Choosy Beggar Books

Battle of Wits: We Are Chairman Mao’s Red Guards

Posted in International Comics by mvblair on March 11, 2014

Like every other guy on the planet, I consider myself a student of history. I particularly enjoy reading the history of people in turmoil. One topic which I’ve read at least a dozen books about is the Cultural Revolution in China. It was a time of torture, gulag, forced disappearances, and even famine. The most widely documented part of the Cultural Revolution is the anarchy created by the Red Guards, groups of mostly middle and high school students in the cities who organized destructive campaigns against Old Habits, Old Culture, Old Customs, and Old Ideas in the name of modernity. Mao himself encouraged the Red Guards as a way to rehabilitate his image after the disastrous Great Leap Forward.

Mao created an enormous propaganda campaign that included comic books, which helps give me something to talk about here. “Battle of Wits: We Are Chairman Mao’s Red Guards” is a fifty-four page comic about Xiao Hong, a middle school student who spies on her own grandpa and catches him in a conspiracy to send a university journal to Soviet spies. She goes through his mail, spies on him from above, and eventually gets the military police to catch him fleeing his own apartment in a rush to make a drop. It was all encouraged by Mao and the comic was all relatively mild compared to what actually happened during the Cultural Revolution.

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45. Suddenly his eyes stopped on “Technological Research”. This was the internal monthly periodical that Xiao Hong’s father edited in the university, containing published reports on electronic industry development and new technological discoveries and achievements. That guy [the Grandfather] quickly opened his back to stuff several books inside.

If you have a chance, read the English translation here at China Smack. As with most propaganda comics, the writing is terrible. It’s the typical “illustrated narrative” style that is easy to do and not exactly a comic: the book does not need the illustrations. Nevertheless, the illustrations are beautiful. The artist used lots of different brushes and pens to create lush pictures that are somewhere between “Little Orphan Annie” and a really good Japanese comic. The writing and story, well, clearly leave a lot to be desired.

On a historical note, it appears this book was published in 1976, the year the Cultural Revolution ended, along with Mao himself. This propaganda was one of Mao’s last breaths, a desperate grab to keep his movement going.

On a literary note, there is a pretty big English translation (via the French) of Chinese communist comics called “The People’s Comic Book: Red Women’s Detachment, Hot on the Trail, and Other Comics.” It’s from 1973. I’ll write a review of it soon now that I’m thinking about it. Terrible comics, but interesting culture.

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  1. Mao-Era Cartoons | Choosy Beggar Books said, on December 8, 2016 at 11:28 AM

    […] For more on Chinese cartoons, check out this post about Sanmao and this post about Battle of Wits: We Are Chairman Mao’s Red Guards. […]


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