October 2014

Losing Mao: A Shanghai Customs Notice from 1976

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All foreign students of the history of the Chinese Communist Party have, at one time or other, I am sure, worried about PRC Customs. Can I legally take this old document with me out of the country? Will I be in trouble, big time, if I try and the man in the intimidating uniform tells me no you cannot and goes on to say, “Surely you must have realized…”? On this topic, and on this the 65th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, I want to share with you an anecdote from the bad old days . . .

As a 留学生 in Shanghai in the spring of 1976 I had in my possession a copy of Takeuchi Minoru’s wonderful ten-volume《毛泽东集》with all of the Chairman’s known works from before 1949. When the end of term came and I wanted to ship my possessions back home, I figured, since it had been bought abroad anyway (for me, by a Swedish embassy secretary on R&R in Hong Kong), I should have no problem mailing it out of the country. So I went to the post office on Sichuan Road where I gave volume one to the customs officer behind the counter and explained “I want to send this set of books back to my guojia.” Then I waited. He disappeared but in due course returned and asked could I please let him see the other nine volumes? Of course I said, and handed them over. That was the last I ever saw of my Mao. What I got instead was a confiscation notice from Shanghai customs, explaining to me that Chairman Mao’s works unless officially published in the PRC may not be taken in or out of the country. The moral of this story? As a historian, always look on the bright side of life: there are still many copies of the Mao Zedong ji around, but, to the best of my knowledge, there is only one duly stamped official piece of paper like this month’s Document of the Month.