desperate measure

Hundred Flowers Campaign

The Hundred Flowers Campaign, also termed the Hundred Flowers Movement, is the period referring to a brief interlude in the People's Republic of China from 1956 to 1957 during which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) authorities encouraged a variety of views and solutions to national policy issues, launched under the slogan: "Let a hundred flowers bloom, let the hundred schools of thought contend."

It is thought by some scholars, such as Jung Chang, that the campaign was a political trap, alleging that Mao persecuted those who had views different from the party. The ideological crackdown following the campaign's failure re-imposed Maoist orthodoxy in public expression.


The People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, and land reforms dominated the agenda of the new communist government. In the early 1950s, the three-anti/five-anti campaigns brought an end to private ownership of land, and further purged many people the CCP deemed to be landlords and capitalists. The accepted school of thought at the time was Marxism-Leninism, which was re-interpreted by Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong into the guiding ideology of the early 1950s. What would later be known as the Hundred Flowers Movement was first a small campaign aimed solely at local bureaucracies for non-communist-affiliated officials to speak out about the policies and the existing problems within the central government in a manner previously considered illegal. Premier Zhou Enlai was the head of this first campaign.

Continuous efforts were put forth by Zhou Enlai and other prominent Central Government officials, but this minimal campaign was a failure because very few spoke out openly.

During a Politburo meeting in 1956, Zhou Enlai emphasized the need for a bigger campaign, aimed this time at the sea of intellectuals within the country, for these individuals to speak out about the policies of the government, in theory allowing better, more balanced governance. Mao had initially supported the idea. "The government needs criticism from its people," Zhou said in one of his 1956 speeches, "Without this criticism the government will not be able to function as the 'People's Democratic Dictatorship'. Thus the basis of a healthy government lost... We must learn from old mistakes, take all forms of healthy criticism, and do what we can to answer these criticisms.

Hundred Flowers

In the summer of 1956, Mao found the idea interesting, and had superseded Zhou to take control. The idea was to have intellectuals discuss the country's problems in order to promote new forms of arts and new cultural institutions. Mao, however, also saw this as the chance to promote socialism. Mao 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. In a later speech made by Mao titled On the Correct Handling of the Contradictions Among the People, Mao displayed open support for the campaign, saying "Our society cannot back down, it could only progress... criticism of the bureaucracy is pushing the government towards the better." This marked the beginning of the Hundred Flowers Movement. The speech, published in February the 27th 1957, encouraged people to vent their criticisms as long as they were "constructive" ("among the people") rather than "hateful and destructive" ("between the enemy and ourselves").

The name of the movement originated in a poem: ; English translation: "Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend." Mao had used this to signal what he had wanted from the intellectuals of the country, for different and competing ideologies to voice their opinions about the issues of the day. He alluded to the Warring States era when numerous schools of thought competed for ideological, not military, supremacy. Historically, Confucianism and Taoism had gained prominence, socialism would now stand to its test.

The campaign publicly began in late 1956. In the opening stage of the movement, issues discussed were relatively minor and unimportant in the grand scheme. The Central Government did not receive much criticism, although there was a significant rise in letters of conservative advice. Premier Zhou Enlai received some of these letters, and once again realized that, although the campaign had gained notable publicity, it was not progressing as had been hoped. Zhou approached Mao about the situation, stating that more encouragement was needed from the central bureaucracy to lead the intellectuals into further discussion.

By the spring of 1957, Mao had announced that criticism was "preferred" and had begun to mount pressure on those who did not turn in healthy criticism on policy to the Central Government. This was seen to many as a desperate measure to get the campaign going. The reception with intellectuals was immediate, and they began voicing concerns without any taboo. In the period from June 1 to July 17, 1957, millions of letters were pouring in to the Premier's Office and other authorities.

People spoke out by putting up posters around campuses, rallying in the streets, holding meetings for CCP members, and publishing magazine articles. For example, students at Peking University created a "Democratic Wall" on which they criticized the CCP with posters. "They protested CCP control over intellectuals, the harshness of previous mass campaigns such as that against counterrevolutionaries, the slavish following of Soviet models, the low standards of living in China, the proscription of foreign literature, economic corruption among party cadres, and the fact that 'Party members [enjoyed] many privileges which make them a race apart'" In Mao's opinion, many of these letters had violated the "healthy criticism" level and had reached a "harmful and uncontrollable" level. These letters had advised the government to "govern democratically" and "open up," and generally pounced on the government's political state. Premier Zhou Enlai had initially explored and moderately took in some of these criticisms. Mao, however, seems to have refused to do so himself. The campaign raised an old apprehension in government that those who criticize harmfully become a threat to the legitimacy of their leadership. By early July 1957, the campaign had become too difficult to control, and Mao viewed many of the received letters as absurd. Intellectuals and others were suggesting radical ideas such as: "the CCP should give up power," "intellectuals are virtually being tortured while living in a communist society," "there is a total lack of freedom if the CCP is to continue on ruling the country," "the country should separate with each Political Party controlling a zone of its own" and "Each political party in China should rule in transitional governments, each with a 4 year term." etc.

Campaign as entrapment

In July 1957, Mao ordered a halt to the campaign. By that time Mao had witnessed Khrushchev denouncing Stalin and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, events by which he felt threatened. Mao's earlier speech, On the Correct Handling of the Contradictions Among the People, was meaningfully changed and appeared later on as an anti-rightist piece in itself.

Some concluded that Mao knew the outcome before the campaign had even began. The Hundred Flower Campaign identified critics and was used to silence them.

Effects of the hundred flowers movement

The hundred flowers movement was the first of its kind in the history of the People's Republic of China in that the government opened up to ideological criticisms from the general public. Although its true nature has always been questioned by historians, it can be generally concluded that the events that took place alarmed the central communist leadership. The movement also represented a pattern that has emerged from Chinese history wherein free thought is promoted by the government, and then suppressed by it. A similar surge in ideological thought would not occur again until the late 1980s, leading up to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. The latter surge, however, did not receive the same amount of government backing and encouragement.

The result of the Hundred Flowers Campaign was the persecution of intellectuals, officials, students, artists and dissidents labeled "rightists" during the Anti-Rightist Movement that followed. During this time, over 550,000 people identified as "rightists" were humiliated, imprisoned, demoted or fired from their positions, sent to labor and re-education camps, tortured, or killed.

The movement also made a lasting impact on Mao's ideological perception. Mao, who is known historically to be more ideological and theoretical, less pragmatic and practical, continued to attempt to solidify socialist ideals in future movements, and in the case of the Cultural Revolution, employed more violent means. Another result of the Hundred Flowers Campaign was that it discouraged dissent and made intellectuals reluctant to criticize Mao and his party in the future.

See also



  • MacFarquhar, Roderick. The Origins of the Cultural Revolution: Contradictions Among the People, 1956-1957. Columbia University Press, 1973.
  • Zhu Zheng. 1957 nian de xiaji: Cong bai jia zhengming dao liang jia zhengming. Zhengzhou: Henan renmin chubanshe, 1998.
  • Meisner, Maurice. Mao's China and After: A History of the People's Republic. New York: Macmillan, 1986. (pp. 177–80)

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