Mao and the Young Red Guards Movement


By Richard Baum, Ph.D.University of California, Los Angeles

In between meeting and greeting multitudes of ecstatic young Red Guards at Tiananmen Square in the first half of August 1966, Mao Zedong was chairing an important plenary session of the Party Central Committee. It was the first full plenum to be held in four years since he launched the Education Movement in 1962.

A black and white photo showing the Long march of Red Guards of Dalian Maritime University
Students competed to become members of the Red Guards. (Image:《人民画报/Public domain)

Mao at Tiananmen Square

In August of 1966, Mao unleashed the young Red Guards with a series of carefully orchestrated personal appearances at Tiananmen Square. Feeding on the mass frenzy of the adoring students, Mao spurred his “little red generals” into action. 

Although the party constitution called for annual plenary sessions before this time, Mao hadn’t wanted to convene the party’s supreme decision-making body until he was assured of controlling both its agenda and the outcome. Now, that time had come.

With legions of eager, excited young students packing the rafters of galleries above the main floor of the Great Hall of the People, the Central Committee meeting was dominated thoroughly by the leftists.

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of ChinaWatch it now, on Wondrium.

New Leaders in Mao’s Government

Speaker after speaker denounced Mao’s putative adversaries, including Peng Zhen, the “Three Family Village”, and the work teams controlled by Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. Not surprisingly, the final communiqué adopted by the plenum represented a decisive victory for the Maoists. Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping were demoted in rank, while Peng Zhen and Lu Dingyi were dismissed outrightly, along with PLA Chief of Staff, Lo Ruiqing.

An image of Lin Biao with Mao
Lin Biao (left) was declared as Mao’s new successor. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

To fill the leadership vacuum created by these prominent demotions and dismissals, the plenum appointed leading members of Mao’s left-wing brain trust—Lin Biao, Jiang Qing, Kang Sheng, Chen Boda, and Zhang Chunqiao—to head up a new Central Cultural Revolution Small Group (or CCRG). Lin Biao was now designated to replace Liu Shaoqi as Mao’s successor.

Four Leftist Leaders of Shanghai Clique

Mao’s decision to include Jiang Qing in the new Central Cultural Revolution directorate raised a number of eyebrows since it clearly violated the CCP’s longstanding ban on Jiang’s participation in politics. Jiang nonetheless quickly became a major player in the Cultural Revolution and a key member of the so-called “Shanghai Clique”.

A decade later, the four leftist leaders of this Shanghai Clique—Jiang Qing, Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan, and an unheralded young factory security worker named Wang Hongwen—would be imprisoned and universally reviled as the infamous “Gang of Four”. But that would come later. For now, in the late summer of 1966, the leftists were flying high.

Learn more about the Great Leap.

Formation of Young Red Guard Detachments

With Mao having sounded the call for a nationwide student rebellion, the Cultural Revolution entered its most turbulent stage yet. In September, fall classes were canceled in all Chinese schools and universities to allow students across the country to form Red Guard detachments and to go forth to “make revolution”.

Red Guards in Tiananmen Square
Chinese schools and universities let students across the country to form Red Guard detachments and to go forth to “make revolution”. (Image:《人民画报/Public domain)

Almost immediately, differences of opinion emerged over who was eligible to join the Red Guards. Students from the so-called “good” class, or good backgrounds, namely, the offspring of workers, peasants, soldiers, cadres, and revolutionary martyrs, argued that they alone should have the right to be Red Guards, insofar as they had been “born red”, or naturally “red”.

Other students from bad or questionable class backgrounds, such as intellectuals, rich peasants, and the petty bourgeoisie, countered by arguing that one’s revolutionary purity depended not on the accident of one’s birth but on one’s manifest political attitudes and behavior. You are what you do, they said, not what you were born with.

The “Impure” 

With no central directives available to resolve this question of who could join and who couldn’t competing organizations of Red Guards sprang up in thousands of schools and universities.

To bolster their contention that they were the true revolutionaries, students from “bad” or “impure” class backgrounds often exhibited behavior that was more radical and destructive than that of their “naturally red” cohorts, who were under less pressure to prove their revolutionary merit. 

Imitating Nie Yuanzi and her Beida comrades, these “impure” students waged fierce and often brutal struggles against their unfortunate teachers and school administrators. In many cases, the students’ political actions conflicted with their personal feelings. 

Learn more about how Mao fomented radicalization and agitation among students.

Some Young Red Guards and Their Personal Conflicts

One young Red Guard from Fujian province told of his personal dilemma when one of his favorite teachers was attacked by his Red Guard faction. His account is both vivid and disturbing:

The heaviest blow to me was the killing of my … beloved teacher, Chen Gude. He had been imprisoned … and tormented by class bullies … I was powerless to stop them, and [besides,] it was reactionary even to try to protect someone. …

Some students were sickened by what they saw and tried to avoid taking part. After witnessing the brutal beating of his high school principal, one student wrote:

At heart, I was struggling with myself. Our principal had been very good to me … [If I] turned against him … I would be acting against my own conscience. … On the other hand, if I wanted to enter a university, I needed “political capital”, which I could only acquire [by attacking the power-holders].

Common Questions about Mao and the Young Red Guards Movement

Q: What was meant by “good” and “impure” at the time of the formation of the young Red Guards? 

Students born from a good class background were called good, while students born from the petty bourgeoisie or wealthy peasant class were called impure. Each of these two groups considered it their right to join the young Red Guards.

Q: Who had the right to join the young Red Guards?

There was no central directive to determine who was eligible to join the young Red Guards. To this end, competing organizations were created in schools and universities. Students with “bad” class backgrounds had to behave more destructively to prove their worthiness.

Q: What was the feeling of some Red Guards students about the violence?

While the young Red Guards embarked on brutal violence in their schools against their teachers and principles, some students strongly opposed what their faction was doing, and, therefore, didn’t want to take part in such actions.

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