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.
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.