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How the west embraced Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book

At the peak of its popularity, Mao's bible was the most printed book in the world. It attained the status of a sacred, holy text during the Cultural Revolution, and retains its place among western devotees.

Raise the red icon: with the dawn of the Cultural Revolution, the belief in the power of the Chinese chairman's words spread to Europe. Image: Corbis.

Mao's Little Red Book: a Global History
Edited by Alexander C Cook
Cambridge University Press, 299pp, £17.99

In 1968 a Red Guard publication instructed that scientists must follow Mao Zedong’s injunction: “Be resolute, fear no sacrifice and surmount every difficulty to win victory.” Expert knowledge was not valid, and might be dangerously misleading, without the great leader’s guidance. Examples of revolutionary science abounded at the time. In one account, a soldier training to be a veterinarian found it difficult to castrate pigs. Studying Mao’s words enabled him to overcome this selfish reaction and gave him courage to perform the task. In another inspirational tale, Mao’s thoughts inspired a new method of protecting their crops from bad weather: making rockets and shooting them into the sky, peasants were able to disperse the clouds and prevent hailstorms.

By the time the Red Guard publication appeared, Mao’s Little Red Book had been published in numbers sufficient to supply a copy to every Chinese citizen in a population of more than 740 million. At the peak of its popularity from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, it was the most printed book in the world. In the years between 1966 and 1971, well over a billion copies of the official version were published and translations were issued in three dozen languages. There were many local reprints, illicit editions and unauthorised translations. Though exact figures are not possible, the text must count among the most widely distributed in all history. In the view of Daniel Leese, one of the contributors to Mao’s Little Red Book, the volume “ranks second only to the Bible” in terms of print circulation.

Originally the book was conceived for internal use by the army. In 1961, the minister of defence Lin Biao – appointed by Mao after the previous holder of the post had been sacked for voicing criticism of the disastrous Great Leap Forward – instructed the army journal the PLA Daily to publish a daily quotation from Mao. Bringing together hundreds of excerpts from his published writings and speeches and presenting them under thematic rubrics, the first official edition was printed in 1964 by the general political department of the People’s Liberation Army in the water-resistant red vinyl design that would become iconic.

With its words intended to be recited in groups, the correct interpretation of Mao’s thoughts being determined by political commissars, the book became what Leese describes as “the only criterion of truth” during the Cultural Revolution. After a period of “anarchic quotation wars”, when it was deployed as a weapon in a variety of political conflicts, Mao put the lid on the book’s uncontrolled use. Beginning in late 1967, military rule was imposed and the PLA was designated “the great school” for Chinese society. Ritual citation from the book became common as a way of displaying ideological conformity; customers in shops interspersed their orders with citations as they made their purchases. Long terms of imprisonment were handed out to anyone convicted of damaging or destroying a copy of what had become a sacred text.

The editor of Mao’s Little Red Book writes in the preface that this is “the first scholarly effort to understand Quotations from Chairman Mao as a global historical phenomenon”. It is an accurate description, but the collection has the shortcomings that are to be expected in a book of essays by academic authors. The prose style is mostly stodgy and convoluted, and the contributors seem anxious to avoid anything that might smack of a negative attitude towards the ideas and events they describe. “As a group,” the editor continues, “we are diverse with respect to age, gender, ethnicity and political sympathies.” He is right that, judged by prevailing standards, it is a well-balanced group. All of the relevant disciplines are represented – history, area studies, literature, political science and sociology – and although ten of the 13 contributors teach in the US, the collection is representative of the range of views of China that you will find in universities in much of the world. However, the fact that it reflects the present state of academic opinion is also the book’s most important limitation.

Reading the essays brought together here, you would hardly realise that Mao was responsible for one of the biggest human catastrophes in recorded history. Launched by him in 1958, the Great Leap Forward cost upwards of 45 million human lives. “When there is not enough to eat, people starve to death,” Mao observed laconically. “It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.” He did not specify how those condemned to perish would be made to accept their fate. Ensuing events provided the answer: mass executions and torture, beatings and sexual violence against women were an integral part of a politically induced famine that reduced sections of the population to eating roots, mud and insects, and others to cannibalism. When Mao ordered an end to the horrific experiment in 1961, it was in order to launch another. The Cultural Revolution was nothing like as costly in fatalities, but it left a trail of broken lives and cultural devastation, the memory of which is one of the chief sources of the post-Mao regime’s legitimacy.

There will be some who object that everyone knows about Mao’s failings – why bang on about them now? However, if today we know the scale of Mao’s crimes, it is not as a result of decades of academic work on the subject. The first detailed examination of the famine, Hungry Ghosts (1996), was written by the Hong Kong-based journalist Jasper Becker. It was only in 2010 that the historian Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine appeared, a pioneering study based on years of research in recently opened Chinese archives. Apart from accounts given in the memoirs of those who survived, the human costs of the Cultural Revolution were best captured by Simon Leys (the pen-name of the Belgian sinologist and literary critic Pierre Ryckmans) in his books Chinese Shadows (1974) and The Burning Forest (1987). The authoritative and revelatory Mao: the Unknown Story (2005) is the work of Jung Chang and her husband, Jon Halliday. Aside from Dikötter’s, none of the books that captured the human experience of life under Mao was written by a professional academic.

In fastidiously avoiding any reference to the oppressive realities of the Mao years, academics were faithful followers of conventional opinion. The predominant western perception of Mao’s regime was of a progressive political project – if at times it got a little out of hand, that was no more than the exuberance that goes naturally with such a liberating enterprise. When in the 1970s I raised with a British communist the millions who were killed in rural purges in the years immediately after Mao came to power, he told me, “Those sorts of numbers are just for western consumption.” Further conversation showed that his estimates of the actual numbers were significantly lower than those conceded by the regime. No doubt unwittingly, he had stumbled on a curious truth: the prestige of the Mao regime in the west was at its height when the leadership was believed to be at its most despotic and murderous. For some of its western admirers, the regime’s violence had a compelling charm in its own right.

Julian Bourg recounts how in France Mao’s thoughts became à la mode with the August 1967 release of La Chinoise, Jean-Luc Godard’s film about a youthful Parisian Maoist sect. Among French thinkers, Bourg notes, “Mao’s language of violence had a certain rhetorical appeal.” In fact, it was his combination of rhetorical violence with sub-Hegelian dialectical logic that proved so irresistible to sections of the French intelligentsia. Eulogising Mao’s distinction between principal and secondary contradictions, Louis Althusser deployed Maoist categories as part of an extremely abstract and, indeed, largely meaningless defence of “the relative autonomy of theory”.

Althusser’s student Alain Badiou (for many years professor of philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure) continued to defend Maoism long after the scale of its casualties had become undeniable. As recently as 2008, while commending himself for being “now one of Maoism’s few noteworthy representatives”, Badiou praised Mao’s thought as “a new politics of the negation of the negation”. From one point of view, this stance is merely contemptible – a professorial pirouette around a vast pile of corpses. But one must bear in mind the fathomless frivolity of some on the French left. Already in 1980, two former Maoist militants had announced their rejection of the creed in the language of fashion: “China was in . . . Now it is out . . . we are no longer Maoists.” Against this background, Badiou’s persistence is almost heroically absurd.

In the west, Maoism had two defining characteristics: it bore no relation to conditions in China, in regard to which its proponents remained invincibly ignorant; and it was embraced by sections of an intellectual class that was, for political purposes, almost entirely irrelevant. In Italy, Mao’s thought had for a time a slightly wider influence.
As Dominique Kirchner Reill writes, discussing Maoism in Italy and Yugoslavia, “In Italy Mao-mania was not purely a left-wing phenomenon. Some ultra-right groups quoted their Little Red Books to justify their arguments.” In 1968-73 the neo-fascist party Lotto di Popolo (“the people’s fight”) lauded Mao as an exemplary nationalist and resolute opponent of US global hegemony. In a footnote Reill observes that the “Nazi-Maoist movement in Italy included many other figures and groups” besides the Lotto di Popolo. It is a pity this aspect of Mao’s influence is not explored in greater detail.

Despite its inevitable limitations as an academic text, Mao’s Little Red Book contains much that is of interest. In a programmatic introductory essay Alexander C Cook compares the Chinese leader’s book to a “spiritual atom bomb” and considers its global fallout. Showing how it reflects the influence of the choral singing introduced into China by 19th-century Christian missionaries, Andrew F Jones provides an illuminating account of the rise of the Maoist pop song. Taking as her starting point the global distribution of the Little Red Book to over a hundred countries in the eight months between October 1966 and May 1967, Xu Lanjun examines the process of translation in the context of Maoist ideas of global revolution. Quinn Slobodian discusses the impact the book had in eastern and western Germany. In the concluding essay, Ban Wang considers the Little Red Book and “religion as politics” in China. Elsewhere, its influence in Tanzania, India, Peru, Albania and the former Soviet Union is discussed.

To my mind, the most illuminating contributions are those of Slobodian and Wang. Distinguishing between “badge books” and “brand books”, Slobodian defines the former as “books that express meaning through their outer form”, while brand books are “commodities that are consumed within the space of the market”. In West Germany in the late 1960s, the Little Red Book “resembled simultaneously an accessory of the classical workers’ movement and a modish commodity of the educated elite”. In theatres, across from the refreshments, there were glass cases “full of pretty red Mao bibles (two Deutsche Marks each)”. As an anti-consumerist commodity, the book became “a marker of social distinction within a commercial market”.

For Wang, the book “represented a scriptural authority and emanated a sacred aura”. During the Cultural Revolution study sessions were an unavoidable part of everyday life for people in China. Involving “ritualistic confessions of one’s errant thoughts and nightly diary-writing aimed at self-criticism”, these sessions, he writes, “may be seen as a form of text-based indoctrination that resembles religious hermeneutics and catechism” – a “quasi-religious practice of canonical texts”.

It was not long before the Little Red Book and anyone connected with it fell out of favour with the Chinese authorities. In September 1971, Lin Biao – who had first promoted the use of Mao’s quotations in the army – died in a plane crash in circumstances that have never been properly explained. Condemned as distorting Mao’s ideas and exerting a “widespread and pernicious influence”, the book was withdrawn from circulation in February 1979 and a hundred million copies pulped.

If it was used as scripture during the Cultural Revolution, the Little Red Book had something of the same function for its western devotees. In China, studying the book was believed to have enabled peasants to control the weather. In the west, its practical efficacy was more limited. Among the radical intelligentsia, it provided a fantasy of revolution that enabled them to forget that their political influence was practically non-existent. As China has embraced a type of capitalism and turned itself into the world’s second-largest economy, original editions have become a scarce commodity. Today the great leader’s thoughts have joined a host of trashy collectibles – Mao fridge magnets, CD cases, cigarette lighters and playing cards, among other bric-a-brac – and become items whose only value lies in the commercial marketplace. The Little Red Book has now achieved what looks like being its most enduring significance: as a piece of capitalist kitsch.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book, “The Silence of Animals: on Progress and Other Modern Myths”, is published by Penguin (£9.99)