At the beginning, the violence of the Cultural Revolution was only on campus.
The student mobs began to call themselves “Red Guards,” since they were acting to guard Chairman Mao. Under communism, there was supposed to be no civil society; no organization should exist outside the state. All Chinese charities, unions, religions, or other independent groups had been eliminated or were under state control. But the Red Guards boldly created themselves. They didn't ask for official party approval.
The "red" class already were organized, thanks to military training at summer camps and rifle clubs at home. Mao’s constant exhortation was “Never forget class struggle.” Dressed in their parents’ old military uniforms and proud of their blood purity, they attacked "black" class students. Children of high-ranking military and political parents, the Red Guards had been told by their parents that communist party revisionists were against Mao. Fully indoctrinated in Maoism, the superior class of students was eager for violent class war.
At first, adult political cadres and others resisted, attempting to suppress the violent upstarts. The CCP center in Beijing dispatched “work groups” to high schools and universities to try to guide the Cultural Revolution, and some of those groups tried to stop the attacks on school staff. “However, without the support of the gun barrel, their cause was doomed,” writes historian Fang Zhu, in "Gun Barrel Politics: Party-Army Relations in Mao’s China." Beijing was fully under Maoist military control.
When a CCP Central Committee plenum (full meeting) opened in Beijing on Aug. 1, 1966, it was surrounded by defense minister Lin Biao’s soldiers. A PLA marshal warned the plenum that the military would act against any dissenters. As a speech by Lin Biao several days later explained, there were two essentials to the Cultural Revolution: Mao’s thought and the power of the PLA.
The day the plenum opened, Mao wrote a public letter to some Red Guards, telling them, “Revolution is not a crime, to rebel is justified.” On Aug. 5, 1966, Mao put up his own big character poster at Beijing University: “Bombard the Headquarters.” Violence exploded.
On Aug. 18, 1966, a million youths assembled in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square for a Cultural Revolution rally. Lin Biao, repeating the June 1 People’s Daily editorial, exhorted them to “Smash the Four Olds”: “all old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits of the exploiting classes.”
Two weeks earlier, the first murder in the Cultural Revolution had taken place. The victim was Bian Zhongyun, an assistant headmistress at the Girls’ Middle School (a secondary school) attached to Beijing Normal University. She was tortured to death for hours by a mob of students. At the Tiananmen rally, one of the murderous student leaders—a daughter of one of the top generals of the revolution—was given the honor of putting a Red Guard armband on Chairman Mao’s sleeve. Mao changed her given name from Binbin (suave or refined) to Yaowu (be martial). The school where the murder took place changed its name to “the Red Martial School.”
Song Yaowu became an instant national celebrity, her picture with Mao reproduced everywhere. Later in the Cultural Revolution, her father, General Song Renqiong, would be purged; after Mao’s death, he would be brought back to power by Deng Xiaoping. In 1989, he strongly supported Deng’s use of deadly force to end the Tiananmen Square democracy protests. The daughter, Song Binbin/Yaowu, later studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and worked for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. In 2013, she apologized for her actions.
Wang Rongfen, who was studying German at the Foreign Languages Institute, observed the similarities between Lin Biao’s speech and Hitler’s speeches at his Nuremberg rallies. She sent Chairman Mao a letter: “the Cultural Revolution is not a mass movement. It is one man with a gun manipulating the people.” He sent her to prison for life. In prison, her manacles bore points to dig into her flesh. She had to roll on the floor to eat. She was released in 1979, three years after Mao’s death, with her spirit unbroken.
Even at elementary schools, which were for students up to age 13, student mobs attacked teachers. The Minister of Public Security instructed the police to support the Red Guards. “Don’t say that it is wrong for them to beat up bad people. If in anger they beat someone to death, then so be it.” Even when Red Guards assaulted the police, the police were not supposed to fight back.
While murders by students had initially been only in the Beijing area, the lethal mobs spread nationwide as students returned home from the Tiananmen rally. The Red Guards were declared to be reserve forces of the PLA, and the PLA was ordered to assist their travel. For the rest of the year they were given free rail and bus transport plus free accommodations and food. Quite a change from the usual communist rules against leaving one’s registered city or village.
Rage Mobs and Book BurningAlthough some students just took advantage of the opportunity for free travel and left Beijing to visit scenic or historical places, many others came home empowered. Under state direction, rage mobs roamed the streets, attacking women for bourgeois behavior such as wearing dresses or having long hair.
They ransacked homes, especially of the black class, but also of reds or whites. Poor street peddlers, barbers, tailors, and anyone else participating in the non-state economy were attacked and destroyed. Many of them were ruined and became destitute.
Street names that referenced the past were replaced with communist names. Historic artifacts, public monuments, non-communist historic sites, religious buildings, tombs, and non-communist art were destroyed.
So were cats, which supposedly expressed bourgeois decadence, and pigeons, which were bred for racing. (Dogs had been mostly wiped out in the 1950s for sanitary reasons.)
Libraries were pillaged, including rare historic manuscripts. “Entire sections of libraries—the Chinese, Western, and Russian classics—were often put to the torch in huge outdoor bonfires,” writes Anne F. Thurston, in "Enemies of the People: The Ordeal of the Intellectuals in China’s Great Cultural Revolution." And as detailed by Rebecca Knuth in "Libricide: The Regime-Sponsored Destruction of Books and Libraries in the Twentieth Century," destroying books was a prelude to mass murder in Nazi Germany, Bosnia under the Serbs, the Cultural Revolution, Tibet under Chinese rule, and Kuwait under Saddam Hussein.
House-to-house searches were conducted to look for concealed arms, books, religious items, gold coins, and evidence of disloyalty. If something was found, the victims were tortured. In historian Frank Dikötter’s words, “Every night there were terrifying sounds of loud knocks on the door, objects breaking, students shouting and children crying. But most ordinary people had no idea when the Red Guards would appear, and what harmless possessions might be seen as suspicious. They lived in fear.”
Many people preemptively destroyed their books and artwork, lest the Red Guards discover them. Ordinary thieves posed as Red Guards to get in on the looting. Most victims were ordinary people, but party officials, especially those linked to leaders who had previously been purged, were also targeted.
The gun confiscation program begun in 1949 appeared to have been successful. In Wuhan, the largest city in central China, 2,000 black homes were ransacked. The Red Guards found plenty of gold, porcelain, art, and other valuables—but only 22 rifles.
While Red Guards used a variety of improvised arms, their main weapons were simply leather belts with brass buckles, which they used to beat their targets senseless, often inflicting severe injury. Sometimes the victims were forced to lick up their own blood from the street.
Any pedestrian could be accosted by Red Guards, ordered to recite quotations from Chairman Mao, and then punished on the spot for not having memorized enough of them.
What could a person attacked by the mob do? Resistance might be immediately fatal, since the police were not going to intervene. If the victim somehow did manage to resist, then the government, which had almost all the guns, would finish off the resister, or ship her to a slave labor camp.
As Dikötter put it, “Soon enough everybody understood that the only acceptable proletarian culture was the cult of Chairman Mao.” His picture and words were everywhere—on giant posters and blasted full volume on pervasive loudspeakers.