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From Red Guards to Thinking Individuals: China’s Youth in the Cultural Revolution

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Common scenes in photographs and documentary films of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) are the human waves of male and female youths on Tiananmen Square eagerly presenting themselves as if they were graced by an audience with their idol, China’s ruler, Mao Zedong. In their military uniforms, army caps, and Red Guard armbands, they wave Mao’s “little red book,” with tears in their eyes, chanting “Long Live Chairman Mao!” These Red Guards of middle, high school, and university students served as the spearhead for Mao Zedong in his Cultural Revolution: a bloody political purge of Party cadres from top down, an anti-humanitarian tragedy in the name of revolution to eradicate everything old and Western, and a movement in the rhetoric of creating an egalitarian society. It affected a nation of 800 million people, and consumed the energy of China’s youth even in distant parts of the country, but it resulted in the transformation of the Red Guard generation from the tool of Mao into thinking individuals.