Confessions of a former Red Guard in China's Cultural Revolution

The Cultural Revolution in China began 50 years ago. Over the weekend CNN published a piece by Chinese woman named Yu Xiangzhen. The piece opens, “I have lived a life haunted by guilt.” That guilt is a result of having been a foot soldier in Chairman Mao’s revolution in the 1960s when Yu was only in middle school:


On May 16, 1966, I was practicing calligraphy with my 37 classmates when a high-pitched voice came from the school’s loudspeaker, announcing the central government’s decision to start what it called a “Cultural Revolution.”

It was my first year of junior high, I was just 13.

“Fellow students, we must closely follow Chairman Mao,” the speaker bellowed. “Get out of the classroom! Devote yourselves to the Cultural Revolution!”

What this meant in practice was students revved up with conviction that they were serving the greater good going around tormenting anyone who seemed to be less enthusiastic:

As Red Guards, we subjected anyone perceived as “bourgeois” or “revisionist” to brutal mental and physical attacks.

I regret most what we did to our homeroom teacher Zhang Jilan.

I was one of the most active students — if not the most revolutionary — when the class held a struggle session against Ms. Zhang.

I pulled accusations out of nowhere, saying she was a heartless and cold woman, which was entirely false.

Others accused her of being a Christian because the character “Ji” in her name could refer to Christianity.

Our groundless criticisms were then written into “big character” posters — a popular way of criticizing “class enemies” and spreading propaganda — 60 of them in total, which covered the exterior walls of our classroom building.

Not long after, she was sent to the cowshed — a makeshift prison for intellectuals and other “bourgeois elements” — and suffered all kinds of humiliation and abuse.


Decades later Yu met with her former teacher and apologized for her past behavior. She asked what had happened to her at the cowshed. The teacher replied “I was made to crawl like a dog on the ground.” That outcome was a lot better than what would come later. CNN reports that by 1968, “people were publicly beaten to death every day during struggle sessions; others who had been persecuted threw themselves off tall buildings.”

Everyone lived in fear of running afoul of the revolution’s edicts or of being singled out for persecution. The Cultural Revolution is a case study in anti-capitalist delusion and the semi-religious fervor (and violence) that come with it.

CNN also did this interview with a woman whose parents were publicly humiliated and sent to a labor camp as anti-revolutionaries:

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