How the west embraced Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book

tags: China, Mao

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.

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....

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....

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