The Red Guard Generation and Political Activism in China

by Guobin Yang

Columbia University Press

3/5 stars

The Red Guard Generation and Political Activism in China explores the first generation to be born after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, their radicalism in the 1960s and how their experiences have shaped the China we have today.

Raised to be the “flowers of the nation”, that first generation embraced the Cultural Revolution of 1966 but soon split into warring factions. This book, released by Columbia University Press to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, shows how they were the foundation for both profound political and social change in China for decades to come.

SCMP multimedia special: Cultural Revolution, 50 years on

Author Guobin Yang is an associate professor of Communication and Sociology at Penn as well as a faculty member of the Centre for the Study of Contemporary China and the Centre for East Asian Studies, and he has previously written numerous books about Chinese society, the internet and the legacy of the revolution.

His latest timely and scholarly contribution tells an important story of how the same young revolutionaries that used violence to prove their loyalty to Mao Zedong would later use similar tactics against the communist government.

“The most valuable currency was the idea of the sacredness of Mao and revolution. Because it was an idea, it was up to the individuals to prove that they possessed revolutionary credentials. They had to do so through revolutionary performances. When the majority of society was engaged in such competitive performances, the bar for the proof had to be constantly raised to show that one had more of it than others,” Yang writes.

“The historical experiences of this generation created a generation that first embraced and then rejected the Cultural Revolution and the Red Guard movement, eventually providing the critical intellectual and social foundation for the reform policies of the 1980s,” Yang writes.

After several years of fighting, Mao sent millions of Red Guards to distant farm villages. There, day-to-day survival took up all of their energy. But it also fostered an underground movement as people began to re-educate themselves. It produced new questions and greater understanding.

That time in the countryside, and its pragmatic needs, meant they were more open to private enterprise, in addition to ideas that gave birth to the Democracy Wall movement of the 1970s. It led to a sort of enlightenment that ended with the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989.

“The significance of this wave of protest can only be fully grasped by situating it between two world-historical events – the Red Guard movement in 1966-68 and the student movement in 1989. Coming just ten years after the launching of the Cultural Revolution, the new wave of protest could not be more different, and yet it essentially involved members of the same Red Guard generation. Happening about ten years before the 1989 student movement, it shared fundamental similarities with the movement in 1989, despite the fact that the core participants in 1989 were of a younger generation.”

Louisa Lim’s timely reminder of Tiananmen crackdown cover-up

Yang does an excellent job of providing a new context for Red Guard activism, but then he goes one step further. He concludes by considering the politics of history and memory and argues that memories of the Cultural Revolution depend on where your family stood in the political divisions of half a century ago. It’s a theme more fully explored in Louisa Lim’s The People’s Republic of Amnesia. Lim also does a better job of telling the story – Yang’s is an academic work, with only the occasional flash of character and colour.

Still, Red Guard Generation gives us another lens with which to look at how the Cultural Revolution and the damage it caused continue to reverberate through Chinese society and politics today.