I've always had an inkling that the Cultural Revolution drastically changed the Chinese language (think: TW 国语 vs. mainland 普通话). [Some even claim TW doesn't even have the concept of 书面语 pk 口语, it's not hard to buy into either].

Then today I came across these two entries in《四川方言词典》


gai4 gai4-1

(名) ①盖子。②(~儿) 小盖子。③(~儿) <粗>指男朋友。(文革期间产生的新义,与*盒盒儿相对。)



gang1 bian1

(名) 比喻能置对方于死地的证据(文革期间产生的新义) ▷老人把刀交给公安人员说 ▷“这是我那逆子犯罪的~!”

Both specifically mention: 文革期间产生的新义.

Obviously there were changed to the Chinese language, including topolects, during the Cultural Revolution but to what extent?

A second thought: if intellectuals were attacked wouldn't that lead to a automatic dumbing-down of language, to avoid being attacked?

  • 1
    Interesting question, but I think it may be a bit too broad..
    – dROOOze
    Mar 4, 2018 at 4:16
  • 1
    The difference between TW国语 and mainland 普通话 is not due to the Cultural Revolution, but mostly due to different cultures, geographical separation, policies regarding the usage of official languages, and other historical reasons. Though Cultural Revolution may change the Mandarin in some way, such as creating new words and new phrases, but I don't think the change is dramatic.
    – Steve Yang
    Mar 13, 2018 at 20:20

3 Answers 3


From what I understand, there are indeed some new words created, or given a new meaning, during the years of cultural revolution. However, those words quickly lose their popularity soon after the arrest of "Gang of Four". Actually, as someone who is born many years after that period, I can hardly think of any word that is still used in the ordinary context, be it oral or written language. And even the Communist Party government tries to avoid using those words, due to the special meanings attached to them. So you can hardly see them apart from the history book, or people telling stories of that era.

However, there are a few exceptions in the recent years, notably the use of "篡党夺权" from the remarks by Liu Shiyu, chairman of the China Securities Regulatory Commission during the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China.[1][2] And there has been a rise in the use of "伟大领袖" in local newspapers as well.

For a comprehensive list of new words or words given a new meaning during the cultural revolution, I've found a paper from search engine here. But it's in Chinese, and it also requires purchasing to read further from page 1.

As to the difference between TW国语 and mainland普通话, they are completely irrelated to the cultural revolution.


I don't think there are any firm agreed on measures of language similarity, so in that sense the question is unanswerable. But here's an attempt to use the term-usage-frequency data in google ngrams to partially answer your question.

First question, is the cultural revolution visible at all in the google ngram corpus? There are some obviously revolutionary terms like 阶级 or 斗 that you'd expect to spike in the 60's-70's range if the corpus has any sane connection with current events.



Ok so that test passes. For this particular measure of language change, rather than trying to find cultural-revolution neologisms, a better yardstick might be to look at the most common words

Here's the popularity of 之, which I'd expect to be associated with high-register 'fancy' Chinese:


It crashes when baihua takes over and flatlines after that. So the cultural revolution didn't have much impact on that particular change that was already going on.

I had hours of fun trying this with a bunch of different words, but I think 警惕 is a nice representative example.


It explodes into the corpus around the baihua-takeover time when 之 first crashes, then spikes for the cultural revolution when being 警惕 to all sorts of things was very important, then basically drops back to 1950's levels in the '80s. To get a proper answer you'd need a much more systematic review than I have time for, but my impression is that this pattern is pretty typical.

One interesting case is earthy dongbei-style terms like 到底 and 啥. These are things I'd associate most strongly with distinctively 'mainland' usage, and they're also "peasant's own" terms that definitely did spike during the cultural revolution when everyone was competing to be more 老百姓 than their 99 neighbors. But check out the trajectory of 到底.


I think just like 警惕 it's reasonable to draw a straight line between the 50's the 80's, only this one is a sloping line rather than a flat one. Although these earthy terms were definitely sensitive to the politics of the cultural revolution, their rise pre-dates it and continues after it.

It's a shame ngrams doesn't have a 繁体 corpus, the comparison would be really interesting and give a much better answer to your question. But I think the ngram-scraping perspective suggests the answer to "how much did the cultural revolution change the Chinese language on the mainland" is that language changed dramatically during the revolution itself, but basically returned to 50's baselines by the 80's, although there are other (quite possibly mainland specific) language-change trends going on over that time, like the rise and rise of dongbei influence.

  • Is there a point in time to match the baihua-takeover?
    – Mou某
    Mar 17, 2018 at 7:46
  • @user3306356 are you asking when baihua took over? Probably not a firm date, but officially it'd be the May fourth movement.
    – dROOOze
    Mar 17, 2018 at 12:06
  • I'd like to remind you that most considered the cultural revolution a period from 1966-1976 ref, which is why they are called 十年文革. Some of those terms you mentioned are already in widespread use before or since the founding of PRC in 1949. And although terms like 阶级 gained 5-10 times more usage, as shown in ngram, their meaning is never changed, not during the cultural revolution. The same can be said about 警惕. And the drop in 之 usage, which is considered 文言文, is simply the result of 白话文运动, not the cultural revolution.
    – zypA13510
    Mar 17, 2018 at 19:48
  • @zypA13510, I completely agree with you, sorry if anything in the post suggested otherwise. Your point about not confusing 白话文运动 changes with possible 文革 changes is exactly the point I was also trying to make. The ngram statistics can't tell you much about new words or new meanings, so this whole approach only makes sense under a much broader definition of 'language change' that includes 'common usage', the relation between changes in that and changes in the lexicon is not at all clear. So I think this stuff and the paper you link to are complementary approaches to the question. Mar 17, 2018 at 22:24
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    @steveLangsford No. I think it is clear, there is nothing unanswerable about this question. We can categorize all words discussed into 3 categories: 1.Terms like 红卫兵、红宝书、样板戏 or 右派、反革命、臭老九 and 钢鞭 mentioned in the question are clearly crafted/altered during the cultural revolution; 2. Terms like 阶级、马克思主义、共产 were introduced along with Marxism, well before 1949; 3. Terms that are affected by 白话文运动, like 到底、啥 or 之、乎、者、也. The driving force behind these 3 are completely different, so are the outcomes: 1 is almost non-existent now, 2 will live as long as CPC rules, 3 is irrelated to political changes.
    – zypA13510
    Mar 17, 2018 at 23:10

1、What I understand is not change, but new words added. The words in the income dictionary are usually the words we encounter in life. If you have the opportunity to read the latest Xinhua Dictionary, you will find a lot of new “trend” words(房奴、晒工资etc). Many of these words come from online pop words. There are many people who use this word, and they also have representatives of certain aspects of the time so they choose to add it to the dictionary. This was also the case during the Cultural Revolution, and a special era background would inevitably produce new words (not to mention that it was a very long time), so we should not be too entangled with this issue. 2、In addition, agree with Steve Yang. TW Mandarin and Mandarin are due to geographical differences and lifestyle differences (of course there are certain historical reasons). Chinese is a macrolanguage, he can be divided into a variety of languages: Gan Chinese [gan]赣语; proverb Hakka Chinese [hak] 客家话; Huizhou Chinese [czh] 徽语; Jinyu Chinese [cjy] 晋语; Literary Chinese [lzh] 文言文; Min Bei Chinese [mnp] 闽北语; Min Dong Chinese [cdo] 闽东语; Min Nan Chinese [nan] 闽南语;Min Zhong Chinese [czo] 闽中语;Pu -Xian Chinese [cpx] 莆仙语; Wu Chinese [wuu] 吴语; Xiang Chinese [hsn] 湘语; Cantonese [yue]粤语; TW 国语; Mandarin and so on. For the convenience of communication, Mandarin is selected as the common language in China.

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