An important publishing anniversary this year, concerning arguably one of the most widely read books in global history, triggers a memory of meeting a remarkable man on the island of Skye many years ago.

It is 50 years since Quotations from Chairman Mao, better known as The Little Red Book, was first published. More than five billion copies were printed. Every Chinese citizen was supposed to carry a copy and the book had a massive impact on Chinese society for its role in Mao's Cultural Revolution.

This began as a purge of all opposition to Mao and his allies within the Communist Party including his wife Jiang Qing. It went on to consume the country. The Red Guards were said to quote from the book as they attacked victims as bourgeois reactionaries

Loading article content

Some estimates hold that as many as half a million people were killed or driven to suicide between 1966 and 1969, when this convulsion was at its worst. That's more than three times the Scots who died in all the armed forces in the First World War.

The book itself had been compiled from Mao's speeches and writings on the instructions of Defence Minister Lin Biao, who wanted it to be the major influence in the People's Liberation Army.

Readers were left in no doubt as to the standards expected of them: "At no time and in no circumstances should a Communist place his personal interests firsts; he should subordinate them to the interests of the nation and of the masses. Hence selfishness, slacking, corruption, seeking the limelight ... are most contemptible."

Lin was later denounced as a traitor, suspected of plotting to overthrow Mao before the leader further purged officers deemed too powerful. Lin died in a mysterious plane crash over Mongolia. The plane was said to have been heading to the USSR, which was no ally of China's at the time.

But, by that time, the book had been circulated round the world and Maoism became almost fashionable for a while among left-wing intellectuals in Europe, such as Jean-Paul Sartre.

However Andrew Taylor, author of Books that Changed the World, argues that, from the 21st century, "the Little Red Book is best seen as a cruel relic of the most ambitious attempt ever made to enslave the minds of an entire nation - a nation that comprises a quarter of the world's population".

The book cropped up when an academic from Beijing was in Skye as a guest of the British Council some years ago. He had been sent to the rice fields by Red Guards each armed with the book but survived the ordeal.

He explained that Chinese premier Chou En-lai, who died in 1976, had been the father of his people but Mao Tse-tung had been the epoch-maker. However, without any trace of bitterness, he said the latter had made some mistakes, and somewhat euphemistically gave the example of Cultural Revolution.

With a smile on his face, he concluded that it had all supported the old adage about not letting your wife interfere with your business.