At Young Pioneer Tours, we try to answer the weird and wonderful questions people have about our weird and wonderful destinations (and beyond). Whether it’s “what do they eat in Uzbekistan?” “What’s the weirdest festival in the world?” or even “what’s it like to play golf in North Korea?”, we like to think we’ve covered a few bases and quenched a few curiosities by now. However, has our extensive archive of Young Pioneer Tours fodder omitted the interesting story of our namesake?
What is a Young Pioneer anyway?
The term “Young Pioneer” became popular during the early 20th century to describe an organization for children operated by a communist party. Typically, children join organization in elementary school and continue until adolescence, with the idea that they will then move on to joining the Young Communist League. Whilst the heyday of the Young Pioneer movement petered out after the fall of the Soviet Union, many Pioneer movements exist in countries where the Communist Party is in power (as well as in some countries where the Communist Party has a large opposition). Whilst in communist countries, membership is officially optional, there are usually great benefits of joining. For instance, during the Soviet Union, thousands of Young Pioneer camps and even Young Pioneer Palaces were built exclusively for Young Pioneers, which were free to members, as they were sponsored by the government and trade unions.
Pioneer statues on the Chinese border with North Korea, complete with ubiquitous red neckerchief.
In layman’s terms, Young Pioneers are essentially communist boy-scouts, with an added element of Hall Monitor-esque diligence, all larded with thick doses of patriotism and Communism. They go camping, learn how to tie fancy knots, collect prizes such as badges for good behaviour. However, whilst the Scout movement is independent of government and doesn’t represent any political party, the Pioneer movement’s foundational motivation was to instil a thick layer of national pride and communist fraternity. The patriotic and nationalistic elements of the Pioneer message had the deepest impact. For example, in China, many get emotional about China’s claim of sovereignty over Taiwan or Tibet. Sceptics, however, cite indoctrination as the purpose of the movement, and contemporary critics have even compared the movement to Germany’s Hitler Youth.
As with Hitler’s propaganda, the iconography of the Young Pioneer movement is unmistakably, well, iconic. The red necktie (although occasionally blue), make Pioneers an instantly recognisable image of communism, an ideology which has typically relied on entrenching symbolism. ”When students first put on the red scarf they feel very proud,” said Ms. Wang, a 22-year-old Young Pioneer organizer at the Yonganli Primary School in Beijing. ”Because in this society, everyone should be in some kind of organization and the Young Pioneers is the best one for young people.” Some of the Pioneer movements’ branding devices are more subtle than others. In Europe particularly, the Pioneer organization is often named after a famous party member considered a suitable role model for young communists. Lenin in the Soviet Union, communist party leader Ernst Thälmann in East Germany. German pioneers were even taught to recite “Ernst Thälmann is my role model. We wear our red scarf with pride” during gatherings.
Overwhelmed North Korean Young Pioneers, meeting current leader, Kim Jong Un. Taken at the Kimilsungia Flower Exhibition, April 2017.
The fall of Communism in Eastern Europe marked the end to their Young Pioneer movement, and most of the rest of the world’s movements generally followed suit. However, in nations where there is still a strong communist following, Pioneers remain. It continues in Russia, admittedly in significantly smaller numbers than during its USSR heyday, also in China, Cuba, Vietnam, and of course, North Korea, where bonny bairns of all ages can often be seen adorned with their ubiquitous neckerchiefs. In today’s quasi-capitalist China, the Communist Party’s reach into daily life has drastically shrunk. For children, however, grade school and the party’s Young Pioneer club are almost indivisible. ”We have to teach them that China is a socialist country and the Communist Party is our leader… we help children grow up better”, says Wang. (A quick Google search also reveals that’s there’s one last lingering bastion in Birmingham, of all places).
And thus, Young Pioneer Tours, a company that craves communist kitsch and pioneering adventures, was born! If you enjoy your communist history, it’s not too late to join us on our Sino-Korean Tour, or next year on our Nepal: Maoist People’s War Tour!