Series (History): The Cultural Revolution

Chapter 20: Rise of the Red Guards

This is the next installment of my book, The Cultural Revolution: Then and Mao.
To read the previous installment, click this link.
To start at the beginning, click this link.

Chapter 20
Rise of the Red Guards

Peng Zhen had been State Chairman Liu Shaoqi’s most powerful supporter. With him gone, Liu was now vulnerable, and at Mao’s mercy.

The Politburo also released a statement that had been prepared under Mao’s personal supervision, strongly implying that enemies of the Communist Party had infiltrated the Party. It claimed that these class enemies “wave the red flag to oppose the red flag,” and it prescribed “the telescope and microscope of Mao Zedong Thought” to identify these people. Which of course could be found in Mao’s Little Red Book, which he had made sure was published a few years earlier.

This statement gave a green light to Mao loyalists. And with the Beijing Communist Party in disarray after the dismissal of Peng Zhen, chaos was about to break out in the capital of China.

This chaos erupted nine days later, on May 25, 1966, at Peking University in Beijing. In fact, Peking University came to be known as the epicenter of the Cultural Revolution. The rumbling began when the head of the Philosophy department, Nie Yuanzi, authored a big-character poster that attacked the university’s Communist Party administration.

Big-character posters had been used since the Qing Dynasty. They are handwritten posters using large characters with artistic calligraphy, that are mounted on walls for public display. They’re generally used for propaganda purposes, or for protest.

Nie’s poster had been encouraged by the wife of a Mao loyalist, but it’s suspected that Jiang Qing and Mao himself were the ultimate influence behind it. The poster insinuated that the university’s leaders were trying to undermine the Communist Party, and were engaged in the dastardly practice of revisionism.

Big-character posters being posted on the campus of Peking University.

It was now Mao’s turn to topple another domino. He used his access to the press to endorse the poster and call it “the first Marxist-Leninist big-character poster in China.” This endorsement was like a bombshell. Mao was revered in China, so anything he said was quickly chewed, swallowed, and digested by the masses. Students in schools and universities throughout China interpreted Mao’s words as a signal to revolt against their schools’ establishments.

Soon, big-character posters sprang up on campuses all over the country, denouncing their school administration as revisionist and counterrevolutionary. These posters were plastered everywhere, on sides of buildings, walls, trees, or any other vertical surface that could be found.

By the middle of June 1966, school classes at all levels of education had emptied out all across the country. Students demonstrated en masse, sporting pictures of Mao, chanting slogans, and threatening retribution against all the imagined enemies of communism that had infiltrated the Party.

The students called themselves Red Guards, and were initially denounced by university officials as counterrevolutionaries. But then they wrote a manifesto, and Mao, with his access to the press, ordered that it be broadcast on national radio, and published in the People’s Daily national newspaper. This gave the Red Guards legitimacy, and that is all they needed to wreak havoc upon the nation.

Come on back in a few days for the next installment, entitled Chapter 21: The Fall of Liu Shaoqi.

14 replies »

  1. Japan has a parliamentary system. And among the political parties that participate is the “Nihon Kyōsan-tō” or “JCP”, the Japanese Communist Party. From an article I wrote 5-years back after a contentious election season, “… it went from holding 8 seats in the lower house to 21, along with its 11 seats in the House of Councilors.” So it’s still a serious, if minor political movement in Japan.

    In 1968, however, radical anarchist-communists within the movement inspired by Mao’s Red Guard declared, “The Era of Direct Action”, and violently occupied Tokyo University for about three months. Less radical leaders of the movements used propaganda to destroy the credibility of the extremist leaders, labeling them as “aristocratic anarchists” from wealthy families who simply wanted to be the “Stalins of Japan”. This separated the communist movement from the violent protests, but the damage was done. By 1980, Japan’s anarchist movement had died out, and the communist party lost its appeal with a new generation.

    This was during the time when my dad was attending medical school at Tokyo University, and it was among the events that shaped his attitudes about the use of violence to promote political movements.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting. I think something similar may be happening with the BLM movement. Even though most of the protesters are peaceful, the riots, looting, and violence by a few of the protesters are ruining their reputation.

      Violence can blacken the spirit of a message, and turn people against a well-meaning cause. Your dad apparently figured that out through first-hand observation.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes. Even today, mention of the JCP often brings to mind images of the “Todai riots” in Japan.

        BLM started out very popular in Japan. But there’s lately a big shift in Japanese-language posts with people distancing themselves from the whole thing. And the same thing seems to be happening among less politically motivated Americans. It seems a common theme… when protests in Hong Kong shifted their tone, the democracy movement there also lost its credibility. Two-million peaceful marchers was an incredible embarrassment to the mainland. But all it took was a couple of thousand vandals destroying a university to provide just the excuse to send in the riot police. And the result has been far worse than those original protesters likely imagined.

        Liked by 2 people

        • It’s very sad. What’s happening in Hong Kong now is tragic. Violence is risky business, and those who organize protests would be well-advised to strongly denounce it and immediately banish protesters who engage in it.

          Liked by 2 people

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