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Mao’s Little Red Book in China and Beyond

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China Power

Mao’s Little Red Book in China and Beyond

The Diplomat speaks with Alexander Cook, editor of a collection of essays on Mao’s Little Red Book.

Nearly 40 years after Mao Zedong’s death, China continues to have an uneasy relationship with the Great Helmsman, as shown by the recent ambivalence towards the 100th anniversary of Mao’s birth. To get more perspective on China’s (and the world’s) past and present relationship with Mao, The Diplomat‘s Justin McDonnell spoke with Alexander Cook, the editor of Mao’s Little Red Book: A Global History, a collection of essays seeking to understand the Little Red Book as a global phenomenon.

How is Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong a reflection of the global radicalism of the 1960s?

The Little Red Book responded to the deepest anxieties of the postwar period: dissatisfaction with the unfulfilled promises of liberalism, disillusionment with the crushing realities of Soviet-style communism, and despair with the continued subjugation of the developing world. This was a generational phenomenon, but it also spoke to the shared, transcendent, existential fear of nuclear annihilation. The Little Red Book represented a rejection of the Cold War, and even more than that a rejection of the technological subjugation of humanity in the era of mass production. Needless to say, there are many bitter ironies in this story.

How was the book disseminated in China and why did it die out?

The book was originally conceived as a kind of ideological field manual for soldiers in the People’s Liberation Army. Its small size and rugged, waterproof cover were designed to fit the breast pocket of an army uniform. Leading up the Cultural Revolution, Defense Minister Lin Biao heavily promoted the cult of Mao in the military. He said Mao’s thought was a “spiritual atom bomb” and insisted that every soldier be armed with a copy of the Little Red Book. Since young people were encouraged to look at the military for role models, they started to carry the book, as well. At the height of the Cultural Revolution, the book was a must-have accessory to demonstrate loyalty to the regime. Printing copies for nearly a billion people, China faced an acute paper shortage! Then, quite incredibly, Lin Biao died in a plane crash, allegedly fleeing China after discovery of his plot to assassinate Mao. Just like that, the Little Red Book was tainted by association. After Mao’s death and the end of the Cultural Revolution, most copies of the Little Red Book were pulped.

China is still trying to reckon with Mao’s political career and legacy.  Despite his failings, there is still great reverence for the late leader.  There’s the Chinese New Left, who advocate a Maoist revival and are critical of the Party’s economic policies. Former leader Bo Xilai replicated Mao’s mobilization efforts and policies to gain public support and govern in Chongqing, which ultimately led to his downfall.  Also, late last year, we witnessed a new version of the little red book in bookstores throughout the country.  Is Mao finally coming back to life?  If so, should the Party be worried?

Mao is too central to the history of the party, the state, and the military to be completely buried without damaging the reputation of those powerful institutions. His embalmed body still lies in Tiananmen Square and his specter still haunts the political life of China. Mao’s ghost seems to manifest less and less frequently these days, but he can still rattle some chains. The quotations found in Mao’s Little Red Book provide a vocabulary with which to challenge the powerful, including China’s current elites. For the present, though, the groups looking to Mao for inspiration – nostalgic politicians, the disenfranchised poor, university intellectuals, critics of globalization – are individually quite weak and seem to have little inclination to pull together.

It’s fascinating that his work has emerged and flourished throughout the entire world.  I’ve even personally seen it utilized by U.S. business leaders… From France, to the former Soviet Union, from Peru to East Africa, how was he able to exert influence in diverse cultures and histories? How have they in turn appropriated Mao? 

This is a difficult question to answer in brief. In our essays we try to show some of the variety of ways that the Little Red Book has traveled. It spoke broadly to the anxieties of a particular era, as I said. But also, in its physical form and its intellectual content, it was eminently flexible, portable, and quotable.

How did this book provide a meaningful context for the Afro-Asian radical movement in the US?

This is a complicated question, and one that we deal with at length in the book. Basically, the Little Red Book provided both a template for social organization and a symbolic connection to radical movements elsewhere in the world. Even though the resemblance between these struggles was sometimes only superficial, we should not underestimate this powerful sense of connectedness.

Is there a particular quote that resonates with you?

No. I was born in 1975, a generation removed from the heyday of the Little Red Book. There are many things I find fascinating about the Little Red Book, but I do not identify with it. I think that’s why I’m able to approach it with the objectivity of a historian. Hopefully those who lived with the Little Red Book find my treatment rings true to their experience, but also adds a new layer of reflection and understanding. If I may, I’d like to turn this question back to the reader: which quote resonates with you, and why?