News / Asia

Q&A with Alexander Cook: The Powers of Mao's Little Red Book

FILE - A Chinese, dressed as a Red Guard and holding a
FILE - A Chinese, dressed as a Red Guard and holding a "Little Red Book" (quotations of Chairman Mao), performs in front of a portrait of the late Chairman Mao Zedong at a restaurant named "Red Classic" in Beijing.
One of the enduring symbols of modern China has been Mao’s little red book. First published in 1964, the quotations of Chairman Mao Zedong have had different impacts and meanings for China over the last half-century. The book has also been translated and used for various purposes around the world.
 
Alexander Cook is Assistant Professor of History at the University of California, Berkley, where he teaches modern Chinese history. His interest in Mao’s quotes led him to develop a global network of scholars who have come to understand the compilation’s meanings in different parts of the world, which, as he tells VOA’s Jim Stevenson, come together in a text titled Mao’s Little Red Book, A Global History.
 
COOK: The book, surprisingly, is 50 years old. It definitely belongs to a bygone era, but it still has a bit of residual power to it. It is a lightning rod for opinion.
 
STEVENSON: Your research gets into different aspects of the little red book that we really have not looked at over the past 50 years.
 
COOK: There are a few things that we wanted to bring out in the project, things that hadn’t really been said about the little red book.
 
The first is this idea the little red book is not just a text. It is an object that moves around and has a life of its own. Often, people are not really reading it. Often reading the thing is not important. Often it’s waving it at somebody or having it in your pocket, the symbolism of the thing that allows it to be used in many different ways.
 
By taking a global perspective, we’re able to step outside of China. There are several chapters about China itself which I think are really interesting. But we also have the opportunity to show what happens when this thing moves around, it travels and takes on a life of its own. What do people do with the little red book in France, in Italy, in Yugoslavia, Tanzania, India, all of these places we talk about. People put the book to their own uses, a tool and a device that they can use to pursue their own ends.
 
I don’t know what it is about the text, if it is the little size or the red color or the words that are inside it. But the text seems to have had a sort of talismanic property such that someone who is holding the text feels empowered to violence.
 
STEVENSON: Were there any veins of a positive non-violent action coming out of the book that you were able to discern in your research?
 
COOK: Yes. 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.

Jim Stevenson

For over 35 years, Jim Stevenson has been sharing stories with the world on the radio and internet. From both the field and the studio, Jim enjoys telling about specific events and uncovering the interesting periphery every story possesses. His broadcast career has been balanced between music, news, and sports, always blending the serious with the lighter side.

You May Like

Video One Year After Thai Coup, No End in Sight for Military Rule

Since carrying out the May 22, 2014 coup, the general has retired from the military but is still firmly in charge More

Goodbye, New York

This is what the fastest-growing big cities in America have in common More

Job-Seeking Bangladeshis Risk Lives to Find Work

The number of Bangladeshi migrants on smugglers’ boats bound for Southeast Asian countries has soared in the past two years More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: paitoon su from: Thailand
May 14, 2014 5:05 AM
I read this book before when I was in university and being an student club activist.I also had group studied on this book with my friends at that time.We misunderstood that this book will bring freedom and fairness to Thai Society.But almost 40 year passed by the conclusion we have is this little red book just bring war,lost of innocents live ,lost of original culture ,norms and value in many Asian and Latin American region especially China.Until now its evil influence still dominate some Thai and Chinese both civilian and officer in several level.Mao himself never do as he wrote in the book except bringing diaster to more than half of Chinese people during his ruling from 1949-1976.Though today Chinese leader against to bring back Mao's era but the totalitarian regime still being protected .I'd like you to read the nine commentaries on CCP posting on www.theepochtimes.com that telling us how Mao's idea hurt China and this world.

by: Jonathan huang from: Canada
May 07, 2014 10:55 PM
At my parents age, almost every one can recite this little red book fluently. When New China was just come to from the WWII and the civil war, majority Chinese were illiterate, this book actually helped to lift vast of Chinese out of illiterate. This book is almost a book of freedom and a book of democracy. One day this book will lead Chinese to democracy again.
In Response

by: eic from: Chian
May 14, 2014 8:27 AM
if your believe in this, why did you emigrate to Canada?
In Response

by: Anonymous
May 13, 2014 7:57 AM
You are wrong

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs