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CHINA: A Letter from Mao

3 minute read

During the tumultuous upheavals of the Cultural Revolution, Mao Tse-tung’s Little Red Book of Quotations from Chairman Mao became the Bible of Communist China. Now a letter has surfaced indicating that Chairman Mao himself had grave reservations about the cult of personality that engulfed him and his words in the mid-1960s.

Writing, probably from Hangchow, to his wife Chiang Ching on July 8, 1966, Mao said: “I have never believed that those booklets of mine possessed so much magic. Now, thanks to this babbling, the whole nation has been caught up in it. I expressed disagreement with my friend, but what was the use? The newspapers and periodicals exaggerated it all even more and popularized the magic. Under such circumstances I had no choice but to give way.” The allusion to “my friend” points clearly to Mao’s since disgraced heir presumptive, Lin Piao, who had edited the Red Book in 1961 and in 1966 was in the midst of writing a glowing foreword to the new edition.

Key phrases from Mao’s letter have recently been used in provincial broadcasts in China and in an issue of Red Flag, the party’s ideological journal. Sinologists see two reasons why party leaders have resurrected it at this time. One is to help convince surviving cadres of the Lin Piao faction that the former Defense Minister, who was reportedly killed in a plane crash in Mongolia in September 1971 after the discovery of his plot to assassinate Mao, had been acting against the Chairman’s will even as early as 1966. The other reason for its publication is probably to dissociate Mao from the excesses of the Cultural Revolution.

Some experts question the dating of the letter, since they doubt that Mao at the time was really that suspicious of Lin’s ultimate intentions. Most accept the authenticity of the document, which offers rich insights into Mao’s view of himself and his role in Chinese history, and is laced with tersely poetic allusions and lofty philosophical aphorisms.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the letter is its self-deprecatory tone and its appraisal of the transitory nature of fame and the impermanence of doctrinal certainty. “I have self-confidence,” Mao writes at one point, “but at times I lack it. Often I feel that just as when there is no tiger in the mountains the monkey reigns as king, in this way too I have become the big king. But this is not making compromises, because my dominant nature is that of the tiger, while my subordinate one is the monkey’s.”

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