Series (History): The Cultural Revolution

Chapter 17: The Little Red Book

This is the next installment of my book, The Cultural Revolution: Then and Mao.
To read the previous installment, click this link.
To start at the beginning, click this link.

Chapter 17
The Little Red Book

During the time of the Socialist Education Movement, Mao worked on another facet of his Machiavellian plot to regain power. He used his influence as Chairman of the Communist Party to have a book published, entitled, Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung. It contained quotations from his speeches and writings, given over his lifetime. It was bound in a red vinyl wrapper over cardboard cover, was pocket-sized, and became known as the Little Red Book.

The Little Red Book.

It was first printed in January of 1964, and contained 25 topics and 267 quotations, and was distributed to troops in the People’s Liberation Army. It was the brainchild of Lin Biao, a sycophant of Mao who would later be elevated to the top leadership of China during the Cultural Revolution. Lin had recently replaced General Peng Dehuai as Defense Minister. Peng, as you may recall, had been purged for criticizing Mao’s Great Leap Forward.

“Study Chairman Mao’s writings, follow his teachings, and act according to his instructions,” Lin Biao admonished in a prefaced endorsement leaf. This page would later be removed after Lin allegedly attempted to assassinate Mao in 1971.

The Little Red Book expanded several times over the next year, with the final version containing 33 topics and 427 quotations from Mao. Top priority was given to its publication, shoving aside all other works-in-progress, including publication of The Complete Works of Marx and Engels.

The goal was to print and distribute enough copies so that 99% of the population could own and read this book of Mao’s quotes. Over a billion copies were printed between 1966 and 1969. It was exported also, and by May 1967, it could be found in bookstores in 117 countries, with 20 translations in 35 versions.

As of today, some estimate that over 6.5 billion copies have been distributed throughout China and worldwide. This is likely an exaggeration, but if accurate the Little Red Book could be the Most Read Book in history, pushing the Bible into second place.

The Little Red Book became very popular. This was not just because of all the press and promotion it received. It was mainly because every Chinese citizen was expected to own a copy, study it, and carry it on their person at all times. This was never an official requirement, but those who did not do this ran the risk of being labeled a capitalist-roader, or counterrevolutionary, or a revisionist, or something else that could get them into deep trouble.

The Little Red Book was part of Mao’s plan to establish a Cult of Personality, where he would be worshiped like a living god. With Mao elevated to god-like heights in the minds of the people, anything he said would be believed without question, and everything he wanted would be granted. And that’s because his adoring masses would make sure it was granted.

Come on back in a few days for the next installment, entitled Chapter 18: Madame Mao, Jiang Qing.

43 replies »

  1. this was great; I’ve always heard of the Little Red Book, but did not know much about it. So I guess if I want to be a best-selling author, all I need to do is control all of the printing presses…

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Lin Biao… I was going to say that there’s a whole other convoluted story of its own. The problem with much Chinese history of this period is that it was constantly being re-written by whomever held the reigns of propaganda. I suspect Lin Biao may simply have realized that he had become just a little too popular and was about to follow in his predecessors’ fates.

    While I was eating dinner tonight, I was watching a Reuters report partly mentioning China’s current, “Study Xi Jinping’s Words” classes that high school and university students are presently being required to take. His version of a “Little Red Book”, though he’s apparently written two actual academic texts, “The Governance of China”, volumes I (2014) and II (2017).

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah, the story of Lin Biao, especially his end-of-life story, is very peculiar, and of questionable credibility. I’ll be getting into that in a future post.

      Xi does seem to be taking a page from the Mao playbook. I understand when he was a child, his father was imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution, and Xi was exiled in the Down To The Countryside movement. Seems strange to me the he would choose to emulate Mao, after enduring such persecution.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Curious about their value to collectors today… led down an interesting Internet rabbit hole. There’s a phenomenon regarding just about any current non news-service information about China that it’s being filtered through various organs of Falun Gong. It’s not always obvious. Anyway… ended up here at an archive of a 2004 Xinhua (news organ of the CCP) article:
        news.xinhuanet[DOT]com/collection/2004-07/13/content_1595108.htm (Replace the “[DOT]”)

        I don’t read Chinese (though my husband can), but there’s enough similarity to Japanese that I can figure out a great deal. According to the article, by 1976, there were just over 1-billion copies of various “general political versions” printed, four in Chinese, eight in Chinese regional languages, a Braille version, and the rest in 37 other languages including a Chinese-correlated-to-English edition. I didn’t realize it had been printed in so many languages.

        About three-quarters of the printings were done by 1968 to “meet the needs of the masses”. Some of the books were the size of a matchbox, while the “Supreme Instructions” version was larger than usual and included additional sections of updated articles, “Long Live the Victory of Mao Zedong Thought”, and a book of Mao’s poems.

        The printings resulted in a tripling of paper and plastic consumption over five-years, and a tremendous demand for energy to run the presses (described as “waste”). But there was apparently some hoarding going on and Zao Enlai intervened in 1969 to reduce the rate of production, telling people with multiple copies to send their extras to the countrysides. And in 1970, the various extended versions of the book were banned from publication, and the book was updated and re-edited by committee (initially into an abject mess). And,of course, the production and sale of the book was banned altogether in 1979.

        The article mentions that the books originally sold for anywhere from four cents to a few “dollars” (in Yuan). At the time the article was written (2004), it notes collectors paying anywhere from “30 Yuan” to “thousands of dollars” for some versions of the book. English-language reprints are currently available for $8.00 on Amazon… (My favorite 5-Star review titled, “Perfect for Bathroom”, reads, “Most of what I’ve read is about Agriculture. That’s probably a good topic for a nation of starving people. Unnecessary when you plan to exterminate most of them.”

        The record high for an original was apparently paid by a Taiwanese industrialist billionaire, Tseng Shin-Yi, who bought a very rare large version for 3,875 billion Hong Kong dollars ($500-million US). I think this was in 2015? Ironically, he’s known as an anti-communist Taiwanese nationalist, and the auction was seen as a big scandal and an insult in the mainland. I wonder if he keeps it in his bathroom?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Seems kind of weird that people would hoard this book. Zhou was always having to intervene to save China from the latest wave of craziness.

          That’s amazing someone would spend that much on a book. I’ve read that it was a collector’s item, but I wasn’t aware that it could be worth half a billion. I don’t think I’d spend half a dollar on the book.

          Liked by 1 person

          • The hoarding does seem strange… maybe a “cult of personality” thing.

            I suspect Tseng Shin-Yi was making a statement. The auction proceeds were transferred in Hong Kong, which might very well have been a way to launder money into some anti-mainland group. And from what I read, there was a fear that he would simply destroy the book, or that it would end up as something intended to ridicule the CCP.

            Liked by 1 person

        • By the way, I didn’t know Chinese and Japanese were such close languages that a Japanese proficient could kind of read and understand Chinese. Are the two languages about as closely related as, say, Italian and Spanish?

          Liked by 1 person

          • Japanese uses a combination of 205 (commonly used) phonetic characters (“kana”), and logograms (“kanji”) derived from Chinese “Hàn Zì”. The Japanese phonetic kana are mostly used to represent grammatical markers or foreign loan-words. But most nouns and concepts are written with kanji. Being officially “literate” in Japanese means knowing the 2,136 “jōyō kanji” and their “compounds” (usually pairs). But there are many thousands more, especially in older texts.

            Chinese is written entirely in “Hàn Zì”, and and it takes a knowledge of about 4,000 to be functionally literate, maybe 6,000 for university studies. In Taiwan, it takes knowledge 4,808 to be considered officially “literate”, and around 6,300 more are officially listed. So there are a lot of characters that a Japanese reader probably won’t recognize. Mainlanders also use a “simplified” form (since 1964, I think) that can make some really difficult to figure out. Chinese grammatical ordering is also more like English.

            Both languages are read by “Gestalt”. That’s to say that you really need to read a whole sentence to get its exact meaning. ” 安 ” can mean “relax”… or it could mean “cheap”. But without getting some kind of context from at least a grammatical marker in Japanese, or another character in Chinese, there’s no way to know which. That’s why they make lousy tattoos.

            Liked by 2 people

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