The Red Scarf Girl is author Ji-li Jiang's memoir of her experiences during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution was a socio-political movement which took place from 1966 to 1976. Communist leader Mao Zedong wanted to destroy the Four Olds (old customs, culture, habits, and ideas) and create a new, purely communist China. The Red Guard was made up of young people who supported this cultural shift and served as a paramilitary alliance for Chairman Mao. They were a revolutionary youth group and sought to destroy manifestations of the Four Olds. Their actions included burning old books, destroying temples and religious sites, and ransacking museums. They also physically attacked people suspected of capitalist sentiments.
The book begins around the same time that the Cultural Revolution has begun, and many young people are feeling the excitement and opportunity of being chosen to serve their leader. Ji-li wants to audition for the Central Liberation Army Arts Academy and is even nominated to join the Red Guard, but her family has a political history which presents challenges. Because her grandfather is a landlord, and her father has been called a Rightist, her family is criticized as part of the Four Olds. Their home is raided for evidence of the Four Olds and a bourgoisie lifestyle. Ji-li feels shame among her peers because of her family's "black" political history. Eventually Ji-li is sent to work in fields, and is urged to criticize her father for being a Rightist. Instead, she allies with her father and takes care of him rather than betray him. This book reveals the intense personal struggles young people experienced at the time of the Cultural Revolution and that many were torn between familial ties and the prospect of honor in serving a New China.