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The Cultural Revolution: the Four Olds
Evolution and revolution: Chinese dress 1700s-1990s

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was a mass movement launched in 1966, to remould society and reactivate Communist ideals. Ultimately however, it was little more than a power struggle between Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Communist Party and his political rivals. For many it signified a loss of tradition, and a loss of their career, hope and trust. Many people lost their lives.

Traditional dress was categorised as one of the Four Olds:

  • old ideas
  • old culture
  • old customs
  • old habits.

Western suits, ties and dresses were confiscated and many owners were denounced and physically abused for their so-called bourgeois past.

During the Cultural Revolution many civilians wore khaki military clothing to demonstrate their revolutionary allegiance. The majority dressed in sympathy with the proletariat as concern with personal appearance was regarded as a sign of spiritual corruption and an expression of a bourgeois past.

Many wore patched garments, some through necessity and others through political fervour. During the endless political campaigns many people suffered great hardship.

Lin Biao and Confucious Criticism movement
Lin Biao and Confucious Criticism movement, early 1970s.
Powerhouse Museum collection.

Wedding outfit
Wedding outfit: This red cotton velvet jacket (xiao'ao) was purchased in March 1977 by a 26-year-old actor for her wedding dress. It was worn with blue trousers and black leather shoes. The jacket was made by the Cultural Revolution Clothing Factory in Peking, though the Cultural Revolution had ended. Most couples who married at this time wore uniforms (zhifu). This traditional-style red velvet garment was considered bourgeois. Powerhouse Museum collection. 98/126/54. Photo by Sue Stafford.

Red Guards
Red Guards were young revolutionary activists - a powerful and destructive political force during the Cultural Revolution. They wore army-style uniforms, red armbands and carried a book of Mao's quotations. Between 1966 and 1968, under the guidance of Mao Zedong, they were dedicated to eliminating people who were perceived to deviate from his teachings. Houses were ransacked and gold, silver and art objects were stolen.

Red Guard outfit
Red Guard outfit from the Cultural Revolution 1966-76.
Red Guards wore national-defence green army-style uniforms. The inspiration for the uniform came from Mao Zedong, who wore it in 1966 at the first rally of Red Guards in Tiananmen Square. Powerhouse Museum collection. 98/126/18.
Photo by Sue Stafford.

These photographs below were taken by Roger Whittaker when he was a student at the University of Sydney, during two month-long trips to China in 1967 and 1968. The tours were organised by the Australian Union of University Students.

Few groups were granted permission to visit China during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). These photographs provide a unique view of that period. Roger Whittaker is now an independent film producer. In 1970 he and Bob Reece produced a documentary: China - the red sons.

Red Guard march
Red Guard march: During the Cultural Revolution politically motivated marches and denunciations were common. In this photograph the Australian student group joins a Red Guard march. Many of the participants are wearing Red Guard armbands that identify their particular faction. The frontline participants hold high the image of Mao Zedong, Chairman of the People's Republic of China. The slogan painted on the factory wall reads 'Long live the thought of Chairman Mao!'.
* Print from 35 mm colour slide, by Roger Whittaker, 1967. Courtesy: Roger Whittaker Media P/L.
Powerhouse Museum collection.

Mao is everywhere: Large painted portraits and statues of Mao Zedong were erected in public places all over China. This photograph was taken at the Summer Palace (Yi he yuan) in Peking. Mao towers over the people and is depicted in a god-like guise.

Some people wear white cloth face masks (kouzhao) to prevent them spreading germs and sickness during winter.
* Print from 35 mm colour slide, by Roger Whittaker, 1967-68. Courtesy: Roger Whittaker Media P/L.
Powerhouse Museum collection.

The end of the Cultural Revolution
On 27 July 1968 the army was brought in to disband the Red Guards and to attempt to regain control of the country. The Cultural Revolution officially ended in 1976. In 1981 the Communist Party of China denounced this period as a grave error.

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