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In 1966, a group of middle school students in Beijing named themselves "Chairman Mao's Red Guards." Mao's support for them led to the name "Red Guard" being adopted by groups who were sanctioned by Mao and his supporters to "rebel against the system" all over China. Sworn to protect Chairman Mao and his revolutionary line, the Red Guards and other, older revolutionary rebels caused havoc and eventually turned on each other, resulting in great destruction and considerable loss of life.
During the early months of the Cultural Revolution, as part of a strategy to fan the flames of revolution, Chairman Mao welcomed millions of Red Guards to Beijing, the heart of the revolution. He reviewed their mass gatherings in the Square from the rostrum on Tiananmen, did drivebys in an open jeep, and even met with some of them in person.
Once the Red Guards had served their purpose of overturning the old order, these restive young people were exiled from the cities to be re-educated by the peasants in the countryside. Many did not return to the cities until the late 1970s; some never did.
For many young people in China today, images of fanatical Red Guards dressed in old army jackets and wearing red armbands, waving copies of Mao's Little Red Book and chanting "Long Live Chairman Mao!", are all that remain of the complex, at times idealistic, and often violent student movement of the Cultural Revolution.