This photo triggered China's Cultural Revolution

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Mao Zedong swimming in a river in 1966 was a big deal.

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In 1966, Mao Zedong, China’s communist leader and the founder of the People’s Republic of China, was rumored to be in failing health. The devastating policies of his Great Leap Forward (1958-1962) — which forced millions of peasants to work tirelessly on government farming communes and by manufacturing crude steel — resulted in the greatest famine known to human history, costing anywhere between 23 and 55 million lives.

Mao wanted to leave behind a powerful Communist legacy, like Marx and Lenin before him. And in order to do so, he needed to connect with the younger generation before he died. So after announcing his Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, he swam across the Yangtze River. Mao had done the same swim 10 years earlier to prove his vitality, and he hoped it would work again.

His "Cultural Revolution" was a call to hunt down and eliminate his enemies, and reeducate China’s youth with the principles Maoism. Led by the fanatical Red Guards, the Cultural Revolution was a devastating 10-year period in Chinese history that didn’t end until Mao died in 1976.

Additional reading:
Embodying Maoism: The swimming craze, the Mao cult, and body politics in Communist China, 1950s–1970s, by Shuk-wah Poon


Red-Color News Soldier, by Li Zhensheng


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