Saturday, November 08, 2008

Chairman Mao: The Revolutionary as Poet

"Had [Mao's poem "Snow"] been written by a lesser figure than Mao himself, the author might well have been viewed as a plagiarist as far as technique is concerned.

Between Su Tung-po's poem [“Thoughts of the Past at Red Cliff”] and Mao Tse-tung's "Snow," however, there is a difference, a difference that gives the latter poet much credit. Su Tung-po's great power of imagination has led him to a penetrating recollection of past heroes of China, but he concludes with a sense of self-pity that he himself has not been able to emulate them and deplores his own lack of accomplishment. Mao, while paying due tribute to the ancients, demonstrates enormous self-assurance, considering himself not only their equal but rather their superior, the only cultured hero of the group."--YONG-SANG NG ["The Poetry of Mao Tse-tung." The China Quarterly, No. 13 (Jan. - Mar., 1963), pp. 60-73]

In one of China's most famous poems, "Thoughts of the Past at Red Cliff" by the eleventh-century Chinese lyrical poet Su Tung-po, the dreamy narrator stands by a mighty river, possibly near the site of the Battle of Red Cliff [See film depiction of this famous naval battle on the Yangtze River], and contemplates the past. He regrets that his modest accomplishments do not measure up to China's ancient heroes:

Thoughts of the Past at Red Cliff

The mighty river flows east,
Sweeping away countless heroes down the ages;
An old fortress on the west
May be Red Cliff where valiant Chou Yu fought.
Jagged rocks scatter foam,

Fierce billows crash on the shore,
Hurling up drifts of snow:
A scene lovely as a painting,
But how many heroes fell here!
I think of Chou Yu that year
Newly wed to Lord Chao's daughter,
Handsome and bold
With plumed fan and scholar's cap,
Laughing and joking as his mighty foe
Was turned to dust and ashes.
Do you smile at me for a sentimental fool,

Roaming in spirit through that ancient kingdom
Though my hair is white before its time?
Life is but a dream --
Let me drink a cup to the moon above the river!

The river is a recurring symbol in both Mao's poetry and political theater. Chairman Mao "swam in China's rivers to prove his mastery over nature" and was often called "The Great Helmsman." [For a collection of Mao's poems in English see Mao Zedong Poems at; a selection from Mao Tsetung Poems, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1976; and Mao Tsetung Poems at See annotations of some poems.]

Time Asia (9-27-99) reports apocryphal Chinese claims that Mao swam the Yangtze River in his 70s:

By the early 1960s, China was in the throes of economic catastrophe and widespread famine--both resulting from the radical political and economic experiments of Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward. As opposition to Mao's leadership grew, the Chairman left Beijing in late 1965 for Hangzhou, where he would map out his last assault on the Communist Party's "revisionist" leadership--the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. After months of cloistered plotting, Mao suddenly resurfaced in Wuhan in the summer of 1966 to stage one of his greatest acts of political theater. On July 16 he took a vigorous and well-reported swim in the Yangtze River by the Wuhan bridge. It was a signal that Mao was in robust health--and that he was launching a counterattack against his critics in the party leadership.

Although Mao was in his early 70s, party propagandists claimed that the Chairman had swum nearly 15 km in 65 min. that day--a world-record pace, if true. The contention elicited guffaws from foreign observers, who took the claim as a sign that China was descending into political madness. Yet for the old man of the revolution, the swim was a call to China's younger generation to dive into a political struggle against "counterrevolutionary" party bureaucrats. If the aging Chairman could conquer the mighty Yangtze, surely the nation's youth could brave the winds and waves of a political storm and overthrow Mao's opponents.

Mao's imitative 1945 poem "Snow," subverts the message of Su Tung-po's lyrical "Thoughts of the Past at Red Cliff."

The narrator of Mao's "Snow" stands by a river and minimizes the achievements of China's past heroes: They were lacking culture and literary talent. The narrator closes by looking to the present and claiming that "To find men truly great and noble-hearted/We must look here in the present."

It is hard to avoid the impression that "The Great Helmsman" penned this paean to celebrate himself and that the poem was supposed to supplant the outlook expressed in Su Tung-po's eleventh century classic.

The official English translation reads:

Snow (1945)

This is the scene in that northern land;
A hundred leagues are sealed with ice,
A thousand leagues of whirling snow.
On either side of the Great Wall
One vastness is all you see.
From end to end of the great river
The rushing torrent is frozen and lost.
The mountains dance like silver snakes,
The highlands roll like waxen elephants,
As if they sought to vie with heaven in their height;
And on a sunny day
You will see a red dress thrown over the white,
Enchantingly lovely!
Such great beauty like this in all our landscape
Has caused unnumbered heroes to bow in homage.
But alas these heroes! -Chin Shih Huang and Han Wu Ti
Were rather lacking in culture;
Rather lacking in literary talent
Were the emperors Tang Tai Tsung and Sung Tai Tsu;
And Genghis Khan,
Beloved Son of Heaven for a day,
Only knew how to bend his bow at the golden eagle.
Now they are all past and gone:
To find men truly great and noble-hearted
We must look here in the present.

Both of the poems above were cited in the extremely interesting article "The Poetry of Mao Tse-tung" by YONG-SANG NG.

Mr. Ng prepared the translation below of Mao's poem for the book Chinese Communist Literature (1963) by Cyril Birch.

Snow Scene (1945)

The grandeur that is the northern country-an expanse

of the good earth ice-bound,
snow-covered for thousands of miles around.
Surveying the Great Wall, to its north and south,
nothing but whiteness meets the eye.
The torrents of the mighty Huang Ho into
insignificance pale.
Silver snakes dance atop the mountains,
waxen elephants roam the plains,
as if to wrest heaven's domain.
Let us wait for the sky to clear when, clothed in
radiant colours,
the land becomes more magnificently dear.
For such an enchanting empire, little wonder
countless heroes matched wits with one another.
Alas! The ambitious emperors of Ch'in and Han could
scarcely boast of literary lore.
E'en the founders of the great houses T'ang and Sung
became nought before the sages of yore.
As to the redoubtable Genghis Khan,
pampered child of fortune he was,
excelled only on the field of battle.
Gone are they all.
For leaders truly worthy of homage,
must yet be sought among men of our own age.


Blogger VNTuongLai said...

__ You’re invited to view my latest video “684”__ a collection of some short poems. ( )

6:33 AM  

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