The early years of the Cultural Revolution (from 1966 to 1969) were the most disruptive and violent, as Mao called on youths to rebel and carry on the revolution. Students, instructed to “smash the Four Olds” (i.e. old ideas, culture, habits and customs) (破四旧) and to route out rightists, capitalists, bourgeois, and revisionists, formed into quasi-military Red Guard groups (红卫兵). While the movement started at high schools and universities in Beijing— where professors and intellectuals were targeted— the movement quickly spread and other revolutionary groups formed at factories and government institutions.
Across the nation, Red Guards and revolutionary groups overturned the administrative structures of institutions and took control through violence. The Red Guards and revolutionary groups persecuted people who they believed fell into the “Five Black Categories”: landlords, wealthy farmers, counter-revolutionaries, bad elements, and rightists. During “struggle sessions”, victims were publicly humiliated, forced to admit to bourgeois or revisionist crimes, and beaten; some died or committed suicide from the ordeal. In Jingdezhen, revolutionary groups took over the porcelain kilns and destroyed works that were deemed feudal, capitalist, or revisionist. Managers and elite craftsmen who held high positions within the factories were subjected to struggle sessions or purged and sent to work in the fields.
Different Red Guard groups eventually turned on each other as they sought control over territories. This struggle between factions led to waves of violence, as Red Guards physically fought one another to prove their ideological claims and devotion to the Chairman. After two years of chaos and violence, the Party sought to restore order to the nation. Work units, led by People’s Liberation Army soldiers, were dispatched to retake control of factories, institutions, and infrastructure. Red Guard and revolutionary groups were disbanded and youths were subsequently sent to the countryside to be “re-educated” in order to defuse the student fanaticism of the movement. Industry slowly returned, some schools reopened, and fortunately in Jingdezhen, many artists were “rehabilitated” and were able to resume their craft.
The works in this section illustrate the chaos of the Red Guard years, as well as the devotion and optimism of Chinese youth participating in the revolution. However, these ceramics gloss over the violence and suffering caused by the Red Guards; even sculptures of struggle sessions are sanitized, offering a less bloody depiction of events.