Review of "Born Red: A Chronicle of the Cultural Revolution" by Gao Yuan

Updated on April 2, 2018

A primary source, Born Red: A Chronicle of the Cultural Revolution falls into both the shortcomings and the benefits of that genre. Covering the story of Gao Yuan as he maneuvers the difficult waters of the Cultural Revolution in 1960s China, it has advantages as compared to other primary sources about Chinese history such as that of Daughter of Han, and it actually is a primary source unlike Blood Road.This is because it was written and translated into English by the author directly, without need for another to take it down. It provides a chilling account of the Cultural Revolution, although not one that is free from its own probable biases and an attempt to assuage the potentially guilty conscience or failings of the author, something that is almost inevitable in any memoir.

Born Red was written in 1987 for an American audience. This was a time when the Cold War was still in progress, albeit winding down, and therefore runs the risk of incorporating biases in its portrayal of communism to suit the American market. Even if its author Gao Yuan did not attempt to write it with an anti-communist bias - - not that providing a negative interpretation of communism is hard during the Great Leap Forwards or most of the PRC, although that could be my own anti-communist bias speaking - - his memory could easily be influenced by his perspective, casting a different light on events that happened. Consider his liking for Teacher Li, and his dislike for Teacher Guo. 1 Teacher Guo is politically deeply committed to the cause of the Chinese communist revolution. She is also dry, boring, and informs on her students for lacking appropriate ideological commitment. 2 Teacher Li is a former
Kuomintang Major, strong, upright, commanding of respect, an interesting lecturer, affable, and capable of physical feats that impress the students. This reads like an excellent anti-communist stereotype; the physically strong, practical, charismatic non-ideologue/anti-communist (for, despite his seeming devotion to the cause, in the past he was labeled a rightist early on) and the politically correct, conniving, physically weak, boring communist, who teaches a course useful only for its ideological value. Perhaps this was true - after all, if there were no cases of something being reality, stereotypes could not come into existence, and the idea of a drab, uninteresting political professor is certainly plausible enough - but it could also be an exaggeration of Yuan, writing for an audience and the times, flavored with his own emotions and remembering the past to fit his own vision.

Beyond these potential biases one must consider that memories are fallible due to
individuals simply forgetting the details. The loss of the diary of Gao Yuan means that the events that were his personally must be remembered from the vantage points of decades later. Leaving aside the weakness of the mind, ignoring any overt intent to bias, there is still the disposition to rehabilitate and justify one’s actions within the context of events from decades later. Thus, within the tides of memory there will inevitably be some events that will forgotten, and some that will be mis-remembered. What is forgotten or left unsaid is often even more important than that which is said. This is the problem of a memoir, for though it avoids the problems of
secondary sources, it holds its own distortions and biases. Does this make Born Red an unimportant or bad book? No, the author does an excellent job of portraying the events of the Cultural Revolution and life in the PRC during that era. Any
book, any story, will include some form of bias. Ultimately we simply have to identify and filter these biases to be able to gain a more accurate understanding of the work and its contribution to the subject. Despite its biases and possible gaps, Born Red is still well worth reading. Indeed, it would be an almost impossible task to demand a work capable of avoiding these issues while involved in the immense turmoil of the Cultural Revolution.

Destroying the four olds. In theory, old thoughts were the main target, but it was a lot easier to smash objects than ideas.
Destroying the four olds. In theory, old thoughts were the main target, but it was a lot easier to smash objects than ideas.

The book depicts the political events which shape the lives of those involved during the Cultural Revolution. Although seen from afar vis-a- vis the initiating events and central policies, the book completely accomplishes this theme; the initial newspaper battles that sparked the revolution, the feeble attempts of professors to reign in some of the demons they had unleashed 3 and the subsequent defanging of their authority alongside their sickening humiliation in struggle sessions. The situation that ultimately results, as peasants, students, and government officials struggle for competing interpretations of the revolution, is one that borders on civil war. The
best example of this is Gao Shanghui, the father of Gao Yuan, being forcibly taken by Red Guards and then freed and thereafter (temporarily) protected by his own peasant militias. 4 The paranoia and self-replicating nature of the Cultural Revolution which quickly grew to reach a point of absurdity, in company with the lack of knowledge of real events by those caught up in those tumultuous times, inspires the book, and is important in comprehending those chaotic days. Gao endlessly makes posters that attack the counter-revolutionaries without knowing who they actually were, and when he does want to learn he has to use newspaper clippings to attempt to ferret out the political meaning of such events. 5 Students seek out anything that could be used as material for the cultural revolution, ranging from hidden imaginary messages in the China Youth, to subtle imagined insults to the socialist society in an English teacher’s poems, to further extensions of the interest in class backgrounds. This reaches almost absurd levels that verge on
caste-like statements, such as that Mao Zedong can only meed Red Guards, and hence those of good background. 6 It is ironic that after the socialist revolution and the establishment of formal equality, that such a rigid stratification can be the result.

A struggle session where people were encouraged to "struggle" against counter-revolutionary elements to make them admit to their crimes : psychologically damaging and humiliating at best, and conducive to physical violence at worst.
A struggle session where people were encouraged to "struggle" against counter-revolutionary elements to make them admit to their crimes : psychologically damaging and humiliating at best, and conducive to physical violence at worst.

The author focuses on networks as the primary place in which political battles take place, rather than on ideological disputes alone. This mirrors the approach taken in Blood Road: The Mystery of Shen Dingyi in Republican China. Yuan’s father is fired and demoted to a steel mill, temporarily. This is not necessarily because of the action he took, which was to issue a command for the people not to carve earthen bricks out of the city wall - - although it would be easy to fit them into a message of focus on the mass line - - but because it was exploited by his political enemy Han Rong. 7 Yuan criticizes a teacher not because of her politics, but because he’s bored of her lectures. 8 He also helps his friend, Yuling, repair their home after being ransacked by Red Guards; 9 ties of personal loyalty continue to exist, further showcasing that politics is only a smaller element in the upheavals. Of course, within the context of the Cultural Revolution, it is generally understood that much of what happened was contextual, but it further stresses the value of being able to observe non-ideological factors. As with so many other purges, the need for survival forces one to turn onto others, until in time the snake bites its own tail and turns on itself.

Red Guards in Beijing
Red Guards in Beijing

Class, family origin and their importance in the Cultural Revolution are one of the most vivid depictions of the book. It drives home the widely known prejudice suffered by those from the “wrong families,” and demonstrates society’s capacity to exclude them and attack them because of their parents’ past. 10 There are continuances to the past as well, despite the attempts of the Red Guard to stamp
them out. Gao Yuan may be formally anti-religion, but he explored it before taking his middle school entry exams, and then proceeded to conclude it as “not very reliable.” 11 This is an attitude not entirely dissimilar to that which is found in Daughter of Han, where she too was more concerned with the physical effects of religion rather than their spiritual impact. 12 Of course, the Red Guards prove to be rather adverse to religion with their destruction of temples, but the question can be raised of how much of this is ideological purity and how much is reflecting attention to others and getting caught up in the moment like the destructive teenagers that they are.

This also reflects that while the state’s power may be limited in some way, the Cultural Revolution’s power is as well. There might have been destructive internal forces, but the army, higher state institutions, and basic economic structures are loyal to the state or survive intact. Soldiers defend the Dafo Temple, 13 The Forbidden City suffers no attacks despite its clearly feudal nature, 14 the tomb of Sun Yat-sen is protected, 15 and class compartmentalization exists on ferry ships such as East-Is-Red No. Three. 16 Eventually, the army is mobilized to take control of the revolution, 17 a demonstration of the extent to which the army increasingly pervades China, including bayonet and anti-aircraft drill for students during this time. Despite the disruptive effects of the cultural revolution, the state clearly exists and continues to be able to direct it.

The economic and material conditions of life in China during the period are something which the book represents well as well, and with probable accurately. High fertility rates among women, like Yuan’s mother having 6 children, 18 is portrayed, as well as the intense suffering that took place during the Great Leap Forward after such high initial expectations. 19 With exceptions like the Great Leap Forward however, the general standard of living of the Chinese people, while not high and not up to Western standards and with grain ration cards, seems to be enough to provide for a reasonable life for a middle-status member of it like Gao. During times when they go to Beijing, this reaches almost a level of opulence. 20

Although the Great Leap Forwards is a sign of the immense mobilizational capacity of the Chinese state, it also shows that its actual power was limited.
Although the Great Leap Forwards is a sign of the immense mobilizational capacity of the Chinese state, it also shows that its actual power was limited.

The increasingly politicized and less utilitarian schooling comes to the foreground as well. A school which previously seemed to, within the Chinese context, provide for both the perceived necessary political education and seemed to be well equipped technically, such as with amateur radio technical workshops, starts to fall apart as even basic schedules of school slide into chaos, much less things like homework. 21 Ultimately with the destruction of the authority of teachers themselves, and their humiliation and torture, it is clear that any education had long
since ceased.

Beijing in 1968, complete with its renamed landmarks and streets.
Beijing in 1968, complete with its renamed landmarks and streets. | Source

The book also spotlights the limits on the capacity of the state’s power in economic
affairs. In addition to the obvious failings in the Great Leap Forward, there also exists a seemingly present commercial market, with private vendors selling goods in a market economy. 22 Even during the Cultural Revolution, this continues despite the attempts of the students to oppress the workers and peasants. However, the Cultural Revolution also highlights the limited capacity of the state to really control society. The Empress Guo Wineshop, presumably a private enterprise, simply has its name changed to “Worker-Peasant- Soldier Wineshop” 23

Furthermore, China is still a land of contrasts. In addition to its traditional opulence, Beijing also has department stores and television sets of unknown numbers, 24 as well as bus lines, 25 while the peasants simultaneously harvest with little more than a sickle. 26 Of course, to some extent this is natural; a capital city will be properly equipped and rural areas naturally poorer, but it might also be a legacy of the intense investment into industry by the CCP at the expense of rural regions.

Although the socialist revolution has emerged, the book asserts that many of the Chinese old ways of thinking did not instantly change with communism. Locals of Yizhen see earthquakes as ominous omens that portend disaster with dynastic change being heavily connected, 27 a clear sign of the continuing hold the “Mandate of Heaven” concept still holds in China. This links into a certain understanding of history which is held by the Chinese. They are distinctly aware of happenings from the Century of Humiliation - one of the key events for the city of Yizhen being that allied troops of the Eight Nations Alliance had reached there in fighting against the Boxers. 28 Yuan understands Lingzhi’s political quiescence - - initially at least, he soon realizes the town of his father is not as quiet as it seems - - in terms of its oppression by foreign entities. 29 This view of history stresses China’s oppression by foreign powers, a vital component of her self-image and consciousness.

Geographic space is commandeered for the Revolution as well. One of the common themes is utilizing previous, counter-revolutionary space, and converting it into territory that conveys the triumph of the Chinese revolution, such as with changing a Gothic cathedral - - a visual representation of the Western imperialist powers in “semi-colonial” China - - into an auditorium for the People’s Liberation Army. 30 This is a fate not meted out to a local mosque or Chinese temple, not having the same ideological message in their construction.

The Xujiahui Catholic cathedral with Jesus torn down and replaced with Mao. Similar to the fate which befell that of Yizhen.
The Xujiahui Catholic cathedral with Jesus torn down and replaced with Mao. Similar to the fate which befell that of Yizhen. | Source

The ultimate message acquired from the Cultural Revolution is that as important as
politics are, it is human relations that matter more, its networks and communications on the ground. Born Red, by showing the intense struggle that happens along local lines, as feuding happens between rival groups of children and against personal enemies, demonstrates that viewing the Cultural Revolution through a political lens alone is insufficient. It is far better to view the it through a social and network-lens, as people desperately tried to survive in a decade where the Revolution turned to fighting itself. It is a very intriguing biography, well written, and which gives a picture into the life of Gao Yuan in turbulent times, although one should always take into account that he is attempting to portray himself positively in retrospect. Regardless, be one interested in Chinese history or interested in simply reading a good biography, this makes for an excellent work.


1 Gao Yuan, Born Red: A Chronicle of the Cultural Revolution (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987), 27.
2 Yuan, Born Red, 23.

3 Yuan, Born Red, 44.
4 Ibid, 111
5 Ibid, 36.
6 Ibid, 112

7 Ibid, 7-8.
8 Ibid, 48.
9 Ibid. 102.
10 Ibid, 8-85.

11 Ibid, 91.
12 Ida Pruitt, A Daughter of Han: The Autobiography of a Chinese Working Woman (Stanford: Stanford University
Press, 1945), 192.
13 Ibid, 92
14 Ibid, 118
15 Ibid, 148
16 Ibid, 147
17 Ibid, 200
18 Ibid, 8.

19 Ibid, 7.
20 Ibid, 165-166
21 Ibid, 42.
22 Ibid, 10
23 Ibid, 87
24 Ibid, 164

25 Ibid, 166
26 Ibid, 103
27 Ibid, 3.
28 Ibid, 4.
29 Ibid. 106
30 Ibid. 4


Pruitt, Ida. A Daughter of Han: The Autobiography of a Chinese Working Woman (Stanford:
Stanford University Press, 1945).

Yuan, Gao. Born Red A Chronicle of the Cultural Revolution (Stanford: Stanford University
Press, 1987).

5 stars for Born Red

Questions & Answers


      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment

      No comments yet.