Ideological Cannibalism: The Case of the Wuxuan County Red Guards

It wasn’t until the 1980s, nearly twenty years later, that Chinese officials would thoroughly investigate the atrocities committed by the teenage adherents of the Red Guards in Guangxi, an autonomous region in the southernmost part of China.

This region, situated in a mountainous and rural part of the country, appears modest enough; there is a rustic serenity reflected in the crystal-clear rivers and flat, green countryside that characterize most of China’s villages. However, this superficial charm veils a barbarous period in history of unbridled bloodlust that would sweep through the villages and claim the lives of over five hundred victims. During the late 1960s, two years after Mao Zedong sanctioned and militarized the Red Guards, Wuxuan County became the center of a rampant factional battle that incited school-aged children into a savage confrontation against their superiors which ended in perhaps 100 estimated cases of cannibalism. The fights began in January of 1968 but wouldn’t escalate until April, upon the establishment of the county’s Revolutionary Committee that would embolden supporters to take action against those who were perceived as the enemy. In the eyes of the young Red Guards, their most obvious and immediate adversaries were their teachers, whom they viewed as educated, elitist members of the bourgeoisie, and they would become the unfortunate targets of their misguided and fervent ideological frustrations.

Official documents of specific incidents of violence were compiled in the 1980s, two decades after they occurred, and were smuggled out of China by the novelist Zheng Yi. He was himself a member of the Red Guard during the time frame that the Wuxuan conflict began, and he had heard whispered rumors among the locals of the barbarism that had taken place there. In 1986, he was eventually prompted to further investigate these stories and he returned to Wuxuan County to compile what little evidence existed in regards to the fights that had occurred in 1968. To his surprise, he would find that some of the most abhorrent rumors, particularly those involving mass murder and cannibalism, were recorded as being true.

With cooperation from the Chinese police to compile these records, Yi also certified some of the facts by consulting witnesses, relatives of the victims, and the cannibals themselves. All of this information together formed the framework of his book, Scarlet Memorial: Tales of Cannibalism in Modern China, which he had written during his two years as a fugitive for his involvement in the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. The book presents, in horrifying detail, a timeline in which the Red Guards’ inclination towards cannibalism escalated from one phase to another. Initially, it seemed to begin with small, isolated cases in which some individuals would steal organs from the bodies of murdered victims. The motivation for taking the organs– mainly livers and hearts– was reportedly for their potency in folk medicine. In one case, a man confessed to stealing and eating the heart of a female victim because he had heard that eating the heart of a young woman could cure his own heart disease. Eventually, this practice normalized the act of taking flesh from the victims and inspired the Red Guards to hang their freshly murdered teachers onto meat hooks in the cafeteria. Chunks of flesh were then stripped from the corpses and distributed among the revolutionaries, to be taken home with them as a reward for their perceived victory over their oppressors. Supposedly, they were also given pamphlets to instruct them on how to best prepare human meat. Boiling was the preferred method. The mass insanity and the violence it provoked continued unchecked for six months until reports reached government officials, and it was then that armed forces were finally dispatched to bring it to an end; the county remained reticent about the matter thereafter.

If one is to learn from the past, then the question to be asked, in this instance, is how did this unfettered cruelty come to be and how did it culminate into students stringing their teachers onto meat hooks in the school cafeteria? Cannibalism has long been a feature of Chinese culture and history and was practiced for multiple purposes. One reason for its practice is a belief that consuming human flesh has restorative properties, or that it will endow the person consuming it with the qualities they lack. For instance, hearts are eaten as a cure for heart disease and consuming blood is believed to restore youth. In Chinese culture in particular, it was once a cultural standard among some ethnic groups for sons to put their own flesh into soup to offer to their ailing parents. This belief seems to have played a part in the events that took place in Wuxuan County, if only to a small degree, and was especially true of the beginning phase of the violence. Many of the earliest participants in the fights admitted to robbing corpses of their organs to use them for their supposed medicinal properties. Of course, another common cause of flesh eating is cannibalism of necessity — it’s not unusual for people to resort to eating others in times of starvation or famine, and the nation-wide Great Chinese Famine had ended only seven years prior to these events taking place. There had been around a thousand reported cases of cannibalism as a result of the famine, and it’s likely that this event, as contemporary as it had been then, was still deeply imprinted into the nation’s consciousness. However, the fact remains that those participating in cannibalism in Wuxuan County were not starving, and their actions weren’t out borne out of necessity. For the young Red Guards, the motivation appeared to be a ritualized pronouncement of their loyalty to Communist ideology that had them convinced, in Mao’s words, that their liberation could only be realized through “the barrel of a gun.”

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