5. In Jarring Contrast to His Perception as a Monster, Mao Zedong Had a Sensitive Poet Side
Mao Zedong (1893 – 1976) led the Chinese Communist Party from 1935 until his death, and after the communists won control in 1949, he ruled China from that date until his demise. During his time in power, Mao was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions Chinese. They were killed outright by his followers, or starved to death because of Mao’s disastrous policies. However, there was more to Mao than a revolutionary and man of action. In jarring contrast to his well-deserved reputation as a monster, Mao was also a poet.
In addition to being a prolific mass murderer, Mao was also a prolific writer. Surprisingly, for a man so politically radical and revolutionary, he liked to write and pen verses in classical Chinese forms. It would be like a modern American anarchist who likes writing in the manner of Chaucer. As with most intellectuals of his generation, Mao’s education was based on a foundation of classical Chinese literature. However, while most of his contemporaries moved on to modern styles and themes, Mao stuck with the old when it came to literature and poetry.
Mao began composing poetry in his youth. Indeed, his image as a poet was a significant part of the Chinese public’s perception of Mao as he rose to power. He was actually considered a good poet. Not just by critics in China, who would have been foolhardy indeed to pan his poetry, but also by literary critics outside China and beyond Mao’s clutches. His poetry tended to be on romantic end of things, rather than the more modern realist genre and resembled the seventh to ninth century Tang Dynasty’s style.
Alone I stand in the autumn cold On the tip of Orange Island, The Xiang flowing northward; I see a thousand hills crimsoned through By their serried woods deep-dyed, And a hundred barges vying Over crystal blue waters. Eagles cleave the air, Fish glide under the shallow water; Under freezing skies a million creatures contend in freedom. Brooding over this immensity, I ask, on this bondless land Who rules over man’s destiny? I was here with a throng of companions, Vivid yet those crowded months and years. Young we were, schoolmates, At life’s full flowering; Filled with student enthusiasm Boldly we cast all restraints aside. Pointing to our mountains and rivers, Setting people afire with our words, We counted the mighty no more than muck. Remember still How, venturing midstream, we struck the waters And the waves stayed the speeding boats?
3. This Emperor Was Horrible, But Contra His Perception, He Was Also an Artist at Heart
Nero was one of ancient Rome’s worst rulers. He was born in 37 AD, a nephew of the emperor Caligula, and grand-nephew of his successor, the emperor Claudius. Claudius fell in love with his niece and Nero’s mother, Agrippina. He married her and adopted Nero, naming him his heir and successor. Agrippina had Claudius poisoned in 54 AD, and her teenaged son became emperor. She dominated Nero during the first five years of his rule, so to escape her smothering embrace, he decided to murder her.
Nero tried to make it look accidental, such as with a roof designed to collapse and crush her. The roof fell on and crushed one of her maids, instead. Next, Nero gifted his mother a pleasure barge, which was rigged to capsize in the middle of a lake. Before Nero’s horrified gaze as he watched from a villa overlooking the lake, his mother swam from the sinking barge to shore like an otter. At his wit’s end, and dreading an awkward confrontation, Nero sent in some sailors to club her death with oars. With his mother out of the way, Nero was finally free to indulge his fantasies of… being an artist and Olympics champion.
After freeing himself from his domineering mother, Nero gave free rein to his impulses and indulged himself to the fullest. Fancying himself a talented musician, he threw exceptionally long concerts, during which he sang while playing a lyre. Few dared leave before completion, or display anything less than rapt attention. The performances were so bad that women faked labor in order to leave, and men faked heart attacks or death so they could get carried out. Still, that was nothing compared to Nero’s pursuit of his dream to become an Olympics champion. He kicked that off by having the games delayed for two years until he could visit Greece.
Nero competed in chariot racing, and his competitors tried to throw the race by slowing down. Still, Nero failed to reach the finish line because he crashed and wrecked his chariot. The judges, combining sycophancy with fear of an unstable man who could have them crucified with a snap of his fingers, awarded him the victor’s wreath anyhow, reasoning that he would have won but for the crash. They also awarded him victor’s wreaths for every event in which he competed, for events in which he did not compete, and for events that were not even part of the Olympic competition, such as singing and lyre playing.
Nero spent extravagantly in pursuit of his hobbies and to satisfy his whims, until the treasury was emptied. In the meantime, he left the business of running the government to incompetent and corrupt cronies who wrecked it. By 68 AD, the Roman Empire had had enough, and numerous rebellions broke out. In Rome, the Senate officially declared Nero a public enemy, and his Praetorian Guard abandoned him. Nero toyed with impractical ideas, such as throwing himself upon the mercy of the public and begging their forgiveness. He thought that if he sang for them while playing the lyre, it would “soften their hearts”, and he would be allowed to retire to an out-of-the-way province as its governor.
He composed a speech and wrote a song. However, he changed his mind after it was pointed out that he would probably be torn apart by a mob as soon as he was sighted in public, before he got the chance to orate or sing. While mulling alternatives, news came that he had been declared a public enemy by the Senate, had been sentenced to be publicly beaten to death, and that soldiers were on the way to arrest him. All hope gone, Nero decided to end his life. Unable to do it himself, he had a freedman stab him, crying out before the fatal blow: “Oh, what an artist dies in me!” The perception of him molded by time.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading