Temples, opera, and braids: Photos reveal what China looked like before the Cultural Revolution

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Opium smokers in China at the early 20th century. Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
  • On October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong declared the foundation of The People’s Republic of China, following a 20-year civil war.
  • In the decades that followed, China experienced an intense cultural and political revolution from 1966 to 1976 that transformed the country and left millions dead.
  • The “Cultural Revolution” resulted in the destruction of old customs, culture, habits, and ideas in order to make way for the spread of Zedong’s brand of communism.
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Beginning in 1966, a decade-long Cultural Revolution sought to eradicate old ideas and customs in order to make way for a new, revolutionary China.

Radical youths known as Red Guards were encouraged to rid China’s cities of “class enemies,” eliminate western ties, and destroy outdated traditions. In a matter of decades, the country was transformed from an Imperialist nation to an atheist, communist society.

As the People’s Republic of China attempted to erase their own history, religious texts were destroyed, places of worship shut down, and traditional garments demonized.

Old texts and art objects were vandalised in the streets, and Mao’s “Little Red Book” became a staple in Chinese homes.

But what did China look like before this?

From traditional braids to smoking opium, photos reveal a look into Chinese culture during the Qing Dynasty, and the rise of communism in 1949.


The Qing Dynasty, China’s last imperial dynasty, ruled from 1644 to 1912.

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Engraving depicting Emperor T’ung-chih (1856-1875) part of the Manchu Aisin Gioro clan, he was the tenth emperor of the Qing Dynasty, and the eighth Qing emperor to rule over China. Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Source: BBC


The dynasty was originally established by the Manchus, a group of people who mostly occupied Northeast China. Early into their rule, they made great efforts to preserve traditions of the past.

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1871: A Manchu soldier with his bow and arrow. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Manchu rulers supported Confucian politics and attitudes and undertook a strong period of collecting and preserving old ideas through art, music, clothing, and literature.


During the early half of the dynasty, the country experienced rapid growth, adopted Confucian methods of leadership, and created the largest production of Chinese history and language books.

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Chinese Qing dynasty Regent, the Dowager Empress Cixi (Tzu-hsi, 1835 – 1908, centre) with ladies of the court, circa 1904. Chusseau-Flaviens/The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

Source: Culture Trip


Two major forms of art in the Qing dynasty included porcelain and painting. Artists were typically categorised into three groups: individualists, traditionalists, and professionals.

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Mountain Retreat and Waterfall by K’un-ts’an Barney Burstein/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Of these three categories, the individualists focused on personal works and often made political art, while the traditionalists stuck to reinventing techniques of the past, and professionals served the Manchu court.


One of the dynasty’s most notable contributions to music was the development of the Peking opera, which included many regional theatre traditions, and often incorporated flute, lute, drums, and wind instruments.

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A student from the Peking Department of the Jilin College of the Arts.nown as China’s national opera, the Peking Opera, which originated in the late 18th century, is a traditional blend of music, dance, art and acrobatics. China Photos/Getty Images

Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica


Men during this period were ordered to wear their hair in traditional braids, known as a “queue.” When the dynasty was overthrown in 1912, it was encouraged to cut off this hairstyle in an act of political revolution.

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Group of young Chinese men with queue hairstyles having lunch. Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Source: Culture Trip


Religion was an important aspect of the Qing Dynasty, and many temples were built for worship around the country.

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A temple in the ruins of the Old Summer Palace, Beijing, China, circa 1860. The Palace, formerly the residence of emperors of the Qing Dynasty, was destroyed by British and French forces during the Second Opium War in 1860. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Source: Ancient History Encyclopaedia


The main religion under the Qing Dynasty was Confucianism, but Buddhism and Daoism were also recognised throughout the country.

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The Temple of Heaven is a temple complex in Beijing, where the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties worshiped every year for a good harvest. Carl Simon/United Archives/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Source: The Qing Dynasty.com


Traditional clothing for women throughout the Qing Dynasty consisted of long, high-collared robes, and the qipao dress, a garment that has evolved with modern Chinese style.

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A Chinese woman in traditional dress, circa 1910. FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Source: Museum of Applied Sciences and Arts, New York Times


Head wear was also common during the Qing Dynasty, and court hats were largely distinguished by season. Winter hats were typically comprised of black skull caps with upturned rims, while summer hats were cone-shaped and had bamboo and silk woven within them.

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A young Manchu woman having her headdress arranged, China, circa 1871. From Volume 4 of ‘China And Its People’, by Scottish photographer John Thomson (1837 – 1921), published 1873-74. Photo by John Thomson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Source: Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences


Foot-binding became ubiquitous during the early Qing Dynasty, and any woman who wished to marry was subjected to the process of having her feet bent, broken, and wrapped in order to restrict movement and enhance beauty.

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Unbandaged bound feet of a Chinese woman (China). Ca. 1870. adoc-photos/Corbis via Getty Images

Sources: The Atlantic, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences


Smoking opium became outlawed by the Qing Dynasty following a series of opium wars between China and the Western world. Despite this ban, Chinese people regularly participated in the recreational use of the drug.

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China, opium smokers 19th century Print Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Sources: History.com,Encyclopaedia Britannica


From 1850 to 1864, the Qing Dynasty was threatened by the Taiping Rebellion, a movement led by Hong Xiuquan, which killed 20 million people and cost the Qing rulers millions of dollars to end.

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21st August 1860: Dead bodies lying in the Interior of the North Fort in the Taku Forts after its capture during the Taiping Rising. Felice Beato/Getty Images

Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica


Following the Taiping Rebellion, the Qing Dynasty was ruled for roughly 40 years by Empress Dowager Cixi, who is credited with the early stages of modernising China.

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Dowager Empress Cixi of China (1835-1908) under Qing dynasty. Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Source: The Guardian


In 1898, Empress Cixi declared war on the west by siding with the Boxer Rebellion, a movement initiated by a secret Chinese society that strongly opposed foreign and Christian influence in China.

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A group of Chinese Boxers, 20th century. The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

Source: History.com,The Guardian


By 1900, thousands of Chinese Christians and foreign nationals were killed in the rebellion. But in 1901, foreign powers defeated the Imperial Army and Qing rule began to significantly weaken.

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US cavalrymen in front of the Great Wall of China during the Boxer rebellion. Photo by MPI/Getty Images

Sources: Encyclopaedia Britannica, The Guardian,History.com


In 1908, Puyi, the Last Emperor of China, took the throne when he was just two years old.

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Photograph of Puyi (1906-1967) the last Emperor of China and the twelfth and final ruler of the Qing dynasty. Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Source: South China Morning Post


In 1912, military revolts overthrew the Qing Dynasty and the Republic of China was formed. Throughout the next three decades, nationalist and communist groups competed for power.

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Headquarters of the Republican Party in Shanghai, the new republic in China, from L’Illustrazione Italiana, February 25, 1912. Getty Images

Source: BBC


But in 1949, Mao Zedong announced a victory for the Communist Party, and The People’s Republic of China was born.

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Mao Tse-Tung on a balcony clapping his hands. Getty Images

Source: BBC


In 1966, Mao launched the “Cultural Revolution,” a project to rid the country of “class enemies,” western ties, and traditional values that ended with Mao’s death 10 years later.

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Chinese red guards during the cultural revolution in China 1966. Getty Images

Source: New York Times


The revolution was largely based around class politics. Mao enlisted radical students, known as Red Guards, to target political enemies and wipe out the “four olds” — ideas, customs, cultures, and habits.

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circa 1970: Chinese Red Guards reading from the little red book of Thoughts of Chairman Mao before starting their day. Photo by Keystone/Getty Images

Source: The New York Times


During this time, Mao’s “Little Red Book” — a collection of over 200 quotations outlining the communist leader’s ideology — became practically mandatory to own.

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Beijing revolutionary opera during the Chinese cultural revolution. They are reciting MAO TSE-TUNG’s political thoughts from the LITTLE RED BOOK before going onstage. hoto by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Daniel Leese, a professor of modern Chinese history and politics at the University of Freiburg, told BBC News that owning the book “became a way of surviving.”


According to a New York Times report in 1971, the Cultural Revolution saw an end to traditional clothing, celebrations, art, religious practices, and literature.

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In this file photo taken Aug. 27, 1966, a Buddha statue is covered with signs reading ‘Destroy the old world,’ and ‘Establish a new world,’ by ultra-patriotic Red Guard who reject ancient Chinese traditions at Lin Yin temple in Hangzhou, eastern China’s Zhejiang province. AP Photo, File

Source: The New York Times


Red Guards rampaged Beijing and other cities, destroying historical sites and cultural relics, and mass killing enemies of communism. Though the exact number is not clear, over one million are estimated to have died.

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In this file photo taken Aug. 1966, religious sculptures lean against the wall of a suburban Beijing Buddhist temple after being ripped from their pedestals by youthful Red Guards infused by Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong’s calls to root out vestiges of old Chinese culture. AP Photo, File

Source: The New York Times