9. Mao’s Habit of Penning Old School Verse
As with most Chinese intellectuals of his era, Mao Zedong’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. From his youth, he got into the habit of composing poetry in the classical style, and he kept at it for the rest of his life. Indeed, Mao’s image as a poet was a significant part of his public persona as he rose to power in China.
Mao was actually considered a good poet. Not just by critics in China, who knew better than to pan his poetry, but also by literary critics outside China and beyond Mao’s clutches. Although a radical revolutionary in many aspects, Mao was artistically conservative, and stuck with traditional Chinese literary and poetic forms. His poetry tended to be on romantic end of things, rather than the more modern realist genre. It was reminiscent of Tang Dynasty style, from the seventh to ninth centuries.
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.
How, venturing midstream, we struck the waters
And the waves stayed the speeding boats?
Mao Zedong – Changsha