The Cultural Revolution (formally known as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution) was a major sociopolitical event in the history of modern China. The period lasted between 1966 to 1976, but its effects can still be felt today – decades on from the massive political upheaval and unrest that it caused.
One way we can get a glimpse into the past to better understand what life during the Cultural Revolution was like is through looking at the historical toys, collectibles, memorabilia, and other everyday items produced during that time.
The origins of the Cultural Revolution were primarily ideological, with the intention to root out bourgeoise elements and corruption present within Chinese society and government at the time. The end goal of the revolution was to return to a culture with a stronger focus on the rural everyday life of the proletariat.
Though the Cultural Revolution greatly impacted the lives of all Chinese citizens at the time, youths and students in particular were strongly involved and even encouraged to participate. They were encouraged to rebel against party officials perceived or deemed to be anti-communist or corrupt, with many forming student-led paramilitary Red Guard groups across the country.
The Red Guards were personally supported by then-Chairman Mao and this bolstered their confidence till their activities quickly extended beyond rooting out corruption to destroying ‘pre-communist’ representations of China. Deemed the “Four Olds” – Old Ideas, Old Culture, Old Customs, and Old Habits – this included temples, historical artifacts, books, paintings, and art works amongst others. Much of this was carried out by the Red Guards without formal government recognition (and the Chinese government even protected certain archaeological discoveries made during this time) but it resulted in massive destruction and disruption of everyday lives regardless.
Name: Communist boy with Little Red Book
Year of Make: 1966-1976
Country of Origin: China
In their place, figures similar to this Communist boy with Little Red Book toy were created to commemorate this new ideological shift. Artists adopted a style of “revolutionary romanticism” which depicted romanticised imagery of youth, war, and agrarian rural life.
Many of these unmarked figurines were displayed in homes or workplaces – serving as a signal that the owner was aligned to the new ideological standards. Ironically many figurines made from ceramic were created using traditional Chinese ceramics knowledge, but these were seen as ‘bringing new stimulus to the old tradition’.
Another objective of the Cultural Revolution was to achieve Chinese self-sufficiency and reduce dependency on foreign imports by encouraging industrial and agricultural activity. Education at almost every level shifted from formal education in schools to labour, practical, or industrial work in rural fields and factories.
This resulted in a major change in the daily lives of children as many families were forcibly relocated to rural towns and villages. Industrial and agricultural motifs were also incorporated into popular culture, ranging from books to household items to toys.
Name: East is Red Tractor
Year of Make: 1960s
Material: Lithographed Tin, Plastic, Celluloid, and Rubber
Country of Origin: China
Toys like the East is Red Tractor were extremely common with the subtle goal of encouraging children to want to become farmers, truck drivers, and other blue-collar workers when they grew up. The tractor is based on the Dongfanghong 54 crawler tractor – the first tractor domestically produced in postwar China which was based on the Soviet DT-54 chain tractor. This battery-powered toy could be controlled via wired remote, allowing the tractor to move forwards, backwards, left, and right.
Following Mao’s death in 1976 and the end of the Cultural Revolution, many objects from the era were destroyed out of public anger at how much the Cultural Revolution had upset their lives. Genuine historical artifacts from the Cultural Revolution are now difficult to find – making it even more momentous that these vintage toys have survived till today.
You can now see a wide variety of historical and vintage toys from the 19th century till now at the MINT Museum of Toys.
Book your museum tickets online before coming to view our collections in-person or take our virtual museum tour to catch a glimpse of our Collectables and Childhood Favourite collections from anywhere in the world – including more memorabilia from Cultural Revolution China as part of the Collectables collection!
If you’re paying our premises a visit, you can also enjoy our brand-new XperienceAR Museum – an AR-based museum experience like you’ve never seen before.