The Red Guard Generation review

Below find the English version of my review of Guobin Yang’s new book.–Silvia Calamandrei


Guobin Yang, The Red Guard Generation and Political Activism in China (NY: Columbia University Press, 2016)
Reviewed by Silvia Calamandrei

Thanks to archives, inventories and data-bases, collected and now open to access not only in American and Hongkong universities and institutions, but also in mainland China, researchers  are advancing new interpretations of the Cultural Revolution, an event still controversial after 50 years.

The introductory note on data and the rich final bibliography  on the sources are  already a precious tool offered by Professor Guobin Yang (Pennsylvania University), author as well of the award-winning The Power of the Internet in China: Citizens Activism Online.

His work, whose initial step was a case-study of factional conflicts among Chongqing Red Guards, focuses on the Red Guard generation and the story of these young people, and it’s based on available collections of publications, on Song Yongyi’s database in Hong Kong[1], on hundreds of published and unpublished journals, notebooks, and letters, as well as on interviews conducted by the author at the end of the 90’s.

Documentation is more and more  available also in mainland China: Guobin Yang thanks the archives of the Chongqing Library for the precious files that he had the privilege to consult. Otherwise, his case-study on Chongqing Red Guards would have been impossibile and we would have no key to interpret the famous cemetery of Chongqing were Red Guards fighting against each other had their tombstone next to one another.

Guobin Yang is the first to introduce a new approach to explain the violence of the Red Guards, using the “performance theory”. They acted more for the sake of performance than pushed by specific interests or motivations: when they started splitting among themselves after having fought against the capitalist roaders or the academic authorities and the bourgeois intellectuals their violence was a way of staging those revolutionary battles for which they had been trained and educated since the 50’s.

Young people grown up in Liberated China, fed by the rhetoric of anti-Japanese war movies and novels on the sufferings in the old society, trained in the mass campaigns and inspired by revolutionary posters and slogans, needed channels to express their vocation to martyrdom and to testify to their revolutionary spirit. They had to prove that they were the successors of the heroes of the revolution. Once mobilized, they went ahead in their battles, looking for enemies and targets, and often they found them in their own ranks. Revolutionary zealots, who will calm down only once sent down to the countryside, finally in touch with the hard reality of rural China.

After the great show staged from 1966 to 1968,  the “sent down experience” is a new beginning for a generation that will emerge in the Reform period, with no illusions and capable of transferring its activism into economic initiative. An extraordinary experience of transformation in the lapse of a generation.

Guobin Yang reconstructs very well the significance of the  Red Guards experience in the countryside, the discovery of problems of day-to-day life and of the self, the desacralization of revolutionary rhetoric and a new identification with ordinary people, as well as the birth of an underground culture nurtured by forbidden books, exchange of letters, new tales. This experience will push forward the post-Mao reforms and will express itself in the protest movements of the 70’s and the 80’s.

Very interesting also the analysis of the contrast between the Old Red Guards belonging to the Red families, the children of the revolutionary leaders who were the first to mobilize themselves in 1966, and the Rebels (with no good blood origin). This contrast  still exists at present: isn’t  the new leadership  based on the “princelings”, and Xi Jinping  one of those who promised to stage their  come back when the Rebels pushed them aside?

They consider themselves the true successors of the revolutionary cause and every New Year they meet together to celebrate their privileges, as Guobin Yang tells us in his  Conclusions: in no country in the world such a celebration would take place….

[1] The historian Frank Dikőtter,  who used it at lenght for his trilogy in China since Liberation, defines the data-base of Song Yongyi as the true “monument” to millions of victims that otherwise would be forgotten. And after the one on the Cultural Revolution, for the benefit of historians, Song has created two other ones, one on the Great Leap forward, and the other on the Movement against the  Rightists.


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