Study Guide

Red Scarf Girl Themes

  • Fear

    A wise little green man once said, "Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering." We tend to agree with Yoda, and it sure seems true of Ji-li's situation. She is scared to death almost the entire novel. We're not talking things that go bump in the night or a haunted-house-at-Halloween scary. Red Scarf Girl offers a more bone-chilling type of fear, the kind that comes from knowing that at any point, Red Guards might show up and take you away for no reason at all. When this actually happens to her dad, Ji-li becomes scared of what the guards are doing to him. Fear eats away at her piece by piece in this book, and it certainly leads to suffering.

    Questions About Fear

    1. What is Ji-li most afraid of? How does she cope with her fears?
    2. Why does Ji-li support the Cultural Revolution if she's afraid of what the Red Guards are doing? How do her fears show us her true feelings about the Revolution?
    3. What does Ji-li's fear motivate her to do? Would she act different if she wasn't afraid?
    4. What is your biggest fear? What is scary about Ji-li's situation?

    Chew on This

    Fear only leads to more suffering for Ji-li. If she weren't afraid, she wouldn't suffer so much in the book.

    Fear is used by the Red Guards to make people behave in a certain way. Without fear, people wouldn't confess or rat out their friends.

  • Politics

    When an entire country decides to revolt against the ruling class, a couple of conversations about politics are certainly going to happen along the way. This is definitely the case in Red Scarf Girl, which takes place primarily during the start of the Cultural Revolution in China. We're all for promoting equality and opportunities for all, but we can't get behind beating people up or imprisoning them simply because they are better off. Since Ji-li's grandfather was a landlor, her family is a target during the Revolution, so politics are at the heart of Ji-li's story.

    Questions About Politics

    1. What are Ji-li's political beliefs? What are her family's? How are they similar and how do they differ?
    2. Why is the idea of a revolution so important to Mao or the Red Guards? What is wrong with the way things were?
    3. How do Ji-li's politics clash with her loyalty to her family? Which is more important to her at the beginning of the book? Does this change by the end of the book?

    Chew on This

    While their ultimate goals may be noble, the Red Guards use political corruption and injustice to get what they want.

    Even though their tactics aren't necessarily squeaky clean, the Red Guards are just trying to create a better political situation for the entire country.

  • Family

    When it comes to family, you love them, you hate them, you get annoyed with them… you get what we mean. But when push comes to shove, you know your family will be there for you, right? (We hope so, anyway.) In Red Scarf Girl, Ji-li knows her parents love her and that her family is a happy one… but what about the fact that they lied to her about her grandpa being a landlord? Or that her dad was caught up on the wrong side of politics back in the day? Hrm.

    Ji-li has to figure out whether her allegiances lie with her family or her politics. It might sound like a straightforward question, but there's no easy answer when a revolution is knocking down your door. Literally.

    Questions About Family

    1. When does Ji-li decide where her loyalty lies? What are some examples of being loyal to her family? When is she loyal to the government?
    2. Ji-li tells us that her family is rare and too valuable to be replaced. What do you think she means by that? How do you think this connects to the four olds?
    3. Do you think Ji-li's parents are right to keep their family history a secret from Ji-li? How would things turn out differently if they were more upfront with her in the beginning?
    4. Why is family so important in defining who people are in the book? Why do people denounce their families?

    Chew on This

    Ji-li's unwavering loyalty to her family shows that family is more important than politics or the government.

    Even though Ji-li is loyal to her family, she still believes in the Cultural Revolution and that it should be put before individual needs.

  • Society and Class

    What's your class status? Are you from a swanky high-class family with money and servants for days? Whether you are or not, you'd probably like to say yes to that question. Not in China during the Cultural Revolution, though. As we see in Red Scarf Girl, during this period, having piles of cash (or relatives who have piles of cash) is bad news. People think you're acting better than everyone else, and they'll call you an exploiter (or worse). Thanks to a wealthy, landlord grandfather, Ji-li gets her fair share of bad names and runs into a whole heap of problems. Thanks, Gramps.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Why is social class such a big deal in the Revolution? What does it tell you about a person? How is it used in the book to evaluate someone's worth?
    2. Do you think it's fair that Ji-li is judged on her social class? Why does her grandpa's wealth and job impact her life?
    3. What are some of the positive aspects of the Revolution? What are the more negative aspects? What would a classless society look like?

    Chew on This

    Red Scarf Girl shows that there is no such thing as equality when it comes to social class.

    Ironically, Red Scarf Girl shows the importance of class by focusing on class differences so much.

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    Do you dream of a world where you can lie around eating Cheetos and watching movies all day? We do, too. Ji-li has dreams of her own, and they're a bit nobler than quality time with the couch. She thinks about what she wants to do with her life (perform and act) and where she wants to go to school (Shi-yi). She has it all planned out. And then the Cultural Revolution starts, and her big plans for her life take a nose dive.

    Red Scarf Girl isn't just about how Ji-li's future plans are ruined, though. The book also criticizes Mao's dream of a Cultural Revolution. The problem, it seems, is people. How so? No matter how great a manifesto may be, it can only be put into action by people—flawed, selfish, stupid, and vain people.

    Questions About Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    1. What are Ji-li's dreams at the beginning of the novel? At the end? What does this change reveal about her journey?
    2. What are Mao's plans for China? Why is it important to get rid of the four olds to achieve these hopes?
    3. What is Ji-li's dream for writing the book? What does she hope to achieve with it?

    Chew on This

    Ji-li never totally loses hope that her dreams can come true.

    Even though Ji-li keeps on keeping on, at a point, she loses hope for her dreams for the future ever coming true.

  • Duty

    For such a little word, duty is a big concept. It's the opposite of fun and games in Red Scarf Girl because it's all about what is owed to other people. Ji-li feels a sense of duty to her family, her country, herself, and the Revolution. You might be thinking those are all worthy causes, and we could see a case being made for that. But duty gets kind of warped in this book, too. It's not merely about owing people something—it becomes justification for betrayal as kids ditch their parents, students disrespect their teachers, and people lose sight of basic human decency. Oops.

    Questions About Duty

    1. Who or what does Ji-li have duty to? Which of her duties does she feel the strongest about?
    2. Why does Ji-li have more duty in her family than her siblings? How much of this has to do with age, and how much is about personality?
    3. Is it fair to place so much duty on Ji-li when she is only a child? What does the book tell us about the negative qualities of duties?
    4. Does Ji-li want to participate in the Cultural Revolution because of duty or obligation? What's the difference?

    Chew on This

    Even though Ji-li is active in the Cultural Revolution, she does it so she doesn't look bad, not because she values her duty to the cause.

    The Cultural Revolution manipulates people's sense of duty to their country to coerce them into doing horrible things they otherwise wouldn't.

  • Identity

    Who are you? Who's that guy over there? Who are we all? These are some of the big questions in life and they leave Ji-li scratching her head in Red Scarf Girl. Deep down, she thinks she knows who she is: a straight-A student with a great family and a dream of being a performer. But then when these things are stripped away from her and she gets majorly lost. Class isn't the same once the teachers are all trashed, and she can no longer become a Liberation dancer because of her sketchy family background. Ji-li has to start from scratch when it comes to her identity, and in many ways, Red Scarf Girl is all about discovering herself.

    Questions About Identity

    1. How does Ji-li change over the course of the novel? Who does she become by the end? What is important to her? Give specific examples, please.
    2. How much of identity is ingrained? How much can it be shaped by our experiences?
    3. How do you define yourself? A sports star or mathlete? A prom queen or code writer? What if these elements were taken away from you? What would you use to define yourself then?

    Chew on This

    The fact that Ji-li loses her identity during the Cultural Revolution shows that her identity was actually super insecure to begin with.

    Ji-li learns more about herself during the Cultural Revolution than anything else—it pushes her to figure out what she values and what's important to her.

  • Truth

    What is the truth? Is there even any such thing? The more we think about it, the trickier the truth is to pin down. Maybe that's the truth about truth: It's tricky. Ji-li definitely faces this in Red Scarf Girl. She's not sure whether she knows the truth about her family or not—after all, they've lied to her about her grandpa in the past—but then again, she can't get up on the stand and testify against her dad knowing it's not true, either. To her, truth is a big deal. To the Red Guards, though, not so much. They don't really care whether people are guilty of crimes; they just want confessions, and the juicier, the better.

    Questions About Truth

    1. Who values truth in the novel? Who does not? What does this tell Ji-li about their characters?
    2. Why does Ji-li doubt the truth about her dad? What makes her question his involvement in criminal activity?
    3. In the epilogue, Ji-li tells us that they were all brainwashed and led to believe Mao's truth. How did that happen? What manipulation of the truth do we find in the book? How does freedom of the press (or lack thereof, in this case) play into the concept of truth? Are there ways in which Red Scarf Girl might be seen as propaganda in its own right?

    Chew on This

    In being anti-Maoist, Red Scarf Girl is propaganda, too. In other words, it also isn't the whole truth.

    Red Scarf Girl shows there is totally such a thing as absolute truth.