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Born Red: A Chronicle of the Cultural Revolution Essay


Born Red: A Chronicle of the Cultural Revolution is a memoir written by Yuan Gao. This memoir captures events which surrounded the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) in China. This revolution has been a subject of many scholarly works especially in the political field. In this memoir, Gao presents the reality of life during this period. This article will discuss this memoir with a special inclination to the activities of the Red Guards.

Born Red

Born Red: A Chronicle of the Cultural Revolution is a voluminous text authored by Yuan Gao based on experiences he went through during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution era in China. In over 300 pages, the author recounts the way of life during one of the most tumultuous times in the history of China.

With the fine details included in the memoir, it helps a reader to walk through the Chinese revolutionary era and witness the havoc that the revolution triggered by Mao Zedong had on the Chinese people. After reading through the memoir, William described it as “a voice that speaks to us of the human anguish of inhuman events” (Gao ix).

William further argued that the author is better placed to write an account of the revolution since he, the author, was a Red Guard in the Cultural Revolution. The author’s accounts are compelling and comparing them with what is known and written in political studies texts, the memoir is worth reading.

The Cultural Revolution

The early years of the 1960s are seen as the years that necessitated the emergence of the Cultural Revolution (SPICE 1). The economy was terrible and the society was going through a hard time. Gao notes concerning the clothes they wore “we were in rags, and even our patches were patched” (9).

Food, an essential commodity, was costly. People resorted to sell what they had and used the cash they obtained to buy food, and as a result everything except food was affordable: “the cost of just about anything that was not edible went down” (Gao 10).

It is also worth noting that the Great Leap Attempt which Mao Zedong had initiated had failed (Freedman 1). The Rear Lake which Gao talks about is an indication of this failure (Gao 14). It seems that Mao Zedong was contemplating on what to do with this disaster that China was deep into.

He was particularly irritated by the fact that peasants, who formed the larger percentage of the population, were not being considered and were sidelined by the urban class population. He set to introduce a participatory society by opposing bourgeois ideologies.

The idea to oppose bourgeois ideologies was quickly absorbed by people as Gao illustrates all over the memoir: “her mother is under attack for teaching bourgeois music” (p. 79); “…proletarian factions could unite with one another, but not with bourgeois factions” (p. 335). In some cases, the situation was worse and people became afraid to express themselves openly because what one could say one day could somehow be connected with bourgeois ideologies the following day.

Avoiding public expression became the best way of evading being connected with bourgeois ideologies. Interpretation of what could be referred to as bourgeois was sometimes overstretched: Gao notes that even responding to some natural desires was considered bourgeois – “…falling in love at this early age is bourgeois and individualistic” (31).

Mao Zedong made a speech in 1966 that encouraged students to advance the revolution war (Gao 83). Reading through the memoir, one gets to know that the Red Guards were predominantly students. The chaos started at schools where by student punished those teachers they viewed to advocate ‘revisionism’: “They paraded Li and Shen around the campus, shoving and pushing the two teachers with almost every step” (Gao 53).

Many authors have spoken against the ideas the Mao Zedong. According to the BBC, Mao’s policies were always disastrous. The first policy Great Leap Forward failed terribly as depicted in the memoir and the second policy of Cultural Revolution was even more disastrous. The BBC notes that both policies left millions of people dead (BBC 1). Gao asserts these claims especially concerning the Cultural Revolution.

The Red Guards were responsible for the menace witnessed at this time; they blundered literary anything they wanted to as long as they could find a way of connecting it with revisionism. Gao notes that “the Red Guards received Mao’s personal blessing to continue their efforts to expose revisionism” (p. xviii). The Red Guards were responsible for torturing people they felt were enemies of Mao’s Cultural Revolution (Gao 233, 307, 307).

The Role of Leaders in the Revolution

The leaders during the Cultural Revolution misled people and should receive a fair share of the blame for the chaos that took place. The People Daily was used for manipulative purpose by Mao. The newspaper called for “sweeping away all ox ghosts and snake spirits” (Gao 50). This call turned students to be rude.

They did unbelievable things like gang raping their teachers (Gao 313). They also targeted teachers for punishment based on very stupid excuses, for instance, teacher Wen was a target because her mother has contracted syphilis (Gao 48). Being associated with foreigner was also bad even if the foreigner was a parent. This was the case of Leng, his father was an American, who was accused of supporting American ideologies (Gao 45).

The Red Guards did not just target and accuse people they did not like. They interrogated, tortured, and thoroughly humiliated them. Teachers were especially mercilessly messed up. Teacher Li was beaten up (Gao 335), vice principle Lin Sheng was shaved and ended committing suicide due to the humiliating moments he went through (Gao 53), teacher Guo Pei was beaten and marched in public (Gao 72), teacher Chen died under heavy beatings. The Red Guards were the prosecutors as well as the juries and executors.

The leaders were aware that this kind of mess was going on but never did anything to correct it. This is the more reason why I am of the opinion that Mao Zedong was using the Red Guard to stabilize his powers over the nation. Any rational person knows that this kind of mess is just a drawback to any nation.

Total Brainwashing

Mao Zedong’s thoughts were to create a society free of classes. The Red Guards bought this idea and assumed that all their struggles were due to elite in the society. It is worth noting that in the early 1960s, there was a great distress in China with people lacking enough to eat – as already noted above.

As depicted by Gao, I am of the opinion that Mao brainwashed the youth into believing that their troubles were due to the few privileged people in the society. Because the Red Guards were significantly composed of student, the easily accessible privileged class was that of the teachers.

The Red Guards factions often fought against each other (Gao 224). One of the factions took over a local hospital. At this point the Red Guards were not controllable. They were thieves of public property and anything that came their way. It is interesting to think about how they viewed Mao’s thoughts.

For instance, Mao advocated and encouraged the youth to destroy the four olds. Noting some of the actions which the Red Guards undertook in destroying the four olds becomes a matter of great laughter. For instance, consider changing traffic rules such that vehicles stop at green lights (Gao 119).

Based on the accounts of Gao on what the Red Guards did, as they were encouraged by Mao Zedong, the only rational explanation to this behavior is that they were totally brainwashed. A point worth noting is that teenagers tend to be rebellious. They are immature by almost all standards except maybe by body size.

According to Stahn, some of the typical characteristics of teenagers are “near sighted, chaotic internally, volatile, know-it-all, experimenting, narrow mindedness, energetic, black and white thinking, abstract thinking, pseudo-stupidity” (1). Giving power to a person with such characters is not just a big mistake but also suicidal.

The Red Guards, significantly composed of teenagers, were dominantly tasked with doing away with the old fours. The manner in which this was implemented show a total lack of understanding on what was meant by Mao. It may also be viewed that Mao left it to the Red Guards to do what they wanted in fighting the four olds. In either case, Mao did not seem to be concerned that his directives were being undertaken by people who had no experience in implementation of ideologies.

With the experimenting nature of teenagers coupled with their pseudo-stupidity and know-it-all attitude, they are clearly the worst implementers of any policy. To make the matter worse, it becomes dangerous when there are no rules and guidelines to be followed. No wonder Gao argues that public expression was dangerous because a statement could be interpreted in any manner to align it with the intentions of the Red Guards.

Gao helps us to understand the true nature of Mao Zedong. It cannot be claimed that he was not aware of the overstretching of the ideology of eradicating the four olds in the hands of the Red Guards. It is clear that this activity messed up the whole system of China. The different factions of the Red Guards were not coordinated and every group did what they thought was right (Cultural Revolution 1).

What the Red Guards did, as described in Gao’s memoir, was plundering the public. By any means it cannot be considered revolutionary. It was a path to releasing anger and frustration and directing the same to the elite in the society. This was a strategy that Mao had used previously through the land reforms by passing the Agrarian Reform Law.

Instead of fostering reconciliation talks, Mao charged the peasants to take over land from landlords and execute them for evils they (landlords) had committed. According to History Learning Site, over one million people were executed in this manner (1). It is therefore correct to argue that this was the way of Mao; this time he was using the Red Guards.


Born Red: A Chronicle of the Cultural Revolution is a recount of Gao’s time as a Red Guard. The author covers the flow of events chronologically showing how events flowed from one to another. The memoir basically shows the powerful forces at work during the Cultural Revolution.

By narrating the everyday occurrences of that time, the author makes it possible for a reader to walk through the Cultural Revolution and understand the effects it had on the nation. The memoir begins at a time when the China was in distress. The Great Leap Forward initiative had just failed and what remained behind were skeletons of the project such as Rear Lake that Gao talks about.

Mao intentionally went for students to stabilize his political power. In this article, it is assumed that he did this intentionally in order to harness the power of the teenagers and manipulate it easily as he wished. Teenagers all over the country turned themselves into Red Guards and did what they thought Mao could have wished them to do. In such a free will manner without guidelines, the Red Guards set the rules and enforced them as they saw them fit.

Of particular concern was the manner in which they uprooted what they considered to be elements of the four olds, bourgeois ideals and social classes. This process left the country in ruins. It is worth pointing out that the teenagers who were advancing Cultural Revolution was inexperienced in matters of policy and undertook what appealed to their feeling and emotions.

Works Cited

BBC. . BBC, 2012. Web.

Cultural Revolution. Not Cultural, Not a Revolution. My Own Little World, 2004. Web.

Freedman, Amy. . Franklin and Marshal College, 2010. Web.

Gao, Yuan. Born Red: A Chronicle of the Cultural Revolution. California: Stanford University Press, 1987. Print.

History Learning Site. . History Learning Site, 2013. Web.

SPICE. Introduction to the Cultural Revolution. SPICE Digest, 2001. Web.

Stahn, Bob. Typical Characteristics of Teenagers. Well Spring Counseling. Web.

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1. IvyPanda. "Born Red: A Chronicle of the Cultural Revolution." October 3, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/born-red-a-chronicle-of-the-cultural-revolution/.


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