The Red Guards:
Putting The CULT In Cultural Revolution
China History

Research Report
Web Resources


In this essay I will first explore the purpose Cultural Revolution and how the Red Guard movement grew out of the Cultural Revolution and picked up extreme momentum.  I will examine the thoughts, purposes, and atrocities of the Red Guards.  Most importantly, I will show how Mao Zedong’s influence was the driving force behind the Red Guards and that he influenced the movement from its beginning to end.  Finally, I will show the immediate and long-term historical impacts of the fascinating movements of the Red Guards in China.

Historical Background

 In order to understand the intense significance of the Red Guard movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s, it is necessary to know the context in which this movement came about; namely, The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution led by Mao Zedong.  The previous leader of the Chinese Communist Party who established the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Mao Zedong is a fascinating figure that had exited the political stage after his failure in the economic movement of The Great Leap Forward in 1959.  He was sure to return to the scene again, as he never completed his total communist revolution, after an article was published in the Shanghai Press denouncing the play The Dismissal of Hai Rui, which was about a loyal Ming official dismissed by the corrupt emperor.  This play, by Wu Han, was obviously an attack in literary form on the policy of the Chinese Communist Party and on Mao himself.  Mao had a hand in the November 10, 1965 publication of this article that is now regarded as the first spark in the fire that was the Cultural Revolution – a revolution that would proceed to launch China into severe turbulence for the next decade (Short 527). 

After having failed previously in his economic movement of the Great Leap Forward, Mao had to exhibit his ability to succeed in the mission of the Cultural Revolution.  Now an old man of 73 years, Mao symbolically proved to the people that he still had the energy and power to carry out the Cultural Revolution by swimming for an hour in the Yangtze River on July 16, 1966 (Chen 219).  This event was broadcast all over China and the world to signal the beginning of the resurgence of Mao Zedong.  To carry out his Revolution Mao quickly established the Central Committee on the Revolution and got to work. 

After the Eleventh Plenary Session on the Eighth Central Committee, the goals of the Cultural Revolution emerged through Mao’s Sixteen Points, a document that included three main objectives. First, the discrediting and overthrow of his major opponents within the party or those within the party who were taking the “capitalist road.”  Second, the training and tempering through struggle of a new generation of “successors in the proletarian revolutionary cause.” And lastly, achieving ideological revolution among the whole populace by wiping out “old ideas, culture, customs, and habits” of bourgeois past and replacing them with new ones derived from the “Thought of Mao Zedong" (Rice 253).  Achievement of these goals would move China along in the transition from socialism to communism.

 In order to carry out the goals of the Cultural Revolution Chairman Mao inspired youth to spread his Thought and communist policies across the mainland while destroying every last trace of capitalism. These youth formed the Red Guard, which became the driving force of the Cultural Revolution that would affect China forever.

Research Report

First formed at Tsinghua Middle School in Beijing on May 21, 1966, the Red Guard movement quickly took hold in middle schools, high schools, and universities in Beijing and all across the country.  The big character poster raised at Beijing University calling for the dismissal of the university president on May 25 marked the first official endorsement of the Red Guards by Chairman Mao himself.  For the time being the movement was contained to educational institutions in Beijing where students criticized and humiliated teachers and school authorities by violent and psychological means.  Mao exhibited a poster which said, “Bombard the Headquarters” to inspire students to rebel, and he wanted educational reform that would change from abstract old teachings that were “divorced from reality” to studies in his Thought and of class struggle (Chen 225).  His influence on the Red Guards would firmly take hold in August of the same year. 

At Tiananmen Square, wide eyed and breath taken, millions of young adults wearing red armbands emblazoned with the words Han Wei Bing (Red Guard), anxiously gathered, awaiting their leader Chairman Mao Zedong on August 18, 1966.  As the sun rose dramatically in the east Mao’s leaders Chen Boda and Lin Biao praised the Chairman as the “Great leader, Great teacher, Great helmsman, and Great commander” to a crowd exploding with excitement (Short 542).  The culminating moment of the rally was when a young girl fastened the red armband to Mao’s sleeve, officially symbolizing his support for the movement.  Mao and his leaders would continue by commanding youth to go out and strike down all “demons and ghosts” and destroy the Four Olds (ideas, culture, customs, and habits) through revolutionary action.

The Red Guards, who would carry out this action, consisted of youth from 12 to 30 years old, the majority of which were students between the ages of 12 and 17 years of age (Lin 4). Initially comprised of members of the peasant Red Class, the Red Guard went on to include members of the upper class. These Red Guards instantly became the loyal cult of Mao, marching with posters of his face, studying the “Thought of Mao Zedong,” and creating a sea of red at rallies where they waved their Little Red Books containing their creed. 

Following instructions from the Chairman and his Thought, this massive group of teens was first urged to “conduct a reign of terror” that would destroy anything and everything representing capitalism or the Four Olds in the city if Beijing, including stores, street signs, monuments, private homes, and people who were deemed bourgeois. The People’s Daily newspaper of Beijing readily commended the Red Guards for their revolutionary action and quoted Mao as saying that “to rebel is justified" (Rice 257).  During September and August alone 4,992 of the 6,843 classical historical monuments in Beijing were destroyed, numerous books and art pieces were burnt, and 84,222 homes were attacked, many of which were completely destroyed (Barnouin 98).  Revolutionary action was not only taking place in the capital but also all over China including cities such as Shanghai and Canton.  School was not in session so that youth would be able to join the Red Guard and dedicate their time to revolutionary action.

During the first phase of the movement from September 1966 to the end of that year to “Take Beijing to China” was Mao’s demand that resulted in Red Guards participating in revolutionary exchanges in the 29 provinces of the country (The Red Guards10334).  The red armband and school identification card served as a free pass for travel, food, and lodging for Mao’s cult of revolutionary youth.  This widespread travel resulted in millions of youth partaking in the Red Guard movement from cities to communes to rural areas all over the country and many others simply took advantage of the opportunity to travel and not necessarily remaining committed to the goals of the Red Guard.  This was a violent time in which many intellectuals, suspected bourgeois, educators, and innocent people lost their lives, such as the noted novelist Lau Shaw who was beaten to death when Red Guards invaded his home in Beijing (Rice 258).  As Red Guards were unleashed into the countryside through the opportunity of free travel, they spread Mao’s Thought, organized class struggle meetings, learned from workers and peasants, and continued on their mission to bring disorder in revolutionary form. 

To inspire youth from the Provinces and to continue to indoctrinating all Red Guards, Mao and his leaders conducted between eight and ten rallies in Beijing similar to the initial rally in August, the last of which was held on November 25 and 26, 1966 (Rice 258). Because of the economic problems associated with the clogging of the railways that the extensive travel of Red Guards had created, Mao ordered students to go back to their home locations and stop coming to Beijing or going to other Provinces.  By December, the red armband no longer served as a free pass on trains but the Red Guard movement was far from over (The Red Guards 1035). 

The second stage of the Red Guards, from 1967 on, was far more political than the first, and aimed at bringing down opposing Party leaders or those taking the “capitalist road.”  This stage was met with factioning along class lines within the Red Guards between those of peasant and working class parents who had no previous voice in politics and those who were of the upper class, and also between the rebels and the conservatives.  The rebels were ‘battering against Party, government, and military organs” and taking advantage of the opportunity to vent their opinions, while the conservatives maintained cautious attitudes towards Party leaders (Barnouin 107). 

Mao intensified a campaign against the Party leaders Liu Shaoqui and Deng Xiaoping because they were considered to be denying the communist cause.  This campaign resulted in the torture of Liu Shaoqui by Red Guards, in which they forced the seventy-year-old man to kneel before Red Guard posters while pulling his hair and smashing his head into the ground. This torture forced him to resign as Head of State (Short 569).  By the beginning of January 1967, Mao and his revolutionary rebels established that they no longer recognized the authority of the Party and that the rebels would assume responsibilities for day-to-day affairs.  Power was seized from the Party in seven other cities and Provinces across the country (Short 556).  The rift between conservative and radical forces grew larger and larger causing more violence and chaos.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which had not previously been involved in the Cultural Revolution, was now authorized to intervene to help control radicals and violence.  The PLA secretly supported the conservative faction of the Red Guards, which contributed to even more hostility between factions and created a civil war-like atmosphere for the next two years. Both sides were engaged in armed conflict across the country.  A revolution that was supposed to focus primarily on culture, education, and Party institutions now deeply involved bringing down “capitalist roaders” in the army ( Barnouin 124). Because such violence resulted, Mao discouraged the radicals’ attacks on the PLA and tried to calm the fighting.  At the end of July, Mao had to send 30,000 workers and PLA men to Tsinghua University (where the Red Guard movement began) to stop fighting where rebels refused to put down arms (Short 576). 

 To show his support for the PLA and for the worker teams in ending the fighting, Mao sent them symbolic gift of mangoes, a tradition that dated back to the fifth century BC (Short 576).  The years to come would consist of a cool off period in which Red Guards were dispersed across the countryside to learn from peasants and workers and do manual labor.  This met its own host of problems due to resistance of the peasants to accept these new students and students’ resistance to changing their whole urban lifestyle to live in the countryside. 

The nearly two years of mass chaos that Mao wished for did take place and consisted of many fascinating, complicated events that leave people wondering today about how young school students became so committed to violent, revolutionary action which would change the course of history.  It is also a wonder how Mao’s teaching and influence seeped into millions of people who would come to worship him as a deity and how his guidance served as fuel for the fire that was the Red Guard movement.

While the student Red Guard movement may have emerged spontaneously, Mao Zedong undoubtedly had everything to do with its growth and impact.  The first question is: why did Mao call the youth to be the catalysts for the carrying out of the revolution? According to Jing Lin, author of The Red Guard’s Path to Violence, impressionable young school students had no previous political experience and were bombarded with Mao’s Thought from such an early age that they readily embraced his teachings as their way of life and looked up to and worshipped him as a noble leader who had called them to duty (135). 

Revolution was not a new concept for Mao who had led the Communist Revolution.  The parallels between the early stages of the Chinese Communist Revolution and the Cultural Revolution are apparent.  According to Philip Short, a biographer of Mao Zedong, the Cultural Revolution was, in part, a chance for Mao and his young followers to attempt to recreate the glory days of when he himself rose to power (547).  Being the revolutionary that he was, Mao would employ his experience and ideologies to guide the vulnerable youth of China for almost two years.

Despite the parallels between the two revolutions, there is one severe difference in what Mao was fighting for in his youth and what the Red Guards in essence were doing under Mao.  In his youth, Mao was fighting for liberation from the “straightjacket of Confucian orthodoxy,” while the Red Guards were actually imposing Maoist orthodoxy and extremely limiting freedoms of society (Short 549).  Because Mao’s goal was to extinguish the “Four Olds” the vacuum had to be filled with “Four News” that were all in reference to Mao’s thought. This situation would put him on a level to be worshipped, which in many cases involved people bowing every morning before a portrait of Mao, praying for his forgiveness when they had done wrong, and claiming that he had cured them of illnesses.  The loyalty to Mao was similar to the way that Mao himself bowed to a portrait of Confucius every morning in his own youth.  Mao seems to have in this aspect created exactly what he previously rebelled against (Short 550). 

Now that the chronology and general facts of the Red Guard movement have been established, it is important to evaluate Mao’s role and his influence on the movement.  The first appearance of the infiltration of Mao’s “thought” into the youth is found when Kang Sheng, the Chinese Communist Party Secretary in Chief was entrusted with the covert operation of creating youth groups devoted to the study of the Thought of Mao Zedong (Rice 250). This started the ball rolling in what would later become a very important aspect of the Red Guard movement: education, which was at the heart of motivating students to follow Mao and regard his Thought as their way of life.

Throughout their education, adolescents were made to believe themselves to be part of an important, vital social force that would make them the “Masters of New China" (Lin 149).  National school curricula was constructed in order to “raise students’ socialist consciousness, nurture their enthusiasm for Communist ideals, and foster obedience to the party and Chairman Mao (Lin 82).”  In nursery schools, by the tender age of three years children were familiar with the portrait of Mao and began learning that they should love and respect him.  The first Chinese characters that children learned in primary school included “long live the People’s Republic of China, long live the Chinese Communist Party, and long live Chairman Mao" (Lin 86.) These early influences began the brainwashing of children than led to attachment to the ideology of Mao. For those the age of the Red Guards the Cultural Revolution was a chance for them to express their discomfort and their opinions violently, with no threat of consequence. 

In addition to education, obedience was also a key factor in Red Guards’ loyalty to Mao. At a very young age children are taught to obey their parents, elders, and in China’s case, this generation was taught to pay obedience to Mao, affirming the slogan “we will march to wherever the Chairman points us" (Lin 155).  One would think that an individual could receive the ideologies and ideas of Mao and choose whether to embrace or reject them, but these children were brainwashed about the greatness of Mao and were not given the opportunity to question his authority or political views because they had no other option.  For them, Mao was the one who would bring the goodness of a new society and they were so obedient to him that he acquired the status of a god.  The Red Guards thought: “How can Chairman Mao be wrong" (Lin 156). This sentiment expresses that they did not regard Mao as a human being, but rather as an infallible supreme being.  The environment created at the time influenced Red Guards to think that it was their responsibility to be cruel and violent to any perceived enemy.

 Brainwashing ran so deep that Red Guards felt that the proletariat represented justice and that everyone else was a “class enemy.”  Red Guards were the “Masters of China” and acquired their power from Mao.  It was the fashion of the time to be accepted by Mao as a Red Guard, and the upper class people who were considered class enemies were trying to get in because Red Guards held so much power in society.   To gain power one had to be loyal to Mao and what he stood for (Lin 55).

Since Mao was the Red Guards’ main influence, their guide was “Mao Zedong’s Quotations,” which contained his Thought known as the Little Red Book, which all Red Guards religiously carried and abided by.  When one wonders how youth were driven to violent methods, the foundation can be easily uncovered in Mao’s Thoughts.  The most important thing Mao taught was the necessity for class struggle, which readily divided society into good and evil and which called on the Red Guards to stamp out all evil.  Mao characterized class struggle and revolution in this way: 

Revolution is not like inviting guests to dinner, is not like writing articles, painting pictures or sowing flowers; Revolution cannot be that graceful, that calm and easy, that modest and tolerant.  Revolution is violence.  It is violent action of one class overthrowing the other (Lin 33). 
Young students embraced these thoughts and acted on them with Mao’s encouragement.  When the violence got to an extreme point, Mao did not express much concern and held that “excesses are inevitable" (Short 547).

The indoctrination of Mao’s Thought took place on peoples’ own time, but more importantly, at eight to ten rallies which were all held by the end of November 1966.   At these events Mao “received over eleven million revolutionary students, teachers and Red Guards" (Rice 258).  The idea of the radicals’ devotion to Mao was very real as one young Red Guard describes her first rally experience after praising the Chairman and participating in the Maoist anthem “The East is Red” by reporting: 

Let me tell you the great news-news greater than heaven…I saw our most, most, most, most dearly beloved leader, Chairman Mao! Today I am so happy my heart is about to burst…After seeing the Red Sun in Our Hearts I just ran around like crazy all over Beijing…Today, I started a new life! (Rice 259)  
Although Mao declared in September 1968 that “the entire country is Red” after having crushed all old customs, ideas, habits, and culture “he had nothing to put in their place but empty, Red rhetoric" (Short 577, 583).  While the Chairman never admitted that the Cultural Revolution had fallen short of its original plan to create successors of the of the proletarian revolutionary cause, even his selected successor Lin Biao dismissed it as a “cultureless Revolution" (Short 583).  Proletarian culture was not flourishing, Mao’s Thought dominated a strict society that was not at peace; in short, Mao failed to reinvent the culture of China.
Historical Significance
The immediate historical significance of the Red Guard movement is astonishing.  Millions of people had lost their lives and over five million disbanded Red Guards wandered the country, completely displaced from any sort of structure, only to arrive in the countryside to peasants who considered them an unwelcome burden.  As Mao convened the Ninth Congress he looked over a crowd of government officials wearing green PLA uniforms, which symbolized that the army was in control of the government.  Mao named Lin Biao as his successor because he was more religious to the Thought of Mao than was anyone else, despite his lack of charisma as a leader.  While the government situation proved to be quite grim, the state of the country was even worse.  “China had become a sea of collectively-owned gray buildings, of collectively-farmed fields, of uniform blue cotton clothes – where the only color came from the red flags on buildings and bright jackets and leggings of small children…there were no markets, no street stalls, no peddlers.  Every bicycle was black" (Short 582).  Families were broken up by youth moving to the countryside; and yet Mao still never admitted shortcomings of the Cultural Revolution.

The long-term effects of the Red Guard movement are still prevalent in today’s society.  Potentially higher-educated people ended up on farms in remote border regions where they were supposed to learn from peasants.  This created what is called the Lost Generation, which consists of those who were students during the Cultural Revolution and are now the adults of Chinese society.  Although it seems that by now former Red Guards would recognize the faults of Mao and cease to regard him as a god, many still hold to him as the greatest leader ever. 

The brainwashing that was done during the Cultural Revolution has run so deep that one former Red Guard woman named Lu Xin stated in a recent interview with authors David Ashley and Yarong Jiang that “Mao’s policy was consistent with his attitude towards knowledge and education.  He always believed intellectuals should serve workers and peasants.”  Another former Red Guard named Wu Shanren reported to the same authors: “I think the Cultural Revolution was the happiest period of my life.  There was something special about that time: the loyalty, the sense of solidarity, the confidence, and the certainty" (Jiang 25).

Why would people today reflect on this chaotic, violent, revolutionary time in China with such nostalgia and happiness, regarding it as a great stable time in their life?  Perhaps because they were called upon to play a major role in society that gave them a sense of importance and purpose and, like Wu Shanren said, they felt a sense of solidarity with their peers.  Or maybe because Mao did successfully brainwash them so deeply that they really believed what he was doing was correct and just, such as the former Red Guard Lu Xin who states today that the Cultural Revolution was just in that it “gave the masses the power to punish those who misbehaved" (Jiang 14). Another possible reason for their positive thoughts on the Red Guard movement may be that, for many, their situation in life has not considerably improved since the Cultural Revolution.  For example, Wu Shanren reports that it is hard to trust anyone now and that they are now living through a period of “money frenzy” where everyone just wants to make money fast.  He also shares that teachers like his mother do not receive good healthcare coverage and it is hard for them to access proper medicine and care in a time of need (Jiang 23). 

Whatever the reason for some Red Guards reflecting on the period of the Cultural Revolution as a great time in their lives, it is apparent that Mao Zedong and his ideologies played a primary role in the shaping of the Red Guard youth. Mao said it best himself:  "It was I who kindled the flame of the Cultural Revolution" (Short 265).  The complicated, fascinating, and complex issues of the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution continue to perplex and grab the attention of historians.  While the Red Guard movement began in 1966 with the rising of the sun in the east behind Mao, the sun has yet to set on the everlasting effects that this movement has placed on the history of China.


Barnouin, Barbara.  Ten Years of Turbulence:  The Chinese Cultural Revolution.  London:  Kegan Paul International, 1993.

Chen, Jack.  Inside The Cultural Revolution.  New York:  Macmillan Publishing Co., 1975.

Jiang, Yarong.  Mao's Children in the New China:  Voices from the Red Guard Generation.  London:  Routledge, 2000.

Lin, Jing.  The Red Guards' Path To Violence.  New York:  Praeger Publishers, 1991

Short, Philip.  Mao: A Life.  New York:  Henry Holt and Company, 1999.

Rice, Edward E.  Mao's Way.  Berkley: University of California Press, 1972.

Heaslet, Juliana.  "The Red Guards:  Instruments of Destruction in the Cultural Revolution."  Asian Survey, 12:12 (Dec. 1972): 1032-1047.

Web Resources
This website provides an overview of Maoism, The Cultural Revolution and the Red Guards along with photos.
This site discusses the Cultural Revolution in detail with many links to differents aspects of the Revolution such as the Red Guards.
This website provides an extensive history of China during the Mao era with separate sections on areas of interest including the Red Guards.
This website provides a lot of information about Mao along with nice photos.  In discussing Mao it outlines the Cultural Revoution and Red Guards.
This website provides background for the Cultural Revolution and then details about the Red Guard movement and more specifically details the situation of Red Guards in Beijing.

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