Mao Badges and Rocket Parts

Robert Macfarlane

  • Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie, translated by Ina Rilke
    Chatto, 208 pp, £10.00, June 2001, ISBN 0 7011 6982 6
  • The Drink and Dream Teahouse by Justin Hill
    Weidenfeld, 344 pp, £12.99, March 2001, ISBN 0 297 64697 4

It was said that The Little Red Book had ‘supplied the breath of life to soldiers gasping in the thin air of the Tibetan plateau; enabled workers to raise the sinking city of Shanghai three-quarters of an inch; inspired a million people to subdue a tidal wave in 1969, a group of housewives to reinvent shoe polish, and surgeons to sew back severed fingers and remove a 99 pound tumour as big as a football’. Mao and his men rated the power of words higher than most, and this may explain why they went to such lengths to suppress non-aligned literature in China. From the early 1960s until the mid-1980s almost all Western books were prohibited and the printing presses clattered away producing agitprop: multi-volume hagiographies of Enver Hoxha and Stalin, tendentious political parables and the fiction of pre-1949 Chinese writers such as Lu Xun in editions that provided the correct ideological spin.

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