If Mao Had Been a Hermit

Cai Liang: Sons of Poor Peasants, 1964
National Art Museum of China
Cai Liang: Sons of Poor Peasants, 1964

At the annual meeting of BookExpo America that was held in New York last May, to which most leading US publishers sent representatives, state-sponsored Chinese publishers were named “guests of honor.” Commercially speaking, this made sense. China’s book industry, with sales now reported at $8 billion annually, is the second-largest in the world.1

But for US publishers there are troubling problems, high among them Chinese censorship.2 When Chinese publishers publish translations of foreign works, it often happens that certain words and sentences, sometimes whole chapters, are left out. American authors have varied widely in their willingness to accept such cuts: some argue that to get most of one’s message across is better than getting none across, and therefore they compromise. Others insist that an incomplete picture is necessarily a distorted picture, or that censorship is wrong in principle, and refuse.

Inside China, writers seldom encounter the problem of cuts to a finished product because they and their editors have learned to censor themselves in advance. This practice is safer for the writers and more convenient for everyone. Western publishers eager to enter the China market may be tempted to follow Chinese practice. Some may already be doing so.

The Big Red Book of Modern Chinese Literature is an anthology of twentieth- century Chinese writing that its publisher, Norton, describes as “eye- opening, mesmerizing, and indispensable.” The title Big Red Book is a play on “Little Red Book,” the well-known nickname for Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung, a handbook for Red Guards and others who brought terrifying mayhem to China in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The covers of the two books are the same shade of red. To Chinese writers and other intellectuals, the Little Red Book was more nearly a little red knife than anything else. After Mao died in 1976, writers and editors denounced it in extreme terms and virtual unanimity—although not in print. Party leaders, knowing they needed to preserve a semblance of respect for Mao—because the legitimacy of the regime that they had inherited from him depended on it—protected the chairman and his Little Red Book from direct denunciation.

The Big Red Book includes thirteen quotations of Mao that are taken from the Little Red Book. If this is why Norton editors have called the collection “mesmerizing,” I can see their point. I, too, was stunned by the idea of including quotations from Mao Zedong in an anthology of literature. The book’s editor, Yunte Huang, who grew up and went to college in China and is now a professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara, seems aware that readers might find this and others of his choices surprising. He writes in his introduction:

The belief in literature as an expression of…

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