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Why the Bestselling Chinese Book of All Time Is Out of Print

During the disastrous decade-long Cultural Revolution, The Quotations of Chairman Mao, a slender volume of the leader’s sayings, replaced literature and learning. People would sometimes greet each other using quotes from the book, or give the books as wedding gifts. For hundreds of millions of Chinese in the 1960s, it’s probably safe to say Quotations ...

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During the disastrous decade-long Cultural Revolution, The Quotations of Chairman Mao, a slender volume of the leader’s sayings, replaced literature and learning. People would sometimes greet each other using quotes from the book, or give the books as wedding gifts. For hundreds of millions of Chinese in the 1960s, it’s probably safe to say Quotations was the only book they owned. While statistics are imprecise, perhaps a billion or more copies circulated during the Cultural Revolution, making it the most widely distributed book in history besides the Bible.

Much has changed in China since the 1970s — including the little-known fact that Quotations is now out of print. These days, no Chinese publishing house prints Quotations (though it’s unclear whether that’s because it’s illegal to do so or because or no one wants to try their luck). A search for The Quotations of Chairman Mao on the Chinese version of Amazon returns hundreds of responses — including The Selected Works of Mao Zedong, Proverbs of Chairman Mao, and a wallet designed from The Quotations of Chairman Mao, which sells for $6.50 and is made from a "fashionable canvas" material. You can even buy — no joke — a disco remix of the Quotations. But you cannot buy the book itself. A search in Dangdang, a Chinese online bookseller, returns even more limited results. To legally publish in China requires a Book Number– a registration system that allows for the monitoring of printed materials — and Quotations apparently lacks one.  

So what gives? After the death of Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, the book, commonly known in English as the Little Red Book, because of its cover, lost its luster. When Deng Xiaoping took over as China’s leader in the late 1970s, he gradually downgraded the role he wanted Mao to play in the country  — in an effort to push China toward capitalism and wrest power from Mao’s leftist supporters — and officials began pulping copies of the book. Perhaps the ubiquity of Quotations was too symbolic of the spell of madness Mao cast over China. Perhaps the book’s association with Mao’s doomed successor Lin Biao — he oversaw the book’s compilation and championed its distribution, until falling out of favor in the early 1970s — ruined it. While Mao’s legacy is still widely felt in China — his face graces most Chinese banknotes, and the massive Tiananmen Square in the center of Beijing — Quotations is a casualty of Deng’s decision to downplay Mao. 

This is especially strange given how widespread the Little Red Book is on the Beijing tourist circuit. I’ve seen dozens of copies for sale in Panjiayuan, a tourist-friendly heap of stalls and stores in south Beijing nicknamed the "dirt market," every time I’ve visited — roughly once a year for most of the last decade. In the Beijing airport this September, I saw a few copies for sale at a gift shop. And the book is readily available on the Chinese Internet. All those copies, it seems, are illegal. 

On Sept. 27, the Guardian reported that a Chinese colonel was planning to reissue the Little Red Book in November, a month before the 120th anniversary of its release — but that the title would not include the word "Quotations," and the work would be attributed to the more neutral sounding "Mao Zedong" as opposed to "Chairman Mao." On Oct. 1, China’s state news agency Xinhua responded with a single sentence — a tactic generally reserved for extremely sensitive stories. Those reports, the agency said, were "purely erroneous." Either way — and despite Chinese President Xi Jinping’s seemingly Maoist turnQuotations is unlikely to return to publishing houses anytime soon.

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish
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