The Odyssey
Base Camp
Trek Connect
Time Machine
Multimedia and Special Guests

India and China
Kavitha Dispatch

Youth in Power:
The Red Guards of Communist China
July 19, 2000

Click image for larger view
People joined the Communist Army or the Red Guards at a very young age
Have you ever tried to imagine yourself living in a different time or place? What would life be like? Imagine you were a Native American teenager living 500 years ago. Maybe you'd learn to hunt from your elders or maybe you'd already have kids of your own! Imagine you lived in a village in WestAfrica, perhaps Dogon Country in Mali. Even if you were lucky enough to have attended primary school, by the time you hit your teenage years, you'd be working in the fields, herding goats, or helping your parents around the house.

Now, imagine you were a teenager living in China in the late 1960s. You too would not have secondary school to attend, because classes were all canceled. Instead, there's a chance that you would go to school to watch other students terrorize and beat up your old teachers. In fact, you and your friends had just been given a license to do just about anything no matter how violent or how destructive. So now your peers are vandalizing the streets, looting people's homes, burning books and bashing up old monuments....perhaps you are too?

Your Turn!!!

Why did Chairman Mao choose young people to send out his message? Are you easily persuaded by new ideas?

Share your thoughts
and see what others wrote!

It seems too crazy to imagine. It seems too crazy to be true. But it is! Just over 30 years ago, youth your age here in China were wreaking havoc throughout the cities and the countryside, destroying ancient artifacts, burning artwork, and torturing adults and peers...How did they get away with this kind of behavior? Would you believe they were encouraged to do it by the government?!!!

Last week we learned about some of the bizarre aspects of an important part of Chinese history known as the Cultural Revolution. We saw how here in Chengdu, teahouses and operas were shut down, and games like cards and chess were banned because they were seen as "bourgeois" remnants of the past. We learned that Mao Zedong led the Communist Party to gain control and form the People's Republic of China, then started to feel his power fade within the party. Thus he, his wife, and a few of their closest friends and colleagues schemed up the Cultural Revolution to attack all opposition and give Mao absolute authority.

So what does this have to do with out of control, power-tripping teenagers?

Click image for larger view
Everyone wore the Communist blue workers' uniform, anything fancier could be considered 'bourgeois'
What Mao was trying to pull off in the Cultural Revolution was unheard of and in many ways irrational. He was trying to break up the same party he had spent so many years convincing people to devote their lives to. Adults were cautious of the mixed signals they were receiving from Mao and the party, so Mao turned to the youth. Mao was basically trying to turn the nation upside down, erase the past and create something brand new, with him as the sole leader. To accomplish something so monumental he needed to shock the nation and show the people that he meant business. What better agents than youth? The youth that had grown up with the beloved Chairman Mao as their hero and liberator were quick to heed his battle cry. Mao increased his popularity by getting rid of all textbooks and forcing all students to read only his essays and editorials. Students would gather at schools to read quotes of Chairman Mao from the "little red book" and loudspeakers would report the front page headlines of the People's Daily newspaper: "Chairman Mao is the red sun in our hearts!", "We will smash whoever opposes Chairman Mao!" Full page portraits of Mao were hung everywhere...he was the biggest thing since the Beatles (oh wait, they weren't Chinese!)

Teachers and professors were prime targets during the Cultural Revolution because intellectuals like them often questioned the irrational behavior they saw in the government's actions. Mao stirred up the youth to "smash up" the education system that "treated pupils like enemies," and the People's Daily ran articles claiming that teachers were poisoning the minds of the youth.

Click image
for larger view
A Kuomintang Officer
By the summer of 1966, youth were organizing themselves in groups and wearing red arm bands on their sleeves...the Red Guards had been formed. The Red Guards were basically youth who felt moved to do their part in fulfilling the goals of their idol and hero, Chairman Mao. At first it was made up of just children of high officials in the Communist Party. Mao praised the Red Guards and gave them the backing of the People's Liberation Army (PLA). He encouraged them to take on a war-like attitude. All of a sudden, youth were given the power to fill their school-free days with violence and vandalism.

The Red Guards started off with their teachers, selecting some and publicly criticizing and humiliating them. In some cases, teachers were beaten or kept as prisoners in the classrooms. The unlucky teachers that were chosen were proclaimed to be "counter-revolutionaries" or supporters of the Communist enemy: the Kuomintang. But there were no clear rules, so students who disliked a teacher for any reason had their chance to take revenge.

Mao was very pleased with the response and started having huge rallies for the Red Guards in Tianamen Square in Beijing. Youth from all over the country were encouraged to make the journey, for the chance to see Chairman Mao in person. Youth jammed all the trains heading to Beijing, and the government ordered to let them ride for free. Millions of youth gathered in the enormous square waving their red books and chanting "Long Live Chairman Mao!."

Click image for larger view
Old photographs of wealthy relatives like these could have been enough to be labeled a 'counter-revolutionary'
At rallies like these and in editorials in the People's Daily, Mao continued to incite the youth. He encouraged them to take to the countryside and destroy all the opposition. Backed by the PLA's support, nothing was safe from the onslaught of the Red Guards. Adventure-hungry youth took to the streets and raided homes of families that had any hint or relation to anything "counter-revolutionary." Photographs, books, and works of art were burned because they were seen as "feudal" or "bourgeois." Many artists committed suicide after being forced to watch their own art works burned. Just about anyone, even top officials of the Communist Party, could be labeled "counter-revolutionar" at any time, and thus suffer the consequences in the hands of the Red Guards. If it was revealed that you had a distant relation who was once a wealthy landowner, your home may have been looted and your family name denounced. Even something as silly as throwing out a newspaper with Mao's photo on it could get you in trouble. Sometimes "counter-revolutionaries" were paraded through the streets wearing a dunce hat and beaten in a public place.

Don't get me wrong though-- not all youth during the Cultural Revolution were violent. Most of the Red Guards just joined out of love for Chairman Mao and out of the excitement of the time. Aside from vandalism and violence, the Red Guards had other ways of asserting their power. For example, here in Chengdu, Red Guards renamed streets and stores to take on a revolutionary feel. "Five generations under One Roof" was changed to "Destroy the Old," while &"The Fragrance of Sweet Wind" was renamed to "The Whiff of Gunpowder." They even tried to change traffic patterns. The overzealous youth decided that red, the color of the communist revolution should not mean "stop," and that traffic should not keep right, it should keep left (the communist movement is considered a "leftist" movement). With such madness like this going on, much of China was in a state of chaos and confusion.


wreaking havoc: - to cause widespread destruction
bourgeois: - (pronunciation: Boorzh WAH) a member of the property-owning class; a capitalist
monumental: - impressively significant, large, and enduring
overzealous: - excessively enthusiastic

My friend Bing laughs about how his aunts and uncles joined the Red Guards and went all the way up to Beijing to attend one of the rallies and get a chance to see their beloved Chairman Mao in person. When they returned home, their very own uncle, who had been a dedicated official in the Communist Party, had been labeled a 'counter-revolutionary' and was beaten to death. "The kids during those times didn't even know what they were doing!"

Click image for larger view
These peace-loving teenagers are lucky to live in the Chengdu of today
It's amazing to me that Bing, like all the other Chinese people I've spoken with, can talk about the Cultural Revolution so lightly. To me, the more I learn about it, the sadder I become about what happened during those years. I doubt that most of the youth in the Red Guards realized the consequences of their actions as they got caught up in the excitement of the moment. So much of China's ancient treasures have been lost because of their raids. Ancient temples, palaces, pagodas, and monuments all over the country were destroyed and thousands were killed. But I guess since the Cultural Revolution was such a recent part of history here, every family has somehow come to terms with it, and now the people here are not as shocked by it as I am.

I don't know if I could ever come to terms with shocking stories of teenagers terrorizing the cities and villages. Could you? But then again, can anyone ever REALLY imagine what life for someone in different place or time is like?


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Yang-Yang - Grand Dreams of the Mighty Yangzi River
Team - Marco of the Million Lies?
Abeja - Dragons, Temples, and Mighty Rivers - Where Legend and History Swirl Together

Meet Kavitha | Kavitha's Archive

Base Camp | Trek Connect
Time Machine | Multimedia and Special Guests

Home | Search | Teacher Zone | Odyssey Info

Meet Kavitha