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The Red Guard Role in the Chinese Cultural Revolution Research Paper

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Updated: May 21st, 2020


In 1966, China entered a new phase in its history, which was characterized by a cultural revolution. Mao Zedong was the architect of this revolution in his quest to cement communism in the society by uprooting any capitalistic establishments that had started to thrive in China. At the time, Mao was the rightful chairperson of the Communist Party of China, and thus he simply wanted to impose his socialist beliefs in China. Being a calculating politician and given that he had lost in his earlier campaigns during the Great Leap Forward in 1958, Mao had learned from his previous mistakes. Therefore, he came up with emotional appeals to low-class Chinese citizens.

In a bid to convince the majority that a few individuals were leading the country towards personal gains, Mao alleged that the bourgeoisie was taking over the government, and they were entertaining capitalism for the benefit of the middle and the upper class. He called for class struggle via violence, and this stand appealed to the emotions of students across China. Conventionally, politically charged people, and especially students love violence,1 and thus, when they heard a respected leader like Mao calling for the same, they joined forces and formed the infamous Red Guards. This account highlights the birth of the Red Guards in China. This paper explores the impact of the Red Guards on the Chinese social and political spheres during the Cultural Revolution. Even though the activities of the Red Guard helped Mao’s plan of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, it ultimately had a negative impact on China.

Historical background

As aforementioned, the precursor of the Red Guards in China was Mao’s insatiable quest to cement communism in China. After Mao called for class violence to eliminate capitalism from Chinese society, students across China started coming together in response to that call. The pioneers of this movement were students from the Tsinghua University Middle School in 1966. However, this bunch of students entered political agitation indirectly as they premiered by pushing for better recognition of the satirical political play, Hai Rui Dismissed from Office.2 They noted that this play had attracted unnecessary political criticism, especially from the bourgeoisie, and they wanted that perspective to change. Afterward, another group of students from Perking University joined the movement as it started to gain momentum.

The students accused the administration of their respective universities of leaning towards elitism. However, the universities’ administrations came out to defend their stand, and thus the emergent Red Guards were suppressed, albeit for a short period. The agitators attracted fierce criticism from the rest of the students’ fraternity and the administration. However, against the backdrop of the impending failure and suppression of the Red Guards, Mao came to the group’s rescue. He ordered the national radio to air the group’s manifesto before directing the People’s Daily newspaper to publish the same.3 In the eyes of many students, this action was a legitimizing move, which gave the Red Guards political authenticity. Therefore, the majority of students across the country joined the movement as it evolved into a political faction.

With the mass joining of the movement and the growing numbers, Mao took the opportunity to control and use the group to achieve his ends. He deployed some of the workers from the Communist Party to assist in the running and management of the Red Guards. However, as aforementioned, Mao was a strategist, and thus he did not want to appear to be involved directly with the movement. Therefore, he used Zhang Chunqiao, who was then the head of the information department in the Communist Party.4

The reinforced workforce was tasked with ensuring that the movement attacked the bourgeoisie and anyone against communism. No one was spared in the ensuing execution of Mao’s well-designed plan to kick capitalism out of China. All capitalists, proprietors, and intellectuals were the point of a target for these attacks. Ultimately, Mao severed ties with the Red Guards after it became apparent that the movement was hindering his quest for the Cultural Revolution. He recalled all his workers from the movement, and thus it became an autonomous faction within the Communist Party.

The group disintegrated to a dangerous organization and it was involved in numerous murders and other atrocities across China until 1967 when the PLA moved in to suppress its operations. It is important to note that different factions existed within the Red Guards. Conventionally, the members of the group revered Mao to a point of idolizing him, as his word was final. However, different people had different renditions of Mao’s words, and thus every one acted according to his or her convictions. This aspect caused internal wrangles within the group and members were often involved in verbal altercations or physical confrontations even though they were all aligned to the same party.

Social Impacts

On education

The Red Guards operations were atrocious and they contributed largely to the tearing down of the social fabric in China. Given that the mainstay of the Red Guard was university students, the education system was almost crippled. Members of the movement abandoned classes and took to the streets to protest against what was seemingly becoming elitism amongst the intellectuals. Students who did not join the movement were attacked, injured, or killed. In addition, other students became victims of forced labor in farms. Education holds the key to socio-economic development of any country, and thus the activities of the Red Guards affected this development severely.

Additionally, the government started agitating for the inclusion of the revolution’s precepts in the school curriculum. Even though the revolution was meant to be inspiring people, the Red Guards made it chaotic and the students of the time could not separate the good from the bad. During the revolution, all students graduating were forced to take an extra course on the ideals of the Cultural Revolution. In addition, most students had to drop out of the school due to the hostile environment caused by the Red Guards.

On the continuity of education and preservation of reading materials, the Red Guards wrecked havoc by destroying any book, relics, or artifacts that carried information concerning the country’s past. The movement was determined to cut links with China’s past and forge a way forward based on communism. Therefore, historical and cultural development perpetuity of the country was interrupted during this time. As aforementioned, students of the time worshipped Mao and his ideologies. Therefore, parents and elders lost their significance as the youths filled the streets. Slogans like “the more you studied, the more stupid you become”5 filled the atmosphere and thus student’s started hating education and even to date, the China has a pool of uneducated individuals due to the influence of the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.

Social breakdown

During the Cultural Revolution, the social order in the country was torn apart. The Red Guards became a law unto themselves and they did as they pleased as long as it promoted Maoism. Historians differ on the number of people who died during this time, but a consensus places it to close to one million deaths.6 This number can easily qualify the Red Guards’ atrocities as genocide or holocaust. The Red Guards violated the guiding principles of the revolution, which were contained in the ‘Sixteen Articles.’ The group sought to eradicate what was seen as retrogressive culture, customs, ideas, and habits.

These four elements formed the ‘Four Olds’ and those who practiced them were eliminated without further reasoning or questioning. The law became useless in the face of these bloodletting youths. One of the members of the Red Guards recounts, “One time on my way home I saw some Red Guards arresting a young girl… They said she had bad element…whether she was or not, this was not the point…someone said she was a baddie and that was enough”.7 Just like many other people, this girl did not stand a fair trial and thus she ended up suffering perhaps due to mistaken identity.

The Red Guards introduced class labeling, which is a form of social segregation. The intellectuals were rounded, stripped of their positions in different organizations and institutions and assigned demeaning jobs like cleaning toilets. The unparalleled misdirection of young people was social atrocity as they were deprived of their rights to live in a sociable environment and make informed decisions. This form of exploitation of young people turned many people into cynics of socialism. The lasting impact of the Red Guards operations and conduct cannot be wiped from the Chinese’s minds or wished away.

Of late, several former Red Guards’ members have come out openly to confess and apologize for the atrocities that they executed. The contemporary society is dotted with numerous individuals with a dark past that they would wish to forget, but they cannot. They will have to contend with such guilt until they die. The quest to build a “humane, socially just and democratic future for their country, will hopefully find the path to genuine Marxist socialism”8. Unfortunately, this quest will be hampered by the shortcomings of the Red Guards. The atrocities committed by this group against its own people will forever haunt the quest for Marxism socialism in China.

Other social effects included the burst in population growth. Following the chaos, the Red Guards interrupted the normal operation of the government and all other institutions. Birth control methods were severely compromised, and thus people started giving birth uncontrollably. Therefore, the population growth surged and the ensuing administration had to contend with this new phenomenon. Currently, China leads on the list of the most populous nations across the world.

The minority groups in China almost faced extinction during the Cultural Revolution. For instance, more than six thousand monasteries in Tibet were brought down in Mongolia over 800,000 people faced persecution whereby “22,900 were killed and 120,000 maimed”9. With the brutality meted to the minorities by the Red Guards, this group of citizens will be skeptical of the ruling government in most cases. The scars caused by atrocities take time heal and whilst the government of the day might try relentlessly to birth cohesion and togetherness, the scars will always be a reminder of a dark past.

In addition, most people lost their hard-earned wealth during the Red Guards’ reign. The Red Guards could easily pass for street thugs. They looted, killed, maimed, raped, and executed unspeakable atrocities on innocent Chinese citizens. The only sin that these victims committed was to be born in a given environment or holding different ideologies contradicting Maoism. Therefore, apart from losing their wealth and beloved ones, most Chinese lost identity and the pride to be associated with the country. This aspect is dangerous for the social well-being of any society. When individuals feel alienated based on their beliefs, they might turn hostile.

A social conflict may not arise in normal circumstances, but given an opportunity like political upheavals, such individuals may seize the opportunity and launch revenge mission for atrocities carried out hundreds of years ago. This scenario is detrimental to the social well-being of any society, and thus the Red Guards’ actions affected the Chinese society negatively.

Political impacts

Of the many impacts that the Red Guards caused on the Chinese society, political impacts formed a significant part as they continue to define and shape the Chinese political arena even to date. The underlying political tensions across China were conceived by Mao’s separatist ideas, which were executed by the Red Guards.10 The first brutal impact of the atrocities of the Red Guards was the passing on of the many Communist leaders who witnessed the unfolding of the Cultural Revolution. Most of the first and second-generation leaders that witnessed the revolution have passed on. They include people like Tao Zhu, Liu, Shaoqi, and He Long for the first generation and Deng Xiaoping among others for the second generation.

Politically, the Red Guards barbarities facilitated the hastened changeover of leadership. In less than 50 years, China has witnessed a transition of the leadership cutting across four generations. The Red Guards messed up the normal transition of power, and with the death of the aforementioned leaders, power had to move to another generation. On the other side, Mao held on to power for a prolonged period, which ultimately sabotaged the role of CCP in leadership.

The Red Guards achieved short-term results. China became entrenched in socialism during the revolution, as capitalists were afraid of reproach. However, that change was short lived and today, barely 50 years after the revolution, elements of capitalism are finding their way back into the Chinese society. Mao and his army of bloodletting youths only served to cripple the perpetuity of the Chinese political system.

The civilization that China had boasted of for over thousands of years was blown away by the formation of the Red Guards and Mao’s insatiable quest for socialism. Before the coming of the Red Guards and the revolution, the Chinese boasted of a sense of nationalism that held the country together. Unfortunately, the Red Guards betrayed this sort of nationalism, for as aforementioned, most victims lost the sense of pride to be associated with their country

During the Cultural Revolution, Mao introduced a new face of politics that had not been witnessed hitherto. Initially, no former leader had taken arms against the ruling government, but Mao infamously pioneered in this revolutionary act. Mao resorted to witch-hunting and betrayal and such elements had not existed in the Chinese politics before. He called for forceful removal of Chinese intellectuals on the pretext that they were supporting elitism. Mao asserted, “Policy is the starting point of all the practical actions of a revolutionary party and manifests itself in the process and the end-result of that party’s actions.”11

However, his policies did not match his words. Individuals were arrested and imprisoned without the due process of the law and this move set a bad precedence in the Chinese political environment. People were brutally tortured in a bid to confess their allegiance to capitalism and elitism. Perhaps he had a good policy, but he chose the wrong implantation procedure by enlisting the Red Guards in his plans.

Following the Cultural Revolution, the representation of the military in the Congress increased significantly. However, the majority of the military personnel who were promoted to senior governmental representative roles were Lin Biao’s diehards. This aspect further divided public opinion on their support for the military. Maoism once again found its way back into the Chinese governance and Lin was hurriedly appointed as Mao’s heir. Thereafter, the political climate in Beijing cooled even though in some areas of the country remained volatile.

Following the human rights’ violation by the Red Guards, China elicited diplomatic wars across the international community. Mao had already voiced his displeasure with the United States and the Soviet Union over what he saw as a violation of China’s sovereignty by foreign powers. The border clashes with the Soviet Union in 1969 intensified the diplomatic row between the two nations. War became imminent by October of 1969 and Lin issued an order without consulting Mao. This move caused internal strains as Mao held that he had to be consulted in everything that happened inside and outside China as long as it involved the country. Therefore, the political impacts of the Red Guards spilled over to the post revolution era as Mao strived to remain relevant.

During the revolution, Mao had abolished the State Chairmanship seat of the Communist Party, but immediately after Mao fell out with Lin, the latter’s adherence pushed for the restoration of the position. However, political factions continued to form within the ruling government and in 1970, a coup was arranged to topple Mao from the Communist Party. Unfortunately, the coup failed and allegedly, Lin died on his way to the Soviet Union. After the passing on of Lin, most of his adherents had to flee and seek asylum in Hong Kong, but Mao captured some and purged them. The political strains in the country almost brought it to its knees. Factories and government institutions lacked competent staff due to the political instability in the country.

After the passing of Lin, the Red Guard reemerged under the banner of the “gang of four”, with its members being, “Jiang Qing, Wang Hongwen, Zhang Chunqiao, and Yao Wenyuan”12. Even as the economy was falling apart, most members of the Red Guards started drawing closer to the core functions of the Communist Party and they cared less about the well-being of the economy. All that mattered to them was political ideologies. Jiang Qing launched propaganda against Zhou Enlai, who was working tirelessly to revive the ailing economy.13 Jiang succeeded in her quest and she launched another campaign to rid China of any neo Confucianism together with purging Lin even in his death. Regrettably, the retrogressive politics and thinking of the Red Guards had not died and they were coming back to haunt the citizens under Jiang’s selfishness.

The Red Guards’ initial divisions had not disappeared. With time, Mao fell out with the ‘gang of four’ as they could not handle economic reforms for politics and politicking was their main agenda. Deng returned to politics and took charge of the economy and the majority of state functions.14 On the other side, Jiang and her gang specialized on propaganda through state machineries and media. Fortunately, Deng managed to restructure and revitalize the economy despite the incessant fights from Jiang’s gang. Later on, Mao turned against Deng for he thought the fruits of the Cultural Revolution would be lost.

Therefore, Red Guards’ actions transcended the revolution era and even after the calmness returned in China, the movement regrouped and infiltrated the government and started influencing policies and the running of the Communist Party and the government. In the light of these revelations, it suffices to say that the Red Gang helped Mao to achieve his desired socialism ends, but the movement ultimately hurt China. It took China a long and unnecessary time to rebuild after the revolution due to the influence of Jiang’s gang, which represented the Red Guards.


The Red Guards were born out of Mao’s convictions that China could only be ruled best under communism. When Mao sensed that the country was becoming complacent with issues to do with capitalism, he called for violence and war against elitism with the intellectuals and bourgeois being at the center of victimization. Students across universities in China joined forced and started pushing for Maoism, with unbridled support from Mao and the Communist Party. Unfortunately, the Red Guards deviated from Mao’s plans and they started tearing down the nation. Mao could do very little to curb the warring factions within the Red Guards and he could only pull out his support from the movement. It took the efforts of the army to suppress the Red Guards, but it reemerged later after the revolution under the leadership of Jiang and her gang of four.

The socio-politico effects of the Red Guards in China were immense. Socially, the education system was thrown into disarray as students joined the movement. Those who restrained form the functions of the movement were killed, maimed, or subjected to hard labor in rural areas. The social fabric in the Chinese society was broken. People lost their lives, properties, and identities in the chaos. Individuals were rounded and locked up without a fair trial. Politically, Mao redefined the Chinese politics with violence and witch-hunting. Those who differed with Maoism were purged. The Red Guards’ political influence continued to define the Chinese politics even after the end of the Cultural Revolution.

Jiang rebranded the Red Guards into the ‘gang of four’ and continued to assert authority in the Chinese politics. However, with the passing on of Mao, the Red Guards died with the arrest of the gang of four and China moved one to become one of the most powerful nations in the contemporary times. Therefore, even though the Red Guards assisted Mao in ensuring a communist China, it ultimately affected the country negatively.


Coady, Tony. Morality and Political Violence. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Web.

Dongping, Han. “Impact of the Cultural Revolution on Rural Education and Economic Development.” Modern China 27, no. 1 (2001): 59-90. Web.

Gao, Mobo. The Battle for China’s Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution. London: Pluto Press, 2008. Web.

Karnow, Stanley. Mao and China: Inside China’s Cultural Revolution. New York: Penguin, 1984. Web.

MacFarquhar, Roderick, and Michael Schoenhals. Mao’s Last Revolution. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2006. Web.

Meisner, Maurice. Mao’s China and After: A History of the People’s Republic Since 1949. Florence, MA: Free Press, 1986. Web.

Shen, Fan. Gang of One: Memoirs of a Red Guard (American Lives).Winnipeg: Bison Books, 2006. Web.

Solomon, Richard. Mao’s Revolution and the Chinese Political Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971. Web.

Thackeray, Frank, and John Findling. Events That Formed the Modern World. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2012. Web.

Xing, Lu. Rhetoric of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Columbia: University of South Carolina, 2004.Web.


1 Tony Coady, Morality and Political Violence (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 84.

2 Fan Shen, Gang of One: Memoirs of a Red Guard (American Lives) (Winnipeg: Bison Books, 2006) 78.

3 Ibid, 86.

4 Ibid, 88.

5 Mobo Gao, The Battle for China’s Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution (London: Pluto Press, 2008), 92.

6 Ibid, 106.

7 Richard Solomon, Mao’s Revolution and the Chinese Political Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), 172.

8 Maurice Meisner, Mao’s China and After: A History of the People’s Republic Since 1949 (Florence, MA: Free Press, 1986), 111.

9 Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, Mao’s Last Revolution (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2006), 128.

10 Lu Xing, Rhetoric of the Chinese Cultural Revolution (Columbia: University of South Carolina, 2004), 81.

11 Frank Thackeray and John Findling, Events That Formed the Modern World (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2012), 28.

12 Stanley Karnow, Mao and China: Inside China’s Cultural Revolution (New York: Penguin, 1984), 104.

13 Ibid, 119.

14 Han Dongping, “Impact of the Cultural Revolution on Rural Education and Economic Development,” Modern China 27, no. 1 (2001): 69.

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