Where classic chinese poetry meets violent revolution

—The poetry of Mao Zedong:

People know Mao Tse Tung (or Zedong, as it is also represented in English) as a great Communist leader. Time Magazine named him one of the top 100 men of the twentieth century. Many remember him as the politician who led his people through the so-called Great Leap Forward, which so mis-managed the Chinese economy that even Chinese sources admit that 20 million people died because of it. Some western sources put the total as high as 72 million, which catapults Mao right up there with Hitler and Stalin among the world’s most deadly leaders.

Mao is known for re-educating intellectuals and causing the suppression of almost all books but his own Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung and yet, while he administered what some have called a reign of terror on his own people, surprisingly, he was simultaneously a poet of nature—and not a bad one.

No matter what you think of Mao, you probably do not think of him as a poet, and now that he’s dead, no one claims he stands amongst China’s most noteworthy poets. Many of his best-known poems were written during the Long March (1934–1935), when his three peasant armies marched a retreat from southeast China to the northwest covering almost 6000 miles in a year. By the end, Mao emerged as the preeminent Communist leader. His poetry from this period has remarkable clarity.

Indiana University Professor Willis Barnstone, editor of the new edition of Mao’s poetry (University of California Press, 2008), argues that Mao is a “major poet, an original master” whose role in history “must not blind us to the original power and beauty of the poems.” Let’s examine some and judge for ourselves.

Yellow Crane Tower (1927)

The yellow crane has long since gone away,
All that here remains is Yellow Crane Tower.
The yellow crane once gone does not return,
White clouds drift slowly for a thousand years.
The Three Songs (1934–1935)

I whip my quick horse and don’t dismount
and look back in wonder.
The sky is three feet away.

The sea collapses and the river boils.
Innumerable horses race
insanely into the peak of battle.

Peaks pierce the green sky, unblunted.
The sky would fall
but for the columns of mountains.

Mao was born in a small Hunan village 1893, the eldest son to a relatively prosperous peasant farmer. His family had lived in this region for hundreds of years. Mao was bright and ambitious. In 1911, he enlisted in the army, but soon went to school and joined his professor on a trip to Beijing in 1919, where Mao got a job as an assistant librarian at Peking University. He enrolled part-time and, while he was becoming acquainted with Communist theory, he also studied classical Chinese poetry. In 1921, he attended the first session of the National Congress of the Communist Party of China.

A few years later, he was elected as a Commissar of the Central Committee of the Party and his political career was off and running. Some of his most memorable poetry, calm and natural, began to emerge in the late 1920s as his political theory of violent revolution also began to coalesce.
Mao’s poetry was generally acknowledged to drop off in power after 1949, when Mao was preoccupied with governing and moving China into the twentieth century, but some of his late poems retain some distinct charm despite the political overtones.

Swimming (1956)

I have just drunk the waters of Changsha
And come to eat the fish of Wuchang.
Now I am swimming across the great Yangtze,
Looking afar to the open sky of Chu.
Let the wind blow and waves beat,
Better far than idly strolling in a courtyard.
Today I am at ease.

“It was by a stream that the Master said—
‘Thus do things flow away!’”
Sails move with the wind.
Tortoise and Snake are still.
Great plans are afoot:

A bridge will fly to span the north and south,
Turning a deep chasm into a thoroughfare;
Walls of stone will stand upstream to the west
To hold back Wushan’s clouds and rain
Till a smooth lake rises in the narrow gorges.
The mountain goddess if she is still there
Will marvel at a world so changed.

The Fairy Cave (1961)
Amid the growing shades of dusk stand sturdy pines,
Riotous clouds sweep past, swift and tranquil.
Nature has excelled herself in the Fairy Cave,
On perilous peaks dwells beauty in her infinite variety.

The very idea of Mao swimming in the Yangtse River in 1956 is somehow enlightening. It is hard to envision Mao as both a revolutionary advocate of violence for political gain and a poet of nature and yet that is exactly what appears to have been the case. The two sides of Mao are hard to reconcile.

This is not poetry to start a revolution—at least not among poets—but it’s pretty good. It is certain much better than I expected. My only other exposure to the writings of Chairman Mao was from his vapid book of tiresome Quotations so widely distributed in the United States during the 1960s, but instead of a polemicist, I found a poet of some amazing subtlety. Well, Hitler liked to paint and Stalin liked to sing. What’s that prove?

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