Bringing Up the Red Guards

Revolutionaries are Monkey Kings, their golden rods are powerful, their supernatural powers far-reaching and their magic omnipotent, for they possess Mao Tsetung’s great invincible thought. We wield our golden rods, display our supernatural powers and use our magic to turn the old world upside down, smash it to pieces, pulverize it, create chaos and make a tremendous mess, the bigger mess the better!

Red Guard manifesto
Tsinghua University Middle School
Peking, June 24, 1966

Everyone who has studied the Chinese Cultural Revolution has his own favorite quotation from the Red Guard press. Those who want to make fun of it can always pick one of Mrs. Mao’s ridiculous pronouncements (“P’an T’ien-shou is a counterrevolutionary painter—he paints such miserable birds”). Those interested in “violence” can easily find some “urgent appeal” describing “sanguinary atrocities” (always unverifiable) in one of the remoter provinces. Pessimists will find plenty of stern directives from the Army and the central authorities in the later stages of the revolution, denouncing the “evil wind of anarchism.”

My own favorite heads this review. The Red Guards of Tsinghua University, Peking, were referring in their usual allusive style to a poem by Mao written a few years before to denounce Khrushchev’s revisionism. “The Golden Monkey,” Mao had written, “wrathfully swung his massive cudgel, / And the jadelike firmament was cleared of dust.” Mao in his turn was referring to the famous Monkey of the early Chinese novel Hsi Yu Chi, whose magical arts included the ability to turn every hair of his head into a thousand weapon-brandishing mini-monkeys.

Mao as the Monkey King, launching his swarm of little devils upon the baffled Party bureaucracy, is an attractive image. (Arthur Waley in the Introduction to his classic translation of the Hsi Yu Chi1 describes Monkey as personifying “the restless instability of genius”—which is not a bad description for Mao either.) But one must add that Monkey’s exploits were not purposeless; he had been converted by the Great Buddha to the true faith and his actions were designed to promote it. This point not all of Mao’s little monkeys in the Cultural Revolution managed to grasp.

It is also the central point of Professor Solomon’s full-scale analysis of Mao’s contribution to Chinese political culture and of his efforts to make use of certain characteristics of this culture, and to weaken others, in order to promote revolutionary change. The “chaos” or luan which the Red Guards were determined to “create” was an integral part of Mao’s plans. It was Liu Sh’ao-chi who confessed that “I feared confusion [luan] and excessive democracy,” and it was Mao who told his puzzled colleagues on the Central Committee that “I firmly believe that a few months of luan will be mostly for the good.” But it was (at least it was supposed to be) a controlled form of chaos, with the clear objectives of ousting the “capitalist roaders” from power, of throwing a bucket of ice-cold water over the bureaucratic Party…

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