What are we to think of Chairman Mao? A man of immense contradictions—a nationalist, communist, revolutionary, warrior, as well as the author of The Little Red Book, and the leader for decades of the Peoples’ Republic of China—he was also one of twentieth-century China’s best poets. A new translation of his work provides an opportunity to evaluate him as a writer and as an artist. A reviewer in The Washington Post called Mao’s poems “political documents,” but added, “it is as literature that they should be considered.” Separating the political from the literary, however, isn’t possible. “We woke a million workers and peasants,” Mao wrote in the “First Siege,” and though all his lines aren’t as explicit about the Chinese Revolution as it is, a great many of them are.
Born into a peasant family in 1893, Mao grew up loving the classics of Chinese literature and at times, he could be enlightened about culture. “Questions of right and wrong in the arts and sciences should be settled through free discussion in artistic and scientific circles,” he wrote. “They should not be settled in summary fashion.” Still, he often insisted that artists had to serve the class interests of peasants and proletarians, even as he created a cult of his own personality. American writers and artists played a decisive role in aggrandizing him and writing enthusiastically about the revolution he led. Edgar Snow, the Missouri-born reporter, gave him a big boost in Red Star Over China (1937) and in the 1960s Andy Warhol turned him into a global icon. Frederic Tuten wrote a brilliant Dadaesque novel, The Adventures of Mao on the Long March, published in 1971. John Updike reviewed it favorably in The New Yorker, and Susan Sontag called it “a violently hilarious book.”
Perhaps all of us who were alive then helped to create the myth of Mao. Tuten certainly did. “I wrote The Adventures of Mao at a most political time,” he explained. “China was near, its revolution still fresh and seemingly uncorrupted.” Many of Tuten’s contemporaries also saw the Chinese Revolution as something pure and incorruptible and often browbeat one another with quotations from The Little Red Book. I never went that far, though I caught the Mao bug, and joined the Cultural Revolution that spread from Beijing to Paris, and beyond. Finally, the Beatles interjected a necessary note of sanity. “If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow,” they sang in “Revolution.” Oddly enough Mao made it big with President Richard M. Nixon, the arch anticommunist who visited China in 1972 and made a point of reciting Mao’s poetry to Mao himself. Then, Nixon and Zhou Enlai discussed the meaning of the poems—as though they were two diligent students and Mao their master.
When Mao died in 1976 at the age of eighty-three, the world began a thoroughgoing reappraisal of his life. In book after book—compelling memoirs and comprehensive histories—the mighty Mao has been recast over the last thirty years and many who revered him now revile him. In his introduction to The Poems of Mao Zedong Willis Barnstone says very little or nothing about his politics, sticking mostly to literary matters. “He was a major poet, an original master,” Barnstone says. Mao had a more modest view—perhaps falsely modest—of his poetry, which he dismissed as “scribbles.” Nevertheless, he allowed them to be printed at the age of sixty-five. This edition is based on the edition published in Beijing in 1963.
Barnstone is the most fitting American to bring Mao’s work to Americans now, and as China emerges as a real world power. A life long teacher, writer, poet, scholar of Borges and Sappho, and gifted translator, Barnstone has written insightfully about translating in The Poetics of Translation. He has a keen poetic imagination and he’s an old China hand who lived in China during the Cultural Revolution—Zhou Enlai invited him. In the 1980s he taught literature in Beijing. Moreover, at eighty, he’s old enough and wise enough—he’s lived through wars and revolutions—to know that if we only read poets who were perfect human beings we’d read precious few poets. No Ezra Pound and no T. S. Eliot, for example.
Thirty-six poems are here, some as brief as three lines, others much longer. About half the poems were written after Mao and the Communists came to power. All are in Chinese and English, and on matching pages. Barnstone includes examples of Mao’s calligraphy, footnotes to each poem, and a note on translation: “Chinese poetry depends very much on images and images translate more readily and with less loss than other poetic devices.” In a note on versification, he adds that Mao took his models mainly from the Tang (618–907) and Song (960–1127) poets, which shows how far back the poetry tradition goes in China, where writing poetry was expected of emperors.
A young reader coming upon this work for the first time might not connect Mao the poet to Mao the communist revolutionary. As Barnstone points out some of Mao’s best poems are intensely personal, as in “The Gods” which is for his wife and his sister who were beheaded in 1930 by Mao’s opponents—the Chinese Nationalists. The poem ends with a powerful image—“Tears fly down from a great upturned bowl of rice”—that exposes his vulnerability and the immensity of the loss, feelings he otherwise declined to make public. Still, even this intensely personal poem was inspired by political events. Many if not most of the poems in this volume are overtly political, even propagandistic, and it would be hard to read them and not think of war and revolution. “The Long March” begins “The Red Army is not afraid of hardship on the march,” and seems to have been written to inspire the troops. “Militia Women” is directed at the “Daughters of China” and means to bring them into the revolution. “Tingzhou to Changsha” is covertly political; “soldiers of heaven” tie up and defeat “the whale” but that’s pretty explicit symbolism.
Mao enjoyed the beauty of nature all through the hardships of the Long March. War did not curtail his aesthetic appreciation of flowers, snow, horses, geese, sky, rivers, and the moon. The mountains are almost always pleasing to his eye as in “Snow,” his most popular poem in which he writes, “Mountains dance like silver snakes.” In “To Guo Moruo,” the last poem in the volume, Mao seems to reflect on the vanity of the human will to conquer: “On our small planet/ a few houseflies bang on the walls. / They buzz, moan, moon, / and ants climb the locust tree/ and brag about / their vast dominion.”
Unlike the poems of the Bosnian-Serb nationalist warlord Radovan Karadzic—who was recently captured and who will go on trial in The Hague for crimes against humanity—Mao’s poems do not reveal an obsession with violence. He did sometimes, however, romanticize weapons as in the image of a “forest of rifles.” Karadzic’s poems are obviously cultish and diabolical; “I am the deity of the dark cosmic space,” he boasts. Mao’s work reminds me of the poems that another Asian Communist leader, Ho Chi Minh, wrote while imprisoned in 1942, and that were published under the title Prison Diary. Ho disguised his revolutionary views lest his jailors confiscate his work and pile additional punishment on him. “When the prison doors are open, the real dragon will fly out,” he wrote in what is his best-known and most frequently quoted line.
If I had to compare Mao to an American I’d say he was akin to Whitman, though I’d add that Whitman’s lines are longer, that the rhythms feel different and the voices aren’t the same. Like Walt, Mao sings a song of himself. There’s an all-powerful “I” as well as an all-seeing eye, and the “I” can be wistful and sad as in “I see the passing, the dying of the vague dream.” In “Swimming” Mao writes, “I taste a Wuchang fish in the surf/ and swim across the Yangzi River.” He identifies himself with China in much the same way that Whitman identified himself with America, and that seems fitting because twentieth-century China was like nineteenth-century America: a country developing economically at a furious pace, with huge social dislocation, and the unleashing of immense creative as well as destructive forces, all of which were embodied in Mao himself.
In Mao: The Unknown Story, the authors Chang and Halliday describe Mao as a megalomaniac who destroyed much of the old China to create a new nation. Barnstone shows him as a poet who borrowed from and helped to preserve the old even as he aimed to overturn it and start anew. The Beatles rightly warned us in the 1960s against the hagiography of Mao, but I’d like to think that they’d want us to read him now. They might even wave Barnstone’s compact, handsome volume above their heads. It’s that good!