Title

If Mao Had Been a Hermit

At the annual meeting of BookExpo America that was held in New York last May, to which most leading U.S. publishers sent representatives, state-sponsored Chinese publishers were named “guests of honor.” Commercially speaking, this made sense. China’s book industry, with sales now reported at $8 billion annually, is the second-largest in the world.1

But for U.S. publishers there are troubling problems, high among them Chinese censorship.2 When Chinese publishers publish translations of foreign works, it often happens that certain words and sentences, sometimes whole chapters, are left out. American authors have varied widely in their willingness to accept such cuts: some argue that to get most of one’s message across is better than getting none across, and therefore they compromise. Others insist that an incomplete picture is necessarily a distorted picture, or that censorship is wrong in principle, and refuse.

Inside China, writers seldom encounter the problem of cuts to a finished product because they and their editors have learned to censor themselves in advance. This practice is safer for the writers and more convenient for everyone. Western publishers eager to enter the China market may be tempted to follow Chinese practice. Some may already be doing so.

The Big Red Book of Modern Chinese Literature is an anthology of twentieth- century Chinese writing that its publisher, Norton, describes as “eye-opening, mesmerizing, and indispensable.” The title Big Red Book is a play on “Little Red Book,” the well-known nickname for Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung, a handbook for Red Guards and others who brought terrifying mayhem to China in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The covers of the two books are the same shade of red. To Chinese writers and other intellectuals, the Little Red Book was more nearly a little red knife than anything else. After Mao died in 1976, writers and editors denounced it in extreme terms and virtual unanimity—although not in print. Party leaders, knowing they needed to preserve a semblance of respect for Mao—because the legitimacy of the regime that they had inherited from him depended on it—protected the chairman and his Little Red Book from direct denunciation.

The Big Red Book includes thirteen quotations of Mao that are taken from the Little Red Book. If this is why Norton editors have called the collection “mesmerizing,” I can see their point. I, too, was stunned by the idea of including quotations from Mao Zedong in an anthology of literature. The book’s editor, Yunte Huang, who grew up and went to college in China and is now a professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara, seems aware that readers might find this and others of his choices surprising. He writes in his introduction:

The belief in literature as an expression of a free individual is as ideologically suspect as the revolutionary mot justes [sic] in Mao’s Little Red Book.

The argument that literary freedom is but one ideology among others is hardly original with Huang. Stalin and Mao both relied on it for decades. Indeed one of the Mao quotes in The Big Red Book expresses the idea clearly: “All literature and art belong to definite classes and are geared to definite political lines. There is in fact no such thing as art for art’s sake….” It is important to appreciate the effect that such quotes had in daily life in Mao’s China. This one meant: everybody is biased and our bias is the correct one so you adopt it or shut up—or else.

In addition to Mao, 47 other writers are included in The Big Red Book. Many are ones favored by today’s government. They include, among others, Lu Xun, Guo Moruo, Mao Dun, Ba Jin, Lao She, Ding Ling, Zhao Shuli, Wang Meng, and Mo Yan. To his credit, Huang reaches beyond these to include writers whom the government does not much like, yet tolerates: Shen Congwen, Zhou Zuoren, Lin Yutang, and others.

Huang stops, though, when he reaches writers the Communist authorities regard as enemies. Liu Binyan, who in the mid-1980s was arguably the most beloved writer in China, is left out. In 1985, when members of the state-run Chinese Writers Association were permitted to elect their president and vice-president freely (this has happened only once), Ba Jin and Liu Binyan, both of whom had recently published indictments of the Mao era, won the most votes. Liu’s stories of the working of local corruption were particularly telling. Two years later, though, Liu was expelled from the Communist Party; four years later, after the Tiananmen Square events of 1989, he went into permanent exile from China. 31 years later he is omitted from The Big Red Book.

Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate who is a poet, essayist, and literary critic, also gets no mention. Nor do Zheng Yi, whose 1984 novel Old Well was made into a film that won the government-sponsored Golden Rooster Award in 1988 but whose 1993 book Red Memorial exposed the politically induced acts of cannibalism that happened in four counties in Guangxi during the peak of Mao fever in 1968; or Su Xiaokang, the writer whose video series River Elegy set records for popularity in summer 1988 only to have the regime declare it to be an important cause of the pro-democracy “trouble” that left the regime, in its view, with no alternative but to organize a massacre in June 1989; or Liao Yiwu, the poet and chronicler of the lives of the downtrodden, whose prison memoir For a Song and a Hundred Songs lays bare almost unspeakable cruelties inside the regime’s prisons. Zheng, Su, and Liao (and others) live in exile.

All of this means that The Big Red Book could, if Norton wished, come out in a Chinese version for the China market with not much revision. Most of the book consists of Chinese texts that would need no translation, and the editor’s introduction and headnotes use language that would be seen as friendly in Beijing. Yunte Huang writes, for example, that it was “Chiang Kai-shek who started the civil war in 1946,” whereas Mao Zedong is “nearly synonymous with modern China.” Late imperial China was “feudalist” (an orthodox Marxist term that has never fit very well) and Mao Dun, a modestly talented writer who, for his political contributions, stands next to Lu Xun in the Communist pantheon, is “universally regarded” as the number-two writer in modern China.

Still, some of Huang’s language would have to go. Near the end of the editing process of The Big Red Book, in what appears to have been an effort to reach better balance politically, two sectional introductions, one for the Mao years of 1949–1976 and the other for the post-Mao years after 1976, were added. These introductions refer to “subservience to politics” and “damage done to Chinese literature” in ways that the government will find unacceptable. The likely solution, if the book is published in China, will be simply to omit them.

If Chinese authorities do allow The Big Red Book into China, they will almost certainly present it as a book that shows “how Westerners see us.” The Chinese authorities would welcome the chance to say to their people, in effect, “Look, foreigners see us the way we have always been telling you that you should see us.” (This tactic has been standard in Chinese Communist politics ever since the publication of Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China; it bears the nicknamechukou zhuan neixiao: “export and then recall for internal consumption.”) If The Big Red Book were to sell in China even 0.001 percent as well as the Little Red Book did four decades ago, circulation would reach a million. Only printings of the Bible exceed the estimated billion of the Little Red Book.

Morandi Bruno—Zuma Press

Copies of Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’ in Guizhou province, 2009.

In addition to the Mao quotations, The Big Red Book includes three poems by Mao, whom Yunte Huang calls “the Great Helmsman” and “himself a highly accomplished poet.” This inevitably raises the question of how good the poems actually are. Would we anthologize them today if Mao had been a hermit? In fact, with Mao as Great Helmsman, the poems got a huge boost in China from central organs of the Communist Party. In 1957, they were featured in the state-run journal Poetry and were published in a short book that within six years was printed in tens of millions of copies. In the late 1960s Mao was the only living poet who could be published in the People’s Republic. The regime’s claim that he was the most popular poet of the era requires a special understanding of what is meant by “popular.”

Mao’s poems are competent but not brilliant. Most of them sing the glory of the Red Army (and thereby of Mao himself) against a background of lyrical landscape description. Here is “Tapoti,” written in 1933:

Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet—
Who is dancing, waving this colored ribbon against the sky?
The sun returns slanting after the rain
And hill and pass grow a deeper blue.
A furious battle once raged here,
The village walls, bullet-scarred,
Now adorn hill and pass
And make them doubly fair.
3

I doubt that we would be talking about them today if Mao had been a hermit. They do, though, have considerable interest, because we know they came straight from the helmsman, a man whose actions had fateful effects on more human lives than arguably anyone else in history. The interest is enhanced by the fact that Mao conceived his poems not as art for art’s sake but as tracing his course through history. Mao the poet and Mao the political animal cannot be separated.

To conflate poem and poet is normal in Chinese tradition; here Mao was no innovator. For centuries it was assumed that mastery of classical language implants in a person a moral foundation that prepares the person to act properly in the world. When a scholar or official wrote a poem on a poignant occasion (viewing an impressive landscape, seeing off a friend, or the like), the poem was assumed to reveal the inner feelings and moral cultivation of the poet.

This tradition has survived into modern times. In April 1976, when thousands of people crowded Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to give vent to their “heartfelt feelings” about the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, their preferred mode of expression was poetry in classical form. (Modern free verse fell into a different category; it was art, and could show how the poet was familiar with international trends in poetry, but for baring one’s soul, classical poetry was better.) Communist officials, despite their avowed opposition to “feudal” traditions, have behaved similarly. In 1978, two volumes of classical-style poems by Chen Yi, a former mayor of Shanghai and foreign minister in the central government who died in 1972, were published posthumously. For example, in 1959, on the tenth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Chen wrote:

Truth reigns supreme through the red-blanketed East;
Lenin assured, long ago, that this would be so.

The assumption that art reveals one’s inner life holds for calligraphy as well. The lilt of brushstrokes on paper suggests the dance of the hand that performed them and hence the character of the person whose hand it was. Communist officials have lent their calligraphy to the covers of magazines, the gates of universities, the mastheads of newspapers, and other places where they have sought to extend the reach of their moral and political sponsorship. Recipients have generally been grateful for the protection that is implied.

Mao Zedong’s calligraphy pulls upward and toward the right in idiosyncratic fashion; personally I find it unpleasant, on strictly aesthetic grounds. But it is featured, even today, in major newspapers like People’s Daily and Guangming Daily and on the Internet home pages of Peking University, Tsing-hua University, and other elite, as well as countless nonelite schools. In the 1980s Richard Kraus noticed that the mosquito nets on beds at Fuzhou Normal University were stamped with Mao’s calligraphy.

It is important to note that ancient, not modern, language is used for such calligraphy. In 1955 Mao’s government announced a national campaign to replace traditional Chinese characters with new simplified versions. Within months publishers across the country had obeyed, and in schools children began learning the new characters exclusively. Yet traditional characters continued to appear (and appear still today) in Mao’s calligraphy everywhere. In 1973, shortly after Mao had commanded that the entire country “smash the four olds [customs, culture, habits, ideas],” a new edition of The Poems of Chairman Mao was published. It not only used traditional characters but arranged them on the page in vertical columns, in imitation of the string-bound volumes of pre-modern times. The poetry book itself was string-bound. When Mao wanted to reveal (or pretend to reveal) “the real me,” it was this format—nothing from Marx or Lenin—that felt most natural to him.

In 1990, Xi Jinping, today China’s top ruler, wrote a poem in praise of Jiao Yulu, a model hero from the Mao era, saying that “neither snow at night nor morning frost can cool a hero’s zeal.” In March 2014, the Communist Party’s website Newsnet published a photograph of Xi’s poem as a page in a string-bound book. The page imitates the look of Mao’s 1973 book in every way, except that Xi uses simplified characters. A string-bound book using simplified characters? Very strange, but never mind. What mattered was Xi’s assertion that his authority has ancient roots.

What can we learn from Mao’s poems about the inner Mao? He began writing poems in the 1920s but apparently showed them only to friends. The first public debate about what they meant took place in November 1945, after the war with Japan had ended and while civil war between the Nationalists and Communists was looming. Liu Yazi, a renowned classical-style poet and left-wing Nationalist, seeking to bring the rival sides together, included Mao’s poem “Snow” in an exhibition of calligraphy in Chongqing, the Nationalists’ wartime capital. The poem, one of Mao’s most famous, has two stanzas, the first of which gives an Olympian view of the north China landscape in winter. The second, which refers to five of China’s greatest emperors, runs as follows:

This land so rich in beauty
Has made countless heroes bow in homage.
But alas! Chin Shih-huang and Han Wu-ti
Were lacking in literary grace
And Tang Tai-tsung and Sung Tai-tsu
Had little poetry in their souls;
And Genghis Khan,
Proud Son of Heaven for a day,
Knew only shooting eagles, bow outstretched.
All are past and gone!
For truly great men
Look to this age alone.

The last two lines elicited a flurry of debate, expressed largely in poems, in the Chongqing press.4 Was Mao referring to the Red Army as a whole or did he mean that he personally was the greatest of the great? Did he see himself as a future emperor, not a “servant of the masses” as Communist rhetoric claimed?

Liu Yazi saw in Mao a “generous noble mind” and wrote poems that put Mao on a par with great poet-emperors in Chinese history. Others agreed with Liu, but a larger number compared Mao not to emperors but to rebels—legendary figures who, in embracing millenarian ideologies, had fought ruthlessly to unseat emperors. (This view seemed more consistent with the Nationalist claim that Communists were bandits.) In the end Wang Yunsheng, chief editor of the newspaper Dagongbao, where much of the debate unfolded, commented that the question “emperor or rebel?” is moot because both these positions are self-interested. A rebel is merely a would-be emperor. Neither seeks to reflect popular will in the way modern democracy asks.

In 1945 Chinese could debate the question of whether Mao had a “generous noble mind” but four years later they could not. After Mao’s 1949 victory, there were “correct” views on such questions. Many agreed with these views, but anyone who did not could not say so in public. Meanwhile, Beijing exported the newly correct version of a flawless Mao abroad, where it was attractive to people who hoped that an ideal socialism might exist somewhere in the world. Eventually a number of European-language collections of Mao’s poems appeared, nearly all of them presenting the flawless Mao as a great artist, thinker, and hero of the masses.5 Murderous campaigns and a huge famine were either unknown or explained away.

Then came the work of Jeremy Ingalls (1911–2000), author of Dragon in Ambush: The Art of War in the Poems of Mao Zedong. Ingalls was an American poet known in the 1940s and 1950s mainly for her 619-page epic poem The Thunder Saga of Tahl (1945). She also studied classical Chinese at the University of Chicago in the 1940s, maintained a lifelong interest in Chinese literature, and brought to her study of Mao’s poetry the same meticulous interest in allusion that pervades her poetry. Her friend Allen Wittenborn, a professor of Chinese at San Diego State University, compiled Dragon in Ambush after she died.

Ingalls revives the view that Mao was a self-interested rebel and would-be emperor. She argues that his poems can be read at more than one level: for popular consumption, they show Mao concerned to advance the revolutionary cause; at a deeper level, they are notes on Mao’s right to dominate China, indeed the world, and they contain sardonic comment on how clever he has been in outsmarting not only his enemies, domestic and foreign, but also any comrade who might dare to be his rival. China’s ordinary people, Ingalls found, are pawns in Mao’s power games, their lives expendable in whatever numbers he might find necessary. She shows how Mao cared about his poems as a record of his exploits. In 1963 he selected 37 of them for a definitive new edition, altering the wording and even the dating of some of them in order, she argues, to make them “a unitary document.”

Ingalls’ method is to explore Mao’s allusions to the ancient Chinese texts that he presumably read in his youth. For example “Mount Liupan” (1935) ends this way:

Red banners wave freely in the west wind.
Today we hold the long cord in our hands,
When shall we bind fast the Gray Dragon?

Many commentators have noted that “Gray Dragon” here means Japan, which invaded the northeast of China in 1931. Ingalls digs deeper, though, and explains that the “long cord” in the previous line alludes to the recapture, around 110 BCE, of the coastal kingdom of Nanyue (today’s Guangdong and Guangxi) and restoration to its proper place as a vassal state of the empire of Han. From that time on, Ingalls writes, “long-tasseled cord” has stood for “an emperor’s means to subdue a recalcitrant nation through long-range military and diplomatic maneuvers.” Hence at one level in Mao’s mind, she argues, “Japan is not an invading foreign nation but a rebellious client-state.”

Dragon in Ambush is immensely detailed, often repetitive, and occasionally in error. For example, Mao’s 1965 poem “Reascending Jinggangshan” ends, in my translation:

Nothing is really hard in this world
If only you are willing to try.

But in Ingalls’ version it is:

To rise and rule the world is no hard task,
Needs but to choose to mount and fix our grasp.

Good translations can vary (Ingalls’ are generally more literal than most), but the difference here between “in the world” and “rule the world” involves a misreading of the original Chinese. Ingalls is pressing too hard to make her case that Mao is bent on ruling the world. Here and on many other occasions her judgments of Mao’s character color her interpretations of his poetry. But her emphasis is a much-needed corrective to the work of the many earlier translators and compilers, Chinese and foreign, who have been far too reverential toward Mao. Ingalls surpasses her predecessors in the detail and erudition of her work, and in the end conveys a sense of the inner Mao that is more credible than theirs.

If she is right to find hidden messages in Mao’s poems, we are left with the interesting question of who Mao imagined the audience for the messages to be. It would not have been the masses—those readers of the tens of millions of printed copies—because “deceiving and confusing the less informed populace [about] the actual motives and aims of his policies” was a basic Mao principle, according to Ingalls. She conjectures that he was inserting what amounts to Machiavellian counsel for use by future rulers.

But that hypothesis assumes that Mao envisioned the possibility that another human being might someday be his peer, and from what we now know of Mao, from the memoirs of people close to him, it seems doubtful that he would allow for such a possibility. Another of Ingalls’ speculations seems more likely: that Mao was “celebrating” his own greatness and cleverness; the audience for his messages was himself; if he was sharing the hidden messages with anyone, it was with tian (“heaven” or “nature”), which he conceived not as his sovereign or even his peer but as the Mao-reality in another form.


  1. Alexandra Alter, “China’s Publishers Court America as Its Authors Scorn Censorship,” The New York Times, May 28, 2015.
  2. See Ian Johnson, “An American Hero in China,” The New York Review, May 7, 2015.
  3. The translation is from Mao Tsetung Poems (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1976), p. 14. No translator or editor is named.
  4. For these and other details about the debate over “Snow” in 1945, I am indebted to Zhiyi Yang, “Classical Poetry in Modern Politics: Liu Yazi’s PR Campaign for Mao Zedong,” Asian and African Studies, Vol. 22, No. 2 (2013).
  5. English-language editions of Mao’s poems include: Mao Tse-tung, Nineteen Poems, translated by Andrew Boyd and Gladys Yang (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1958); Thirty-seven Poems by Mao Tse-tung, translated by Michael Bullock and Jerome Ch’en, in Jerome Ch’en, Mao and the Chinese Revolution (Oxford University Press, 1965); Poems of Mao Tse-tung, translated and annotated by Wong Man (Hong Kong: Eastern Horizon Press, 1966); The Poems of Mao Zedong, translated and edited by Willis Barnstone (Harper and Row, 1972); The Poetry of Mao Tse-tung, translated and edited by Hua-ling Nieh Engle and Paul Engle (Dell, 1972); Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry, edited by Wu-chi Liu and Irving Yucheng Lo (Anchor, 1975); Mao Tsetung Poems (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1976); Ten Poems and Lyrics by Mao Tse-tung, translated by Wang Hui-Ming (University of Massachusetts Press, 1975); and Ma Wen-yee, Snow Glistens on the Great Wall: A New Translation of the Complete Collection of Mao Tse-tung’s Poetry with Notes and Historical Commentary (Santa Barbara Press, 1986).