A Little Book’s Big Impact


Reviewing Mao’s Little Red Book: A Global History, a collection of academic essays about the text that some claim is second only to the Bible in terms of print circulation, John Gray revisits where the collection of the Chinese leader’s sayings came from:

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. … Long terms of imprisonment were handed out to anyone convicted of damaging or destroying a copy of what had become a sacred text.

Gray goes on to express disappointment that the contributors “seem anxious to avoid anything that might smack of a negative attitude towards the ideas and events they describe” – and basically ignore the human costs of Maoism:

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.

In a recent interview, however, the volume’s editor offered a more positive assessment of Mao’s writing:

I think one thread that does come through is because it is an authoritative text, in some ways we describe it almost like a religious text, even in its circulation. The only books that are comparable to it are things like the Bible and the Koran. As a religious text, you can imagine that maybe it holds a kind of power over the believers. But on other hand, you can see in places where the book was adopted, including in China, there is almost a religious reformation. It is almost like an education in the liberal arts, and education in rhetoric. Because the text can be used to argue for so many things, in a way it breaks down that kind of authority and allows people to begin to articulate their own desires, their own beliefs in a way to begin to speak freely. We can view this text as a tool of totalitarian dictatorship. But it has this ironic quality of emancipating people’s minds and teaching them how to think and speak freely.

(Photo of a 1966 French edition of Mao’s Little Red Book, via Wikimedia Commons)