One of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Soldiers


I’m One of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Soldiers
Offset print, 1971

Red Guard Propaganda During the Cultural Revolution

Twentieth century Chinese art often evokes thought of Communist propaganda and its spread throughout China. As history tells us, although propaganda prints were not the only type of art produced during that era, they did play a significant role in the everyday lives of Chinese citizens. This essay will introduce readers to an analysis of a Red Guard propaganda print, a historical exploration of the Red Guard role during the Cultural Revolution, and the artists and politics behind the Cultural Revolution.

At a distance, the image consists of a young, female Red Guard in front of a bright, red background.  The most prevalent figure in this piece is the young girl in the center holding herself with tall posture, her left hand grasping a red book and her right hand gesturing towards her heart as if she is taking on a large responsibility. With respect to the other images in the piece, the girl is printed with the most amount of detail and value, which makes her the most realistic and important figure. The background behind her is a flat, red color with six two-dimensional, cartoon-like drawings that each tell the viewer how Red Guards affect an ordinary Chinese citizen’s daily life. The six cartoons in the background are etched out of the red ink; they depict families happily harvesting crops and Red Guards teaching school, helping children shop, leading a revolution, doing martial arts, and teaching citizens new ways of life. The Chinese calligraphy in the upper left hand corner, “好好学习,天天向上” can be translated to, “By studying well, we can progress forward everyday.”   and below the image is written in large font:  “我们是毛主席的红小兵”, “We are Chairman Mao’s Little Red Guards.”  

Looking at the piece’s most prominent features, the female Red Guard and the telling cartoons in the background, we can infer the artist is using this piece to persuade its viewers, the Chinese citizens, that Red Guards will bring change to everyday lives, stimulate happiness, education, and a new way of life. Hundreds of thousands of teenagers and college students left school during the 1960’s to join the Red Guards; they participated in violence against their parents’ and grandparents’ generations and demolished many treasured, sacred and historical places and objects. The happiness depicted in the girl’s face, the reality of her features, her healthy posture, and her beckoning hand advertises that the Red Guards are doing good for the country and are looking for more recruitments.

Beyond the figure in the center, the background and text add to the overarching message of the piece. The cartoon figures in the background tell simple stories to the viewer of how Red Guards can affect a Chinese citizen’s daily life.  The simplicity of the line drawings may relate to the irony of “simply” conforming to the Red Guards. In each cartoon, a Red Guard is seen happily leading a group of people with a smile on their face. The culminating effect of these images implies that adapting to the Red Guards will bring happiness and a better life. Additionally, the red background plays a significant role in this print. Red is typically viewed as a lucky color in Chinese culture, and it is sad and ironic that it is also the color that advertises the young people who caused the bloodshed of millions of people. The text also alludes to favor of the country’s radical cultural change: Two character phrases are repeated in this image: 毛主席 (Chairman Mao), and 红小兵 (Red Guards). These images affirm the urgency and importance of both Chairman Mao and Red Guards during the beginning of the Cultural Revolution.

Beginning in 1966, the Cultural Revolution lasted for a decade. The revolution was rooted in Mao Zedong’s campaign against the “Four Olds:” old thought, old culture, old customs, and old practices. The Red Guards glorified Mao during the first two years of the revolution and violently acted on his campaign against foreign and traditional culture. The Red Guard organization existed between the years 1966-1968, and it is very likely this piece was printed and distributed during that time period. By looking deeper into the meaning behind the central and background image, we can assume this piece had three main purposes: to advertise the Red Guards as a means of recruiting more young people, to convince Chinese citizens that Red Guards will bring good to the country, and to hide the harsh realities Red Guards actually imposed on the country.

In reality, the Cultural Revolution was far from the cheerfulness illustrated in the propaganda. The Red Guards quickly turned eliminating the Four Olds into violence. The Red Guards publically humiliated, tortured, and murdered millions of people who were thought to have “bad class backgrounds,” they destroyed stores that sold traditional treasures, burned theaters, damaged art collections and irreplaceable records, ruined Confucius tombstones, robbed ancient cultural treasures, destroyed the Ming portion of the Great Wall, and demolished religious mosques and monasteries. The Red Guards completely terrorized China and were eventually stopped by officials because they were too dangerous to continue. Because this print makes it seem like Red Guards happily teach Chinese citizens new ways of life, the piece serves as an effective political tool that hides the immense suffering and terror the Red Guards actually created.

The piece does not have an artist’s signature on it, nor do most Red Guard propaganda because it was made and distributed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). After all, the purpose of the piece was not to popularize or bring praise to the artist, but to advertise the Red Guards and suppress the reality of terror they were causing. The piece was also mass-produced and distributed across China; adding an artist name would weaken the piece’s effectiveness. An artist’s name would bring attention away from the Red Guards and the Cultural Revolution by giving them another political figure to blame for supporting their suffering and loss.

The Chinese Communist Party produced and distributed tens of millions of Red Guard propaganda posters during the Cultural Revolution. The propaganda’s influence on people was divided; many young people supported the revolution and became Red Guards, while older generations grasped their traditional culture and became angered and fearful of government. After the decade of revolution, art became much more realistic and more accurately showed the suffering of ordinary Chinese citizens. Although mass distributed art during the Cultural Revolution does not accurately display reality of that time, the Red Guards’ radical and inhumane actions will forever be remembered by China.

Ida Sobotik

Selected Bibliography

Bonnin, Michel. “Red Guards.” Encyclopedia of Modern China. Vol. 3. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons/Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009. 246-47. Print.

Brown, Kerry. “Cultural Revolution.” Encyclopedia of China. Vol. 1. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Group, 2009. 538-44. Print.

Chiu, Melissa, and Sheng Tian Zheng. Art and China’s Revolution. New York: Asia Society, 2008. Print.

Clark, Paul. The Chinese Cultural Revolution: A History. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008. Print.

Sankey, Margaret. “Red Guard Organizations.” Encyclopedia of China. Vol. 4. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Group, 2009. 1865-867. Print.