The Many Faces of Little Red Guards

One strength of the Cotsen Library is Chinese-language children’s magazines published during the twentieth century. Prominent titles include early volumes of Er Tong Shi Jie (儿童世界, Children’s World) and Xiao Peng You (小朋友, Little Friend), both launched in Shanghai in 1922. Little Friend is arguably the longest-running children’s magazine in China, having remained active to this day despite two major suspensions–first during the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) and later during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

Another important group of magazines is Hong Xiao Bing (红小兵, Little Red Guard), which sheds light on Chinese children’s reading, learning, and socialization during a specific period of political chaos, as well as lends a nuanced view of Chinese history and culture that concern the youngest members of the society. These were reorganized through a recent cataloging project at Cotsen.

From “Young Pioneers” to “Little Red Guards”

The “Little Red Guards” was the name of a selective children’s organization sanctioned by the Chinese Communist Party from December 1967 through October 1978. Prior to that, most school students from six to fourteen years old were members of the Young Pioneers, who wore trademark triangular, bright-red scarves around their neck. During the Cultural Revolution, children who allegedly failed to meet certain political criteria were denied membership, and eligible ones savored the great honor of being part of a new organization called the “Little Red Guards.” This organization should not be confused with the “Red Guards” (红卫兵), which consisted of older teens and college-age youth and played a far more aggressive role during the Cultural Revolution.

The Many Faces of Little Red Guards Magazines

Hong Xiao Bing Bao (红小兵报, Little Red Guard’s Paper) was first launched in Shanghai on July 20, 1967 as a children’s weekly. After the term “Little Red Guards” replaced “Young Pioneers” as a formal name by the end of 1967, a squadron of children’s magazines sprouted from all over China, all named after the revolutionary buzzword “little red guard.” When the Young Pioneers was restored in 1978, these “little red guard” magazines either ceased publication or adopted various new names.

Map of Little Red Guard magazines

Map of Little Red Guard magazines

Cotsen holds issues of Little Red Guard (hereafter LRG) magazines from eighteen provinces, in addition to one newspaper, pamphlets, and books with the popular term LRG in their titles, all dated from the late 1960s through the 1970s.

Each blue placemark represents one Chinese publisher that distributed a children’s magazine called LRG, or with a similar title, during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). The identical title shared by different publishers has caused confusion among researchers today, who have sometimes referred to it as a single children’s magazine.

Of the nineteen titles of LRG magazines held at Cotsen, the earliest two were released 1968-69 in Shanghai, including one issue of Shanghai LRG (上海红小兵, Jan. 1968) and more than 30 issues of LRG (Jun. 1, 1968-Dec. 25, 1969), but their relationship with each other is unclear. At least half of China’s provinces and municipalities–from Shanghai in the east to Gansu in the west, from Heilongjiang in the north to Guangdong in the south–produced their own LRG magazines, which varied in size, frequency, and content.

Cover images of LRG magazines, by place of publication

Cover images of LRG magazines, by place of publication (clockwise from upper left):
1. Shanghai, 1971, no. 21
2. Jiangsu, Feb. 1971, no. 4
3. Liaoning, 1974, no. 16
4. Ningxia, 1973, no. 2

A Publishing Miracle and Wealth of Information

The Cultural Revolution is widely known as a period of suffocating ideological control over print and media. Juvenile reading materials were no exception. Children growing up during the Cultural Revolution had few reading choices, when old popular titles were banned, and writers, illustrators, and editors were imprisoned or banished to labor camps in rural areas. Under the aegis of a politically correct title, these vibrant LRG magazines, issued as frequently as twice a month in some provinces, were short of a publishing miracle.

Written at the reading level of primary school students, LRG magazines typically include rhymes, songs, news and current affairs, short stories with illustrations, comic strips, and drawings by children. Many carry fine, off-set printed pictures of hand-colored woodblock prints, watercolor paintings, and oil paintings. Anecdotes suggest that some schools would subscribe to LRG and make it available in classrooms for supplementary reading. The magazine has been mentioned in people’s fond memories of their childhood reading.

By virtue of their quick publication cycles, LRG magazines capture the vicissitudes of political turmoil and provide a wealth of information about Chinese history, literacy education, propaganda and censorship, gender role, and political socialization of youth during the 1970s.

China’s daughters…and the evil queen

In 1961, MAO Zedong saw a photo of a rifle-carrying female militia member and was inspired to write a poem, “Militia Women,” in which he commended “China’s daughters” for “having high-aspiring minds / They love their battle uniforms, not feminine dresses.” Visual depictions of revolutionary, progressive females during the Cultural Revolution strived to meet Chairman Mao’s aesthetic standards for women and girls, wiping out as much difference between male and female body features as possible. A typical image of masculine-looking, strong Chinese women can be seen on the cover of a 1965 Little Friend issue.

Cover image of Little Friend

Left: Cover image of Little Friend (1965, no.24). Shanghai, Dec. 25, 1965.

Right: A satirical illustration of JIANG Qing in “大寨人勇斗白骨精” (Dazhai people bravely fight the White-Bone Demon). LRG (1977, no. 4), unpaged. Hunan, Apr. 1, 1977.

After the death of MAO Zedong on September 9, 1976, his fourth and last wife, JIANG Qing, was made to shoulder much of the blame for the damage and devastation caused by the Cultural Revolution. LRG issues published after her downfall ridiculed Jiang in stories and cartoons. In one illustration (shown above) that accompanies spoken rhyming lyrics, the then sixty-three-year-old former First Lady is satirically portrayed with a slim waistline and a long dress, making her the most “fashion-conscious” female in all LRG publications.

Sugar-coating learning with political messages

The Cultural Revolution has been remembered as a period when intellectuals were censured, schooling was disrupted, and students were encouraged to challenge teachers and even physically assault them. LRG magazines, however, carry a surprising amount of writing that encourages literacy and learning, using revolutionary rhetoric and quotations from MAO Zedong to legitimize the call. Pinyin exercises, which drill the crucial Chinese literacy skill of pronouncing phonetics, spell out political slogans. A math problem is couched in the practical scenario of children dividing up liquid pesticides while working on a farm, as Mao had instructed students to learn through manual labor. A science essay explaining the physics of audio amplifiers begins with the importance of listening to news and political messages through radio broadcasts first thing in the morning.

Pinyin exercise in LRG (1975, no. 5). Shanghai, Mar. 10, 1975. A rhyme that celebrates China's new 1975 Constitution. The last two lines mean "Chairman Mao made the new Constitution / The red regime is as stalwart as steel."

Pinyin exercise in LRG (1975, no. 5). Shanghai, Mar. 10, 1975.
A rhyme that celebrates China’s new 1975 Constitution.
The last two lines mean “Chairman Mao made the new Constitution / The red regime is as stalwart as steel.”

A Mirror of Chaos

It must have been especially confusing for a child to grow up during the Cultural Revolution. Traditional values were turned upside down. Countless old authority and power figures were demoted to “untouchables” in the new political caste system. “Red Guard” factions attacked one another, each claiming to be Mao’s truest followers. LRG magazines reflect that chaos, sometimes with immediate responsiveness to contemporary events, and other times with a curious length of delay. As one of the few accessible and appealing children’s reading materials of the time, their content could further add to the sources of confusion for young readers.

On one hand, LRG magazines are full of folkloric stories befitting young readers’ level of cognitive and moral sophistication. Stories about Communist heroes and class struggles painted a binary world of black and white, good and evil. On the other hand, exactly who the “good guy” and the “bad guy” was could change drastically as a result of power struggles. Two of the political leaders that received about-face treatment in LRG were Marshal LIN Biao and China’s future No. 1 leader DENG Xiaoping, as shown by the following illustrations.

Cover image of LRG (1971, no. 18). Shanghai.

Cover image of LRG (1971, no. 18). Shanghai.

This LRG issue was published September 25, 1971, nearly two weeks after the death of Marshall Lin (in green military uniform on the right, standing close to Chairman Mao). According to the dominant account–among competing versions of the event–Lin had allegedly attempted to assassinate Mao but failed, before being killed in a plane crash on September 13, 1971. For some complicated reasons, the cover image did not reveal the colossal political crisis, but continued to portray the late Lin as Mao’s “closest comrade-in-arms,” as was officially stated in the Constitution of the Chinese Communist Party. Could the magazine editors be as ill-informed as the general public of Lin’s secret coup? Or were they “insiders” conniving to cover up the Party’s biggest embarrassment?

In LRG (1973, no. 11). Jilin, Nov. 1, 1973In LRG (1973, no. 11). Jilin, Nov. 1, 1973.

In this photo and rhyme published two years later, school children were condemning Lin as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing ” and head of the “anti-Party clique.”

 

A panel of comic strips in LRGA panel of comic strips in LRG (1976, no. 8). Guangdong, Aug. 1976.

Children perform and watch a play, the theme of which is to condemn the “stinky” DENG Xiaoping.

 

 

 

 

A news photo in LRG A news photo in LRG (1977, no. 9). Fujian, Aug. 1977.

Published one year later, this LRG issue shows Chinese Vice President DENG Xiaoping giving the closing speech at the eleventh National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 1977.

 

LRG magazines offer rich raw materials to help us imagine the intellectual life of a generation of Chinese children–now having approached middle age–growing up in a world of conflict and confusion. Cotsen holdings of these magazines can be most easily located by searching for titles in Chinese characters (“红小兵”) or pinyin Romanization (“hong xiao bing”).