A black and white images of Chinese students, marching, while wearing the red armbands around their arms during the Cultural Revolution.

How Mao Zedong and the Red Guard Left Their Mark on China’s History

Recently, China’s current President, Xi Jinping, enforced certain changes that many fear will lead to a second Cultural Revolution. The events of the first Cultural Revolution, from the speeches on communism to the Red Guards, justifies their fear. However, there are certain speculations about President Xi Jinping’s motives for the changes.

For ten years, between 1966 and 1976, those in China with different mindsets, religions, and ethnicities faced harsh retaliation. They chose to follow a different way of thinking, different to that of Mao Zedong, a member of China’s Communist Party. The spread of his views led to public humiliation, deaths, massacres, as well as an instance of cannibalism.

Till this day, China’s Cultural Revolution remains a dark mark in China’s history.


Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution

A black and white image of Mao Zedong, holding his hand out as he waves to his followers during the Cultural Revolution.
image source: elespanol.com

Also known as The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, it launched in 1966 by the Communist Party member, Mao Zedong. He believed the Communist Party leaders were taking the Party, along with China, in the wrong direction. He believed them to be unfocused. Moreover, he felt the party’s views were too revisionist, supporting revision or modification. This led to his fear of urban social formation in China’s traditional society. As well, he viewed the emphasis on expertise instead of ideological purity negatively.

The purpose of the Cultural Revolution, a political and social movement, was to preserve the ‘true’ communist ideology. To do so required the destruction of all things related to capitalist and traditional elements.

On the other hand, along with preserving true communism, he saw the Cultural Revolution as a way to reassert his authority over the Chinese government.

Mao’s position in the government weakened due to his campaign, the Great Leap Forward.

His campaign sought to transform China’s agricultural base into an industrial one. The introduction of a commune system resulted in the organization of peasants, as well as a ban on private farming. However, the campaign failed. It did not produce enough for the necessary yield, leading to an economic crisis. Famine allowed, and then 56 million deaths, three million of which were suicides.

This is likely the motivation he needed to be rid of his opponents within the Communist Party. He knew his fellow members planned to marginalize him. Therefore, he appealed to his supporters to join him in the Cultural Revolution.

This movement, nevertheless, took on a new approach. Instead of solely relying on his official power, he turned to the masses of the Chinese public. With their aid, he reasserted his control over the Communist party, and therefore, China.

The Four Goals of the Cultural Revolution

Mao’s four goals aimed to reassert his control, and in addition, prove China was a true communist state.

Firstly, the designated successors of China’s Communist Party would be replaced with leaders more faithful to Mao’s way of thinking.

Secondly, it would lead to the rectification of China’s Communist Party.

Thirdly, China’s youth would be provided with a revolutionary experience.

Fourth, the achievement of specific policy changes. In doing so, educational, healthcare, and cultural systems would become less elitist.

In reaching these goals, Mao believed the remnants of capitalist and traditional elements would be purged from Chinese society. Additionally, it would re-impose Maoism, or Mao Zedong Thought, as the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) dominant ideology.

Notable Figures in the Cultural Revolution

A black and white image of Jiangqing and Lin Bao at a mass gathering, giving theri speeches.
image source: bbc.com

Jiang Qing

Fourth wife to Chairman Mao, she was one of the few people he trusted.

However, the Communist Party looked down upon their marriage, seeing that a former actress would have no part in politics. Therefore, she agreed to her uninvolvement in politics for the next 20 years.

That took a turn when the Cultural Revolution began.

In 1963, she became more politically active. She sponsored a theatrical-formed movement, jingxi (Peking opera). As well, she supported a ballet form that combined traditional Chinese artforms with proletarian themes. Soon, it grew to be an attack on the cultural intellectual figures of China. Furthermore, it continued to grow during the Cultural Revolution.

By 1966, she not only gained power, but influence. She became known for strong speeches at mass gatherings. As well, her involvement grew with the Red Guards, Mao’s followers.

All in all, she oversaw the total suppression of traditional and cultural activities in China.

Lin Bao

Lin Bao became the Defense Minster in China in September 1956.

With his new position, he ordered the reformation of the army. This led to intensified political education of the soliders and an upgrade of their military training. Using a combination of professional expertise and political consciousness (according to Mao’s teachings), the army became an example. As well, they became a model for the Chinese Communist Party and Chinese society.

Gang of Four

These were for individuals, influential members of the Chinese Communist Party. They remained the backbone of the Cultural Revolution after Mao’s death. However, there is speculation as to what their position was.

The members were Jiang Qing and her associates, Wan Hangwen, Yao Wenyuan, and Zhang Chunqiao.

As well, it is unclear how much power they could exert during the Cultural Revolution, regarding decisions and policies.

Although they sought to take control after Mao’s death, none took power. Mao’s chosen successor, however, was the reform-minded Hua Guofeng. Consequently, he dishonored the necessity of the Cultural Revolution. He ordered the arrest of the Gang of Four. They were purged and imprisoned.

Some say it was after their arrest that the Cultural Revolution really ended.


The Red Guards

A black and white images of Chinese students, marching, while wearing the red armbands around their arms during the Cultural Revolution.
image source: npr.org

Chairman Mao called on the nation’s radical youths.

Students as young as elementary school heard his call.

This call spread the word to purge the ‘impure’ elements of Chinese society. He spoke of reviving the revolutionary spirit of China, the same that led to their civil war victory 20 years earlier and what formed the PRC. Therefore, it led to the attack on China’s Communist Party’s leadership, a way to re-establish Chairman Mao’s control.

Their motivations, however, are under two speculations:

  1. They had a sincere commitment to the teachings of Maoism. They took his quotes mentioned in the Little Red Book seriously. For example, ‘It is right to rebel’ and ‘Bombard the Headquarters’.
  2. They took a rise to the violence and contempt for the status quo.

The Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution

Initially, the first groups of Red Guards were students, ranging from elementary school to university. After the Cultural Revolution gained momentum, young workers and peasants joined. Soon, soldiers and older workers became Red Guards.

Their first tasks included enforcing communist teachings and to rid the nation of the Four Olds: old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas.

Between June and July 1966, they held meetings, formed associations, and adopted names, such as ‘Red Flag Combat Team’ and ‘Safeguard Mao Zedong’.

Their first targets were Buddhist temples, churches, and mosques. The Red Guards either destroyed the buildings or converted them for other uses. As well, they burned sacred texts, religious statues, and other artwork.

Moreover, along with Buddhist temples, they destroyed antiques and ancient texts.

In short, any objects relating to China’s pre-revolutionary past were destroyed.

The Red Guards even went as far as to end entire animal populations. For example, the Pekingese dog. Associated with the old imperial regime, the breed would have been extinct if not for the few that survived.

For the Chinese population, they persecuted any deemed ‘counter-revolutionary’, ‘bourgeois’, or ‘rightist’.

On August 1st, 1966, according to a returning letter to a Red Guard, Mao Zedong enthusiastically supported the Red Guards.

‘Struggle Sessions’

The ‘struggle sessions’ are where the Red Guards abused and publicly humiliated people accused of capitalist thoughts. In addition to their primary targets, they attacked those that wore foreign clothing, including Catholic nuns. Many died or ended up in re-education camps for years. They targeted teachers, monks, rich farmers, and other educated individuals. Between August 1966 and September 1966, 1800 people died.

The ‘rightists’ experienced the worst of public humiliation. Paraded through the streets of their towns, they wore mocking placards around their necks, standing in front of supporters of Chairman Mao.

48 million yuan of private property was seized and surrendered to the state. As well, the Red Guards raided private homes and left the residents physically beaten.

The public humiliation tactics grew increasingly violent. Along with the thousands killed, more committed suicide.

By the end of 1966, they felt confident enough to target municipal and provincial governments, along with high profile political figures.

However, what Mao and his Communist Party failed to predict the outcome of the violence. It affected the country’s social and intellectual life. Also, with the country’s leadership put to the test, the economy weakened.

‘Down by the Countryside’ Movement

The havoc caused by the Red Guards did not go unnoticed by Mao and the Communist Party. With social and economic life disrupted, China was in chaos by February 1967. It managed to reach army generals, who spoke out against the overabundance of actions for the Cultural Revolution.

Additionally, the Red Guards turned on one another, fighting in the streets. They fought for power over one another, each claiming to be the true representative of Maoism.

Moreover, Jiang Qing encouraged the Red Guards to raid arms from the People’s Liberation Army. She further persuaded them to replace the army if necessary.

By December 1968, Mao saw the Cultural Revolution was out of control. The economy was already weakened by the Great Leap Forward. The violent acts only made it worse.

Therefore, he came to the decision to ship the young urban Red Guards to the countryside. There, they worked on farms and learnt from the peasantry.

Later, Mao claimed the experience ensured the youth understood the Communist Party’s roots on the farm. However, the real goal was to thin out the Red Guards’ presence, spreading them throughout the nation. It was the only possible way to prevent further chaos they might cause. Hence, the ‘Down by the Countryside’ Movement.

Unfortunately, the decision came too late. The Red Guards destroyed the majority of China’s cultural heritage.


The Massacres’ of the Cultural Revolution

Two black and white images of two people being punished for either being related to a 'counter-revolutionary' or for being one during the Cultural Revolution.
image source: allthatisinteresting.com

Mao Zedong introduced the Five Black Categories, individuals who became the primary targets for the Red Guards and other supporters:

  1. Landlords.
  2. Rich farmers.
  3. Counter-revolutionaries.
  4. Bad influences/elements.
  5. Rightists.

Many people within those categories lived among each other in various provinces in China. As Mao gave his blessing to the Red Guards, they violently opposed anyone suspected of disloyalty. This led to some of the horrific massacres in China’s history.

Guangxi Cultural Revolution Massacre

From 1967 to 1979, Chairman Mao’s followers caused 100 000 to 150 000 deaths in Guangxi province. Their methods of choice were beheadings, beatings, live burials, stoning, boilings, disemboweling, to name a few.

As well, there were instances of cannibalism. Officials ripped the hearts and livers from their opposed victims, dead or alive.

The most infamous attack of cannibalism was a teacher beaten by her elementary school students in the schoolyard. Later, they ripped her organs from her body, cooked them, and ate them in the same schoolyard.

Scholars estimate 417 individuals were consumed.

By the end of the Cultural Revolution, those who took part in the deaths and cannibalism were arrested and tried.

Inner Mongolia Incident

Between 1967 and 1979, a political purge occurred in Inner Mongolia, a region in China. Over one million people were suspected of being part of the Inner Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party.

As a result, supporters of Mao arrested 346 000, persecuted to death or directly killed 16 222, and permanently injured or disabled 81 000 people.

At the end of the Cultural Revolution, the Communist Party regarded the incident as a mistake. They rehabilitated the victims, but those responsible were not held accountable.

Red August

One of the most infamous massacres in China’s history is the Beijing Massacre, or Red August. This was a series of massacres throughout Beijing, one of the first student-led movements in fighting for Mao.

Between August and September 1966, Mao’s supporters left 1772 dead, ransacked 33 695 homes, and forced 85 196 families to leave the city.

Subsequently, Mao publicly opposed government intervention on the students’ actions. Additionally, he demanded they be protected instead of being arrested.

Methods used by the Red Guards were beatings, whipping, strangling, boiling, and beading, to name a few.

Other infamous massacres during the Cultural Revolution are:


The Aftermath of the Cultural Revolution

A black and white image of the Red Guards ransacking and destroying artifacts in a temple during the Cultural Revolution.
image source: pinterest.com

Whether it was the arrest of the Gang of Four or the Death of Mao Zedong, the Cultural Revolution did end in 1976.

There is no confirmed number of deaths. Some say it ranges around the hundreds of thousands, possibly millions. Those that survived suffered imprisonment, seizure of property, torture, and general humiliation.

Between 1966 and 1976, schools in China did not operate. Therefore, formal education evaded an entire generation. As well, educated individuals and professionals were targeted for re-education. With their years spent inside the re-education camps, there was no one to enlighten the minds of students but the Little Red Book, holding the speeches and transcriptions of Chairman Mao.

Antiques and artifacts, symbols of ‘old thinking’, were destroyed. Historical and religious texts burned to ashes.

There is a constant reminder of the willful destruction where the Red Guards attacked and destroyed the ancient culture and history of China.

Many say that China’s President Xi Jinping is cracking down on factors of Chinese society, such as technology and entertainment, for control. He has no aims for repressing tradition, yet there is still worry of repitition.

This further proves the fear left by the destruction of the past, 55 years after its mark made history.


Peace and tranquility are a thousand gold pieces.

-Chinese proverb.

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