Reading Gao Yuan's Born Red: A Chronicle of the Cultural Revolution

Introduction to The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, 1966-1976

The period of The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (approximately 1966-76) was the most extreme in modern Chinese history. Though its underlying causes were political, it had profound cultural and economic consequences. Chairman Mao began the Cultural Revolution as an attempt to regain power after criticisms emerged about the ruling of China. His goal was to return to the ideals of the Chinese Communist Revolution. Liu Shaoqi and other "revisionists" had advocated relying on an urban intellectual elite to lead national development, and they favored using bonuses as incentives to increase production. Mao Zedong, however, emphasized that workers and peasants were the true revolutionary forces, and he sought to increase production through political idealism (including propaganda and "re-education"). He closed the schools and called upon all youth to take up the cause of revolution as "Red Guards." They were to fight against those who were "taking the "capitalist road." With the support of the Red Guards and the army, Mao had Liu Shaoqi removed from power by the end of 1968; revolutionary committees were established at all levels to replace the centralized bureaucracy associated with Liu. Party cadres were sent to the countryside to learn respect for physical labor and "correct" political thinking. The Red Guards attempted to eliminate the "Four Olds": old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits. They traveled around the country destroying religious icons and ancient art works, changing names of streets and parks, forcing women to avoid "bourgeois" clothing and long hair, and violently attacking counterrevolutionaries and foreigners. The Red Guards purged one faction after another, often with no apparent consistency, and fought with one another. Thus, it was dangerous to speak and write, because what was proper one day might be considered counter-revolutionary the next day.

Publisher's Synopsis of Born Red (Stanford University Press)

"Born Red is an artistically wrought personal account, written very much from inside the experience, of the years 1966-69, when the author was a young teenager at middle school. In China, middle school lasts six years and is divided into junior middle school: grades 7-9 and senior middle school: grades 10-12. It was in the middle schools that much of the fury of the Cultural Revolution and Red Guard movement was spent, and Gao was caught up in very dramatic events, which he recounts as he understood them at the time. Gao relates in vivid fashion how students-turned-Red Guards held mass rallies against "capitalist-roader" teachers and administrators, marching them through the streets to the accompaniment of chants and jeers and driving some of them to suicide. Eventually the students divided into two factions, and school and town became armed camps. Gao tells of the exhilaration that he and his comrades experienced at their initial victories, of their deepening disillusionment as they were manipulated by political leaders, and finally of the agony of their utter defeat as the tumultuous first phase of the Cultural Revolution came to a close."

Discussion Questions

  1. In Gao’s account, which individuals became targets of criticism by the Red Guards? What crimes did they supposedly commit? Consider, for example, the vice-principal, Lin Sheng.
  2. What was a "struggle meeting?" Did the Red Guards seek truthful confessions from those accused?
  3. Who was considered eligible to join the Red Guards? Who was not?
  4. Imagine you are a youth during the Cultural Revolution. How would you describe your life at this time? Did you attend school? What was most emphasized in your education? What did you hope to achieve? How would your experience differ if you were from a peasant or intellectual background?
  5. How did the Cultural Revolution affect family relations? Educational relations? Consider, for example, Yuling. Would you consider her to be a filial daughter? Was she, in the end, able to escape the criticism that befell her parents?
  6. How did the Cultural Revolution represent a retreat from Confucian values and morals?
  7. One might consider the contrast that exits between the children of the reform era and those who were teenagers active in the Cultural Revolution. Do you think the youth of today can conceive of the sacrifices made during the Mao years when all of ones actions and words had political consequences?

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