Back in the cultural revolution, China was in turmoil. Almost anything could get you in trouble. Han Xin, a blacklisted artist, told me that painting the sun the wrong shade of red would mean jail time. Absolutely everything had to be in unquestionable service to Mao and a Maoist China.
The only plays were revolutionary operas and ballets. The movies were all incredible revolutionary melodramas.
And the English books? Well, they were few. But they, too, were one hundred percent revolutionary.
My good friend Ginger recently gave me this incredible English language textbook printed in June 1971, the height of the cultural revolution. It sold for 2 cents, and has 81 pages of Maoist lessons on learning English.
But why would closed-off in-focused China want to study English in 1971? I’d thought it would even be illegal. But no. “With English as a tool,” Lesson Six’s dialogue reads defensively, “we propagate Mao Tsetung Thought among the people of the world. With English as a weapon, we fight against the imperialists, revisionists and all reactionaries.”
It’s absolutely fantastic. Simple grammar is explained with military furor. “I ___ a Red Guard. She ___ a Little Red Soldier. We ___ Chairman Mao’s Red Guards.” (The appropriate forms of the verb “to be” are hand-written in.)
Class discussions are focused along themes such as “Who are our enemies?” and “How many militiamen are there in your company?”
Vocab samples include “re-educate,” “oppress,” “put [as in ‘put proletarian ideology in first place’],” and “running dog [as in ‘Defeat the U.S. Aggressors and All Their Running Dogs’].”
My favorite part of the book is the notes made by the original owner. Some of them are simple — the pronunciation of “construction” (“kan’straksan”), underlined words, lots of marks my linguist friends would probably recognize.
But then, in the middle of Lesson Eight (“The Happiest Day in My Life”), he strikes out several lines. It appears as below:
“At 10 a.m., the happiest moment came! Chairman Mao
and his close comrade-in-arms Vice-Chairman Lin Piao walked up the Tien An Men rostrum. In excellent health and high spirits, Chairman Mao warmly waved to the revolutionary masses. Millions of red hearts turned to the red sun. We cheered again and again.”
Lin Biao’s Chinese name, 林彪, is scribbled out. It’s almost unreadable.
In September 1971, a few months after this book was printed, Lin Piao/Biao died in a mysterious plane crash. He was Mao’s planned successor, but Mao was a jealous and paranoid man at this time. Lin Biao may have been fleeing for fear of his life, or perhaps — as is recorded in China — fleeing from a failed coup against Mao. Perhaps he was murdered. Perhaps he died in error. It’s all very unclear. But overnight he went from national hero to national traitor. His name was struck from books like these, his deeds struck from history. I’m sure every version of this book has the same line struck out.
See below for more pictures from this curious and crazy textbook. And don’t miss a similar book I recently picked up in North Korea.