Chinese, and would thus propel the development and spread of the goals of socialism. [2]
            At first stage, it did not work very well, so that Zho Enlai reported the situation to Mao Zedong, and asked for the encouragement from the central bureaucracy. As a desperate measure to get the campaign going, by the spring of 1957, Mao Zedong had announced that criticism was preferred and had began to oppress people who did not give healthy criticism on policy to the Central Government. [3] Then, people started to criticize Communist policy openly. Criticism was increasing that wall posters reproaches the central government, and students and professors criticized party members. [4] However, in June, Mao Zedong thought criticism gone too far that ordered to stop the campaign. As a result of the Hundred Flowers Campaign, many intellectuals, students, teachers who were labeled 'rightist' persecuted during the Anti-Rightist Movement that followed the Hundred Flowers Campaign.

II.1.2 Perspectives of Chinese
            "Many people today don¡¯t know anything about this period. Discussion of the persecutions of the anti-Rightist campaign that followed the ¡®Hundred Flowers¡¯ policy is still taboo for writers, artists and film makers." [5]
            Although many foreigners know this campaign as one of the most important events in Chinese history, Chinese themselves actually do not know much about the event. Even in the Chinese textbook, the Hundred Flowers campaign does not account for much space.
            People do not say much about it, but there are some Chinese who think that the Hundred Flowers campaign was a trap that Mao Zedong set in order to eliminate anti-Communist intellectuals.

II.2 Great Leap Forward

II.2.1 About Great Leap Forward
            The Great Leap Forward is the campaign promoted by the Chinese Communists party between 1958 and early 1960s aiming at accomplishing the economic and the technological development of the country. Those people wanted to develop the country at a faster pace with greater results.
            From 1953 to 1957, Mao Zedong enforced the First Five-Year Plan by adopting the Soviet economic model to accomplish the economic growth of the country. It was successful in a sense that heavy industries including coal mining, cement production, iron and steel manufacturing, and machine building were flourished. Then, Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communists party planned the Second Five-Year Plan and the first three years of this period is known as the Great Leap Forward.
            The central idea behind the Great Leap Forward was that rapid development of China¡¯s agricultural and industrial sectors should take place in parallel. [6] Chinese hoped to industrialize by labor-intensive methods, emphasizing manpower rather than machines. Since relatively small agricultural surplus generated during the First Five-Year Plan because of the dense population in China, it was planned to develop agriculture and industry at the same time by changing people¡¯s working habits and relying on labor rather than machine-centered industrial processes during the Great Leap Forward. [7]
            Communes were established, and these people¡¯s communes became the new form of economic and political organization throughout rural China. [8] Under the commune system, people had to concentrate on agriculture and small industry in order to maximize production for people who lived in rural areas. Backyard furnaces were encouraged to be established in that they gave bad influences on the local environment. Agricultural renovation was enforced but the errors in implementation and a series of natural disasters led to the decrease in grain production. However, there were local leaders who gave false report about grain production figures to their higher offices. The figures were inflated up to 10 times actual production amounts to please superiors, so that many production groups were forced to sell more grain than they could produce. [9] Finally, the Great Leap Forward turned out to be the total failure that the Chinese economy broke down.

II.2.2 Perspectives of Chinese
            In foreigners view point, the Great Leap Forward is a disaster that affected China. However, Chinese do not take this seriously. Especially, at that time, people could not criticize about the Great Leap Forward.
            Moreover, although the Great Leap Forward failed to promote economic growth of China, Chinese are not that critical of the event since it was anyway made for the country. Chinese have pride in China in that by not criticizing the event, they want to view only good side of the country.

II.3 Tiananmen Square Massacre

II.3.1 Tiananmen Square Massacre
            The Tiananmen Square Massacre is also called as the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 or June Fourth Incident. It was an incident that the government repressed the series of prodemocracy student demonstrations too forcibly on June 3-4, 1989, with the loss of hundreds of lives. [10]
            Since 1978, the economy was stabilized and the political reforms enabled the political liberalization. There were some people, especially intellectuals, believed that China needed some changes in the political system.
            In 1989, the death of former Secretary General Hu Yaobang provided the opportunity for the students to gather at the Tiananmen Square where most of the protests took place. They gathered not only to mourn the deceased Secretary General, but also to have their voices heard in "demanding a reversal of the verdict against him¡± and bringing renewed attention to the important issues of the 1986-1987 pro-democracy protests and possibly also to those of the Democracy Wall protests in 1978-1979". [11]
            Starting from 15 April, the protest began to develop day by day. Although, the police dispersed the students on 20 April, students had the march on Tiananmen Square on 21 April. Since the protests did not have any unified cause or leadership, participants were generally against authoritarianism. [12] This was supported by a lot of people from many cities. On 4 May, the suggestion about free media and a formal dialogue between the government and the representatives of students were rejected by the government. The protests were activated and finally the students decided to undertake the hunger strikes which rang alarms in China¡¯s top leadership. The hunger strikes continued for three weeks so that the Communist party leaders decided to use military forces. Even though Beijing citizens tried to block the soldiers, they finally reached the Tiananmen Square. The soldiers were asked to clear the square by 6:00 a.m. without opening fire. Some students decided to stay and face the consequences instead of leaving the square. Chinese soldiers started to fire at the crowd and beaten students. The Square had been cleared by 5:40 a.m. 4 June. [13]
            A lot of foreign media spotlighted this incident damaging the reputation of the People¡¯s Republic of China. This gave a great impact on the economy because foreign investors did not want to invest money toward China. Moreover, even though personal freedom has been increased, discussions on the changes to the government or the role of the Communist Party in China regarded as taboo.

II.3.2 Perspectives of Chinese
            "Unlike the Cultural Revolution, about which people can still easily find information through government-approved books, magazines, websites, et cetera, this topic is forbidden by the government and accordingly generally cannot be found in mainland Chinese media or websites." [14]
            It is also a taboo that Chinese cannot really speak out about this incident.
            "Of all the taboos in modern China, the violent quelling of the Tiananmen Square democracy protests on June 4, 1989, 19 years ago today is the most sensitive." [15]
            This article shows that the Tiananmen Square Incident is still a taboo for Chinese. The government is trying to hide this incident even though people who caught during this event are still in jail. The government still wishes to keep the incident secret so that there are many people who do not know the truth.
            "Not only has the Chinese government never taken responsibility for it's brutality, and inhumane treatment of it's own citizens, it continues to shamelessly defend it's actions. Today during a routine press conference, Chinese Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Jiang Yu stated that China took the right course of action in cracking down on the demonstrators." [16]
            This also indicates that the Chinese government still defends their violent actions instead of regretting it. The speech of Jiang Yu, Chinese Foreign Affairs spokeswoman also shows that the government does not feel guilty of the event and take the event for granted.
            However, there are some citizens who are trying to face the truth while the Chinese government does not acknowledge responsibility for the incident.

III. Sensitive Issues

III.1 Relationship with Japan

III.1.1 About Relationship with Japan
            China and Japan are not very separated by geographical factors so that they have been actively interacting. However, the relationship between Modern China and Japan changed for the worse. The Meiji Restoration had an impact on Japan that it adopted modernization, militarization, and imperialism from Western countries. China was one of the countries which experienced much by Japanese imperialism.
            In 1928, Japanese agents bombed the Zhang Zuolin¡¯s train because they wanted to take Manchuria. In 1931, a section of railroad owned by Japan¡¯s South Manchuria Railway was dynamited and Japanese treated this incident as a pretext to take Manchuria and attack China. [17] Japan soon occupied Manchuria and called it Manchukuo. Chinese resisted Japanese attack until the Second Sino-Japanese War started in 1937. During that period, Japanese massacred a lot of innocent Chinese. For two month from December 1937 to January 1938, Japanese army massacred people in Nanking. They treated Chinese in incredibly cruel way. More than 300,000 people were killed during this period. There were more attacks of Japanese other than the Nanking Massacre. Chinese suffered from violent treatment of Japanese.
            However, time passed and now China and Japan are political and economical partners. Even though Chinese still remember the times they were mistreated by Japanese, they continue to have good relationship with each other.

III.1.2 Perspectives of Chinese
            After 1949 Chinese relations with Japan changed several times, from hostility and an absence of contact to cordiality and extremely close cooperation in many fields. [18]
            As this article shows, relationship between China and Japan changed variously. Before 1949, Chinese hated Japanese because Japanese had shown cruelty and brutality toward Chinese. There were a number of massacres done by Japanese. However, as time goes by, China and Japan tried to cooperate that perspectives of Chinese changed slightly in a good way.
            Although China-Japan relationship is getting better, there are some controversies about this relationship. Some Chinese take negative views toward the relationship because they still remember the things what Japanese had done to their ancestors. Japanese textbook controversy and Japanese visit to the Yasukuni Shrine make Chinese feel bad about Japan. Thus, China-Japan relationship can be regarded as a controversial issue that Chinese are still sensitive toward the issue.

III.2 Taiwan issue

III.2.1 About Taiwan issue
            Taiwan issue is a term indicating problems in many aspects such as political, economical, and cultural that brought out after the Republic of China was established in Taiwan. The issue is related to both the Republic of China in Taiwan and the People's Republic of China in the mainland and is mostly about the political status or the reversion of sovereignty.
            After Sun Yat-Sen who established a revolutionary base in south China died in 1925, Chiang Kai-shek took control of the Kuomintang and took most of south and central China under its control in a military campaign known as the Northern Expedition. [19] The struggle continued between the Kuomintang and the Communist Party of China and by 1949, the Communist Party of China occupied most of the country. [20] China Kai-shek who was attacked by the Communist Party of China in mainland China fled to Taiwan with his government and the remnants of his army, along with most of the KMT leadership and a large number of their supporters. [21] From then, Taiwan was governed by the Republic of China to the present day and the political status of Taiwan is a continuous issue. Taiwan has been advocating that it is independent from the mainland China while the People's Republic of China keeps insisting that Taiwan and the mainland China are inalienable. It is one of the most controversial issues that Taiwan, the People's Republic of China, and the third countries have different positions about this issue.

III.2.2 Perspective of Chinese
            "Some scholarly sources as well as political entities like the People's Republic of China refer to Taiwan's controversial status as the 'Taiwan question', 'Taiwan issue', or 'Taiwan problem'. The Republic of China government does not like these terms, emphasizing that it should be called the 'Mainland issue' or 'Mainland question' because from the Republic of China's point of view, the People's Republic of China is making an issue out of or creating a problem out of Taiwan. [22]
            Even the naming of the issue is a controversy between mainland China and Taiwan. Taiwan issue is still a sensitive issue for Chinese because Taiwan keeps advocating its independence.

III.3 Cultural Revolution

III.3.1 About Cultural Revolution
            The Cultural Revolution is an upheaval launched by Mao Zedong in the People¡¯s Republic of China. Started in 1966 and ended up with Mao Zedong's death in 1976, it was a violent movement that caused social, political, and economic changes.
            After the failure of the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong was criticized so that he resigned as the State Chairman and remained as the Party Chairman. Since Liu Shaoqi slowly grew his power and tried to contradict Mao Zedong's ideas, Mao Zedong started the Socialist Education Movement in order to retrieve his status and attack Liu Shaoqi. Those students raised under the Socialist Education Movement became Red Guards who were the main supporters of Mao Zedong. In 1959, Wu Han who was a historian and Beijing Deputy Mayor published the drama "Hai Rui Dismissed from Office". Mao Zedong first liked it, but later he published an article criticizing the play. Moreover, there were some people who criticized the government. Mao Zedong wrote that despite having undergone a Communist revolution, China's political hierarchy was still dominated by bourgeoisie elitist elements, capitals, and revisions, and that these counter-revolutionary elements are indeed still present at the top ranks of the party leadership itself. [23] On May 16, 1966, Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution in order to remove "liberal bourgeoisie" elements who wanted to restore capitalism according to Mao Zedong's thought. Mao Zedong wanted to remove them through revolutionary violent class struggle by mobilizing China¡¯s youth who, responding to his appeal, then formed the Red Guard groups around the country. [24] Students, workers, and intellectuals were forced to participate in campaigns by writing posters and holding great debates to transform the superstructure. The freedom granted by the government was the freedom regulated and limited by Mao Zedong. Based on this freedom, the Red Guards criticized people who did not agree with Mao Zedong. They persecuted a lot of people who were related to religious affairs. Many religious buildings such as temples, churches, mosques, monasteries, and cemeteries were closed down and sometimes looted and destroyed. [25] As time goes by, the Red guards expanded their authority, and did their best for socialist reconstruction. Until Mao Zedong's death, they kept oppressing intellectuals by sending them to rural labor camps or persecuting them.
            As a result, the economy stagnated and the education system was halted. Illiteracy rates grew high and many of China's historical legacies were devastated. The Cultural Revolution is now regarded as one of the most serious disasters in China's history.

III.3.2 Perspective of Chinese
            The Cultural Revolution is a very influential event in the history of China.
            "To this day the China refuses to permit serious scholarly research into the period." [26]
            This indicates that the government does not want people to know and criticize the event. However, many people know the actual facts about the event and some Chinese textbooks are dealing with the event. It is still a sensitive issue to Chinese since it is an apparent mistake of Mao Zedong and his government, but Chinese are trying to face the reality and learn the truth about the event.

IV Conclusion
            During the period of Modern China, there were significant events for the growth of Modern China. Although the period of Modern China is short relative to the whole history of China, there were many significant events in a short time. Rapid modernization is viewed as the main reason for these to happen since it caused economical and political differences among people while people were not well prepared for many changes. Among these events, there are taboos that are prohibited for people to mention, and sensitive issues that are still controversial.
            The Hundred Flowers Campaign, the Great Leap Forward, and the Tiananmen Square Massacre are all taboos that the government ban people to talk about those. Since these events are failures and mistakes done by the government, the government tries to hide their mistakes by prohibiting people to refer to them instead of clarifying those events.
            The relationship with Japan, the Taiwan issue, and the Cultural Revolution are sensitive issues that people know about them but do not feel good about mentioning those and there still exist controversies about them. These events are still sensitive because the problems are not solved yet and still going on or the event has huge influences that still have an effect on the country.
            The evaluation of certain historical event changes when the viewpoint toward the event changes. Some events that are noticed importantly by outsiders might be regarded insignificantly by the people concerned. Taboos and sensitive issues in the history of Modern China are good examples of studying Chinese Historiography because the perspectives on these events differ from time to time, and from person to person. By studying the national historiography, we can learn how the natives think of own historical events and deeply understand the situation the country went through. Furthermore, we can get a closer approach to the event by comparing different perspectives.


1.      Article "Hundred Flowers Campaign", in Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th ed.
2.      Article "Hundred Flowers Campaign", in Wikipedia
3.      ibid.
4.      Article "Hundred Flowers Campaign", in Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th ed.
5.      "Hundred Flowers Campaign", from Orbit 6
6.      Article "Great Leap Forward", in Wikipedia
7.      Article "Great Leap Forward", in Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th ed.
8.      ibid.
9.      ibid.
10.      Article "Tiananmen Square Protest of 1989", in Wikipedia
11.      ibid.
12.      ibid.
13.      ibid.
14.      Article "Tiananmen Square Protest of 1989", in Wikipedia
15.      "Tiananmen Square incident", from The Age
16.      Tiananmen Square Massacre, from Be Informed Journal
17.      Article "Mukden Incident", in Wikipedia
18.      China and Japan Relationship, from Library of Congress : Country Studies : China
19.      Article "History of China", in Wikipedia
20.      ibid.
21.      ibid.
22.      Article "Political status of Taiwan", in Wikipedia
23.      Article "Cultural Revolution", in Wikipedia
24.      ibid.
25.      ibid.
26.      Article "Cultural Revolution", in New World Encyclopedia


Note : websites quoted below were visited in June 2010.

Primary Sources
1.      Article "Cultural Revolution", in Wikipedia,
2.      Article "Five-Year Plans of China", in Wikipedia
3.      Article "Great Leap Forward", in Wikipedia,
4.      Article "History of China", in Wikipedia,
5.      Article "Hundred Flowers Campaign", in Wikipedia,
6.      Article "Mukden Incident", in Wikipedia,
7.      Article "Nanking Massacre", in Wikipedia,
8.      Article "Nanking Massacre controversy and denial", in Wikipedia,
9.      Article "People¡¯s Republic of China-Japan Relations", in Wikipedia,'s_Republic_of_China_-_Japan_relations
10.      Article "Political status of Taiwan", in Wikipedia,
11.      Article "Tiananmen Incident", in Wikipedia,
12.      Article "Tiananmen Square Protest of 1989," in Wikipedia,
13.      Article "Theory of Productive Forces", in Wikipedia,
14.      Article "Cultural Revolution", in Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th ed. vol.3 pp.383-384
15.      Article "Great Leap Forward", in Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th ed. vol.5 pp.445-446
16.      Article "Hundred Flowers Campaign", in Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th ed. vol.6 p.149
17.      Article "Nanking Massacre", in Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th ed. vol.8 p.502
18.      Article "Tiananmen Square", in Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th ed. vol.11 p.752
19.      Article "Cultural Revolution", in New World Encyclopedia,
20.      "Hundred Flowers Campaign", from Orbit 6,
21.      "Tiananmen Square incident", from The Age,
22.      "Taiwan Issue", from China Today
23.      China and Japan Relationship, from Library of Congress : Country Studies : China,
24.      History of China, from Chaos
25.      Nationalism and High School History Instruction, Ryu Hyejin, KMLA 2009,
26.      Tiananmen Square Massacre, from Be Informed Journal,
27.      Will Compensate Victims of the Anti-Rightist Campaign ? Shao Yangxiang, Translated by Paul Frank, Hong Kong¡¯s OpenMagazine(Kaifang), 2007, from
28.      China: A Cultural and Historical Dictionary, Michael Dillon, 1998
29.      China: An Introduction, Lucian W. Pye, 1978
30.      China Wakes, Nicholas D. Kristof, Sheryl Wudunn, 1994
31.      Sources of Chinese Tradition Vol.¥±, Wm. Theodore de Bary, Wing-tsit Chan, Chester Tan, 1960
32.      The Rape of Nanking, Iris Chang, 1997

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