Classics Reviewed: Quotations from Chairman Mao

May never comes but I think of May Day (May 1) and the no-longer-vibrant Communist Party with its call, “Workers of the World, Unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.” What to read this month of May? 

Kapital seemed too long. The Communist Manifesto seemed too short. Quotations from Chairman Mao seemed just right. 

The book is an unusual one for a classic. It is a collection of quotations, much like Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, but with all quotations coming from one source: Mao Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and its leader for another quarter century or so. There are a total of 427 quotations on 33 topics taken from speeches and writings by Mao from 1927 through 1964.

The book was first published in 1965, and published in translation in 1966. During the first decade of its existence, it was expected that every man and woman in China have a copy of the Quotations and that they consult and study it on a regular basis. Because of China’s large population, the book had one of the largest circulations of any book in its day. Take that, John Grisham!

Following Mao’s death in 1976, the book waned in popularity, though Quotations still has some hold on the generation that came of age in the 1950s and 1960s. 

The quotations are grouped according to topic (e.g. “Patriotism,” “Party Discipline,” “Unity,” “Women,” “Youth,” and “Political Work”) though many of the themes recur.  Mao repeatedly returns to the importance of study, of unity between the people and their leaders, and of the use of persuasion as much as possible as a means of political transformation – according to Mao, the Communists, though ready for war, preferred peaceful measures to war, and fought only if provoked.

Sections dealing with war, the party, and the army sound a lot like the advice that Sun Tzu gave in his Art of War (6th century B.C.), which is not surprising, as Mao was a student of Sun Tzu and took his advice to heart. 

Some of the quotations seem downright silly, such as when Mao discounts the importance of atomic weapons – “[The atom bomb] looks terrible, but in fact it isn’t” – and when he discounts any concern about the possibility of World War III, noting that Russia went socialist after WWI, and that China and other countries went socialist after WWII, so that following a WWIII, there should be world socialism. He doesn’t seem to consider that there wouldn’t be much of a world for world socialism to inherit. 

Propaganda poster of Chairman Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, showing off her favorite book. (Wikimedia Commons)

Still, there are some ideas here that are quite moving. In addressing the situation of women in China, he notes that they have the same three overlords as men, but also have men as overlords. This is a situation he decries and suggests that women should have equal position with men in the workplace and in society. And, at several points, Mao suggests that the party should be open to criticism and not beat or intimidate those who cast a critical eye on the party, but should consider the criticism, and make any changes necessary. And there are repeated admonitions to avoid arrogance when victorious, or falling prey to flattery. Advice like this is worth all of us considering.

As I read this work, especially those sections dealing with education and with dialog between troops and commanders or the masses with their leaders, I found myself moved, but I also found myself scratching my head. 

The Quotations came out in 1965, just before the start of the Cultural Revolution, and a few years after the disastrous Great Leap Forward (1958-1961). The latter resulted in a great famine, as local leaders falsified agricultural numbers out of fear of reprisal, and Mao himself refused to listen to valid criticism. If only he had read his own quotations, he could have made a leap forward himself! 

The Cultural Revolution was aimed at stopping what was seen as undue Western influences on revolutionary China. Such an aim fits with Mao’s concern that the Chinese Communist Party not fall for flattery, and that it avoid the mistake of idealism (spiritual thinking opposed to the dialectical materialism of Marxism).

But I couldn’t help wondering how all those people who were rounded up, imprisoned, tortured and killed felt, as their opposing views were not met with understanding and discussion. They were not captured and released; they received the same sort of treatment Mao had justly criticized the emperors of old and Chiang Kai-Shek for imposing on their critics.

Again, if only Mao had read what he wrote and spoke, he might have avoided his arrogant dismissal of the West and its culture and spared his people the ensuing misery.

If you do pick up this book , I hope you’ll read it with a view to its place in history, and can appreciate the irony of Mao’s own youthful ideals disregarded by him when he attained power.  There are some powerful and generous ideas contained herein, and some words to live by – as long as we avoid the traps of arrogance and flattery, as Mao himself failed to do.

Note: for those wanting a lighter read – check out Edward Albee’s Box and Quotations from Chairman Mao. For this play, Albee had an actor playing Mao delivering quotations from the book, while an actress playing a crazy woman rambled on about her life, and another actress playing an old woman sang snatches of a song about going to the poor house. It’s a very bizarre production, and probably quite humorous when staged. 

About the Author

Bernard Norcott-Mahany, a library technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch, is our resident connoisseur of classic literature. He is also the leader of the Black Classics and In the Heat of the Night book groups.