Margaret SANKEY

Red Guards encouraging loyalty to the party and encouraging industry. COLLECTION STEFAN LANDSBERGER.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) Red Guard organizations, made up of hundreds of thousands of students, were devoted to a personal glorification of Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong and a campaign against foreign or traditional culture.

Red Guard organizations were an important factor in the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), particularly from 1966 to 1968. They were created from junior and senior high school students and college students who made it their cause to become the personal guards of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Mao Zedong (1893–1976) and China’s socialist revolution. The Red Guards were founded on 29 May 1966 at Quinhua University Middle School in Beijing as a reaction to criticism of Mao in the play Hai Rui (Dismissed from Office) by the historian Wu Han. They used demonstrations and slogans to express their disapproval of their schools and faculty.

Mao, using the Red Guards as a powerful tool in his political struggle with his rivals in the Communist Party and the government, gave his blessing to the Red Guards by sending them a personal letter in which he praised their campaigns and by witnessing the participation of almost 10 million Red Guards in six huge rallies in Beijing late in 1966.

The Red Guards, encouraged by Mao, quickly spread to other schools and colleges in Beijing and then to the rest of the country. Red Guard activities centered on a personal glorification of Mao and on an assertive campaign against foreign or traditional culture. Such activities were focused by Mao’s campaign to eliminate the “Four Olds”: old thought, old culture, old customs, and old practices. His campaign began in late 1966, and the activities were in large part those of the Red Guards. Mao’s attack on the “Four Olds” was a personal campaign, and the Red Guards implemented physical measures based on his philosophies. These measures included attacking foreign fashions and hairstyles, renaming streets, and attempting to redirect street traffic after determining that the color red should signify “go.” Such measures turned violent as Red Guards began torturing and killing people who were deemed to have “bad class backgrounds,” destroying stores that sold luxury goods, burning theater and opera props, smashing Confucian tombstones, and ransacking cultural treasures such as Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) archaeological sites, the Ming portion of the Great Wall, and religious sites such as mosques and Buddhist monasteries. Only direct intervention by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party kept the Red Guards from storming Beijing’s Imperial City.

The Red Guards by 1967 had splintered into factions whose members violently contested one another’s loyalty and commitment while continuing to arrest, torture, and harass those Chinese whom they regarded as threats to the revolution, including scholars, translators, and military officials. Red Guards confiscated gold, jewelry, and valuable real estate and destroyed art collections and priceless records. Alarmed by the horde of Red Guards, in March 1967 the government took the first step in curbing their activities by ordering them to cease national networking and travel. In 1968 the army was dispatched into schools and colleges to restore order and to control the Red Guards.

In the end the Red Guards, although deeply committed to Mao and the revolution, created nothing new, but they terrorized China for more than two years in the name of tearing down the old. The Red Guard organizations, which mobilized hundreds of thousands of students, were too dangerous to be allowed to continue. They had to be stopped by official force and ceased to be an important element of the Cultural Revolution.

Further Reading

Chan, Anita. (1985). Children of Mao. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Jing Lin. (1991). The Red Guards’ path to violence: Political, educational, and psychological factors. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Yan Jiaqi & Gao Gao. (1996). Turbulent decade: A history of the Cultural Revolution. (W. Y. Kwok, Trans. & Ed.). Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Source: Sankey, Margaret. (2009). Red Guard Organizations. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1865–1867. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

This poster from the Cultural Revolution shows Red Guards and members of the People’s Liberation Army sporting red bands on their arms and holding copies of Mao’s “Little Red Book.” The Red Guards’ initial patriotic glorification of Chairman Mao and the Communist Party turned quickly into violence. These student groups mobilized by Mao in the late 1960s targeted “reactionaries”—including a number of artists, intellectuals, scientists, and teachers—as well as symbols of both bourgeois and traditional Chinese culture. The Red Guards were responsible for the torture and death of many victims they thought as “feudal” thinkers, as well as for the looting of shops that sold luxury goods, the burning of theater and opera props, and the smashing of Confucian tombstones and other ancient artifacts. COLLECTION STEFAN LANDSBERGER.

Two Red Guard propaganda posters from 1967, vilifying specialists, scholars, authorities and “people who entrenched themselves in ideological and cultural positions” during the Cultural Revolution. People falling into those categories were called “Monsters and Demons” (????, niugui sheshen). The poster on the left reads: “One hundred clowns – drag out the counterrevolutionary revisionist elements and expose them!” The poster on the right says “A Host of Demons.” COLLECTION STEFAN LANDSBERGER.

Red Guard Organizations (Hóngwèb?ng z?zh? ?????)|Hóngwèb?ng z?zh? ????? (Red Guard Organizations)

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