The Significance of Riverine Imagery in Mao's Poems
Time Asia (9-27-99) comments about Mao's swim:
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...
A site that promotes river cruises on the Yangtze explains:
All his life Chairman Mao loved swimming and regarded it as the best of sports, the struggle of man against nature. The Yangtze had powerful associations for him. He grew up with the stories of the heroic battles of the Three Kingdoms period (AD 220--65) which took place along the Yangtze and often sailed the river. His Luxurious boat, the Kunlun, later became a tourist vessel. A constant theme in his writings is the overcoming of natural and man--made obstacles through sheer determination and courage. As he once observed; 'The Yangtze is big river, people say. lt is big, but not frightening. Is imperialist America big? We challenged it, nothing happened. So, there are things in this world that are big but not frightening.' Naturally the idea of taming the Yangtze greatly appealed to him. In his 1956 poem 'Swimming', written about the Yangtze, he dreams of a great bridge and a dam to reshape the river forever.
The author of this tourist article has made an important point about Mao's poem "Swimming." The poem is indeed a "dream," but it is also the fantasy of a psychopath so intoxicated by his own absolute power that he believes a god will marvel at his ability to transform nature:
-to the tune of Shui Tiao Keh Tou
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 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.
Mao "swam in China's rivers to prove his mastery over nature." Like China's emperors, to control China, Mao had to control and reshape the rivers. China's rivers are both a military and natural challenge to be overcome in Mao’s poems. That’s why Mao is known as "The Great Helmsman"—he controlled China’s rivers and so also controlled China. Mao's poetry is notable for its many examples of riverine imagery.
Mao's most famous poem "Snow" depicts the Huang Ho, or Yellow River, which is "extremely prone to flooding." The Chinese believe that Chinese civilization originated in the Yellow River basin.
I recently posted an analysis of the political significance of Mao's "plagiarized" poem "Snow." This poem shows that the narcissistic Mao dreamed that he was superior to the ancient heroes who did battle along China's rivers because he was not only a revolutionary but a cultured scholar and writer.
As Professor Andrew J. Nathan observed after reading The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Li Zhi-Sui:
Here's a picture of the daily life of a man who has absolute power, and the fascinating thing is how absolute power sort of deranges the possessor of it, so that the boundary between fantasy and reality is obliterated because there's nothing to check his will.
Mao's dreamy, lyrical, rose-colored poetry reveals a fantasy life that allowed the dictator to obscure the true nature of his cruel and despotic regime even from himself.
I think that the young Weather Underground terrorist Billy Ayers was also mesmerized by Mao's dreamy, lyrical, rose-colored poetry. Billy also considers himself a revolutionary, a scholar, and a writer.