Red Guards (China)

From New World Encyclopedia

In the People's Republic of China, Red Guards (Simplified Chinese: 红卫兵; Traditional Chinese: 紅衛兵; pinyin: Hóng Wèi Bīng) were a mass movement of civilians, mostly students and other young people, who were mobilized by Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution, between 1966 and 1968. At odds with the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, particularly with revisionists who favored Soviet-style modifications to communist economic policy, Mao appealed to the masses to depose them and restore a revolutionary ideology. Mao turned to a Beijing student movement calling themselves the “Red Guards” and mobilized thousands of students and urban youth to spearhead the attack on the “bourgeoisie.” On August 18, 1966, he brought one million students to Beijing for the first of eight rallies in Tienanmen Square. Universities were closed and students were granted free passage on trains to travel all over the country to attend rallies, at which they waved copies of the Little Red Book of Mao’s quotations.

The Red Guards became the “soldiers” of the Cultural Revolution, and by September 1966, had begun vandalizing bookstores, libraries, churches, temples, and monuments; and breaking into private homes to destroy old books, Western-style clothing, paintings, and art objects. Red Guards attacked intellectuals, professionals, and anyone who had contact with the West, or represented traditional Chinese culture or religion. Hundreds of thousands were beaten, tortured, or sent to hard labor camps. By early 1967, the movement had begun to overthrow provincial Chinese Communist Party committees. By the summer of 1968, Mao had achieved his political objectives. The violence was disrupting the economy and jeopardizing foreign relations. Mao called in the Peoples Liberation Army to control the disorder and abolish the Red Guards.


By 1965, Mao Zedong was finding himself at odds with the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, particularly with revisionists such as Deng Xiaoping and Liu Shaoqi, who favored Soviet-style modifications to communist economic policy, such as the introduction of piecework, greater wage differentials ,and measures that sought to undermine collective farms and factories. Mao turned to Lin Biao and the Peoples Liberation Army for support, and by May 1966, he had succeeded in isolating Liu Shaoqi and other rivals in the Communist Party. That year, the Politburo issued a May 16 Circular warning that, “those representatives of the bourgeoisie who have sneaked into the party, the government, the army, and various cultural circles are a bunch of counterrevolutionary revisionists.”[1]

On May 29 and June 2, 1966, a group of students from a high school attached to Tsinghua University in Beijing, led by Zhang Chengzhi (who later became China's leading Muslim author) used the name “Red Guards” to sign two big-character posters (dazibao, large posters displayed on the walls of public places) criticizing the university administration for harboring "intellectual elitism" and "bourgeois." They were denounced as "counter-revolutionaries" and "radicals" by the school administration and fellow students, and were forced to meet in secret amongst the ruins of the Old Summer Palace. The group chose the name "The Red Guards" to create an image of a mass student movement. Soon afterwards, the news of the movement reached Mao Zedong and other top officials, who organized "work teams" across schools to investigate such accusations and replace school administrations. Zhang's group soon put up more posters calling for radical revolution, and Mao’s approval of their actions was published in the People's Daily. Mao issued various public statements calling for support from rebellious students whom he designated as the “Red Guards.” Soon students all over Beijing were calling themselves "Red Guards."[2]

On August 18, 1966, a million “Red Guards” were brought to a rally (the first of eight) organized by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, in Tienanmen Square. Mao circulated among them for six hours wearing a Red Guard armband. Mao told the students that the revolution was in danger, and that they must do all they could to stop the emergence of a privileged class in China, as had happened in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev. Universities and schools were closed during the fall of 1966, and students were given free passage on railways to attend more rallies. As many as eleven million students wearing red armbands with “Red Guard” written on them poured into large cities to “wage revolution;” several million traveled to Beijing alone. They sang “The Great Helmsman” in praise of Mao, and carried the Little Red Book of Mao’s quotations, which Lin Biao had used to politicize the Peoples Liberation Army. Red Guard demonstrations were televised all over the world, showing crowds of young people waving copies of the Little Red Book.

In Peking. During the past week and more Red Guards have scored victory after victory as they pressed home their attack against the decadent customs and habits of the exploiting classes. Beating drums and singing revolutionary songs detachments of Red Guards are out in the streets doing propaganda work, holding aloft big portraits of Chairman Mao, extracts from Chairman Mao's works, and great banners with the words: We are the critics of the old world; we are the builders of the new world. They have held street meetings, put up big-character posters and distributed leaflets in their attack against all the old ideas and habits of the exploiting classes. As a result of the proposals of the Red Guards and with the support of the revolutionary masses, shop signs which spread odious feudal and bourgeois ideas have been removed, and the names of many streets, lanes, parks, buildings and schools tainted with feudalism, capitalism or revisionism or which had no revolutionary significance have been replaced by revolutionary names. The service trades have thrown out obsolete rules and regulations.

Support for the revolutionary actions of the Red Guards has been expressed in countless big-character posters which the masses of revolutionary workers and staff have put up in the newly renamed major thoroughfares of the capital. They have also expressed their support with street demonstrations.

Draping the many-storied front of the newly renamed Peking Department Store are gigantic banners with the words: "Resolute support for the revolutionary students' revolutionary actions!" and "Salute to the young revolutionary fighters!" Workers of the Peking Steel Plant, encouraged by the actions of the revolutionary students, have launched vigorous attacks on old ideas, styles of work, methods and systems that hamper the revolution and production in their plant. They have put forward many revolutionary proposals and already begun reforms. Workers at the Peking No. 2 Cotton Textile Mill are emulating the revolutionary rebel spirit of the Red Guards and are attacking all old influences. The workers hold that everyone has the right to sweep away the influences of the old, not only outside, in the streets, but also in the factories and all other enterprises and in government offices. In this way, by sweeping together, the great proletarian cultural revolution will be carried through to complete victory.

Commanders and fighters of the People's Liberation Army in the capital have unanimously expressed support for the revolutionary students' revolutionary actions, and the carrying of the great proletarian cultural revolution through to the end. They say that the great revolutionary actions of the revolutionary students in attacking bourgeois ideology, customs and habits is another instance of the great material strength that is generated by Mao Tsetung's thought once it grips the revolutionary masses. Speaking at a discussion meeting of the 12th company of a garrison unit in Peking commanders and fighters said that the revolutionary actions of the young fighters are smashing the old world and building a new world. Pao Hsi-ming, of a P.L.A. Navy Air Force unit who won a combat citation, second class, for shooting down a U.S. made plane of the Chiang gang, told a Hsinhua correspondent that the revolutionary actions of the Red Guards were thoroughgoing revolutionary actions as the result of their following the teachings of Chairman Mao and acting according to his instructions. "They are doing right and doing fine," he said.[3]

Cultural Revolution

The Red Guards became the vehicle of the Cultural Revolution, serving as “soldiers” to oppose what their leaders called “feudalism, capitalism, and revisionism” and the “Four Olds:” old customs, old habits, old traditions, and old thinking. They hung “big character posters” in public places, promoting their ideology and criticizing accused reactionaries. By September, 1966, the movement had become increasingly violent. Red Guards began vandalizing bookstores, libraries, churches, temples, and monuments; and breaking into private homes to destroy old books, Western-style clothing, paintings and art objects.[4] Espousing Mao’s slogan, “Rebellion is Justified,” Red Guards attacked intellectuals, professionals, and anyone who had contact with the West, or represented traditional Chinese culture or religion. Many people in the fields of education, medicine, academia, media, literature, and law enforcement were attacked and labeled by the Red Guard as "capitalist roaders" or "anti-revolutionaries." Hundreds of thousands of professionals and scholars were beaten to death, or humiliated and tortured in public; many were sent to “May Seventh Cadre Schools” to perform hard labor.[5] Millions of students were also sent to the countryside to do agricultural labor.[6]

Zhang Chengzhi, the original Red Guard leader, attempted to control the violence by writing petitions to senior party officials, but The People's Daily responded by publishing a phrase of Mao's; "Good, very Good," which originated from Mao's speech on peasant violence against landlords during the 1920s.

At a Communist Party meeting in October, 1966, provincial party leaders complained about the chaos generated by the Red Guards. Mao acknowledged the validity of their complaints, but declared that it would do more good than harm to let the Cultural Revolution continue for several more months.

Red Guards’ Battle Song (Hongweibing Zhan Ge)[7]
We are Chairman Mao’s Red Guards,
We steel our red hearts in great winds and waves.
We arm ourselves with Mao Tse-tung’s thought
To sweep away all pests.
We are Chairman Mao’s Red Guards,
Absolutely firm in our proletarian stand,
Marching on the revolutionary road of our forbears,
We shoulder the heavy task of our age.
We are Chairman Mao’s Red Guards,
Vanguards of the cultural revolution.
We unite with the masses and together plunge into the battle
To wipe out all monsters and demons.
Dare to criticize and repudiate, dare to struggle,
Never stop making revolutionary rebellion.
We will smash the old world
And keep our revolutionary state red for ten thousand generations!

Armed Clashes

In January 1967, the Red Guard movement began to produce the actual overthrow of provincial Chinese Communist Party committees. The first such “power seizure” took place in Shanghai, and was followed by temporary confusion as to just what kind of new political structure should be established to replace the discredited municipal CCP and government apparatuses. The concept of a “revolutionary committee” was adopted, an appellation that was used for Chinese government committees until the late 1970s. The remaining CCP leaders called for a halt to the Cultural Revolution in February 1967, and more conservative forces attempted to curb Red Guard excesses in a movement called the “February adverse current.” Mao called on the Peoples Liberation Army under Lin Biao to step in on behalf of the Maoist Red Guards, but this caused division within the military rather than increasing support for radical youths. By the summer of 1967, large armed clashes were occurring in Chinese cities, and even Chinese embassies abroad were taken over by their own Red Guards.

The Red Guards began to splinter into zealous factions, based on the schools they had attended, the political status of their families, and the rivalry among Red Guard leaders. Each group claimed to be the “true” representative of the thought of Mao Zedong.[8] The resulting chaos and anarchy paralyzed the urban economy and caused industrial production for 1968 to drop twelve percent below that of 1966.

Chinese foreign relations became imperiled when the Red Guards began attacking foreign embassies in Beijing. In August 1967, the main building of the British Embassy was burned down, and in September, Soviet troops were deployed along the Chinese border after Soviet diplomats were harassed by Red Guards.

When violence broke out in the summer of 1968, Mao called in the Peoples Liberation Army to control the Red Guards. On July 28, 1968, Mao and the CCP leaders met with Red Guard leaders, criticized their armed struggle, and abolished the Red Guards.[9] Officers and soldiers were sent to take over schools, factories, and government agencies. The army simultaneously forced millions of urban Red Guards to move to rural areas, removing the most disruptive force from the cities.


Apart from the devastating effects of the Cultural Revolution, for which they provided the driving force, the Red Guards defaced or destroyed 4,922 out of 6,843 temples, shrines, and other heritage sites in China.[10] Institutions of higher education remained closed for four years, until the fall of 1970, depriving many Chinese youth of a college education. Many members of the Red Guards never completed their educations. Hundreds of thousands of intellectuals and professionals were killed, beaten, or sent to hard labor camps. Numerous top party officials, including Liu Shaoqi and Peng Dehuai were attacked and dismissed. When the Ninth Congress of the Chinese Communist Party met in April 1969, two-thirds of the Central Committee’s 90 former members were missing.[11]

References in popular culture

  • In the film The Last Emperor, the Red Guard appeared near the end of the film, humiliating the kind prison warden who treated the Emperor of China Puyi nicely.
  • In the film, To Live, Directed by Zhang Yimou, the Red Guards appear in a few scenes, showing their various types of activity.
  • In the film Farewell My Concubine, the Red Guards humiliate Cheng Dieyi and Duan Xiaolou as they try to overthrow the old society.
  • In the film The Blue Kite, Tei Tou's classmates are shown wearing the red scarfs of the red guards, and the film ends with the red guards denouncing his step-father.
  • Jung Chang's autobiography, Wild Swans, describes the alleged atrocities committed by the Red Guards.
  • In Hong Kong, TVB and ATV often depicted the brutality of the Red Guards in films and television dramas. They are rarely portrayed in film and television programs produced in mainland China.
  • The novel about the Cultural Revolution, Red Scarf Girl, by Ji-Li Jiang, features prominently the Red Guards. The main character often wishes she could become one.
  • In the book, Son of the Revolution, main character, Liang Heng, becomes a Red Guard at age 12, despite the years of persecution he and his family received from them.
  • Li Cunxin often referred to the Red Guards in his autobiography, Mao's Last Dancer.


  1. W Scott Morton and Charlton M. Lewis, China: Its History and Culture (2005), p. 216.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Peking Review, Red Guards Destroy the Old and Establish the New. Retrieved September 19, 2007.
  4. Dorothy Perkins, Encyclopedia of China: The Essential Reference to China, its History and Culture (1999), p. 423.
  5. Morton and Lewis, p. 215-216.
  6. Perkins, p. 423.
  7. China Reconstructs, Smash the Old World! How the "Red Guards' Battle Song" Was Born by Red Guards of the Middle School of the Central Conservatory of Music. Retrieved September 19, 2007.
  8. "毛泽东与清华大学 (Mao Zedong and Tsinghua University)", People's Daily, 2001-04-13. Retrieved 2007-04-16.
  9. Perkins. P. 223
  10. Michael Galduroz, Yuki Satou, and Alex Busetto, Red Guards, Dicovering China. Retrieved September 19, 2007.
  11. Morton, p. 218.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Chong, Woei Lien. 2002. China's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution: Master Narratives and Post-Mao Counternarratives. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. ISBN 0742518736
  • Lin, Jing. 1991. The Red Guards' Path to Violence: Political, Educational, and Psychological Factors. New York: Praeger. ISBN 0275938727
  • MacFarquhar, Roderick and Michael Schoenhals. 2006. Mao's Last Revolution. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674023323
  • Morton, W. Scott and Charlton M. Lewis. 2005. China: Its History and Culture. New York: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0071412794
  • P’an, Chao-ying and Raymond J. De Jaegher. 1968. Peking's Red Guards; the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. New York: Twin Circle Pub. Co.
  • Perkins, Dorothy. 1999. Encyclopedia of China: The Essential Reference to China, its History and Culture. New York: Facts on File. ISBN 0816026939

External links

All links retrieved December 7, 2022.


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