Red Fever and Fiery Spirit: The Role of the Youth in China’s Cultural Revolution

by Lindsay Wong

This piece will show  how  the youth played a significant role in the Cultural Revolution in China from  1966 to 1976. China’s leader during this time, Mao Zedong,  instilled a revolutionary spirit in the youth, largely based on Mao Zedong Thought and the ideology of socialist realism. A prominent feature of the Cultural Revolution was propaganda, which was a cultural means to promote communist party ideology to the masses. Firstly, forms of propaganda like posters, songs and artworks featured imagery of the youth and depicted them as a strong revolutionary force. Visual propaganda during this period had certain characteristics so that they could appeal to the masses. Secondly, the youth also had positive reactions to propaganda as they remember the Cultural Revolution as a time when they had a collective, shared identity. Thirdly, the youth were heavily involved in the Cultural Revolution at a grassroots level, leading the revolution in a bottom-up manner. They were faithful to Mao and carried out his objectives for the revolution by becoming Red Guards and participating in revolts against intellectuals both within and outside the party who threatened Mao’s position. The youth faithfully participated in political campaigns promoting Mao Zedong Thought. These activities  supported Maoist ideology and demonstrated the important role that they played during the Cultural Revolution.

Pioneered by Mao and the rest of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the Cultural Revolution was a sociopolitical movement in China that lasted for a decade, between 1966 and 1976. It was a movement for Mao to promote his ideology to the masses. Mao Zedong Thought (his ideology) included aspects of Marxist-Leninism and focused on the peasants as a revolutionary force. During this period, Mao relied on the working class, soldiers, and peasants  to achieve economic prosperity and to restore the revolutionary spirit from the Communist Revolution of 1949. Another objective of the Cultural Revolution was to eradicate Mao’s opponents in the CCP, such as Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaopeng, because of their differing views on China’s economy. Liu’s ideas of bourgeois capitalism directly contrasted with Mao’s ideas of socialist realism, thus positioning  him as a threat to Mao’s power. Socialist realism formed the fundamental basis of revolutionary politics, and Mao called upon the youth to push forward with the revolution to form a united front. Likewise, socialist realism became the method for artistic production that artists had to comply to. Propaganda and student-led mass movements were effective tools to assist Mao in achieving his aims for the Cultural Revolution.

Maoist ideology was present in all forms of propaganda, which became a means by which the CCP could instil a revolutionary mindset into the masses. For the Cultural Revolution to be effective, Mao used propaganda to stir up and inspire revolutionary sentiment especially among the youth, who he  perceived to be the easiest to manipulate. Not only was the youth impressionable, but they were easily coerced  by propaganda because they were eager to learn and serve their country and were the least conservative in their thinking. In May 1942 in Yanan, Mao had spoken about his aim to utilise revolutionary art to create a “cultural army” that was capable of defeating opponents. He carried out the valuable task of producing propaganda for the Cultural Revolution. Visual propaganda and songs were the easiest and most effective ways to do this because a large portion of the population at the time was illiterate. The consumption of posters and songs did not require advanced literacy or education to be understood, so these forms of propaganda could reach the masses. Propaganda also supported the various campaigns set up by Mao to mobilise the masses. The visual elements of propaganda like posters were capable of being direct and straightforward by conveying a simple yet ideological message that everyone could understand. To most effectively instil art and propaganda with ideological meaning, Mao instructed artists to completely disregard their own self-interest and familiarise themselves with the working-class lifestyle so they could more appropriately produce indoctrinated content suitable for the masses.

Posters, as one of the most prominent forms of propaganda, were mass produced, sold at low prices and distributed widely. The main characteristics of posters were vivid and bold colours, an optimistic and positive atmosphere, depictions of model citizens, and politically fused slogans. The colour red was featured heavily in visual propaganda because red was believed to symbolise everything morally good and revolutionary. Posters usually portrayed idealistic scenes of what China should look like, such as peasants working on the farms, Mao  being glorified or deified, and the enthusiastic youth emanating a revolutionary spirit. These portrayals had to support Maoist ideology and the political regime. As such, propaganda was highly publicised and circulated throughout the country, not only as publicity as a method of educating the population on Maoist ideals.

Following Maoist ideology, the role of the youth as a theme has been emphasised in propaganda posters from the Cultural Revolution. The model citizens were usually the youth, workers or peasants and were often smiling and had courageous postures, conveying that partaking in the revolution should be a joyous affair through which they can exhibit their hard work for the sake of their country. Because high productivity was one of the objectives of the Cultural Revolution, youths were portrayed to be energetic, enthusiastic, full of life and hopeful. As a result, the people who viewed the posters may feel inspired to also do their part for the revolution. For example, Figure 1 depicts a young man holding up Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’ triumphantly in one hand, with his other hand tightly holding on to a tool used in the countryside for farming. There is a big smile adorning his face, illustrating how happy and excited he is to actively partake in the movement, both in being educated and working on the fields itself. The book is surrounded by a bright light, indicating that Mao Zedong Thought was viewed positively and strongly instilled into the youth. Behind him are crowds of people cheering him on. This suggests that everyone had to support each other in the movement and it fostered a collective and shared identity. Idealised images of the youth in posters were vital in promoting Maoist ideals of the Cultural Revolution.

The youth also reacted positively to the propaganda produced during this decade and felt inspired by them. Posters helped to construct the identities of the young Chinese people who matured during the Cultural Revolution and shaped their world views. According to Geng, popular propaganda depicted Mao as the “protector” of China. This compelled the youth to idolise him and bolstered nationalistic sentiment, which was  one of the aims of Cultural Revolution propaganda. The youth understood what was socially expected of them after viewing propaganda posters. Young people also desired to become the heroic and courageous figures depicted in posters. This demonstrates the effectiveness of posters as educational tools in structuring how the youth were expected to behave and act during the Cultural Revolution. 

Similarly, music was another form of propaganda that was easily accessible to the masses because it was frequently broadcasted on radio and television. Songs were  memorable to the youth; music triggered certain feelings and responses in its listeners. The main themes of Cultural Revolution songs were praise, battle, revolution, and love for the country. These songs conveyed fundamentally patriotic and nationalistic messages about everlasting faith and commitment to the country and Mao. Likewise, songs targeted towards the youth were instilled with Maoist ideology as they were meant to inspire them with revolutionary fervour. For example, the children’s song “I love Beijing’s Tiananmen” glorified Mao and used the iconic Tiananmen Square as a symbol of love for their country. The lyrics such as “Our great leader Chairman Mao, guides us forward” motivated the youth and conveyed the message that Mao and the motherland should be at the forefront of their actions as they were dedicated followers of Mao. These kinds of songs were played repeatedly to children at a young age to indoctrinate them into a nationalistic and revolutionary sentiment, so that they grew  up with this mindset. The youth also felt united by having a collective and shared identity when consuming music, which facilitated feelings of excitement of being part of a mass movement during the Cultural Revolution and further encouraged the youth’s active participation. Music was a convenient vehicle for the CCP to promote Maoist ideology in a memorable manner to the youth and outline their role in the movement as devout followers of Mao.

From the onset of the Cultural Revolution, Mao encouraged the youth to be politically active and partake in revolts to purge the bourgeois capitalists, thereby directly serving the aims of the movement. In elite schools and universities across the country, students grouped  together to form the Red Guards and went against authorities who they perceived to have bourgeois mindsets. These students were of “red family origin,” meaning that they were the children of working class people and communist party cadres from the pre-liberation period ,before the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949 that established the People’s Republic of China. For example, students at Qinghua University became Red Guards and enthusiastically participated in the movement. The movement enabled them to display their passion and knowledge of Maoist ideology in a group effort. Propaganda posters were also used in this context to inspire the youth to directly participate in the movement, with heavy emphasis on bold red and black colours. Red Guards openly criticised teachers and administrators in school settings as they intended to purge them of their bourgeois thoughts. Authorities were accused of enrolling students from non-revolutionary backgrounds, who could become a resistant force during the Cultural Revolution. The youth were politically active as a rebellious force supporting and serving Mao by calling out those who did not follow Maoist ideology.

Many of the Red Guards wanted to experience the exciting feelings of challenging authorities and collectively uniting as a revolutionary force under Mao’s leadership. They participated in political campaigns to execute Mao Zedong Thought, such as the Destroy the Four Olds campaign of 1966-1967. Part of Mao’s ideology during the Cultural Revolution was to eradicate the “four olds” because they were infused with bourgeois ideals: culture, habits, ideas and customs. Therefore, Mao encouraged students to ransack homes and temples that still contained traditional elements of feudal culture, such as artwork and religious objects. However, the rebellious Red Guards became violent quickly and fractions emerged among the force, making them more difficult for Mao to control. The Red Guards’ influence and role in society was so profound that by 1968 they had “created complete anarchy” within the CCP and Mao had to disband them by sending them to the countryside to pacify them. This political campaign involved the youth assisting peasants in labour and learning from them. 

The Maoist ideology that had been instilled into the youth from a young age made them a vital and active revolutionary force that Mao could take advantage of to carry out his aims of the initial part of the Cultural Revolution. This generation of young people had grown up and been educated with Mao Zedong Thought. According to Wemheuer, the youth were “taught to hate hidden class enemies” and perceived violence to be a “necessary means” in order to deal with such forces. The fact that this was a mass movement also exacerbated the violence as the Red Guards felt united by a common Maoist ideology, so they could easily engage in violent acts for the sake of the revolution and the nation. The Red Guards also played a valuable role in promoting the Cultural Revolution across the country. They travelled to other cities and “exchanged revolutionary experiences” with other youth. This further spread Maoist ideology on a larger scale. Furthermore, during the early part of the Cultural Revolution, years of schooling were shortened so that the youth could participate in agricultural production in the countryside. Schools were reopened in the early 1970s and education was essentially Maoist propaganda. The student-led movement was established from the bottom-up as a grassroots movement that later took precedence in society and cemented the significant role of the youth in the Cultural Revolution.

During the Cultural Revolution, the youth were a vital force that obediently carried out Mao’s aims of the movement. Their portrayal in propaganda, such as posters and music, as model citizens of the nation effectively instilled Maoist ideology, largely based on socialist realism, into young people who consumed this propaganda on a regular basis. The visually appealing stylistic and thematic characteristics of posters and its  accessibility to reach the masses made them a popular form of propaganda that could convey revolutionary messages. he appeal to youth bolstered nationalistic sentiment. Likewise, Cultural Revolution songs united the youth to be a collective force and exacerbated their revolutionary feelings. Songs evoked Maoist ideology in the lyrics and were frequently broadcasted so that the youth would remember it. As a result, young people felt inspired and compelled to follow Mao without hesitation and incorporated his ideology into their daily lives. The youth  actively participated in the Cultural Revolution during its early years as Red Guards. They were heavily involved in political campaigns and had an intense, nationalistic and revolutionary fervour that supported Mao by violently executing Maoist ideology. There can be no doubt that the youth played a significant role during the Cultural Revolution as loyal and devoted followers of Mao. 


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