by Alan Philps
China's Spiritual Atom Bomb (Photo: Gabriel Britto / Flickr)
In December 1963, a department of the People's Liberation Army started work on a book of quotations by the
By May 1964, under the guidance of Defence Minister,
Mao, however, liked being elevated from revolutionary to sage. 'The writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin are too long,' he said. 'I advise writing short articles. This book is not bad.'
With the reluctant publishers purged, and the start of the Cultural Revolution -- Mao's unleashing of his young Red Guards to crush his rivals -- China's entire publishing industry was turned over to producing the chairman's words. By 1966, it had found its iconic format: red vinyl cover to withstand the rigors of army life and compact size to fit in a uniform pocket.
Once every citizen of the People's Republic had a copy, translations were shipped around the world.
While European conservatives expressed anxiety at the spread of Mao's ideas, some more thoughtful analysts suspected that format had trumped content. Consumerism was strong enough to turn even the bible of revolt into a modish accessory. As
After Mao's death in 1976, printing stopped and millions of copies were destroyed. The sacred text of the 1960s which had been used to justify unspeakable acts of cruelty in the years of the Cultural Revolution became an embarrassment.
Today, a first edition can cost more than £60. A few quotations, such as 'power grows out of the barrel of a gun' -- have found their way into the English language. But its harsh, didactic tone belongs to another era.
Young people all over the world, China included, are more likely these days to carry a smartphone and get their words of wisdom from social media, some of it in nuggets as concise as Mao's quotations. The Chairman was right about the attention span of the masses.
Article: Copyright ©, Chatham House Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC
Mao's Little Red Book: China's Spiritual Atom Bomb