The Great Proletarian Revolution was a very confused time in China's history, which is probably why there isn't an actual narrative of the thing here yet. I'm going to do my best to provide one, but please keep in mind that very different things happened in each of China's cities during the revolution. I'm not going to give you a play by play in each town because it would be prohibitively long, but I will try to sum up the general tendencies in the whole of China as best I can as well as the moves of the Beijing administration, especially Mao Zedong.
In 1962, the Great Leap Forward had ended. China had recovered fairly well, and its economic and agricultural strength were increasing steadily. Mao was in power, as he had been since 1949, and the disasters of the Great Leap were clearly his fault. Mao was worshipped as a living god in China, though, so no one said it and few dared even think it.
To understand why he was so popular, you have to understand a little more Chinese history. You see, under both the Kuomintang and the Qing dynasty, there were 250,000 people under the lowest level of governmental administration. The CCP not only got in on the grassroots level, setting up administration on a village-by-village basis, but also achieved land reform. They forcibly redistributed landlords' land to the tenants according to Communist doctrine, which made them understandably popular with your average villager. Mao was a very charismatic man, and ever since he led the Red Army all the way through hell and out the other side during the Long March he had been their undisputed leader. Mao personified the revolution, and the revolution had been very popular. Coupled with a healthy cult of personality, Mao became damn near the Chinese Jesus Christ during and after the revolution. I've seen several interviews in which Chinese people say that at some point they found themselves inwardly disagreeing with something he did and immediately asked themselves, "What's wrong with me that I disagree with Chairman Mao?"
Of course, a while after the Great Leap, Chairman Mao officially took some time off. His official influence was reduced, but he still held a lot of popular sway as well as a certain degree of power, reduced as it was.
Anyway, after the revolution, some conservatives in the CCP took initiative and started a Socialist Education Movement in the countryside. They had some trouble with that, and Chairman Mao wrote up a note to them called the "Early Ten Points." By way of this, he effectively rerouted the whole campaign from an administrative effort to replace corrupt village cadres to a popular effort to restore collective agriculture and maybe get rid of the cadres later. Then, in autumn of 1963 Deng Xiaoping was assigned to revise this message. He did so, producing the "Later Ten Points," reasserting the administrative aspect in order to preserve the Communist Party infrastructure. Mao didn't respond until June of 1964, when he told everyone that the masses should struggle against corrupt cadres rather than just dealing with them administratively. Then, Liu Shaoqi revised the thing yet again in September, producing the "Revised Later Ten Points." On the face of it, it seemed like Mao's original view had won out, but this document was eventually used against Liu Shaoqi as evidence of his conservative tendencies.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Again, Mao responded, this time with the "Twenty-three Articles." In this one, he said again that the village should do the punishing, not the government. He also included a reminder that everyone was potentially liable, up to and including the top levels of the CCP. He had kind of been fighting with them over some other unrelated stuff, so this was a veiled threat.
It was into these circumstances that a mild-mannered historian and deputy mayor of Beijing named Wu Han chose to make a venture into the world of creative writing. He repeatedly revised his play, Hai Rui Dismissed from Office, submitting it to many prominent literary figures around China to review it before publication. One of these was Mao Zedong, who had published some really nice poems and deep thoughts and what have you at various points, including the Little Red Book, which we'll get to later. Mao returned the play, telling Wu Han he liked it. By the time Wu Han had totally finished reviewing and revising, though, Mao had forgotten about the whole thing. He was a really busy guy, after all.
The play was about a real official under the Ming dynasty who in the play tries to redistribute land to the peasants after it's taken by a corrupt official. He is dismissed from his post by the emperor. When Mao read the play after publication, he took it as a veiled attack on his own somewhat shady dismissal of Peng Dehuai, who had openly criticized the Great Leap Forward. He demanded that it be officially critiqued and discredited, which task fell to a journalist, Zhang Chunqiao, who was under Jiang Qing's matronage, and the literary critic Yao Wenyuan. Jiang was Mao's wife, a former actress who took a rather active role in politics for a first lady, probably a reaction to having not been seen in public any time during the 1950's.
The criticizing article was eventually put in the Liberation Army Daily and broadcast nationwide. After that, there was some back and forth about whether the real criticism of the thing should be academic in nature or political, the latter of which Mao wanted. His main opponent in the matter was Peng Zhen, who also published a thing called the February Outline which laid down rigid guidelines for creativity within the military. Well, this was the last straw for Mao. He went to the Political Bureau meeting in March and delivered some killer speeches in which he condemned Peng Zhen and even called on the people to rebel against the government since it wasn't doing its job.
Then things got really nasty. Some accusations surfaced that Peng Zhen and his closest associates, backed by Liu Shaoqi, the acting regent in China, had met in the Chang Guan Lou pavillion in the Beijing Zoo and plotted to kill Mao. Peng Zhen had already kind of disappeared, and Liu Shaoqi's part in it couldn't be proven, really. He was reduced in power while Lin Biao was elevated to Mao's right-hand man. Mao's followers the newly formed Cultural Revolution Small Group, which encompassed the later, much vilified Gang of Four, also published the May 16th Circular, which laid down the lines for the people's upcoming struggle against impure elements in society, embodied by those who proposed to keep the revolution under state control. It also clarified that the whole point of the Wu Han criticism was the Peng Dehuai incident. It also opened up the attack on Liu Shaoqi that would be led by the next instigator (or, more appropriately, instigatrix) in our little drama, Nie Yuanzi.
Nie Yuanzi was at odds with Beijing University's Party Commitee Chairman, Lu Ping. She wanted more political education, and he didn't. So she put up a wall poster that strongly criticized him as a Party member, a move for which the party could not stand. It sent the Communist Youth League in to stop distribution of the text of the thing, but Mao immediately ordered its publication and broadcast across China. He also threw in an editorial called "Sweep Away all Ghosts and Monsters," after which Lu Ping was removed from office. Six thousand students that he had exiled to the countryside returned in triumph.
The CCP then decided to send work teams onto school campuses in order to suppress dissent. Well, predictably enough, a lot of the students didn't like this at all. Some, however, thought it was a great idea to sweep out the ghosts and monsters. The students formed Red Guards that worked either with or against the work teams, usually according to who was going to be "struggled against" or not. Those who were safe joined the pro-work team Red Guards, while those who had reason to fear worked against them. These organizations would eventually come to be known as the conservative and radical Red Guards, respectively. There was even a pitched battle on June 19, 1966 between the work teams and the radicals.
On July 16, Mao swam in the Yangtze in order to prove that he was not too old to be an effective leader. With this newfound vigor, he worked against Liu Shaoqi in order to get the work teams withdrawn before publishing an article called "Bombard Headquarters." It explicitly invited rebellion against the state, specifically Liu Shaoqi.
Before he told everyone to rebel against the state, the conservative majority decided to go around persecuting intellectuals in support of the work teams instead. They got after the radicals too much for Mao's taste, so he pulled the rug out from under them by supporting the radicals. The conservatives continued to oppose them, saying that only members of good families like themselves should be allowed to participate in the revolution. Not too long after that, the Sixteen Points was released, reemphasizing Mao's point of view as to the direction of the revolution and recommending that Mao Zedong Thought should be the guiding force.
This is where things really get complex. From this point, the Cultural Revolution is a story of many small organizations in individual cities, and it goes on for a while. Simply put, the radical Red Guards spent August, September, and October building their power and forming coalitions with groups of disaffected workers before executing the January power seizure with Mao's blessing in Shanghai. This marked the pinnacle of radical Red Guard power generally throughout the nation. At about this time, the People's Liberation Army got involved in things, ostensibly neutrally. The guys in the army didn't like the disorganized radicals and the disorder the brought with them, though, so they usually wound up fighting them. Of course, the radicals had a tendency to do sort of stupid things, like setting up an alternative government in Shanghai called the Paris Commune that not even Mao could approve of.
Down in Wuhan, though, the conservatives were winning out. They had the support of the army, whose commander, Qian Zaidao, had simply been told to support the leftists. In a Communist country, it can be kind of difficult to tell which of two opposing Communist forces is the leftist one, so the military commanders just supported the ones they liked the best, which happened to be a conservative coalition called the Million Heroes. The Million Heroes were not too smart; when a delegation from Beijing, led by Wang Li, came to figure out just who was really leftist in Wuhan, the Million Heroes broke into the hotel to seize him, again backed by the army. Not only did they mistake Qian Zaidao, the army commander, for their actual target and mistakenly hit him in the face with rifle butts, but they abducted Mao's envoy. After the army had re-kidnapped him back under Mao's direct order, the army was made to criticize itself and the Million Heroes were directly repudiated by Mao. Their membership melted away overnight in the face of such strong opposition.
Of course, throughout this time whichever Red Guard group was in power would go around torturing and publicly humiliating the people they thought were monsters and ghosts, such as Communist Party officials in the radical case and intellectuals and other undesirables in the conservative. The whole idea was that the people themselves would clean up the government in order to make it a true, popularly run and formed democracy. Of course, it tended to degenerate into total chaos quite easily, as tends to happen when you break down the state system that way. Mao wanted socialism to progress beyond the strong government stage, it seems, to the popularly run stage.
The country entered a period of factionalism during the summer of 1967 as Red Guards of every stripe fought the army and one another, with occasional smatterings of worker influence here and there. At this point, the issue was almost purely power. Whoever seized power used it against their opponents until the tables turned, and vice versa. This was clearly an untenable state, so Mao tried to stop it by helping everyone to agree about the ideology involved. He published Sayings of Chairman Mao, also referred to as the Little Red Book, a book of homey aphorisms about Communism and what it should be. Eventually, this worked, and disorder died down by mid-1968 as the new system of government under revolutionary committees took root.
At this point, everyone started to attack Liu Shaoqi. He had apparently made a group of Communists switch allegiance in the 1930's when he was with the KMT, which group he had then kept nearby as a sort of cabal of conspirators. He was stripped of office and party membership and wound up dying alone in a cold, nasty room without any hands.
After all this, the Communist Party steadily reasserted its influence, slowly rebuilding its authoritarian structure over the ruins of Mao's failed revolution. By 1968, the Red Guards were disbanded and sent to the villages to work alongside peasants by the millions. Those who had done things that were too awful during the revolution were executed. The largest positive impact of the revolution when all was said and done was that communes and brigades of workers were once again allowed to start up their own small industries. You can find all the bad impacts of the thing in Dman's wu, which will shortly be moved to this node. It was a rough time indeed.
Sources: Gray, Jack. Rebellions and Revolutions: China from the 1800s to the 1980s, New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1990
Lee, Hong Yung. The Politics of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1978.
Perry, Elizabeth J. and Li Xun. Proletarian Power: Shanghai in the Cultural Revolution. Boulder: Westview Press, 1997.
Wang Shaoguang. Failure of Charisma: The Cultural Revolution in Wuhan. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Everything else is taken from lecture with my professor, Dingxin Zhao, who was a very young boy in Shanghai throughout most of this time.