Mao’s Little Red Book

Katalin Dobó

Quotations from chairman Mao Tse-tung. Peking, Foreign Languages Press, 1966.

To demonstrate his physical prowess, on July 16, 1966 72 year-old Mao decided to participate in the competition to swim across Yangtze river : accompanied by si x bodyguards and five thousand zealous followers, he swam (some say drifted) for an hour amongst the giant floating posters carrying his photo. The Chinese news agency and dailies said the Chairman covered nearly 15 kilometers in 65 minutes without the slightest sign of exhaustion while „the water of the river seemed to be smiling that day.” (Swimming 10 kilometers under two hours would qualify anyone for a world competition today; yet, voicing any doubts would have been perilous at that time. In August 1966 Mao launched a purging campaign in Beijing and had his rivals arrested while the Red Guard embarked on a ten-year rampage called the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.)

The swim across rivers became a nationwide sports event to honor Mao. The men in Li Zhengsheng’s photograph taken two years later, on July 16, are preparing to swim across, if not Yangtze, the Songhua river. And what else than Mao’s Little Red Book they could get inspiration from?

The Book has been the bestselling book of all times (only the Bible has had more copies sold). At least 860 million copies have been printed since its publication in 1964, while some estimate that the total number is closer to one billion.

Blinken OSA has a first edition English language copy from 1966 and a second edition from 1967 as part of the book donation of Canadian history professor Victor M. Fic.

It is hard to summarize the book’s content. At the beginning, the Western reader will find the familiar paper tiger motive “All reactionaries are paper tigers” to be mitigated to “They are real tigers and paper tigers the same time” in the paragraph below. Further it says “Was not Hitler a paper tiger?” “The atom bomb… is a paper tiger” notwithstanding that China had been a nuclear power since October 1964. The book essentially is a collection of shallow and meaningless clichés about the role of the party, class struggle, imperialism, and revolutionary heroism.

Metaphors and laconic statements about the army, soldiers, fighting are very frequent. “Attack is the chief means of destroying the enemy.” “We should support whatever the enemy opposes and oppose whatever the enemy supports.” There are whole chapters praising individual diligence, thrift, ideological self-cultivation, discipline, criticism and self-criticism.

One is well advised to recognize the 11 forms of corrupt liberalism such as rumoring behind the other’s back instead of openly criticizing, proclivity to unsubstantiated criticism and frivolous altercation, not reporting expression of counter revolutionary ideas to superiors. It is inadmissible liberalism to forget, even for a second, that one is a Communist in the first place, to be indifferent and not disseminating the propaganda and not trying convincing others in every waking minute. Someone working half-heartedly is a liberal in laziness while not seeing one’s faults is a liberal in self-conceit.

Literature and culture must only exist as a tool of education in the hands of the revolutionary. Some tenets: “Whoever sides with the revolutionary people, is a revolutionary.” “A revolution is not a dinner party.” As for women, the most important is that “China’s women are a vast reserve of labor power.”

The book uses the banal language of propaganda combined, from time to time, with Chinese proverbs and mythology: “Either the East Wind prevails over the West Wind, or the West Wind prevails over the East Wind.” Does anyone have any doubt about which wind will prevail?

Purses designed to carry the Little Red Book
Purses designed to carry the Little Red Book

In a passage, the Little Red Book mentions Hungary : “It [the counter-revolutionary rebellion in Hungary in 1956] was a case of reactionaries inside a socialist country, in league with the imperialists, attempting to achieve their conspiratorial aims by taking advantage of contradictions among the people to foment dissension and stir up disorder. This lesson of the Hungarian events merits attention.”

The book has become a cult object, a symbol inviting religious awe, and a kind of revolutionary topos. As we learn it from Godard’s film La Chinoise, 1967, “It’s the little red book that makes it all move.”

The illustrations come from the book Le Mao (pp 12, 337, 395, 396) donated by a former student of ours to the library, an impressively rich and high quality representation of the objects of the Mao cult. For a broader outlook on Chinese history of the past 100 years read Le siècle chinois available at Blinken OSA.

For the first time on the continent, in 2001 Blinken OSA organized the exhibition East is Red showing the Chinese propaganda poster collection of Westminster University. The documents on the Chinese Cultural Revolution used at the exhibition are available in OSA archives.

Shaoshan, Mao’s native village, November 2008
Shaoshan, Mao’s native village, November 2008