This letter is best known in the abbreviated and partially altered version included under the heading ‘A Single Spark can Start a Prairie Fire’ in the editions of Mao’s writings published at Peking since 1951. It was written at Kut’ien, Fukien Province, where the Ninth Party Congress of the Fourth Red Army had adopted a few days previously Mao’s long and programmatic resolution—part of which is in the Selected Works (Vol. I) as ‘On Correcting Mistaken Ideas in the Party’—on the ideology, style and organization of the Red Army. This meeting, which took place in one of the safer base areas, was the last of a series held over three years in the Fourth Army, the kernel of the Red forces, and has, with justice, been regarded in China during recent decades as an historic ideological rectification movement that set the Maoist style for the Red Army and its successors.

Lin Piao, at the time a brilliant young soldier of about 22 who commanded one of the Fourth Army’s regiments, has not been reported as having attended the conference; and if he had been there Mao would not have written to him. His presumed absence can be attributed to military duties. It would be wrong to make too much of the criticism of Lin contained here; a few months later he was given the command of the Fourth Army, which could hardly have been done without Mao’s approval. The criticism is friendly, almost avuncular, in tone; and for Mao to express his thoughts on revolutionary policy to a junior colleague in a private letter suggests that he must indeed have had confidence in Lin.

The historical background to this letter is covered in the Ch’en and Schram biographies of Mao, in Snow’s Red Star over China, Agnes Smedley’s The Great Road, Schwartz’s Chinese Communism and the Rise of Mao, Rue’s Mao Tse-tung in Opposition and in various pieces in Mao’s writings. The story is a complicated one yet to be clearly told—other problems aside, the surviving documentation is very thin—but in essence, the main participants within the Communist movement were the various rural-based armed forces led by Mao Tse-tung, Chu Te and others, the primarily urban-oriented Central Committee, based in Shanghai, and the Comintern leadership in Moscow, whose frequent directives to China had a powerful influence on policy-making. As Mao’s letter shows, there were frequent differences between the fighting revolutionaries and the Central Committee, as well as within the ranks of the Red Army. On the other side, the chimerical unity achieved by Chiang Kai-shek was breaking down in a series of civil wars between the leading war-lord factions, conflicts that Mao had anticipated in 1928 and 1929. As they developed, together with the global crisis of capitalism, the Central Committee, dominated by Li Li-san, swung from an exaggerated caution to extreme optimism. Later in 1930, the Red Army was to be thrown by Li into a wild and near-disastrous attempt to storm the great cities of Central China, a move intended to set off a nation-wide revolutionary upsurge; but Mao does not seem to have been aware of this coming policy-change at the time he wrote this letter. Whether his proposed plan to take the whole of Kiangsi would have been more successful than Li’s more grandiose scheme is a matter for speculation—but it could not have been any more unfortunate, and it was not based on the same mistaken assumption that the workers of China and the world would rise in support.

As an annotated translation of the abridged version ‘A Single Spark can Start a Prairie Fire’, is readily available in Volume One of Mao’s Selected Works and elsewhere, I have not reproduced the notes to be found there or indicated in detail where the changes have been made. Mainly they consist in omitting passages at the beginning and the end, and making references to Lin Piao into vague general statements about ‘some people’, ‘some comrades’ and so on. The text I have translated below is from the Supplement to the 1947 Chin-Ch’a-Chi edition of Mao’s Hsüan-Chi (Selected Works). Some parts of it have already been included in Schram’s Political Thought of Mao Tse-tung, ‘Subjective’ and ‘objective’ as used in this letter refer to the revolution and the counterrevolution respectively, a usage that Mao was later to drop.

Bill Jenner