Cute Little Cultural Revolution “Learn Chinese” Booklet

The cultural revolution-era “Learning English” book blew my mind, but when I stumbled on this little “Learn Chinese” booklet the other day, I was touched. It represented such a different side of the Cultural Revolution.

Instead of war/hate/fear of the “Learn English” book, this one radiates with the hope, promise, and togetherness that was the one up-side of the cultural revolution. “Everyone was together then,” said a 96-year-old Maoist I met the other day. And these two kids really are.

The little Red Guard — maybe he’s a farmboy, or maybe he was sent down to work in the fields and learn from the people — cradles a rural Red Pioneer. They study characters together. “One… two… three…” “Tractor… atomizer… rice basket.”

The title, 农村儿童看图识字, means “Picture Cards for Rural Children.” One of Mao’s great plans was to educate the entire country and eradicate illiteracy. I don’t know if he really managed that — but this book was part of the effort.

There’s no publisher, date or price on the booklet, but it’s marked up with a child’s doodles, and held together with dusty string.

I laughed when I noticed the marijuana plant, or 麻, in the top left above.

“But doesn’t it make them go insane?” a Chinese coworker asked me, eyes wide, when the topic of smoking pot came up at work. “I hear it’s very dangerous,” another said. Except for a small crowd of dreadlocked Chinese hippies I hang out with sometimes, I know few locals who would admit to smoking up.

As a crop, though, you’ll find its shadow everywhere. In Guangzhou, we walked down an alleyway named “Sell Marijuana Street” (卖麻街). In Shenyang, at a national linguistic conference, my hotel grew tall and stinky plants just outside my window. And a junior farmer should definitely know how to read and write about what they grow.

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