Russia’s October Revolution in 1917 helped inspire China's Cultural Revolution a generation later. Chinese history professor Klaus Mühlhahn spoke to DW about its impact on the country and its role in government today.
DW: What kind of influence did the October Revolution have on China 100 years ago?
Klaus Mühlhahn: I think you have to differentiate between the immediate influence between 1917 and 1919, and the long-term influence. The immediate influence was moderate. The Chinese intellectual and journalist Li Dazhao wrote an article in which he called the October Revolution a "Bolshevik victory in Russia." So the idea was in the public domain, but it only reached a very small group of people. There were not that many intellectuals and educated people for whom this was significant. But longer term, of course, the October Revolution was immensely significant for China because it affected the country's history in a fundamental way. It gave birth to a whole social model. The October Revolution and Leninism greatly informed the Chinese Revolution.
What concrete influence did the October Revolution have on China's Communist Party, founded in 1921?
The October Revolution is very closely linked to Vladimir Lenin and Leninism. For China, Leninism played a much greater role than say, the writings of Karl Marx or Stalinism. China didn't really know what to do with Stalinism, or with the original theories posited by Marx and Engels. But the Leninist interpretation, that stressed that it was possible to revolutionize a mainly agrarian country, and that the focus should be on strict party leadership – that was decisive for China, that's what lead the Communist Party to victory.
Would you say that the October Revolution continued to serve as a role model up to and during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution launched by China's Communist leader, Mao Zedong?
Yes. The revolutionary way of mobilizing the masses against the oppressors and rulers was a constant inspiration for Mao. The October Revolution was, you could say, one of the few things that most people in China's Communist Party could agree on. Unlike Stalin, Lenin and the October Revolution were always held in high esteem in the party.
Does the October Revolution continue to influence modern China?
I think that today's Communist Party in China has moved away from the revolution. It doesn't see itself as a revolutionary party anymore, but rather as a governing party or a ruling party — a party that has power. It has done away with the revolutionary ideas that so enthused Mao. But unlike modern day Russia, the party continues to see itself in line with the tradition of Marxist-Leninist ideas. Leninism continues to be one of the most significant ideologies in communism, together with Marx, Mao, and now the current Chinese leader Xi Jinping. The communist legacy is still alive and well. Revolution may no longer be the party's main goal, but it still adheres to Leninist ideals.
Read more: Revisiting the Russian Revolution
There's also another reason why the October Revolution has faded somewhat from view. China's Communist Party now sees itself more as a nationalist party, and defines itself in relation to the country's history, going back long before the Russian Revolution. So the idea that a historical event in Russia could have such enormous influence on China seems very unlikely from today's perspective.
Dr. Klaus Mühlhahn is vice president of the Free University of Berlin and a professor of Chinese history and culture.
The interview was conducted by Julius Schenkel