Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the Brutal Behavior of Red Guards


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

Throughout the late summer and autumn of 1966, the brutality of the Red Guards and their aggressive scenes were played out at tens of thousands of schools across the country as teachers and administrators were systematically subjected to humiliation, physical abuse, and torture. Thousands were beaten to death, no one knows just how many, and suicides were common.

A propaganda painting of Mao during China’s Cultural Revolution
Young Red Guards were instructed to destroy everything related to culture and traditions in order to assist China’s Cultural Revolution. (Image: 人民画报/Public Domain)

Why Were the Red Guards So Violent?

How to explain all this madness? In numerous memoirs and reminiscences of the events of this period, former Red Guards have acknowledged the brutality of their own behavior, yet without being able to satisfactorily explain how the boundaries of conventional civility had been so easily breached.

Clearly, peer group pressure and the absence of adult supervision were important factors, much as they had been key factors in William Golding’s fictionalized account of adolescent brutality in his vivid novel, “Lord of the Flies”. In the case of the Red Guards, mass hysteria was an additional factor. 

A psychological contagion had been induced by the students’ frenzied devotion to Chairman Mao. In giving vent to their most destructive impulses, they truly believed they were acting on behalf of their living deity.

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

Competition Between “Born Red” and “Impure”

An image of Mao with his Red Guards
The naturally “born red” and the “impure” competed together to join the Red Guards. (Image:《人民画报/Public domain)

In such a hyper-charged atmosphere, the license to defy authority interacted with immature youthful absolutism and overactive teenage hormones to create an explosive, potentially deadly mix. Nowhere was this combustibility demonstrated more clearly—or more fiercely—than in the Red Guards’ violent conflicts with rival groups of rebel students.

Like the Sharks and the Jets in the musical, Westside Story, the “born red” students and the “impure” students in each school vied with each other to see who could be the most revolutionary. 

At first, their competitiveness was expressed verbally, shouting at each other quotations from the Little Red Book. But before long, it became intensely physical. And within a year, open warfare between rival Red Guard factions would destroy whatever unity of principle and purpose may have notionally existed at the outset.

Destruction of “Four Olds” by Red Guards

Once the Red Guards had finished struggling against their own school officials, they were instructed by Mao’s leftist “brain trusts” on the Central Cultural Revolution Group to go forth and “Destroy the Four Olds”. The “Four Olds” were defined as old thinking, old culture, old customs, and old habits. And students were given a free pass to “smash” them, quite literally.

Responding to the call, roving bands of youngsters, some as young as 14 or 15, ransacked homes, shops, and offices, burning old books, defacing works of art, smashing religious icons, and generally making mayhem. They even tore down some street signs and renamed them “Anti-Revisionism Street”, and “Eradicate Capitalism Avenue”.

Urban traffic patterns were rendered chaotic when the Red Guards decided that a red light should mean “go”, and green light, “stop”. The world was, quite literally, being turned upside down in China.

Learn more about the efforts to enforce Mao’s “cult of personality”.

Red Guards Link Up”

In the fall of 1966, Red Guards were given a free pass on the nation’s railroads and bus lines. Encouraged to “link up” and “exchange revolutionary experiences” with their counterparts from other provinces, they roamed the country freely in groups, forming alliances with like-minded youngsters from other areas.

In a highly repressive society where young people normally enjoyed precious little autonomy or freedom of expression, the “linking up” movement unleashed more than just revolutionary impulses. The students also engaged in a good deal of petty vandalism, licentious sexual activity, and just plain hooliganism. 

What Role Did Mao’s Wife Play?

A black-and white image of Jiang Qing while giving a speech
Jiang Qing banned some old Chinese songs, calling them “feudal remnants.” (Image: 《人民画报/Public domain)

As the Red Guards responded to Chairman Mao’s call to “Bombard the headquarters”, Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, was busy carrying out her own brand of revolution. Appointed to head the cultural subgroup of the Central Cultural Revolution Group, she became a one-woman censorship board—a virtual czar of culture.

Under her direction, all Western music and films (and many Western musical instruments) were banned as bourgeois, and traditional Chinese songs and operas were categorically banned as “feudal remnants”.

In their place, Jiang Qing personally compiled a list of “approved” films, music, and theatrical works. Eight—and only eight—model revolutionary operas and ballets were authorized for performance during the Cultural Revolution. All were highly political and militant in content, bearing names such as “The Red Detachment of Women”, “Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy”, and “The Red Lantern”.

Learn more about Mao’s shakeup of high-level politicians in 1966.

Systematic Assault of Mobilized Industrial Workers

As autumn deepened in 1966, and student rebelliousness began to get seriously out of hand in many areas, frustrated party and government leaders in the provinces began to mobilize their local constituents to resist the unruly students and their brutal behavior. 

Fighting fire with fire, they shouted revolutionary slogans of their own, claiming to be the true leftists, while painting the young rebels as fraudulent opportunists who were waving the red flag.

To resist the conservative backlash, the Maoists in November put out an order to their followers all over the country to mobilize members of the working class to repel what they called the “frenzied counterattacks” of the power holders. No longer confined to schools, universities, and cultural institutions, the Cultural Revolution of the young Red Guards and the brutal behavior of the rebel students began spreading to industrial and commercial enterprises.

Common Questions about Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the Brutal Behavior of Red Guards

Q: Why did the Red Guards behave with such brutality?

The brutal behavior of the Red Guards went further to breach the boundaries of conventional civility. The main reasons for this violence can be found in the absence of adult supervision, the pressure of peer groups, and their strong belief and crazy devotion to Chairman Mao.

Q: How did the young Red Guards destroy the “Four Olds”?

The young Red Guards were ordered to destroy the Four Olds, including old habits, cultures, thoughts, and costumes. So they started burning books, looting houses and shops, crushing religious icons, destroying works of art, and beating people up.

Q: How did the Cultural Revolution and the brutal behavior of the Red Guard spread to industry and commerce

After party and government leaders in the provinces began protesting against their brutality, Maoists ordered their followers to mobilize members from the working class against the power holders. Hence, the Cultural Revolution spread all over industries and commerce.

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