Radical violence associated with the Cultural Revolution began in the universities and secondary schools of Beijing, where fanatical students, calling themselves Red Guards, responded literally to Mao's call to "bombard the headquarters." Brainwashed by the Communist system and encouraged by Mao, they attacked certain teachers and administrators who they believed were hostile to Mao and his ideals.

David McKenzie and Steven Jiang of CNN wrote: “The early enforcers were the Red Guards, a proxy army of children and young adults that violently struck out at anyone not toeing the Maoist line. Intellectuals, educators as well as artifacts were all targeted. A favorite method was to whip their elders with the heavy metal buckles on their leather belts.” “There was absolutely a top down approach to the violence and there is plenty of evidence that everything was very carefully planned," says historian Frank Dikötter. "There were constant messages going from the Party to the students. There was nothing spontaneous about it." [Source: David McKenzie and Steven Jiang, CNN, June 5, 2014]

Websites and Books on the Cultural Revolution

Good Websites and Sources on the Cultural Revolution Virtual Museum of the Cultural Revolution ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Morning Sun ; Red Guards and Cannibals New York Times ; The South China Morning Post has produced a wonderful multimedia report on the Cultural Revolution. Posters: Cultural Revolution posters at The Ohio State University online exhibition Picturing Power: Posters of the Cultural Revolution and the University of Westminster Chinese Poster Collection ]

Great Leap Forward: University of Chicago Chronicle ; Mt. Holyoke China Essay Series ; Wikipedia ; Industrial Planning Video You Tube Death Under Mao: Uncounted Millions, Washington Post article ; Death Tolls People’s Republic of China : Timeline ; ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Cold War International Project ; China Essay Series ; Everyday Life in Maoist; Wikipedia article on propaganda Wikipedia ; Cultural Revolution; Communist China Posters Landsberger Posters ; More Posters ; Yet more posters Ann Tompkins and Lincoln Cushing Collection Mao Zedong Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chinese ; Mao Internet Library ; Paul Noll Mao site ; Mao Quotations; ; Propaganda Paintings of Mao ; New York Times; Communist Party History Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Illustrated History of Communist Party

Books on the Cultural Revolution: "The Cultural Revolution: A People's History” by Frank Dikotter (Bloomsbury 2016); “The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution” by Ji Xianlin (New York Review Books, 2016); "Wild Swans” by Jung Chang, an international bestseller; “Ten Years of Madness: Oral Histories of the Cultural Revolution” and “One Hundred People's Ten Years” by Feng Jicai. “The Execution of Mayor Yin and Other Stories from the Great Cultural Revolution” by Chen Jo-his; Life and “Death in Shanghai” by Nien Chang; “Enemies of the People” by Anne F. Thurston.

“Colors of the Mountain” by Da Chen (Random House, 2000) is a coming-of-age set in the Cultural Revolution. It was described by Newsweek as "surprisingly free of cynicism or bitterness...all the more poignant by the wonder and vulnerability in the voice of their child narrator." “The Lily Theater: A Novel of Modern China” by Lulu Wang is an entertaining and interesting depiction of the Cultural Revolution originally written in Dutch by a Chinese woman with a strong, eccentric voice.

The human costs of the Cultural Revolution have been best captured by Simon Leys (the pen-name of the Belgian sinologist and literary critic Pierre Ryckmans) in his books "Chinese Shadows" (1974) and "The Burning Forest" (1987). "Voice from the Whirlwind" by Feng Jicai is a collection of oral histories from the Cultural Revolution. Also worth a look is "My Name is Number 4: A True Story of the Cultural revolution" by Ting-Xing Ye (Thomas Dunne, 2008). Li Zhensheng’s photographs of the Cultural Revolution can be found in “Red Color News Soldier: A Chinese Photographer’s Odyssey Through the Cultural Revolution,” edited by Robert Pledge and published by Phaidon Press in 2016. You can help this site a little by ordering your Amazon books through this link:

Beginning of the Red Guard Movement

The May 1966 poster by the philosophy professor Nie Yuanzi is credited with launching the Red Guard Movement. Many students, whose "suspect" revolutionary background denied them opportunities, embraced the Red Guard movement as a way of showing "they could be as revolutionary as their parents" and as a means of exacting revenge against party members who had discriminated against them.

In August 1966, Mao stood in Tiananmen Square before one million Red Guards, many of them waving Little Red Books and chanting slogans like "Down with the Four Olds!, Up with the Four News!, New Thinking! New Customs! New Habits." In February 1967, Red Guards led 3 million peasants into Shanghai for a pro-Mao rally. Mao met with hundreds of thousands of young people in Tiananmen Square in Beijing 8 times during the Cultural Revolution.

Later the Red Guard movement spread to provinces and villages across China where local committees, encouraged by Red Guards imprisoned, tortured and murdered a surprisingly large number of "class enemies," tried by "peasant juries" in kangaroo courts. The Red Guard movement ousted municipal party members in Shanghai in January 1967 and eventually shut down the entire Chinese educational system. Many of the "class enemies" were simply victims of violent score-settling in the absence of an impartial police force or an independent legal system.

Mao and the Red Guard

Mao felt that he could no longer depend on the formal party organization, convinced that it had been permeated with the "capitalist" and bourgeois obstructionists. He turned to Lin Biao and the PLA to counteract the influence of those who were allegedly "`left' in form but `right' in essence." The PLA was widely extolled as a "great school" for the training of a new generation of revolutionary fighters and leaders. Maoists also turned to middle-school students for political demonstrations on their behalf. These students, joined also by some university students, came to be known as the Red Guards. Millions of Red Guards were encouraged by the Cultural Revolution group to become a "shock force" and to "bombard" with criticism both the regular party headquarters in Beijing and those at the regional and provincial levels. [Source: The Library of Congress *]

In his book “On the Cultural Revolution in Tibet,” Melvyn Goldstein wrote: “The first activists were young students called Red Guards, who began attacking their teachers and administrators, searching to uncover those who were following the capitalist road and had sneaked into the party... In Beijing, the incipient chaos in schools in June and July prompted Liu Shaoqi to send work teams“exercise leadership,” that is, to try to restrain the students and restore order. Mao, however, disapproved of work teams constraining workers and students, that is, controlling the Cultural Revolution, labeling this as an act of “white terror”. Consequently, at the start of August he intervened to clarify the direction of the new campaign by publishing his famous “big-character poster”, which said tersely and forcefully, “Bombard the Headquarters”, that is, vigorously attack the party headquarters to uncover and criticize those in power who were taking China down the wrong road to capitalism. [Source: Melvyn Goldstein, “ On the Cultural Revolution in Tibet: The Nyemo Incident of 1969,” University of California Press, 2009. Goldstein is a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Case Western Reserve University]

“Red Guard activities were promoted as a reflection of Mao's policy of rekindling revolutionary enthusiasm and destroying "outdated," "counterrevolutionary" symbols and values. Mao's ideas, popularized in the Quotations from Chairman Mao, became the standard by which all revolutionary efforts were to be judged. The "four big rights"--speaking out freely, airing views fully, holding great debates, and writing big-character posters --became an important factor in encouraging Mao's youthful followers to criticize his intraparty rivals. The "four big rights" became such a major feature during the period that they were later institutionalized in the state constitution of 1975. The result of the unfettered criticism of established organs of control by China's exuberant youth was massive civil disorder, punctuated also by clashes among rival Red Guard gangs and between the gangs and local security authorities. The party organization was shattered from top to bottom. (The Central Committee's Secretariat ceased functioning in late 1966.) *

right The resources of the public security organs were severely strained. Faced with imminent anarchy, the PLA--the only organization whose ranks for the most part had not been radicalized by Red Guard-style activities--emerged as the principal guarantor of law and order and the de facto political authority. And although the PLA was under Mao's rallying call to "support the left," PLA regional military commanders ordered their forces to restrain the leftist radicals, thus restoring order throughout much of China. The PLA also was responsible for the appearance in early 1967 of the revolutionary committees, a new form of local control that replaced local party committees and administrative bodies. The revolutionary committees were staffed with Cultural Revolution activists, trusted cadres, and military commanders, the latter frequently holding the greatest power. *

“The radical tide receded somewhat beginning in late 1967, but it was not until after mid-1968 that Mao came to realize the uselessness of further revolutionary violence. Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, and their fellow "revisionists" and "capitalist roaders" had been purged from public life by early 1967, and the Maoist group had since been in full command of the political scene. *

Members of the Red Guard

The Red Guard was made up mainly of high-school- and university-age youths. They wore red armbands that read: “Red-Color New Soldier.” In her book Wild Swans, former Red Guard Jung Chang wrote, Mao wanted to establish "absolute loyalty and obedience to himself alone," and to do this he needed terror. "He saw boys and girls in their early teens and early twenties as his ideal agents" because they were easy to manipulate.

One woman, now an editor of a magazine in Hong Kong, told the Washington Post, she joined the Red Guard when she was 18 "because I felt it was a glorious thing to do...In the beginning I had no independent thoughts. I thought what the Communist Party asked me to think. I did what the Communist Party asked me to do. But I saw close friends who could kill or be killed in a very inhuman way. I began to have doubts about our system and our government. I learned that very kind and even gentle people can change personality in such a situation. Some of the gentlest people became very cruel."

People joined the Red Guards because there wasn’t much else to do and participated in the rallies because if they didn’t they could be accused of being class enemies. The photographer Li Zhensheng told U.S. News and World Report, “If the crowd chanted, I chanted; if everyone raised their fists, I raised my first...If you didn’t follow the crowd they could easily turn on you.”

Becoming a Red Guard

young Red Guard

Lishui is the nickname of a farmer in the Tianjin area who became a Red Guard. Karoline Kan wrote in Foreign Policy Magazine: “Lishui’s story began in May 1966, when he was 18 years old. He told me he heard a government announcement on the village loudspeaker: “Some representatives of the Bourgeoisie have creeped into our party, our government, our military, and our cultural departments. They are a group of counterrevolutionary revisionists and they are waiting for the right moment to seize power.” [Source: Karoline Kan, Foreign Policy Magazine, May 16, 2016 \=\]

“One night not long after the announcement, when Lishui’s father was putting on a shadow play under candlelight for his younger children, Lishui’s heard the sound of drum, gongs, and voices, chanting, “Down with the landlords and their bastards!” “What’s that?” Wang’s young brothers and sisters asked. “Red Guards,” said their father. \=\

“Not long after, Lishui told me, he found that almost every young person around him had become a Red Guard. He soon joined them, for reasons he could not articulate clearly. “It’s like being pushed by a flood,” he said. There was also an intitial attraction to the position. There was less work to do at Lishui’s village production team, because so much time was spent on political activities. His younger siblings did not need to attend school.” \=\

Kind of People That Became Red Guards

Dai Jianzhong, a sociologist in Beijing, attended Tsinghua University High School, where the first Red Guard groups were formed. He told the New York Times: “My impression was that, in a sense, the Cultural Revolution had already begun in 1964. Even before the Cultural Revolution, there were divisions in our class over family background. Many students from bad class backgrounds like me couldn’t win acceptance to the special university preparatory classes, or membership in the Youth League. Those chances went disproportionately to the children of officials. The fact is that they were much more mature and in-the-know than us. They really did see themselves as the heirs to power – that our parents won the country and so we’re the natural heirs – and this thinking has continued into the present. [Source: “Voices from China’s Cultural Revolution”, Chris Buckley, Didi Kirsten Tatlow, Jane Perlez and Amy Qin, New York Times, May 16, 2016 ~~]

“After the Cultural Revolution broke out, they were also the ones who formed the first Red Guard group. Kids from bad family backgrounds didn’t have a chance of joining. They first formed by holding secret meetings in the grounds of the Old Summer Palace. From early June, the incidents of beating and berating teachers and the principal began. The principal would stand on the platform. “Stand up!” they’d yell. He’d stand up. “Head down!” He’d lower head. They’d press his head down further. Then it took off from there.” ~~

Confessions of a Red Guard

Yu Xiangzhen was a Red Guard during China's Cultural Revolution, He told CNN: “I have lived a life haunted by guilt. In 1966, I was one of Chairman Mao Zedong's Red Guards. Myself and millions of other middle and high school students started denouncing our teachers, friends, families and raiding homes and destroying other people's possessions. Textbooks explain the Cultural Revolution -- in which hundreds of thousands of people were killed and millions more abused and traumatized -- as a political movement started and led by Mao "by mistake," but in reality it was a massive catastrophe for which we all bear responsibility. [Source: Yu Xiangzhen, CNN, May 16, 2016 ~~]

“On May 16, 1966, I was practicing calligraphy with my 37 classmates when a high-pitched voice came from the school's loudspeaker, announcing the central government's decision to start what it called a "Cultural Revolution." It was my first year of junior high, I was just 13. "Fellow students, we must closely follow Chairman Mao," the speaker bellowed. "Get out of the classroom! Devote yourselves to the Cultural Revolution!" Two boys rushed out of door, heading to the playground yelling something. I left more slowly, holding hands with my best friend Haiyun as we followed everyone else outside. It would be my last normal day of school. ~~

“As Red Guards, we subjected anyone perceived as "bourgeois" or "revisionist" to brutal mental and physical attacks. I regret most what we did to our homeroom teacher Zhang Jilan. I was one of the most active students -- if not the most revolutionary -- when the class held a struggle session against Ms. Zhang. I pulled accusations out of nowhere, saying she was a heartless and cold woman, which was entirely false. Others accused her of being a Christian because the character "Ji" in her name could refer to Christianity. Our groundless criticisms were then written into "big character" posters -- a popular way of criticizing "class enemies" and spreading propaganda -- 60 of them in total, which covered the exterior walls of our classroom building. ~~

“My generation grew up drinking wolf's milk: we were born with hatred, and taught to struggle and hate everyone. Some of my fellow Red Guards argue that we were just innocent children led astray. But we were wrong. It pains me that many of my generation choose to forget the past and some even reminisce about the "good old days" when they could travel the country as privileged, carefree Red Guards. I do not confess because I committed fewer sins or experienced fewer hardships than others. I bear responsibility for many tragedies and abuses, and I can only express my regret to those who lost their loved ones during the Cultural Revolution. But I do not ask for forgiveness. I want to tell the truths of the Cultural Revolution as someone who lived through the madness and chaos, to warn people of the spectacular destructiveness, so that we can avoid ever repeating it. Fifty years on, however, I am worried by the increasing leader-worship we see in state media, similar to the ideological fervor that surrounded Mao. We must stay vigilant. We can't have the gruesome brutality of the Cultural Revolution start again.” ~~

Yu Xiangzhen, a Former Red Guard, Recalls Her Experience

20080218-young red guard u wash.jpg
Young Red Guard
Tania Branigan wrote in The Guardian, “Yu Xiangzhen was an idealistic 14-year-old when the Cultural Revolution broke out, and among the first to form a Red Guards group. "We were taught that Chairman Mao was closer to us than our parents---he was like a god to me," she says. From the first, she had doubts: when she saw fellow students berating and humiliating teachers, hacking off their hair and pouring glue over them; when she watched her peers assaulting "capitalists" and "rightists". It felt wrong, and yet, "I still thought it was right because everything I was hearing was that we needed to break the old world to build a new one...I didn't think these people deserved to be beaten up....[But in refusing to take part] I felt I was, indeed, not brave enough. It was a loss of face." [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, February 24, 2012]

Then, she says, came "something so horrifying I will never be able to forget it as long as I live". There is no doubt she is still traumatised, and her voice rises to a shriek as she describes it. "It was dark---I was standing by the side of a road, waiting for my friends. I heard someone whispering for water and saw a man crawling towards me from the basketball court," she says. "He was covered in blood. The blood on his head had congealed already. I was terrified. Then I saw the court---it was almost covered by dead bodies." All, she believes, beaten to death by Red Guards.

Yet, for these teenagers, it was a heady as well as a frightening time. Hours after witnessing the atrocity, Yu was on a train to Shanghai. They were travelling first to spread the cause---bearing leaflets titled "Long live the red terror"---but then "it just became travel and leisure". Trains were free to Red Guards; food and lodgings awaited them. "There were no plans, no destinations” I was just very happy."

"The Red Guards who were most active had [political] problems in their family and tried to prove they were different," she suggests. "Every time we get together, I look for the people who were most brutal. One told me it was exciting to go to people's houses and smash things and beat them up. You felt you could do whatever you wanted---that you were in control” And you thought it was the right thing to do."

“Destroy the Four Olds”

ransacking a Russian church in Harbin

Driven by Mao’s edict to attack the “four olds,” gangs of Red Guards smashed up temples, destroyed artwork, and demolished libraries and cemeteries. The Communist Party cheered on the destruction, with the People’s Daily publishing a June 1 editorial exhorting cadres to “sweep away all monsters and demons!” A Red Guard leader who led raids on temples and other cultural treasures told the Christian Science Monitor: “Chairman Mao called for us to ‘Destroy the Four Olds’… and whatever Chairman Mao said, we did it right away.” [Source: Stuart Leavenworth, Christian Science Monitor, May 31, 2016 |~|]

Zehao Zhou wrote in USA Today: “Waves of violence swept across the country: Foreign embassies were sacked. Political untouchables were summarily deported from the city or even buried alive. Suicides became widespread. Among the most atrocious events that occurred during the tumultuous summer of 1966 was the “Destroy the Four Olds Campaign.” Anything that expressed old ideas, old habits, old customs and old culture was subject to the wrath of the Red Guards. [Source: Zehao Zhou, USA Today Network, May 14, 2016 ^*^]

“In just a few weeks, the material representation of 5,000 years of Chinese civilization was summarily destroyed or irrevocably damaged — the equivalent of the eradication of all material symbols of the Greek, Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions. The numbers are mind-boggling: Almost 90 percent of Tibet’s monasteries and temples were razed and roughly 74 percent of the historic sites in the birthplace of Confucius, China’s Jerusalem, were obliterated. ^*^

“In my own Shanghai neighborhood, what I will always remember is when a pack of Red Guards attacked our community church, brought out all of its Bibles into the middle of the street and set them on fire. That horrific moment — seeing the sky darkened with the floating ashes of burned Bibles — remains seared in my memory even now.” ^*^

Carrying Out the Destroy the Four Olds Command

looting the church in Harbin

Karoline Kan wrote in Foreign Policy Magazine: “One day, the Red Guards received a “high command” that they should clean away all the “Four Olds” — old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas. Their first step was to search people’s houses and confiscate any property that fit any of these broad categories; it could be a traditional painting, or a table. [Source: Karoline Kan, Foreign Policy Magazine, May 16, 2016 \=\]

“One of the first targets was Lishui’s grandfather’s house. Terrified of severe punishment, the old man handed over his collection of books and paintings before those young people, including his own grandsons, would find them. The Red Guards piled the books and paintings and burned them. To show his sincerity and to avoid further punishment, my great-grandfather used the fire to boil water in front of the guards. Lishui also followed the other Red Guards to the west end of the village, where the village’s ancestral tombs lay. Dozens of the young guards started dug up tombs, broke coffins, and looted graves for jewelry, leaving the bones in the dry grass. Our family tombs weren’t spared. \=\

“But Lishui isn’t sorry about that either. He told me he followed guards to the tombs many times, but insists he did not take anything. “It was the leaders” who took the jewelry, he said, “although nobody knows what they did with the golden earrings and bracelets.” Lishui told me what they did was “not totally wrong,” because its intent was to convert the land so it could be used to plant grain. \=\

“Red Guards also banished Peking Opera, a once much-beloved art form, from the village. One day, after they’d finished destroying part of the local temple, Lishui and his fellow red guards broke into the village stock of opera stage settings and costumes and burned them. My uncle says he did think for a moment about how his father loved Peking Opera, and memories came back to him of old days when his father would take him onstage and let him practice reciting the lines of a small role. I never had a chance to ask my grandfather — once a frequent Peking Opera actor in the village, who until the last day of his life still held his radio to listen to famous opera performer Mei Lanfang — about how it felt to see his own son burning those cherished parts of his life. But I know my grandfather stopped singing Peking Opera for many years while the classic plays were banned and only eight “model operas” were permitted.” \=\

Red Guards Attacks on People

Karoline Kan wrote in Foreign Policy Magazine: Over time, Red Guards turned from attacking physical objects to attacking people. My uncle says he could feel the turn happening, but he could not stop it, or stop himself. Whenever the Red Guards and the “people’s militias” chanted slogans outside, the young children of my family would run out and see what was going on. Then one day, the chanting stopped outside a nearby house, home to a lady who was more than 60 years old. Her husband used to do business when they were young, so the woman became “old white hair,” a target. The Red Guards found a pair of golden earrings hidden behind some photos frames. The old woman was dragged out and beaten by wooden sticks as thick as arms. [Source: Karoline Kan, Foreign Policy Magazine, May 16, 2016 \=\]

“That same winter, my grandmother told me, a man surnamed Fu, one of the few landlords in the village, was found to have engaged in conduct before the founding of the People’s Republic of China that was “extremely guilty and evil.” So Red Guards dug a hole in the frozen river, tied Fu to a big stone, and pushed him into the hole. At first there was a cry and the sound of struggling in the water. Then everything was quiet except for the wind. \=\

“My great-grandfather, Lishui’s grandfather, was afraid for himself. Although he had already gambled away his property, it felt like hundreds of pairs of eyes were staring at his past: that of a young master, educated in Confucianism, who kept a concubine and was the village head during the nationalist Kuomingtang’s pre-Communist regime. He had negotiated with the occupying Japanese army when they passed through his village, giving them nice food and gifts in exchange for their mercy. \=\

“My mother once had a conversation with my great-grandfather. “They did not kill anyone when they lived in our village; isn’t that the result of my hard work?” she said he told her. “They killed so many people in our neighboring village. I don’t think I was wrong.” None of that mattered during the Cultural Revolution. My great-grandfather was forced to step on stage and accept criticism, wearing a “high hat,” which looked like a dunce cap, enumerating his crimes. Lishui worried about further retaliation against my grandfather, so Lishui visited his grandfather’s house to help him write self criticisms. \=\

“He was old and his eyes were diseased, so he told me his stories, and I wrote them down,” Lishui told me. “I also guided him to write what the Red Guards would like to hear. I remember a few lines: ‘I was born in 1899; at eight years old I started studying the Four Books and Five Classics taught by private teachers. I will reflect deeply and profoundly on my past.” But Lishui won’t blame Red Guards for his grandfather’s torment. “We were loyal, and we were following Chairman Mao’s guidelines,” Lishui said, “and what’s more important, we believed we were doing things that were good and meaningful.” He added that Chinese socialism was “facing great challenges from counterrevolutionists back then.” \=\

Violence by Red Guards

Yu Xiangzhen, a Red Guard, told CNN: “Our homeroom teacher Zhang Jilan was sent to the cowshed -- a makeshift prison for intellectuals and other "bourgeois elements" -- and suffered all kinds of humiliation and abuse. It wasn't until 1990 that I saw her again. During a class trip to the Great Wall, we made a formal apology to Ms. Zhang -- then in her 80s -- for what we had subjected her to. We asked what had happened to her in the cowshed. "It wasn't too bad," she said. "I was made to crawl like a dog on the ground." Hearing this, I burst into tears. I was not yet 14, and I had made her life a misery. She died two years after our apology. [Source: Yu Xiangzhen, CNN, May 16, 2016 ~~]

“At the height of the movement in 1968, people were publicly beaten to death every day during struggle sessions; others who had been persecuted threw themselves off tall buildings. Nobody was safe and the fear of being reported by others -- in many cases our closest friends and family members -- haunted us. At first, I was determined to be a good little revolutionary guard. But something bothered me. When I saw a student pour a bucket of rotten paste over our school principal in 1966, I sensed something wasn't right. I headed back to my dorm quietly, full of discomfort and guilt, thinking I wasn't revolutionary enough. ~~

“Later, when I was given a belt and told to whip an "enemy of the revolution", I ran away and was called a deserter by my fellow Red Guards. That same summer I caught a glimpse of Chairman Mao -- our Red Sun -- at Tiananmen Square, along with a million of other equally enthusiastic kids. I remember overwhelming feelings of joy. It wasn't until much later that I realized by blind idolization of Mao was a kind of worship even more fanatic than a cult. My father, a former war correspondent with state news agency Xinhua, was framed as a spy and denounced. But behind closed doors he warned my brother and I to "use our brains before taking action." "Don't do anything you will regret for the rest of your lives," he said. Slowly I began to Mao's wife Jiang Qing, who was a key leader of the Revolution, and I bowed grudgingly when my work unit had our mandatory daily worship ritual in front of the Chairman's image.” ~~

Targets of Red Guard Violence

Wu Qing, a human rights activist and retired professor, was teaching at a university in Beijing when the movement began. Her parents were prominent intellectuals. She told the New York Times: “I knew I would become a target because of my parents. My daddy served in the Kuomintang government and later was labeled a rightist. My mom had been labeled a reactionary writer, an unpunished rightist, and a running dog of the imperialists. [Source: “Voices from China’s Cultural Revolution”, Chris Buckley, Didi Kirsten Tatlow, Jane Perlez and Amy Qin, New York Times, May 16, 2016 ~~]

“But nothing happened to my parents until July or August 1966, when the Red Guards went to my home. My parents were forced to kneel on the ground for over three hours. At the time, my sister’s son was only a little over 2 months. The auntie was carrying him and she had to kneel down. It was feeding time, and they refused to let him be fed. They searched our home and took everything away. They were like robbers, they went in and took whatever they wanted. Then they locked the rooms. My parents stayed in a room smaller than 10 square meters. The students took away the cutting knives. They were afraid that my parents would commit suicide. ~~

“Then Minzu University held an exhibition. The Red Guards put all the things they had collected from the different families together and said they were all my parents’ stuff. They called it: “Exhibition of the Bourgeois Life of Wu Wenzao and Xie Bingxin.” There were pieces of gold, jade, silver and a lot of stuff. My parents had to stand outside of the exhibition every day for 10 days carrying a blackboard around their neck. ~~

“At the time, I was at my school. I couldn’t leave because there were struggle sessions against me. [Struggle sessions, when people were accused of political crimes, publicly humiliated and subject to verbal and physical abuse by a crowd, were a frequent occurrence during the Cultural Revolution] There were close to 80 in total. They said that because of my family background I could never love socialism and the Communist Party. The students couldn’t support me in public. But sometimes after the struggle sessions, they would come up to me when there was no one else around and apologize and say they were forced to do it. I never told my parents what happened to me. We never talked about it.” ~~

Cowsheds and Targets of Red Guard Violence

James Griffiths of CNN wrote: “ Party officials were by no means the only ones targeted by Red Guards and the newly empowered citizenry. Thousands of ordinary people — denounced as class enemies and counter revolutionaries — were abused, tortured and killed. Many were forced into "cowsheds” makeshift detention centers in which they were forced to perform manual labor and recite Maoist tracts and were regularly subject to beatings. "After a few months in the cowshed, I could feel my emotions being dulled and my thoughts growing more stupid by the day," writes Peking University professor Ji Xianlin in his memoir "The Cowshed.” [Source: James Griffiths, CNN, May 13, 2016 /^\]

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“His experiences during that time were a "dizzying descent into hell," Ji writes. But they were not uncommon. Ji and other, sometimes very elderly, professors and teachers were beaten, spat upon and tortured in rallies and criticism sessions that could last hours. In Daxing county, on the outskirts of Beijing, cadres ordered the extermination of all landlords and "other bad elements," Dikotter recounts. "Some were clubbed to death, others stabbed with chaff cutters or strangled with wire. Several were electrocuted. Children were hung by their feet and whipped.” More than 300 people were killed, with their bodies thrown into disused wells and mass graves./^\

“As the country plunged into chaos, Mao's fervor increased. "It's a game that Mao is playing," Dikotter says. "He incites students to attack teachers, then unleashes the population on the Party itself, then asks the army to step in, before you know it people are literally fighting each other.” According to Dikotter, Mao created a frenzied cycle "where people are endlessly trying to prove their allegiance to the Chairman.” /^\

In a review of “The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution” by Ji Xianlin, Zha Jianying wrote in the New York Review of Books: “At the center of the book is the cowshed, the popular term for makeshift detention centers that had sprung up in many Chinese cities at the time. This one was set up at the heart of the Peking University campus, where the author was locked up for nine months with throngs of other fallen professors and school officials, doing manual labor and reciting tracts of Mao’s writing. [Source: Zha Jianying, New York Review of Books, January 26, 2016 \*\]

“The inferno atmosphere of the place, the chilling variety of physical and psychological violence the guards daily inflicted on the convicts with sadistic pleasure, the starvation and human degeneration—all are vividly described. Indeed, of all the memoirs of the Cultural Revolution, I cannot think of another one that offers such a devastatingly direct and detailed testimony on the physical and mental abuse an entire imprisoned intellectual community suffered. After reading the book, a Chinese intellectual friend summed it up to me: “This is our Auschwitz.” \*\

Confessions of Violence and Killing by a Red Guard

Adrian Brown of Al Jazeera wrote: “For many Chinese people, the Cultural Revolution remains a taboo subject, especially among those of 65 years of age or older. But occasionally - just occasionally - you come across someone who is prepared to confess to the very worst of crimes.For the past three decades Wang Yiju has run a successful riding school and stud farm outside Beijing. But it is his life in the previous two decades that he has agreed to discuss on this bright spring day. [Source: Adrian Brown, Al Jazeera, May 13, 2016]

In clinical dispassionate language he describes how he became sucked into the anarchy going on all around him. "At first we were reluctant to beat others, but someone would criticise us … Finally we loved to beat others. Killing became very common at the time when people treated fighting as fun. It was natural to kill people in such circumstances," said Wang.

On August 5, 1967, Wang became a killer. His victim was another student from a rival faction. "I beat the back of his head with a rod. The rod was thick and hard, very long about 1.6 meters long, similar to the handle of a big hoe … I beat his head and broke the back of his skull. The police later told me that one blow was enough to kill a person with such a rod and with my power." Wang was arrested, but later freed after the family of the dead student forgave him. He finally made a full apology in 2008 and is urging others who killed to confess.

"Few people will understand what the Cultural Revolution was if we all hold back the truth," said Wang. "I think the true nature of that time is made up of memories and stories of the participants who clearly know what happened. Someone has to tell the truth, or our generation will have failed. That is why I spoke out."

Red Guards Attack My Sister and Father

Zehao Zhou wrote in USA Today: “Two enemies of the state lived under the same roof as me: my sister and my father. My sister’s crime was being a school principal, which qualified her as a “capitalist roader.” My father’s crime was his experience as a World War II veteran who served with the Flying Tigers in China, which qualified him as a “historical counterrevolutionary.” [Source: Zehao Zhou, USA Today Network, May 14, 2016]

My sister initially went into hiding, only to return to Shanghai on a day slated as a citywide "humiliation parade" for school principals. The Red Guards herded my sister, who was disabled, and hundreds of other school principals for miles on foot in downtown Shanghai. No evidence was necessary. Educators deserved the iron fists of the Red Guards and proletarian dictatorship, according to the Red Guards. Zehao Zhou of Manchester Township, Pa., is an assistant

My father’s wartime service with the Americans made him an easy target for Red Guards. Yet, despite being gravely ill and defenseless, he somehow managed to turn aside the assault. As the Red Guards approached his sick bed, my father said in a calm voice, “I am sick with tuberculosis. It is contagious.” Hearing that, the Red Guards, who recited “Fear neither hardship nor death” from Mao’s Little Red Book every day, turned tail and fled. While Dad dodged that assault, the cumulative effect of years of persecution caught up with him. He died shortly after that at age 49, and we were not even allowed to mourn this “enemy of the state.”

Bloody Battles Between the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution

barricade from a battle between Red Guard factions

Violence and death caused during the Cultural Revolution is now believed to have been more widespread than previously thought. Scholars originally thought that most of the violence ended with the suppression of the Red Guard and rebel organizations in 1968.

During one phase of the Cultural Revolution factory fought factory, school fought school and Red Guard factions fought each other over the honor of being the purest Maoists. One man in northeast China---who was 13 when he joined the Red Guards and said that "for a teenager" the Cultural Revolution "was very exciting”— described Red Guard factional fighting that began as a clash over ideals, escalated to struggle for local power, and ended up as a "revenge fest." "In the beginning, the two sides used sticks and clubs and spears," he told the Washington Post. "But then they grabbed hunting rifles, and it kept escalating. Our organization even used artillery." [Source: Daniel Southerland, Washington Post, July 18, 1994]

The worst clashes took place in the Sichuan, Province where rival groups of Red Guards fought "house to house street battles" with guns, rockets and tanks looted from the People's Liberation Army. Chengdu was where the first Red Guard clashes of the Cultural Revolution began, first around a cotton mill and then at a fighter-plane factory. In May 1967, conservative and radical factions in Chengdu, a center for defense industries, battled with automatic rifles, mortars recoilless rifles and rocket propelled grenade launchers. One side obtained weapons from local militias and People's Liberation Army units. in the summer of 1967, PLA troops shot dead a many as a thousand Red Guards members who protested the arrest of a faction leader. [Source: Daniel Southerland, Washington Post, July 18, 1994]

Scholars now believe that two little-known and little-studied campaigns of the Cultural Revolution---the "Purification of the Class Ranks" (1968-70) and the campaign against "May 16 Elements" (1968-69)---were among the bloodiest events of the Cultural Revolution.

Red Guard Violence in Beijing

20111031-wikicommons  Bo yibo1957.jpg
Bo Yibo, father of Bo Xilai,
Cultural Revolution victim
In 1968, Red Guard factions battled on another at Beijing’s Qinghua University. Red Guards told the writer and historian William Hinton about how the struggle on the campus in April of that year escalated from stone slingshots and wooden spears to revolvers and hand grenades. One group welded steelplates onto the body of a tractor to convert it into a tank. Ten students were killed and many more badly injured in the next three months till July 1968 when Mao Zedong finally sent in groups of local workers, backed by the army, to restore order. [Source: John Gittings, China Beat, March 31, 2010]

The generally accepted view that the factional divisions among the Red Guards reflected the social and political inequalities of Mao-era China---in other words that some factions represented conservatives whose families belonged to the Party, the bureaucracy and other privileged strata, while the more radical factions were led by students from families with no social advantages who felt excluded from the dominant system. A variant of this analysis saw the main division as one between conservative networks of party members and political activists and radical groupings of those who had previously been excluded from these network ties. [Source: John Gittings, China Beat, March 31, 2010]

An unrestrained wave of violence began at the end of July 1968 as work teams were withdrawn from school and college campuses. High-school students seized party secretaries, principals, teachers andclassmates and subjected them to violent beating. . . . At least eight high-school party secretaries, principals, or vice-principals were murdered or committed suicide--- the first such murder was that of Bian Zhongyun, deputy principal of the Beijing Normal Girls’ High School. (The story of Bian’s murder has now been told in a remarkable film, Though I am Gone ( Wo Sui Siqu ) by the independent Chinese film-maker Hu Jie, largely based on interviews with her husband who at the time with exceptional courage took photographs of her corpse and the circumstances of her death. The film cannot be shown in China but may be found on YouTube.) [Source: John Gittings, China Beat, March 31, 2010]

However the violence escalated after Mao’s first Red Guard rally even more terrifyingly. Walder records that in the following month more than 114,000 homes of those identified as bad classes were searched, typically in violent assaults by Red Guards, for evidence of bourgeois ideology such as foreign currency, books, paintings etc.In his book Fractured Rebellion: The Beijing Red Guard Movement Andrew G. Walder wrote: “In the Western district, the books, paintings, scrolls, and other items confiscated from 1,061 homes were set ablaze and burned for eight days and nights. During this period 77,000 people were expelled from their homes in the urban and inner suburban districts. The violence crested during the last week of August, when an average of more than 200 people were dying every day. The official Beijing death toll for the month after August 18 was 1,772.” [Source: John Gittings, China Beat, March 31, 2010]

In their book Mao’s Last Revolution (2006), Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, say that Mao “unleashed a reign of terror in which the youth of China were . . . freed from parental and societal constraints . . . to perpetrate assault, battery and murder upon their fellow citizens to the extent their barely formed consciences permitted. The result was the juvenile state of nature, nationwide, foreshadowed in microcosm by Nobel prize-winner William Golding in Lord of the Flies. [Source: John Gittings, China Beat, March 31, 2010]

Walder describes this condoning of violence as the Maoist shrug in which the suffering of victims of violence was regarded as acceptable collateral damage. I would call it, using the same military analogy, the Maoist equivalent of Stuff Happens. Some at the time argued that Mao must have been unaware of the extent of violence but this cannot be true. Mao, Jiang and the other Cultural Revolution leaders were kept fully informed through internal bulletins compiled by official news agency reporters. [Source: John Gittings, China Beat, March 31, 2010]

Red Guard Violence in Chengdu

Chengdu was the site of brutal street fights between factions of Red Guards. Zhang Jingyan, a retired art-history professor in Chengdu who was 12 when the Cultural Revolution broke out. told The New Yorker,"I went to watch, and it was terrifying. I watched people being thrown off buildings," she said. "I couldn't move or run away. I was completely frozen by it. And then I felt ashamed: Why don't I have more class consciousness? These are the enemies of our class! How come other people are capable of hitting them, and I'm not?"

But Professor Zhou Daming, who was sent to labor in the fields at 16, said the new exercise was completely different. "We had barely graduated from high school. We did not even have the most basic knowledge about many things. The experience was good in that it taught me to 'eat bitterness'. Everything that came afterwards did not seem challenging or impossible anymore. I think this experience---especially now that I am doing social study work---broadened my view of society."


Red Guard Who Isn’t Sorry

Karoline Kan wrote in Foreign Policy Magazine: Lishui is the nickname for my uncle, a farmer who has lived all his life in the suburbs of Tianjin, a big city in northeastern China. Whenever people talk about Lishui, my mother’s older brother, they always say: “Lishui is a nice guy, honest, always in a good mood.” As a young child, when I heard him coming to visit, I would rush out of the house, climb onto his shoulders, and pull his ears. The more I think about Lishui, the more I am confused by the fact that he was a Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution...Most confusing to me is the fact that my kind and honest uncle says he doesn’t regret a single thing he did — not even today, when the Cultural Revolution is widely acknowledged both outside and within China as a massive historical mistake. [Source: Karoline Kan, Foreign Policy Magazine, May 16, 2016 \=\]

“After the Cultural Revolution ended, “Lishui found himself a farmer once again. A photograph from that time shows him young and happy in a white shirt, green army trousers, and an army hat. Things have not gotten better for Chinese socialism, or for my uncle. He is bitter that China has cast off the values he fought for and for which he sacrificed his youth, the kind of socialism where the workers and farmers like him were the masters of their country. In his youth, Lishui believed in a socialism in which there were no classes. He remains proud that he was what he calls a “good student” of Chairman Mao. (During the Great Leap Forward, a disastrous and famine-inducing policy Mao implemented in the late 1950s to spike economic production, Lishui was one of the children who pushed their parents to donate their iron tools, including farming implements, so they could be melted down to make steel. Even today, he never addresses Mao Zedong by name, but always as “Chairman Mao.”) \=\

“But in today’s highly unequal China, it seems, the joke is on Lishui. My uncle now lives as a farmer in the Tianjin suburbs, and says he has nothing more than the $15 pension he receives each month from the government. He still likes to talk politics. “The aim of the Cultural Revolution was good,” Lishui insists. “Our society now lacks some of the positive spirit of the Cultural Revolution.” Lishui is serious about that contention. “During the Cultural Revolution, nobody dared to abuse their power like today,” he told me. “Farmers and workers were like the real masters of the country. Look at today: officials are the lords, and this country is full of capitalists. I dare say 99 percent of the village officials in China,” some of which are chosen via a quasi-democratic process, “gave bribes to get themselves elected.” \=\

“Around early 2013, when Chinese president Xi Jinping started a sweeping anti-corruption campaign, his portrait appeared on my uncle’s wall. Lishui was excited, and in conversation he used to link the campaign to an earlier Mao-led movement in 1963, the Four Cleanups, meant to remove “reactionary” elements from Chinese politics. But to Lishui’s disappointment, a new Cultural Revolution hasn’t followed. On my most recent visit to my uncle’s house, Xi’s portrait no longer adorned the wall. Lishui is still waiting.” \=\

Red Guards Opposed to Violence

In his book Fractured Rebellion: The Beijing Red Guard Movement Andrew G. Walder argues that substantial groups in the Red Guard movement in Beijing--- perhaps the majority--- were actually opposed to the violence and many said so. They organized Red Guard picket corps which sought to curtail violence and provide discipline to an anarchic and rapidly growing movement. The Western District Picket Corps, an alliance of 50 Red Guard groups from more than 40 schools, announced that “In the Cultural Revolution from this point forward it is absolutely forbidden to beat people, absolutely forbidden to physically abuse them either openly or in a disguised manner; absolutely forbidden to humiliate people, absolutely forbidden to extract forced confessions. . . . Kneeling, lying flat, bending at the waist, carrying a heavy weight, standing for long periods, keeping hands raised for long periods, keeping heads bowed for long period, etc., all are open or disguised forms of physical abuse and not methods of struggle that we should use.” [Source: John Gittings, China Beat, March 31, 2010]

Far from their consciences being barely formed, these young Red Guards showed a genuine sense of ethical judgement. Their members were expected to serve the people and gain their trust by non-violent means. The Red Guards at Qinghua University had issued a series of appeals for non-violence from the beginning of August. Their first appeal was initially welcomed by Mao himself who had it circulated to delegates of the Party plenum.[Source: John Gittings, China Beat, March 31, 2010]

We may infer from Walder’s account (though he does not pursue the argument) that the violent course taken by the Red Guards was not inevitable. Instead of being egged on by the ultra-left leadership, the students could have been steered to pursue a largely non-violent cultural revolution against privilege and bureaucracy---natural targets in China then and indeed now. Even after the violence erupted in August, the picket corps still represented the majority of student opinion, backed by Premier Zhou Enlai who held a series of meetings attempting to persuade the Red Guards to exercise restraint. [Source: John Gittings, China Beat, March 31, 2010]

So why did reason not prevail? Walder explains that the calls to curtail violence ran directly counter to the views of the CCRG. Jiang Qing had given an early nod countenancing violence on July 28, telling high school Red Guards that we do not advocate beating people, but beating people is no big deal. Later, Mao told the Politburo Standing Committee that I do not think Beijing is all that chaotic. . . . now is not the time to interfere. . . Taking his cue from Mao, Xie Fuzhi, minister of public security, set the official line: I do not approve of the masses killing people, but the masses ---bitter hatred toward bad people cannot be discouraged, and it is unavoidable. The local police and army were ordered not to intervene when Red Guards were on the rampage.

Walder now shows that not only did many Red Guards dislike the violence but that---after the first protests by the picket corps had been stifled---a minority of independent-minded dissidents began to develop a new critique of the ultra-left CCRG leadership which identified the taste for violence as one of that leadership’s unprincipled weapons. Alone among students at this point in Chinese history, says Walder, they had a realistic view of what was actually taking place, while the [officially approved] “rebels” were conforming to CCRG authority and wrapping their actions in a fantasy language of conspiracy and rebellion.

Walder argues that the factional struggles of those times did not reflect social conflict but were the product of authoritarian political structures. He called the dominant Red Guards radical bureaucrats, This may be true in Beijing but it does not necessarily explain factionalism elsewhere in China. John Gittings is an author and research associate at the School of Oriental & African Studies. His most recent book is The Changing Face of China: From Mao to Market (Oxford, 2005)]

Book: Fractured Rebellion: The Beijing Red Guard Movement by Andrew G. Walder (Harvard University Press, 2009)

Image Sources: Posters, Landsberger Posters; photos, Ohio State University; Wiki Commons; History in Pictures blog; Everyday Life in Maoist

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2016

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