Burn, loot and pillage! Destruction of antiques during China’s Cultural Revolution.

chinese cultural revolution red furniture


Being out on the web, I get so many emails from people asking for help identifying pieces, woods, etc. I would love to be able to reply to them all, but its just not possible (hey – anyone want to pay me for this? 😉 ) But this particular one which came in a few days ago caught my eye:


“I came across your excellent website and was wondering if you’d be able to help me with a cabinet I recently purchased at auction. I would have happily said it was the usual modern copy except the hand painted panels are very unusual and too much effort has gone into them. A Chinese friend has translated them and they seem to tell the story of a girl asked to join the communist party to route out the enemy. I’ve never seen such panels on a Chinese cabinet before and guess its 1950’s just after the revolution. Given your experience in the matter I was wondering about your take on them and if you have seen similar pieces before? Is it a modern fake etc or a patriotic country piece?”



The short answer would be yes, the cabinet is old with more recent paintings likely applied in the late 1960ies on top of the original ones. But that’s the short answer.  To properly answer this question, we need to rewind back to the  late 1960’ies/early 1970’ies during the time of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, or more commonly referred to as simply “the cultural revolution” For those who are unaware of this unique period in China’s recent history, then STOP HERE.
You need to first have some brief historical background on these events and so have read at the wikipedia page on the cultural revolution. We will also discuss the role of the red guards” (紅衛兵) which you will already be familiar with (again – having already at least scanned the wikipedia page). In past posts we have also discussed the “great leap forward” and its effect on Chinese antiques, so again pause and have a quick read on this subject before moving forward. Both events are significant and had a devastating effect on Chinese antiques. I could easily sidetracked here as these are fascinating historical periods.  So we will keep it simple and stick with discussing the “destruction of the four olds” campaign (破四旧立四新) and how it effected Chinese antiques.


“The Four Olds” (破四旧立四新) were essentially old customs, old culture, old habits and old ideas, with the reasoning that these “four olds” were responsible for the holding back of China’s development. Of course, today now know these events were in reality essentially just an internal power struggle. Nevertheless, this was not a very good time be an antique or even an owner of antiques. While numbers have never been completely tallied or estimated, massive incalculable damage was sustained to all of China’s antiquities and cultural heritage. Antiques were destroyed and/or confiscated (and in some cases simply stolen) by the red guards (紅衛兵) who searched and ransacked homes of those considered to be bourgeois. Chinese literature, scrolls and other classics were burned, paintings torn apart, murals defaced and priceless antiquities shattered to pieces. Even families’ long-kept genealogy books and ancestor paintings were confiscated or worse, burned to ashes. Tangible history in large batches was lost forever.

china_cultural-revolution-burning_antique _buddha_statues

Nothing was safe. In addition to attacking and destroying private property, the red guards went after (and often succeeded) public property as well. Libraries were ransacked, monuments destroyed or severely damaged and religious sites and tombs of historical figures were desecrated. In Beijing, Red guards stored the Ming Dynasty tomb of  Wan Li and destroyed not only priceless artifacts but the emperor and empress’s remains were then publicly denounced and burned. According to the book “Mao’s Last Revolution” by the end of the cultural revolution, 4922 of the 6843 sites in Beijing officially designated as of “historical interest” had been destroyed. The forbidden city only barely managed to escape this mass chaos.

chinese cultural revolution - destruction of relics and antiques

In one of the worst acts of vandalism towards a priceless cultural relic, over 200 students from Beijing Normal University traveled by train in 1966 to the 2000+ year old temple of Confucius in Shandong with the express aim of thoroughly demolishing it. While the temple itself survived, over 6618 cultural artifacts from paintings to scrolls to graves were destroyed. Documented in the images above and below, these photos are striking as they depict red guards vandalizing the temple. Today this very same temple is a Unesco World Heritage Site.

chinese cultural revolution destruction of artifacts
chinese cultural revolution destruction of antiques



Scrolls, religious texts or wooden figurines were typically burned, usually in public displays of fervent patriotism. Beautiful porcelain vases were smashed to the ground and completely lost forever. However, with 5000 long years of history and so many antiquities, the red guards clearly had their work cut out for them. And thus vandalism needed to be substituted for outright destruction in many cases. Damage was varied with some items completely destroyed while others merely defaced. This Qing dynasty scroll painting belongs to a user on the China History Forum. During the cultural revolution it was graffitied likely with political slogans. The writing has been partially removed leaving the remnants unreadable (additional images can be found here)

Delicate stone and wood carvings were often the target of such violence with priority given to figural scenes. Unlike flowers, animals or even mythical beasts, figural scenes typically depict specific narrative events or stories of historical figures. They became easy targets, often taking the brunt of the damage. Such damage can be still seen today if one looks around. During this period of time, these stone and wood carvings seen in a local Beijing antique market, had the heads hacked off and in some cases, the entire figures themselves. Today, its not uncommon that most antique wooden carvings will have been repaired with newly carved heads or faces. Depending of the skill of the repairer this may or may not be obvious without close inspection.


stone shrine defaced during cultural revolution

stone panels defaced during cultural revolution

Of course with so much defacing, burning and damaging to do, one needed to start becoming really efficient. With painted pieces, eyes were often quickly scratched out or sometimes even the entire head  hastily scratched away as seen in the examples below.

faces scratched out on chinese furniture

Each of the details in the faces on a large lacquered wardrobe were deliberately rubbed away, leaving only the white outlines of heads. For this reason, a closer look at some lacquered or painted antiques will often reveal newly filled in faces.

damage to chinese antiques during cultural revolution


Some antiques were spared destruction by the preemptive actions of the owners. This beautiful rosewood table was reclaimed from a traditional Beijing courtyard home. During the 1960’ies, it was quickly painted over in drab hospital green by its owners in order to disguise its hardwood origins. The lower portions of the the apron were removed as well to simplify its design in the hopes that it would be passed over a simple country style table.
chinese antique rosewood table which has been repainted - detail
Others were quickly replaced by owners or caretakers, like the cabinet at the top of the page as well as these politically correct carvings seen in a Fujian Province temple. Talk about “getting with the program!”
Cultural Revolution era wood carvings and scupltures in fujian
While a disastrous time in China’s history, in recent years all across China, historical sites continue to be damaged or demolished and old homes torn down in the name of progress and development. One could argue that both the great leap forward and the cultural revolution never really ended… But shh – don’t tell anyone and  if you do, careful how you word it, as according to baidu, searches for these terms in Chinese show few results and in some case – none at all!


Which is why these black and white images came from google! 😉
burning religious texts and antiques during the cultural revolution
antiques being destroyed


Additional Resources online:

A partial list of some of the major sites damaged during the cultural revolution can be found here.

The videos below are also really worth watching. There are quite a number of scenes of red guards destroying monuments and other antiquities throughout both videos. Really striking is the truck loaded with antiquities being taken away. Amazing footage…https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gaz8sVaK8s4https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lM3CiH1FE9E


12 Replies to “Burn, loot and pillage! Destruction of antiques during China’s Cultural Revolution.”

  1. Roger,

    Good work. It is depressing to think how much was destroyed during the GPCR. On of the greatest losses in Beijing was a very important Tibetan temple Huangsi. The destruction was widespread and temples and antiquities suffered greatly. The military collected a great number of the best pieces and put them in warehouses during the turmoil. In the early 1980’s much of this hoard was claimed by the sons and daughters of Party and Army leaders, the Gao Gan Zidi. Many of these princelings have great collections of the finest porcelain and huanghuali furniture around.

  2. Mike – its really mind-blowing how much damage was done. After writing this post, I woke up the next morning thinking “its amazing that anything at all survived.” Thankfully China is such a large place that even with all the insanity there was just too much to destroy and while they did a pretty good job, they couldn’t get everything.

  3. I remember in the 1980s National Geographic ran a story on China that touched on this topic, and show photos of at least one of the newly-opened warehouses where items had been confiscated to, all covered in dirt and dust. It was like Tutankhamen’s tomb.

  4. this makes me hates Mao even more. not only he has killed more chinese than the imperial japan, but also destroying the history of chinese people!

  5. […] found this article very interesting as it explains some of the things lost during the Cultural Revolution during this […]

  6. […] ACF China. (2013). Burn, loot and pillage! Destruction of antiques during China’s Cultural Revolution. The specialists guide to Chinese antiques. Retrieved 29 October 2016, from https://www.antique-chinese-furniture.com/blog/2013/02/10/burn-loot-and-pillage-destruction-of-antiqu… […]

  7. blue noodles says:


  8. Plenty of sources are already linked in the post.

  9. The tactics of Communists haven’t changed very much over the years. You would think that the American people could identify these clowns while they try to tear down relics from their short history.

  10. […] humiliations — accompanied by the gleeful ransacking of religious and cultural sites. In their attack on the Temple of Confucius, almost 7,000 priceless artifacts were destroyed. By the end of the […]

  11. […] humiliations — accompanied by the gleeful ransacking of religious and cultural sites. In their attack on the Temple of Confucius, almost 7,000 priceless artifacts were destroyed. By the end of the […]

  12. […] samo pro?itati kako je kineski pokret uništio grob Kineskog cara i pogledati kako je uništavao Konfucijev hram 1966 godine što nam samo predstavlja jedan maleni dokaz tamošnjeg ludila. Na vezu izme?u tadašnjeg i […]

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