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Little Red Books Take Manhattan

Relive graphic design of the 1900s with 20th Century Design by Tony Seddon, an exploration of the graphic style throughout the decades of the 1900s.

“We hail from all corners of the country and have joined together for a common revolutionary objective. Our cadres must show concern for every soldier, and all people in the revolutionary ranks must care for each other, must love and help each other.” —Mao Zedong, 1944

The most-read book in the history of the world could very well be The Quotations of Mao Zedong (1893–1976) who governed the People’s Republic of China as Chairman of the Communist Party of China from its establishment in 1949 until his death.

It’s been estimated that over the past six decades, more than five billion copies of Mao’s “Little Red Book” were printed and distributed. According to official statistics, the book was originally published in 1964 in four Chinese editions, eight Chinese minority languages, one Braille edition, 37 foreign language versions, and a bilingual Chinese-English version—with a total printing of more than a billion copies. By 1967, translations had been published in 65 languages in 853 formats for worldwide distribution. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when Western influences and vestiges of capitalist economy were purged, citizens of the People’s Republic of China were required to own, read, and carry a copy at all times. Study sessions were held in every school and every industrial, commercial, agricultural, military, and civil service organization.

In the 60s, “The Little Red Book” was the single most visible icon in mainland China, even more visible than images of the Chairman himself. In posters by Communist Party artists, such as the one shown above, almost every person is shown holding a copy aloft.

Today, thanks to collector Justin G. Schiller, many of the editions and translations are on display in New York City.

The Grolier Club, housed in a townhouse on East 60th Street in Manhattan, is a private, membership-by-invitation-only club that bills itself as “America’s oldest and largest society for bibliophiles and enthusiasts of the graphic arts.” Its exhibits of rare books, posters, and prints, however, are free and open to the public.

Having visited China four times and reported on the Icograda World Design Conference in Beijing for Imprint and China’s current craze for Mao décor and memorabilia for Print magazine, I could not resist the opportunity to sit in the elegant, second-floor living room of the Grolier’s Club’s townhouse surrounded by the Little Red Books and vintage Chinese propaganda posters currently on display the exhibition, “Quotations of Chairman Mao: A 50th Anniversary Exhibition 1964-2014 from the Collection of Justin G. Schiller.”

The Schiller collection includes original Chinese and translation editions in Arabic, English, French, Hebrew, Korean, Russian, and many other languages, and dolls, figurines, busts, and other artifacts that attest to the momentous, worldwide cultural significance of Mao and his Quotations.

I recently contacted Mr. Schiller to find out more about his collecting passion.

I understand you are a collector and seller of children’s books. Can you briefly describe your business?

By profession, I’m an antiquarian bookseller specializing in rare, collectible children’s books from all cultures and in all languages. But since it is through children’s books that each society tends to educate and focus the next generation with its own unique ideals and philosophy, I am also interested in propaganda.

When and why did you get interested in Mao’s Little Red Book?

As a rare books’ dealer I was interested in understanding how one could recognize an original first edition of Mao’s “Quotations,” which was explained to me by specialist librarians at the National Library of China in Beijing. While looking for copies, I began to find different varieties of Little Red Books, and so I wanted to understand the books better. Through that inquiry I became very interested in its printing history.

If you were to describe your collection and this particular show, it would be…

My personal collection of “Little Red Books” is just that, personal; looking into the book’s origins and seeing how the book developed and expanded and changed through the years. No Chinese bibliography of Mao’s writings has a definitive history, so I thought it might be an interesting exercise to see what I could discover firsthand. I was surprised at the number of changes I uncovered, as well as the different translations—not only those published in China for overseas distribution, but also versions translated in many countries into their native language. The collection also includes primary source material used in selecting the quotations, reference books that allow a reader to track back to the original context from which each quotation was taken, and imitations and parodies—everything from Quotations from Comrade Jesus to Quotations of Chairman Malcolm (Forbes).

I was especially taken with the sheet music for the song ”The Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party.” Where did you do most of your collecting? All on trips to Asia and other countries where you found translations?

Most of my collecting was done in China, but I have also found material all over the world, not only translations but also Chinese handicrafts, posters, textiles, pottery, etc., that show the widespread influence of the Little Red Book. The collection comprises several hundred books and a quantity of ephemera such as mirrors with decals of Mao quotations on them, and rubber squeaky toys of children holding red books.

Do you collect other cultural memorabilia?

My interest in Chinese propaganda led me investigate other forms of propaganda. At the moment, for example, we have for sale a collection of more than 2,200 American protest posters—from the mid-1960s Anti-Vietnam War crusade in Berkeley through 2006 with a focus on ecology and saving the resources of our environment.

After the exhibit at the Grolier Club closes on January 10, can our readers visit your shop or other exhibits coming up in other parts of the country?

Our rare children’s books— such as first editions of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm inscribed by them, original artwork from the first edition of The Wonderful World of Oz, and drawings by Beatrix Potter—are handled by our New York City bookstore, Justin G. Schiller Ltd., on East 46th Street and Park Avenue, which is open Monday through Friday by appointment. In Kingston, New York, 90 miles north of NYC, we manage Battledore Ltd., a gallery devoted to Chinese propaganda, the Cultural Revolution, and everything to do with our good friend Maurice Sendak, including vintage posters, signed prints, original artwork and first editions. Once again, this is accessible only by appointment. These two businesses exhibit together every April at the New York Antiquarian Rare Books Fair, where a wide variety of similar merchandise is on display and for sale.


Print readers interested in rare children’s books—fairy tales, animals, nursery rhymes, fantasy, etc.—can also visit “One Hundred Books Famous in Children’s Literature” on the main floor of the Grolier club until February 7. The Grolier Club open Monday through Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm. Admission is free.

Many books have been written by people who experienced the Cultural Revolution. No matter in which city in China they lived and what social class they hailed from, the experience—interrogations by Red Guards, forced denunciations of relatives with “capitalist tendencies”—was basically the same. An accessible memoir from the point of view of a talented young student is ”Red Scarf Girl” by Ji-li Jiang.

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