Who Were China's Red Guards?

During the Cultural Revolution, millions of young Chinese became Red Guards.
A 1968 Chinese poster urges Red Guards to smash capitalists' "dog heads.". Kent Wang / Flickr.com

During the Cultural Revolution in China — which took place between 1966 and 1976 — Mao Zedong mobilized groups of devoted young people who called themselves "Red Guards" to carry out his new program. Mao sought to enforce communist dogma and to rid the nation of the so-called "Four Olds" — old customs, old culture, old habits and old ideas.

This Cultural Revolution was an obvious bid for a return to relevancy by the founder of the People's Republic of China, who had been sidelined after some of his more disastrous policies such as the Great Leap Forward killed tens of millions of Chinese.

Impact on China

The first Red Guards groups were made up of students, ranging from as young as elementary school children up to university students. As the Cultural Revolution gained momentum, mostly younger workers and peasants joined the movement as well. Many were no doubt motivated by a sincere commitment to the doctrines espoused by Mao, although many speculate that it was a rising violence and contempt for the status quo that motivated their cause.

The Red Guards destroyed antiques, ancient texts and Buddhist temples.  They even almost destroyed entire animal populations like the Pekingese dogs, who were associated with the old imperial regime. Very few of them survived past the Cultural Revolution and the excesses of the Red Guards. The breed nearly went extinct in its homeland.  

The Red Guards also publicly humiliated teachers, monks, former landowners or anyone else suspected of being "counter-revolutionary." Suspected "rightists" would be publically humiliated — sometimes by being paraded through the streets of their town with mocking placards hung around their necks.

In time, the public shaming grew increasingly violent and thousands of people were killed outright with more committed suicide as a result of their ordeal.

The final death toll is not known. Whatever the number of dead, this kind of social turmoil had a terribly chilling effect on the intellectual and social life of the country — even worse to the leadership, it began to slow the economy.

Down to the Countryside

When Mao and other Chinese Communist Party leaders realized that the Red Guards were wreaking havoc on China's social and economic life, they issued a new call for a "Down to the Countryside Movement."

Beginning in December of 1968, young urban Red Guards were shipped out to the country to work on farms and learn from the peasantry. Mao claimed that this was to ensure that the youth understood the roots of the CCP, out on the farm. The real goal, of course, was to disperse the Red Guards across the nation so that they could not continue to create so much chaos in the major cities.

In their zeal, the Red Guards destroyed much of China's cultural heritage. This was not the first time that this ancient civilization suffered such a loss. The first emperor of all of China Qin Shi Huangdi had also attempted to erase all record of the rulers and events that came before his own reign in 246 to 210 B.C. He also buried scholars alive, which echoed eerily in the shaming and killing of teachers and professors by the Red Guards.

Sadly, the damage done by the Red Guards — which was really carried out purely for political gain by Mao Zedong — can never be completely undone. Ancient texts, sculpture, rituals, paintings, and so much more was lost.

Those who knew about such things were silenced or killed. In a very real way, the Red Guards attacked and defaced the ancient culture of China.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "Who Were China's Red Guards?" ThoughtCo, Jul. 21, 2017, thoughtco.com/who-were-chinas-red-guards-195412. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2017, July 21). Who Were China's Red Guards? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/who-were-chinas-red-guards-195412 Szczepanski, Kallie. "Who Were China's Red Guards?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/who-were-chinas-red-guards-195412 (accessed December 14, 2017).