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Red Guards ( ) were a mass movement of civilians, mostly students and other young people in Chinamarker, who were mobilized by Mao Zedong in 1966 and 1967, during the Cultural Revolution.


The first students to call themselves "Red Guards" in Chinamarker were a group of students at the Tsinghua University Middle School who used the name Red Guards to sign two big-character posters issued on 25 May and 2 June 1966. The students believed that the criticism of the play Hai Rui Dismissed from Office was a political issue and needed greater attention. The group of students, led by Zhang Chengzhi and Nie Yuanzi, originally wrote the posters as a constructive criticism of Tsinghua Universitymarker's administration, which was accused of harboring "intellectual elitism" and "bourgeois" tendencies. However, they were denounced as "counter-revolutionaries" and "radicals" by the school administration and fellow students, and were forced to secretly meet amongst the ruins of the Old Summer Palacemarker. Nevertheless, Chairman Mao Zedong ordered that the manifesto of the Red Guards be broadcast on national radio and published in the People's Daily newspaper. This action gave the Red Guards political legitimacy, and student groups quickly began to appear across China.

Due to the factionalism already beginning to emerge in the Red Guard movement, Liu Shaoqi made the decision in early June 1966 to send in CCP work teams. These work groups were led by Zhang Chunqiao, head of China's Propaganda Department, and were the attempt by the Party to keep the movement under its control. Rival Red Guard groups led by the sons and daughters of cadres were formed by these work teams to deflect attacks away from those in positions of power towards bourgeois elements in society, mainly intellectuals. In addition, these Party-backed rebel groups also attacked students with 'bad' class backgrounds (these included the children of former landlords and capitalists). These actions were all attempts by the CCP to preserve the existing state government and apparatus.

Mao, concerned that these work teams were hindering the course of the Cultural Revolution, dispatched Chen Boda, Jiang Qing, Kang Sheng, and others to join the Red Guards and combat the work teams. In July 1966, Mao ordered the removal of the remaining work teams (against the wishes of Liu Shaoqi) and condemned their 'fifty days of White Terror'. The Red Guards were now free to organise without the restrictions of the Party and, within a few weeks, on the encouragement of Mao's supporters, Red Guard groups had appeared in almost every school in China.

Role in the Cultural Revolution

On the 18th August 1966, Mao met a million Red Guards formally in an audience given in Tiananmen Squaremarker, when he donned a Red Guard armband to demonstrate his support for the movement and its objectives. It was this rally that signified the beginning of the Red Guards' involvement in implementing the aims of the Cultural Revolution.

The 11th Plenum, meeting in August, had ratified the 'Sixteen Articles', a document that stated the aims of the Cultural Revolution and highlighted the role students would be asked to play in the movement. After the August rally, the Cultural Revolution Group directed the Red Guards to attack the 'Four Olds' of Chinese society (old customs, old culture, old habits and old ideas). For the rest of the year, Red Guards marched across Chinamarker in a campaign to eradicate the 'Four Olds'. Old books and art was destroyed, museums were ransacked, and streets were renamed with new revolutionary names and adorned with pictures and the sayings of Mao. Many famous temples, shrines, and other heritage sites were attacked and, in total, 4,922 out of 6,843 were destroyed.

However, attacks on culture quickly descended into attacks on people. Ignoring guidelines in the 'Sixteen Articles' that stipulated that persuasion rather than force were to be used to bring about the Cultural Revolution, officials in positions of authority and perceived 'bourgeois elements' were denounced and suffered physical and psychological attacks. Intellectuals were to suffer the brunt of these attacks. An official report in October of 1966 reported that the Red Guards had already arrested 22000 'counterrevolutionaries'. Occasionally, the Red Guards brought large a group of targeted people for firing squads, who left some randomly chosen people alive while others around them were shot. This "Chinese roulette" was said to leave a bullet of fear and repression inside the brain.

The Red Guards were also tasked with rooting out 'capitalist roaders' (those with supposed 'right wing' views) in positions of authority, This search was to extend to the very highest echelons of the CCP, with many top party officials, such as Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping and Peng Dehuai being attacked both verbally and physically by the Red Guards.

However, the Red Guards were not to go about their activities completely unchallenged. When Red Guards entered factories and other areas of production, they encountered resistance in the form of worker and peasant groups who were keen to maintain the status quo. In addition, there were bitter divisions within the Red Guard movement itself, especially along social and political lines. The most radical students often found themselves in conflict with more conservative Red Guards.

The leadership in Peking also simultaneously tried to restrain and encourage the Red Guards, adding confusion to an already chaotic situation. On the one hand, the Cultural Revolution Group reiterated calls for non-violence, but on the other hand the People's Liberation Army was told to assist the Red Guards with transport and lodging, and there were eight rallies in Tiananmen Square between the 18th August and the 26th November 1966 (in total, twelve million Red Guards travelled to see Mao in these rallies). However, by the end of 1966, most of the Cultural Revolution Group were of the opinion that the Red Guards had become too much of a political liability. The campaign against 'capitalist-roaders' had led to anarchy, the Red Guards' actions had led to conservatism amongst China's workers, and the lack of discipline and the factionalism in the movement had made the Red Guards politically dangerous. 1967 would see the decision to dispel the student movement.

End of the movement

By February 1967 political opinion at the centre had now decided on the removal of the Red Guards from the Cultural Revolution scene in the interests of stability. In February and March the People's Liberation Army (PLA) forcibly suppressed the more radical Red Guard groups in Sichuanmarker, Anhuimarker, Hunanmarker, Fujianmarker and Hubeimarker provinces. Students were also ordered to return to schools, student radicalism was branded 'counterrevolutionary' and banned. However, in the spring, there was a wide backlash against the suppressions, with student attacks on any symbol of authority and PLA units. As a result, on September 5th 1967, an order from Mao, the Cultural Revolution Group, the State Council and the Central Military Affairs Committee of the PLA instructed the PLA to restore order to Chinamarker.

In the year that followed, the PLA violently put down the national Red Guard movement, with the suppressions often brutal. For example, a radical alliance of Red Guard groups in Hunanmarker province called the Sheng Wu Lien was involved in clashes with local PLA units, and in the first half of 1968 was forcibly suppressed. At the same time, in Guangxi province, the PLA carried out mass executions of Red Guards that were unprecedented in their nature in the Cultural Revolution.

The final remnants of the movement were defeated in Peking in the summer of 1968. Reportedly, in an audience of the Red Guard leaders with Mao, the Chairman informed them gently of the end of the movement with a tear in his eye. The repression of the students by the PLA was not as gentle. After the summer of 1968, some more radical students continued to travel across China and play an unofficial part in the Cultural Revolution, but by the summer of 1968 the movements's official and substantial role was over.

In popular culture

  • In The Last Emperor, the Red Guard appeared near the end of the film humiliating the kind prison warden who treated the Emperor of China Puyi kindly.
  • The film To Live has the Red Guards appearing in a few scenes, showing their various types of activity.
  • Farewell My Concubine, the Red Guards humiliate Cheng Dieyi and Duan Xiaolou as they try to overthrow the old society.
  • In the film The Blue Kite, Tei Tou's classmates are shown wearing the red scarfs of the red guards, and the film ends with the red guards denouncing his stepfather.
  • Jung Chang's autobiography Wild Swans describes the atrocities committed by the Red Guards.
  • In Hong Kongmarker, TVB and ATV often depicted the brutality of the Red Guards in films and television dramas. They are rarely portrayed in film and television programs produced in mainland China.
  • The video game Command & Conquer: Generals misleadingly named the Chinese standard infantry unit the "Red Guard".
  • The novel about the Cultural Revolution, Red Scarf Girl by Ji-Li Jiang, prominently features the Red Guards. The main character often wishes she could become one.
  • In the book Son of the Revolution, the main character, Liang Heng, becomes a red guard at age 12, despite the years of persecution he and his family received from them.
  • In the autobiography Gang of One, Fan Shen provides first hand accounts of his youth as a Red Guard.
  • Li Cunxin makes repeated reference to the Red Guards in his autobiography, Mao's Last Dancer

See also


  1. Chesneaux, p. 141
  2. Meisner, p. 334
  3. Chesneaux, p. 141
  4. Meisner, p. 334
  5. Meisner, p.334
  6. Chesneaux, p. 141
  7. Meisner, p. 335
  8. Meisner, p.366
  9. Meisner, p. 339
  10. Red Guards, ThinkQuest - Library:Discovering China, Retrieved on May 30, 2008
  11. Meisner, p. 339
  12. Karnow, p. 209
  13. Karnow, p. 232 and 244
  14. Meisner, p. 339-340
  15. Meisner, p. 340
  16. Meisner, p. 340
  17. Meisner, p. 340
  18. Meisner, p. 341
  19. Meisner, p. 351
  20. Meisner, p. 352
  21. Meisner, p. 357
  22. Meisner, p. 361
  23. Meisner, p. 361
  24. Meisner, p. 362


  • Meisner, M; 'Mao's China and After: A History of the People's Republic Since 1949'; Free Press (1986)
  • Karnow, S; 'Mao and China: Inside China's Cultural Revolution'; Penguin (1984)
  • Chesneaux, J; 'China: The People's Republic Since 1949'; Harvester Press (1979)

Additional sources

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