Uniformity and Heightened Status among Students in Maoist China


Students at Beijing University, Joseph, William, Collection: “Serve the People!” 1972.

Above is a photo of students at Beijing University listening to a history lecture. This photo was taken in 1972 by William Joseph a political science professor at Wellesley college as part of a series called “Serve the people! Images of daily life in China during the Cultural Revolution”. Professor Joseph visited China as a member of the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars, a committee dedicated to the improvement of Chinese-American relations (1). Despite the relative uniformity of all the students which can be observed through the blue and green colors of clothing as well as the masculinization of the female students, the heightened status of the Red Guards is still evident and clearly displays their importance in Chinese society during the Cultural Revolution thus revealing a contradiction between the desire for uniformity and the elevation of certain members of society as Red Guards.

First, the presence of a ‘uniform’ is evident in this classroom setting through the blue and green colors. Although there are slightly different hues of blue and green, which is likely due to individuals making their own ‘uniforms’ with available materials, nobody deviates drastically from the the norm of blue and green clothing which is striking evidence of uniformity. Moreover, since all clothing bears the same box-like shape with a high collar and long sleeves, there is no evident distinction between male and female bodies which only furthers the sense of uniformity among the students. Additionally, the women all either have short hair or tightly pulled back hair which erases any remaining traces of gendered bodies and normalizes everyone to a masculine standard. little more comments on the political indication of this “uniform”

However, despite the general uniformity, the Red Guards stand out from others signifying their importance. First the patches of red on their collars and hats stand in stark contrast to the sea of blue and green and serve to distinguish the red guards from ordinary students. Second, the hats on the red guards seem to increase their height relative to other students thus literally and figuratively elevating them among the crowd. Finally, the uniforms of the red guards seem to be better tailored, made of better cloth and generally of higher quality than their peers. All of these elements converge to signal the heightened and important status of the red guards above other students. the political status of the red guards?

There seems to be an interesting contradiction between the strong uniformity of the garments worn by students and the distinct contrast of the red guard uniforms. During the Cultural Revolution the individual was devalued in favor of the larger group and thus uniformity was a fundamental component of society so it seems contradictory that certain individuals would be elevated to a higher status(2). Specifically because, as is evidenced in Professor Joseph’s image, these individuals seemed to break the uniformity of the rest of the crowd.

However, an important factor, which could change the interpretation of this image, is the potential for bias. Although Professor Joseph is an academic and thus presumably educated on the subject of Chinese culture and society his position as an outsider and specifically a westerner certainly created a bias in the way he chose to capture images of daily life during the Cultural Revolution.

there were no schools in those days and the colleges were only open to “workers, peasants, and soldiers.” we may see the class identity from what they wear.

(1) http://academics.wellesley.edu/Polisci/wj/China1972/intro.html

(2)Li Li (2010) Uniformed Rebellion, Fabricated Identity: A Study of Social History of Red Guards in Military Uniforms during the Chinese Cultural Revolution and Beyond, Fashion Theory, 14:4, 439-469