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Quotations of Chairman Mao--Really a Best Seller?


I spend a lot of time in taxis in Beijing and since I am a blondish, big-nosed foreigner who speaks Chinese, many drivers are eager to chat. They want to know what work I do and how much money I make. When I tell them that I am an educator and don't make much money, they wonder what in the world I am doing here.

Since most drivers are in their 40's or 50's and grew up studying the Quotations from Chairman Mao, I reply in my best communist-reciting-a-slogan voice, "I came to serve the people!" The response is always greeted with laughter. Sometimes the laughter is heartfelt, but mostly it is a bit nervous, because they all immediately recognize it as one of the sayings of Chairman Mao that they had to memorize when they were young. 

"We should be modest and prudent, guard against arrogance and rashness, and serve the Chinese people heart and soul ."

That this one piece of one quote ("serve the Chinese people heart and soul") is pretty much the only quotation that still gets any play in China today says something of the lasting impact (or lack thereof) of the book Quotations from Chairman Mao. The book has slipped out of the life of the nation; so much so in fact, that I am having a hard time knowing if I should be writing about it in the present tense or past tense.

Last year a writer named James Chapman wrote a post for the website Squidoo listing the 10 most read books in the world (in the last 50 years). The Quotations from Chairman Mao was #2 on the list, behind the Bible. To be honest, the book's inclusion on the list should probably come with an asterisk. It is easy to become the second "most read" book in the history of the world when failure to own a copy or carry it at all times could lead to beatings or even imprisonment.

It's also easy to land on the list when, for the period of time it was "on the market" (I use quotation marks because there was no such thing as a market in China then), it was, for all practical purposes, the only book on the market. The post indicates that 820 million copies were sold. Since this was at a time when China's population was growing from 500 million to 800 million, it could be argued that everyone in China owned a copy.

It is interesting to note that the only book that has sold more copies is The Holy Bible. Even though the Communist Party was (and is) atheist, the devotion to and influence of the book took on a religious flavor; it became, in effect the Bible of Maoism. This aspect of the book is most evident in the old images that we have all seen of thousands of rapturous-faced youth waving the book in Tiananmen Square or at other mass gatherings around China in the late 1960s.

To understand the impact of this book, it is important to understand what the book is and who actually wrote it. In the west it has come to be known as "Mao's Little Red Book," but the real title is Quotations from Chairman Mao. It is not really a book written by Mao Ze-dong, the supreme leader of China and the Chinese Communist Party until his death in 1976; rather it is merely a collection of selected quotations taken from his speeches and essays.

The first edition of the book, published in 1964, was for internal distribution within the People's Liberation Army (PLA), not for the masses. Lin Biao, head of the army, believed that a collection of short, pithy quotes that were easily memorized would be an easy and effective way to inculcate uneducated soldiers with Mao's (and thus the Party's) guiding philosophy. This is the reason why many of the quotations themselves pre-date the founding of the People's Republic of China (October 1, 1949) and have a distinctly militaristic tone about them. The initial readers were soldiers fighting a revolutionary war.

When the Cultural Revolution got underway, the Party decided to distribute the book to the masses. With its official publication in 1966, Quotations from Chairman Mao became the main vehicle for teaching Mao Ze-dong Thought to the people and the centerpiece of the cult of personality that was built up around Chairman Mao. Here is part of the introduction:

In our great motherland, a new era is emerging in which the workers, peasants and soldiers are grasping Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong's thought. Once Mao Zedong's thought is grasped by the broad masses, it becomes an inexhaustible source of strength and a spiritual atom bomb of infinite power. The large-scale publication of Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong is a vital measure for enabling the broad masses to grasp Mao Zedong's thought and for promoting the revolutionization of our people's thinking.

At the height of the Cultural Revolution, no one was exempt from reading and studying the book. Students in school set aside math, science, language, and history; instead, they spent their days studying these quotations. Factory workers didn't build things; they spent their days memorizing these quotations. Office workers didn't do anything besides study them and peasants, after long days in the fields had to spend evenings memorizing them as well.

At the heart of Mao Ze-dong Thought was the notion of struggle, so the violence of the political campaigns of the early years and the Cultural Revolution) should not surprise us. The Communist Party had been victorious in their war against the Nationalists. Once the nation was established in 1949, the same tactics that had led to victory were now employed to root out and defeat enemies still lurking within Chinese society: capitalism, the bourgeoisie, and religion, to name a few.

Entire chapters of the collection are devoted to quotations on struggle and revolution. This is perhaps the most famous: "A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another."

Emphasis was always on the destruction of the old and the building of the new. Old China (backwards) was to be replaced with New China (modern). An old system (feudalism) was to be replaced with a new system (socialism). Old beliefs (religions) were to be replaced with new beliefs (Mao Ze-dong Thought). And finally, taking on spiritual terminology that is familiar to Christians, the old man (selfish) was to be replaced with a new man (selfless). All of this would be done by submitting to the will of Mao (as expressed through the Party), who alone had the power to forgive and sanctify. 'If you confess your sins Mao (the Party) is faithful and just in forgiving your sins.' Through the influence of this book Mao Ze-dong Thought became a religion and Mao became a god to be worshiped.

In 1976, Chairman Mao died and a new leader, Deng Xiaoping came to power. Having twice been purged by Mao, he had experienced the violence of the Cultural Revolution on a personal level. He also inherited a country that was on the brink of exhaustion and collapse (both economically and psychologically) as a result of the excesses of Maoism. He set about dismantling the cult of personality that had been built up around Mao. At the very least, that meant removing Quotations from Chairman Mao from circulation. The same Party and government that had mandated the purchase and study of the book as Holy Writ now asked the people to turn them in. Once collected, they were destroyed. Today the only copies available are the English versions that were published in 1993 to be sold to foreign tourists.

That this nation could live under such an ideology for so long and emerge to rebuild is a testimony to God's grace, and that applies especially to the Church. In their struggle to rid Chinese society of all competing ideologies, all religious activities were banned, and the Chinese church went underground. When things began to change in the late 1970s and early 1980s it became apparent that the Church not only had NOT been defeated; it had grown. That explosive growth continues today.

Some Chinese Christian friends of mine have suggested that one of the effects of Maoism, as propagated by the Quotations from Chairman Mao, was to lay the groundwork for the revival that we see in China today. Maoism stripped away many of the traditional beliefs from Chinese culture, leaving a deep spiritual hunger and an unprecedented openness to the Gospel.

God does indeed move in mysterious ways.

Note: This is a slightly edited version of a post originally written for and published by The Gospel Coalition.

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is senior vice president of ChinaSource and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University... View Full Bio