Common Cents & Suppression

In 2019, I compared the passing societal discourse in the United States to the disastrous Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China during the 1960s and 1970s. Unfortunately, I don’t feel as though the situation has noticeably improved. This is frustrating to me, as it is to countless others, since it is incredibly self-destructive.

Don’t get me wrong, the comparison between contemporary American culture and that of China roughly 50 years ago isn’t apples to apples. It might not even be apples to kumquats. The two societies are completely different. Mao Zedong engineered the Cultural Revolution in order to return to power after being marginalized due to the horrific failure of the Great Leap Forward. To date, we haven’t printed a ‘Little Red Book,’ haven’t ‘cleansed the class ranks,’ or gone ‘up to the mountains’ or ‘down to the countryside.’ At least not yet, and I am not sure what our commercial farmers would do if a bunch of unskilled college students showed up looking to impart their wisdom.

However, the recent push, if that is an appropriate term, to condemn the unpleasantness of the past through the lens of contemporary mores and ethics bears more than a passing resemblance to the campaign to destroy what was known as the “Four Olds” during the Cultural Revolution. These were old customs, old cultures, old habits, and old ideas, and the thought was these “Four Olds” were the causes of China’s then weakness. At least that is what Mao and the fanatics thought or taught.

The passage of time always skews the past, so let me ‘describe’ the crusade to wipe out the “Four Olds” by simply cutting & pasting an article from The New York Times by a Tillman Durdin, which originally appeared on May 19, 1971. This would have been smack dab in the official middle of the Cultural Revolution. Here it is, straight from the source:


HONG KONG, May 18—One of the early objectives of the Cultural Revolution in China, which began in 1966 and goes on today, was to wipe out the “four olds”—old things, old ideas, old customs and old habits.

The “four olds” had already suffered setbacks in the years of Communist rule preceding the Cultural Revolution, but the Maoist leadership tried to use the new revolutionary upsurge launched in 1966 to eliminate them completely.

In the turbulent years from 1966 to 1968, what remained of old religious practices, old superstitions, old festivals, old social practices such as traditional weddings and funerals, and old ways of dress were violently attacked and suppressed. Visual evidences of old things were destroyed, and there was an orgy of burning of old books and smashing of old art objects.

Young Red Guards invaded homes and shattered family altars that denoted continued Confucian reverence for generations of forbears. The few temples, mosques and churches still used for religious purposes were closed and put to secular use. Even those that had been left open for sightseeing purposes, such as the great Buddhist, Lama and Taoist temples of Peking, were barred and their statues, altars and other furnishings were removed.

Forbidden City Is Closed

The Forbidden City — the walled enclosure in Peking of palaces, ceremonial halls, pavilions and residential quarters from which Chinese imperial rule was exercised until 1911—was shut.

The evidence, mainly visual, during three weeks of travel by this correspondent in the east coast areas of China, indicates that the drive against the “four olds” has had sweeping effect.

In not a single home seen by the writer was there any family altar, any tablets to ancestors or any representation of the old gods formerly worshipped by the Chinese masses. In as Westernized a city as Hong Kong, still under British rule, such things are still commonplace in Chinese homes.

No religious practices were discoverable during the trip in China, and guides said there were none. Religious edifices have been turned to use as schools, warehouses or recreational centers.

The Forbidden City, with its evidences of great traditional art and architecture, remains closed to the general public, and the showplace temples and mosques of Peking and elsewhere are still barred except for a few that are reportedly kept open to be shown to visiting Buddhist and Moslem delegations.

Some Art Objects on Sale

Collections of traditional Chinese art objects of second‐class quality — porcelains, jades, paintings, lacquerware and jewelry—are for sale in special shops in Peking, Tientsin, Shanghai and Canton, but only for foreign visitors. The Chinese never get a sight of these examples of a great artistic past.

Before the Cultural Revolution it was not uncommon to see women wearing traditional sheath dresses and using cosmetics. Now the old styles in women’s garments are gone, and today women wear the same frumpy blue or gray trousers and jackets as men. The writer saw no use of lipstick or rouge. Dressed like men, women work alongside them in manual as well as office jobs at the same pay.

The traditional big Chinese family apparently is gone, too. Cramped living quarters and social conditions today dictate a small family composed of husband, wife and one to three children.

The only old festival observed now is at the time of the old Chinese New Year, based on the lunar cycle, and it is not called a New Year festival any longer but a spring festival. Celebrations are not the colorful traditional kind. There are holidays, but the activities then are of a political nature — political dramatic performances or politically oriented mass meetings and sports events.

No old literature, either Chinese or Western, is on sale. Instead, the bookshops are stacked with the works of Mao Tse‐tung, and the few periodicals on politics, literature, medicine and other matters that are being produced these days.

In a library inspected at Tsinghua University in Peking, the section devoted to old Chinese literature was still intact, but a look into the classic novel “Water Margin” showed that it was last taken out for reading in January, 1967.

No traditional operas, no traditional music and no traditional plays are performed these days. There are only the 10 new standard dramatic works developed during the Cultural Revolution and performed everywhere now in full or in excerpts.

Even the manners and attitudes of the people seem changed. Weddings and funerals are plain and simple without public display of any sort.

People Seem Less Polite

People seem more direct and less polite. They appear to be more motivated than before by considerations of time and of cause and effect, as in Western societies.

The exotic, the traditionally pictured and the traditionally colorful things are gone from Chinese life, at least in the areas that were visited. In the Chinese People’s Republic there is no “mysterious East” any more, just workaday people following workaday routines that seem essentially familiar and ordinary to the Westerner, even though they operate within a Marxist totalitarian framework.

Old folk sayings are occasionally heard, but these have largely been replaced by the maxims of Chairman Mao. The first of January is celebrated as the real New Year’s Day, and the other fixed holidays, besides the spring festival, are May Day and the Oct. 1 National Day.

A new generation has appeared, and though much of the old China is too indelible to erase as yet, a new China with ways quite different from the old is in existence.

Although the Cultural Revolution was primarily a political and societal upheaval, it did have long lasting economic consequences, namely a relatively dire shortage of effectively trained personnel due to the closings of schools and universities. In truth, there are very few scholars or commentators, outside of Mao’s apologists, who would argue the Cultural Revolution was anything other than a disaster for China, in both societal and even economic terms. After all, for all intents and purposes, that country lost almost a full decade of training the ‘next generation’ of engineers, technicians, mathematicians, etc. Imagine how that would impact our society and economy.

This has a point.

Societies are ultimately little more than the collectivization of shared history, be it joyous or painful. To date, there is not a single culture, country, nation, or society that has been perfect 100% of the time. However, those that thrive and grow are those that learn from the mistakes of their shared past, but don’t necessarily erase them. After all, is there is no remembrance of the bad, it never existed. If it never existed, there is no lesson to be learned from it. If there is no lesson to be learned, there is no accumulation of knowledge. If there is no accumulation of knowledge, there is no growth in society.

The circular nature of that argument reminds me of the lyrics of Harry Chapin’s song ‘Circle.’ Here they are, at least those playing in my head as I type this:


All my life’s a circle;
Sunrise and sundown;
Moon rolls thru the nighttime;
Till the daybreak comes around.

All my life’s a circle;
But I can’t tell you why;
Season’s spinning round again;
The years keep rollin’ by.

It seems like I’ve been here before;
I can’t remember when;
But I have this funny feeling;
That we’ll all be together again.
No straight lines make up my life;
And all my roads have bends;
There’s no clear-cut beginnings;
And so far no dead-ends.


History has shown us numerous times what happens when the ‘powers that be’ try to suppress history, speech, and ideas, both new and old. Economies stagnant, populations suffer, and the very essence of society, the collectivization of a shared history, is torn. Fortunately, these efforts to eliminate the past and forcibly alter society ultimately fail, they always do. Unfortunately, they typically leave behind a decade or two of lost productivity and interrupted lives, at the very least. You can look at Cambodia’s experience in the 1970s to determine the very worst.

This is why the First Amendment of the US Constitution is as important as it is. Not only is free speech a characteristic of freedom, it is the cause of it as well. It encourages the dissemination of ideas, both good and bad, as well as the ability to learn from history, as opposed to erasing it. This engenders the accumulation of knowledge, which ultimately fosters economic activity and societal growth.

In the end, while it would be unfair to compare the United States of today to the China of the 1960s and 1970s, we have to be very diligent to push back on people who would squash free speech and ideas, including the so-called cancel culture which eats everything (including its own). They aren’t good for either our society or our economy, no matter what they might tell you.

If you don’t believe me, you can always pick up a history book. The same story will be in there over and over again.


Take care, have a great weekend and take a moment to remember and reflect on those who have paid the ultimate price for us to have the privileges we often take for granted in this country.

John Norris

John Norris

Chief Economist



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