If you’re fan of Les Mis, you already know that red symbolizes “the blood of angry men” and “a world about to dawn.” It’s the color of the revolution, and that’s not just true if you’re a quasi-fictional French student back in 1832 — it became the color du jour for Socialist and Communist revolutionaries as well. And It’s not a coincidence that the current Chinese flag and the flag of the former Soviet Union are against a field of red. Red, to them, is the color of change.
But red means something else as well. Here are two clues.
Typically, red means stop. But you knew that already. In a traffic context, at least, this is an international norm. Some nations are signatories to the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, which explicitly spells that out, but in general, “red means stop” is the rule regardless.
That’s incompatible with revolution, though. Just ask the Red Guard, the paramilitary group loyal to Mao Zedong in the 1960s. Red, they insisted, was the color of progress, not legal impediments. So, they tried to change its meaning. As Mental Floss explains, “during the Cultural Revolution, members of the Red Guard began publicly voicing their displeasure with red stoplights. Because red was the color of the revolution, they felt it should mean ‘go,’ symbolically encouraging the spread of Communism.”
And so the campaign began. It began with an advertising campaign; in 1966, the Guardian reported that “the Guards plastered posters on the city’s walls today which said that red [ . . . ] should be used as a signal for traffic to go forward” — literally the opposite of what it meant to drivers both then and now. But that wasn’t enough; would you run a red light because a poster, even one purporting to be official, told you to? Hardly. So in some areas, members of the Red Guard became ad hoc traffic cops, telling drivers to go on red and stop on green.
If that sounds like a terrible idea, you’re right — it was. As Jalopnik notes, “obviously they could not man every intersection, and some drivers ended up going on red and others going on green, and there were a lot of accidents.” Ultimately, the regime thought better of the idea and red, for traffic purposes at least, remained “stop.”
From the Archives: They Blue It: Where stop signs are blue, and why.
Related: “Mao: The Unknown Story” by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday; as the synopsis notes, it’s “the most authoritative life of the Chinese leader every written.” Four stars on nearly 500 reviews.