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NON-FICTION: The Lost Comrades

Updated April 09, 2017


In this photo dated Aug 10, 1966, a young woman calls to embolden her fellow Red Guards in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square | AP
In this photo dated Aug 10, 1966, a young woman calls to embolden her fellow Red Guards in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square | AP

Unveiled in 2013, China’s One Belt, One Road initiative — of which the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a part — promises to integrate Afro-Eurasia through a web of new infrastructure, the development of manufacturing nodes and emerging markets. Connectivity is the hallmark of an increasingly global China that engages the world through trade and finance, global governance and diplomacy.

Those with an inclination towards history will, however, appreciate that China’s global engagement has deep historical roots: the Middle Kingdom’s vast archives reveal a textured illustration of China’s extensive foreign engagement over thousands of years. Conversely, there have also been moments when powerful internal events came to define an era, such as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) that was launched by Mao Zedong in the last decade of his life. Guobin Yang’s The Red Guard Generation and Political Activism in China tackles this mass campaign that transpired just over 50 years ago. Thoughtful, original and erudite, The Red Guard Generation makes important contributions to our study of the Cultural Revolution in particular, and more broadly, to Sinology.

Even after half a century, the Cultural Revolution remains a complex event to parse. From a distance — and for those uninitiated in Chinese history — it may appear as one of the many global student movements of the 1960s when youth mobilisation challenged the status quo in scores of countries. A circumscribed look quickly reveals the limitations of such a perspective: the mass campaign, especially in its early stages, both reflected a factional struggle within the Chinese Communist Party, and an attempt by Mao to instill revolutionary fervour in a youthful demographic that had not been exposed to revolutionary struggle. Less an account of factional politics, Yang contributes to our understanding of the latter process.

A thoughtful look at Mao’s attempt to instill revolutionary fervour in a youthful demographic

Following the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, the youth was simultaneously projected as the “flowers of the nation,” and equally importantly, as Yang notes, the “revolutionary successors.” Prior to the Cultural Revolution, this generation was coming of age against the backdrop of revolutionary imagery and rhetoric: class struggle, martyrdom and heroism that was being juxtaposed against the backdrop of the Cold War of Asia, in which China faced off the threat, initially of the United States, and in the 1960s that of the US and the Soviet Union.

Within weeks of its launch, the Cultural Revolution had mobilised millions of youth who became foot soldiers in this new revolutionary schema. Young people now banded together in revolutionary “Red Guard” factions. But this was no typical student mobilisation: Red Guard factions violently turned on each other, universities remained shut for years and vigilantes mercilessly targeted those segments of the urban population that were seen to be associated with the Four Olds: old customs, old culture, old habits, old ideas. The Red Guard Generation tells the story of China’s urban youth who were mobilised during the Cultural Revolution. Yang asks: Why did the Red Guards splinter into factions? What became of them in the 1970s? How did the now-former Red Guards deal with the economic and political transitions that began under Deng Xiaoping after 1978? Fifty years later, what is the role of memory in how tumultuous events from a different time are remembered?

One striking aspect of the Cultural Revolution is the memorabilia it produced, that served as new media: posters, pins, and above all, the ubiquitous Little Red Book of Quotations by Mao. These powerful objects made the revolution come alive. The Red Guard Generation illustrates how these permeated society, constituting what Yang describes as a “revolutionary script” that was widely accessible. “These young rebels were performing in a revolutionary drama, often in imitation of roles in the sacred script of the Chinese revolution,” he writes. “There was a unity of performance and reality.” Here, Yang describes a letter from a student of Chongqing University in which the student evoked suffering under the “old society” prior to 1949, where his mother had to beg for food; that suffering was now projected on to the present. “We must exert ourselves, struggle hard, and not fear death,” the student — who subsequently lost his life — had written. As Yang thoughtfully observes, the student was “following a script […] learned through socialisation and education. […] His role was his reality.” But ironically, as Yang illustrates, if popular mobilisation — and, as an extension, factional fighting — was a consequence of a popular culture deeply imbued with revolutionary symbolism, so too was revolutionary theory, an extension of which were manifestations of dissent.

Although the Cultural Revolution would continue — until 1969 or 1976 depending on classification — the Red Guards were disbanded in mid-1968, two years after they had first come together. The Red Guards who had mobilised for the Revolution were eventually demobilised by Mao himself. Following demobilisation, 17 million Red Guards were rusticated, that is, “sent down” to work in the countryside. While the initial wave of sent-down youth left voluntarily (in the fall of 1967) to take revolutionary ideals to the countryside, by late 1968 and into early 1969, the state had to resort to a combination of cajoling and coercion. For many now-former Red Guards, being forced to move from cities to the countryside was both a “fall from heaven,” and their first exposure to labour in China’s resource-strapped rural areas. It forced them to confront the revolutionary rhetoric that had been branded during Red Guard factional fighting, the poverty of the Chinese countryside and the limited resources available to the Chinese peasant. Rustication, however, proved to be more than a temporary jaunt to a farm. As the 1970s wore on, and even following the death of Mao in 1976, sent-down youth remained in the countryside. Although some discreetly made their way back to their home cities, millions remained in the rural areas until the end of the decade, their frustration evidenced by frequent protests.

In other ways, too, the story of the Red Guards continued beyond the end of their initial political mobilisation. Yang provides rich accounts of new forms of cultural expression as many former Red Guards took to letter-writing, note-taking, singing, reading and poetry to articulate new ideas about self and society. The ascendency of Deng, who himself had been twice purged, opened space for those who had suffered during the Cultural Revolution to begin telling their stories. Into the 1990s and, according to Yang, up until the present the legacies of the Cultural Revolution — and those who participated in this revolution within the Revolution — continue to echo in nostalgia, memory and personal networks.

The Red Guard Generation is an ambitious book that makes a novel contribution to the growing scholarship on China’s Cultural Revolution. Writing about events that have fractured society is always difficult; The Red Guard Generation is an example of how such histories can be approached thoughtfully and creatively. For me, the book is also an illustration of how much the field has grown over the last 20 years, a point in time when I had read widely around the Cultural Revolution. Although those with a background in Chinese history will be able to engage more deeply with Yang’s framing and his contribution to the field, others shall appreciate the clarity and elegance with which he tells this most difficult of stories.

The reviewer teaches history at the Lahore University of Management Sciences

The Red Guard Generation and Political Activism in China
By Guobin Yang
Columbia University Press, US
ISBN: 978-0231149648

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 9th, 2017