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"Cow demons and snake spirits" (牛鬼蛇神) is a Chinese term coined by the Tang dynasty poet Du Mu (803–852) when he wrote the preface of a poetry collection by Li He (791–817). Du Mu used this term to praise the fantastical elements in Li He's poetry.

In the early 1960s, Mao Zedong (who was a huge admirer of Li He) frequently used this term in speeches to refer to reactionary elements and "class enemies". In 1966, after Chen Boda (the leader of the Cultural Revolution Group) took over the newspaper and official government organ People's Daily, an editorial titled "Sweep Away All Cow Demons and Snake Spirits" (横扫一切牛鬼蛇神) appeared on June 1, 1966, which called for a nationwide struggle against these elements. "Cow demons and snake spirits" became one of the most popular terms during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), a term used to denounce and dehumanize any "enemy", real or perceived. The exact definition of the term (like most things in the Cultural Revolution) was unclear and subject to arbitrary interpretation, but the major enemies of the Cultural Revolution were:

Illegal prisons during the Cultural Revolution were called "cowsheds" (牛棚), and exiles to the countryside were sometimes called "down to cowsheds" (下牛棚).


  • Guo Jian; Song, Yongyi; Zhou, Yuan (2009). The A to Z of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Scarecrow Press. ISBN 978-0-8108-6870-0.