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The One and the Many

How revolutionary was Mao’s poetry?
©iStockphoto.com/Antonio D'Albore

"Mao’s stated revulsion for high culture was perhaps the easiest defense against his own attraction to it. His own poetry, which was widely dispersed and memorized throughout the country, bore much in common with the 'traitor literature' against which he warned." Rachel Aviv stacks up Mao's writing against his revolutionary goals.

In 1958, the People’s Daily, the newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, congratulated the nation’s writers on their “magnificent” style, singling out the following poem for praise:

Each year our farm production grows,
Grains and cotton pile up mountain high, Hurrah!
Eat the grains, but don’t forget the sower,
The Communist Party’s our dear Ma and Pa.

Terse yet buoyant, the patriotic poem resembled millions collectively composed during the Great Leap Forward, when the nation’s push for productivity extended to poetry, and literary quotas were set for each town. In Shanghai, the number of self-described writers rose from 889 in 1957 to more than 200,000 the next year. Workers hurried to produce lou (basketfuls) of poetry that would reflect the greatness of their nation. “The people are goaded and urged, instructed and inspired by tireless party cadres [that] . . . there has to be a new epoch of poetry production,” wrote S.H. Chen in his 1960 China Quarterly article, “Multiplicity in Uniformity,” one of the few English reports on what is known as the Multimillion-Poem Movement. “The traditional concept of a poem as a long and painstakingly wrought gem is by implication bourgeois and passé.”

The Poems of Mao Zedong
By Mao Zedong
Translated and with an introduction by Willis Barnstone
University of California Press, 168 pp., $24.95

In his 1942 lectures on literature and art, Mao Zedong established guidelines for what would be China’s prevailing literary style for the next 40 years. Writers were to learn the language of the masses, abandoning fanciful themes and images (sunsets, blossoms, unrequited love) for a literature of tractors, bumper harvests, and steel plants. A poet and an avid reader himself, Mao admitted that he had shifted his position on intellectuals, whom he’d once assumed were the “only clean people in the world”; he now believed they were like heroes “with no place to display [their] prowess.” Their elegance had become irrelevant to the masses.

Mao’s stated revulsion for high culture was perhaps the easiest defense against his own attraction to it. His own poetry, which was widely dispersed and memorized throughout the country, bore much in common with the “traitor literature” against which he warned. His poems, which he began writing as an adolescent, were triumphs of traditional style: leisurely, sensual odes to Chinese landscapes, ancient legends, and war heroes (including himself), written in rigid forms developed in the T’ang (618–907) and Song (960–1279) dynasties. He recognized, with only a hint of shame, that the poems “represent an antique style and . . . might mislead the younger generation.” He often composed pieces during party meetings but then would throw them on the floor, dismissing them as “doodles.”

The quality of his versifying has long been a matter of debate. Some scholars claim that his poetry, which he began writing as an adolescent, would have made him famous even if he had never been a world leader. In the introduction to the newly reissued Poems of Mao Zedong, editor and translator Willis Barnstone, a professor of literature at Indiana University, 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.” But the 35 translations that follow do not reveal a particularly inventive sensibility. Mao’s writing is elegant and clean, but he rarely breaks with literary convention, and his poetry can hardly be seen as a weapon for national liberation. As Barnstone notes, Mao was a “servant of Chinese mythology” and lifted couplets from thousand-year-old poems. He employs nature as a metaphor for love, revolution, violence, and coming-of-age. “Mao, like few good poets in our century, seems immediately accessible, indeed an easy poet,” Barnstone writes.

One of Mao’s best-known pieces, “In Praise of the Winter Plum Blossom,” shows his penchant for narrating the turn of seasons. It alludes to verse by Lu You, who wrote more than 100 poems about plum blossoms in the 12th century.

Spring disappears with rain and winds
and comes with flying snow.
Ice hangs on a thousand feet of cliff
yet at the tip of the topmost branch the plum

The plum is not a delicious girl showing off
yet she heralds spring.
When mountain flowers are in wild bloom
she giggles in all the color.

Mao’s descriptions of nature tend to be both exuberant and flat-footed, and it’s hard to read phrases like “flying snow” and “delicious girl” without wondering if the poem has lost its spark in translation, bringing to mind Ezra Pound’s dictum that reading a Chinese poem in English is like having an itch and merely “scratching over the boot.”

Although Mao grew up in a peasant family, he seems to have retained little interest in writing about the ordinary activities of farm life. Instead, many of his most personal poems feel precious and picturesque, not the work of a man who scorned art that simply adds “more flowers on the brocade.” In his 1949 “Poem for Liu Yazi,” he romantically recalls the times “we drank tea / and in Chongqing went over our poems / when leaves were yellowing.” Other poems reference Confucius or the grandeur of rainbows. Mao’s verse typically features just one character: a lonely, fearless soldier, surveying a desolate landscape or the sprawl of war, remarking on his own resilience with a haughty sense of humor. At the end, he often broadens his scope and addresses his generation: “If we cannot reach the Long Wall / we are not true men,” “Only today are we men of feeling,” “Never before were we poets so moved.”

Although Mao dismissed intellectuals as dumb and disloyal—only those whose feet are “smeared with cow-dung,” he announced, are capable of true art—he could never quite wean himself from the joys of his scholarly existence. He was always neurotic and insecure about his own intellectual abilities, even in comparing himself to his own secretaries. According to one of Mao’s biographers, Jung Chang, Mao slept on a large bed partially covered in piles of books a half foot high, so that when he woke up he could immediately roll over and begin reading. When his vision faltered in old age, he ordered the construction of two factories to print books with characters large enough for his eyes.

He made sure, however, that the rest of China had few options for intellectual pursuit beyond his own work. During the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, loudspeakers broadcast his slogans; every bookstore was supposed to stock his books and empty its shelves of traditional literature, and even train-ticket takers sang his quotations before accepting customers’ fares. The masses were told that Mao, like the sun, could shed light through his presence, and when they spoke of him, they did so through poetic allusion, referring to themselves as “red flowers” turning to the “reddest, reddest red sun.” His name rhymed with the Chinese words used to describe wind, sun, plant, and star—a fortunate coincidence for amateur poets across the country.

But Mao’s poetry had almost nothing in common with the patriotic ditties produced in the Multimillion-Poem Movement. Mao eventually attempted to produce revolutionary poetic content, but these halfhearted experiments feel stilted, and Barnstone wisely leaves them out of his book. Chunhou Zhang’s and C. Edwin Vaughan’s Mao Zedong as Poet and Revolutionary Hero (2002) offers a more exhaustive collection of Mao’s poems, some of which were written in response to policy decisions and disputes. In his 1965 poem “Missing the Charming Maiden: A Dialogue Between Two Birds,” Mao dramatizes the struggle between the Chinese and Soviet Communist parties, drawing on Khrushchev’s comment that the Communist Party needs a good dish of potatoes and beef.

In the year before last, you know, when the autumn moon was bright,
A tripartite treaty was signed.
And there was something to eat in addition,
When the potatoes are cooked,
Add beef.
Don’t talk nonsense,
Look at the heavens and earth being overturned.

The sudden insertion of political lingo (“tripartite treaty”) and colloquialisms (“add beef”) makes for a jolting change from Mao’s earlier lofty style.

While Mao ordered his citizens to channel the “lively language of the masses” by writing with “one heart and one mind,” his most coherent poetry tapped into a different kind of collective spirit. His work reads like an amalgam of the past 1,000 years of Chinese poetry—jaunty odes to flowers, to heroism in the midst of bad weather. For a man who expressed disgust with anything resembling cultural tradition, his poems are remarkably conventional and rich with historical allusions. Mao could not delete from his mind the books he had read as a child, just as he could never completely destroy China’s cultural history. Although he promoted avant-garde, almost Warholian modes of serial production, his own writing merely reinforces the gap between the artist and the public. He romanticized the masses while distancing himself from their lives.


The One and the Many

How revolutionary was Mao’s poetry?

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