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. Continue reading