Poetry of Mao Zedong

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Mao Zedong's poem "Shuidiao Getou – Swimming" (《水调歌头·游泳》, 1956) on the pedestal of the 1954 Flood Monument in Wuhan (built 1969)

Mao Zedong (1893–1976), the first Chairman of the Communist Party of China and leader of the People's Republic of China for nearly 30 years, wrote poetry, starting in the 1920s, during the Red Army's epic retreat during the Long March of 1934-1936, and after coming to power in 1949. Although Mao was radical politically, he wrote in classical Chinese forms.


Mao's poems are in the classical Chinese verse style, rather than the newer Modern Chinese poetry style. Mao is probably not one of the best Chinese poets, but his poems are generally considered to have literary quality. Arthur Waley, the eminent British translator of Chinese literature, however, described Mao's poetry as "not as bad as Hitler's paintings, but not as good as Churchill's."[1]

Like most Chinese intellectuals of his generation, Mao immersed himself in Chinese classical literature. His style was deeply influenced by the "Three Lis" of the Tang Dynasty: poets Li Bai, Li Shangyin, and Li He. He is considered to be a romantic poet, in contrast to the realist poets represented by Du Fu.

Mao's poems are frequently quoted in popular culture, literature and daily conversations. Some of his most well-known poems are "Changsha" (1925), "The Double Ninth" (1929.10), "Loushan Pass" (1935), "The Long March" (1935), "Snow" (1936.02), "The PLA Captures Nanjing" (1949.04), "Reply to Li Shuyi" (1957.05.11), and "Ode to the Plum Blossom" (1961.12).


Changsha (1925)[edit]

Main article: Changsha (poem)

Informal Translation:[2] Changsha In the (rhyme) pattern of Qinyuanchun

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?

Orange Island is an island in the middle of Xiang River, near Changsha, the capital of Hunan province. Mao attended Hunan First Normal University around 1912-1917.

Yellow Crane Tower (1927)[edit]

Yellow Crane Tower, a building at the bank of Yangtze River in Wuhan, is very famous in Chinese history and literary tradition. It is one of the Four Great Towers in China. Its fame mainly comes from a poem written by Cui Hao in early Tang Dynasty, part of which is:

The yellow crane has long since gone away,
All that here remains is Yellow Crane Tower.
The yellow crane once gone does not return,
White clouds drift slowly for a thousand years.

Mao later discussed the historical context of this poem's writing: "At that time (1927), the Great Revolution failed, I was very depressed and didn't know what to do, so I wrote this poem".

Jinggang Mountain (1928)[edit]

This poem was written in the Jinggang Mountains, where Mao organized a Red Army to fight KMT forces after 1927. Jinggang Mountains is a mountain area at the border of Jiangxi province and Hunan province. It is there Mao began to experiment his theory of guerrilla war. He was quoted as:"When we can beat the enemy, we fight. When we can't beat them, we run".

Line 5: From Huangyanggai roars the thunder of cannons,

Huangyanggai is the place where the Red Army beat the KMT army after a fierce battle.

The Warlords Clash (1929)[edit]

In 1929, Mao's Red Army left Jinggang Mountains and marched eastward to the western part of Fujian province and built their base there.

Line 3-4:

The warlords are clashing anew --
Yet another Millet Dream.

In 1929 Jiang Jieshi's KMT army began war with Feng Yuxiang and Yan Xishan's armies in north China. That's why Mao said "the warlords are clashing anew", and "Millet Dream" meant Jiang, Feng and Yan's ambitions were just dreams. And Mao thought he could take this opportunity to his advantage when most of KMT army went to fight elsewhere.

Line 5-6 : Ting River is a river in Fujian, both Longyan and Shanghang are cities in Fujian.

The Double Ninth (1929.10)[edit]

Double Ninth Festival, also called Chongyang, is a Chinese holiday. By tradition on September 9 (Chinese Lunar Calendar) each year, Chinese people would climb to the peaks of nearby mountains, looking far away, thinking about their family members who are travelling in other places.

New Year's Day (1930.01)[edit]

Line 1: Ninghua, Qingliu, Guihua are all places in Fujian

Line 4: Wuyi Mountain is a mountain in Fujian.

On the Guangchang Road (1930.02)[edit]

Title: Guangchang is a city in Jiangxi, it was called the "North Gate" of CPC's Jiangxi Soviet.

Line 6: Gan River is a river flowing through Jiangxi.

Line 8: Ji'an is a city in Jiangxi.

March from Tingzhou to Changsha (1930.07)[edit]

Title: Tingzhou is a town in Longyan City, Fujian province, Changsha is the capital of Hunan province. At that time the Red Army tried to take Changsha, but they failed. Fujian is at the east, Hunan is at west, so Mao's army marched westward.

Huang Gonglyue was an important military leader in the Red Army, he was killed a few years later in battle.

Against the First "Encirclement" Campaign (1931)[edit]

During 1931-1934 Jiang Jieshi's KMT government organized five so-called "Encirclement" campaigns on CPC's Jiangxi Soviet in Southeastern China. The first four all failed. Mao led the Red Army beating the first three campaigns, then he was relieved of leadership due to internal power struggles of the CPC. Zhou Enlai and Zhu De led the Red Army to beat the fourth campaign, but they failed the fifth time, and was forced to leave their base and began Long March.

Line 5: Zhang Huizan, the KMT general who led the first "Encirclement" Campaign. He was killed after being captured by the Red Army.

Line 10: Buzhou Mountain, a legendary mountain in Chinese forklore. It is said Buzhou Mountain was one of the four pillars supporting the sky. A giant called Gong Gong quarreled with the gods. He was very angry and banged his head against Buzhou Mountain. Buzhou Mountain was broken, thus the sky tilted and water poured from heaven, causing a huge flood on earth. Here Mao expressed his appreciation for Gong Gong's rebellious spirit.

Against the Second "Encirclement" Campaign (1931)[edit]

Dabodi (1933)[edit]

Dabodi is the site of a battle which actually took place at the beginning of 1929. The background: at that time, Mao's Red Army had left Jinggang Mountains to look for a new base. Red Army was beaten several time by the pursuing KMT army. They used up all ammunitions and were starved. Then on the New Year of 1929 they fought a desperate fight in the snow at Dabodi, using stones and bare hands, and beat their enemy. Mao revisited this place several years later and wrote this poem.

Huichang (1934)[edit]

Loushan Pass (1935)[edit]

This is a famous poem written during Long March. Loushan Pass is a place in Guizhou, where a fierce battle was fought.

Three Short Poems (1934-35)[edit]

This poem is also known as "the Three Songs." It is written as three poems with sixteen characters each. This poem was written sometime between 1934-35 during the Long March.[3]

I whip my quick horse and don't dismount
and look back in wonder.
The sky is three feet away.

The sea collapses and the river boils.
Innumerable horses race
insanely into the peak of battle.

Peaks pierce the green sky, unblunted..
The sky would fall
but for the columns of mountains.

The Long March (1935)[edit]

This poem was written toward the end of 1935 when the Long March was almost finished. In it Mao listed some places Red Army had travelled through. Five Ridges and Wumeng are both big mountains in southwestern China. Jinsha is actually another name for certain parts of Yangtze River. Dadu River is at the west part of Sichuan, here in a heroic fight, 22 volunteers carried out a suicide attack on the KMT garrison across the iron-chained Luding Bridge and saved the Red Army from being destroyed. The Min Mountains are a mountain range at the Sichuan-Gansu border area, is already close to the end of Long March's route. To get rid of the pursuing KMT army, the Red Army had to climb over its 13000-foot peak and many froze to death on it.

The original poem written by Mao

Informal Translation:

The Long March
at the patten of Qilu

The Red Army fears not the trials of the Long March,
Holding light ten thousand crags and torrents.
The Five Ridges wind like gentle ripples,
And the majestic Wumeng Mountain roll by, globules of clay.
Warm the steep cliffs lapped by the waters of the Jinsha,
Cold the iron chains spanning the Dadu River.
Min Mountains' thousand li of snow joyously crossed,
The three Armies march on, each face glowing.

Actually, the Long March was done by three CPC armies separately. One was Mao's 1st Red Army from Jiangxi Soviet, another was Zhang Guotao's 4th Red Army from Hubei soviet, the third one was He Long's 2nd Red Army from west part of Hubei. Here, Mao was glad all three Red Armies were together.

Kunlun (1935.10)[edit]

The Kunlun Mountains are a mountain range on the upper reaches of the Hotan River in Xinjiang Province, Northwestern China. According to Chinese folklore they (or a different, mythological mythical Kunlun Mountain) were once the residence of a number of gods.

Mao added annotations to this poem, commenting "An ancient poet said, 'Three million dragons of white jade are fighting, their broken scales fly all over the sky. In this way he described the flying snow, but here I have used it to describe snowy mountains. In summer, when one climbs the Min Mountain, one looks out on far mountains that seem to dance and shine in dazzling whiteness. There was a saying among the people that years ago the Monkey King (Sun Hsing-che) passed by, all the mountains were on fire. But he borrowed a palm-leaf fan and quenched the flame and that is why the mountains froze and turned white."[3]

Mount Liupan (1935.10)[edit]

"Mount Liupan" was written in late 1935 after the Red Army almost finished the Long March. Mount Liupan is a mountain in northwestern China.

Line 3: If we fail to reach the Great Wall we are not men, (不到长城,非好汉)

This quote inspires the millions of tourists who visit the Great Wall every year.[citation needed]

Snow (1936.02)[edit]

This poem is almost certainly the best known poem by Mao. It was written in 1936, but was not published until he went to Chongqing in 1945 to hold peace talks with Jiang Jieshi. He presented it to Liu Yazi, a poet whom Mao had met in Canton in the early 1920s and who, like Mao, favored traditional Ci and Lu forms. It caused quite a stir among Chinese intellectuals for its frank presentation of Mao's ambition to unify and lead China.

In the first half Mao praised the grandeur and beauty of northern China in the winter. The more interesting part is the second half, where Mao listed some of the greatest Emperors in China, include Qin Shihuang, the first Emperor of China; Han Wudi, the great Han emperor who defeated the Huns; Emperor Taizong of Tang(Li Shimin), the second Emperor of the Tang dynasty; Emperor Taizu of Song, the Emperor who started the Song dynasty; and Genghis Khan. Here Mao hints he aspires to be even greater than these emperors, quoting a line said to Liu Bei by Cao Cao that “the only heroes in the world are you and I.”

Original poem written by Mao


On the Pattern of Qinyuanchun


Look at the landscape of northern China:
The vast frozen land is covered with ice.
And the snow flits far-flung in the sky.

On both sides of the Great Wall.
The empty wilderness survives;
From upriver to downstream,
The roaring currents disappear.
The mountains dance like silver snake,
The highlands slither like huge wax elephants.
Vying with the sky for height.

When comes the sunny day,
The land is dressed up with bright sun and
clear white snow,
What a gorgeous and attractive scene it is!

Such a beautiful land
Has infatuated countless heroes.
Pioneer emperors Qin Shihuang and Han Wudi
Were men lack of poem's grace talent;
Great emperors Emperor Taizong of Tang and Song Taizu
Were short of spirit and strength.
That proud son of Heaven,
Genghis Khan
Only enjoys shooting the big Hawk with
his bow.

Alas,They are now gone as history:
The real great hero,
Is coming up now.

The PLA Captures Nanjing (1949.04)[edit]

In late April 1949, the communist PLA (People's Liberation Army) crossed Yangtze River and captured the capital of KMT government: Nanjing. Mao wrote this poem to celebrate this historical event.

Line 1: Over Zhong Mountain swept a storm, headlong,

Zhong Mountain is a hill at the suburb of Nanjing.

Line 2: Great River means Yangtze River

Line 3-4: The city, a tiger crouching, a dragon curling, outshining its ancient glory;

Nanjing, a great city, had been the capital of six dynasties in Chinese history. Strategiests said this city was like a "crouching tiger", and a "curling dragon". Also can be in reference to Zhuge Liang's nickname of the crouching dragon.

Line 7: And not ape Xiang Yu the conqueror seeking idle fame.

Xiang Yu is the hero who led the uprising that toppled the Qin Dynasty. After winning the war against the Qin dynasty, Xiang Yu fought against Liu Bang for the control of China. Xiang Xu was defeated and killed. His tragic story was immortalized in the famous Beijing Opera Farewell My Concubine.

Reply to Mr. Liu Yazi (1950.10)[edit]

Poems, "For Mr. Liu Yazi," dated 1949 and October 1950.[5]

Line 1: "Crimson Land", similar to " Divine Land ", is another way Chinese people call their own country.

Line 5: "Yutian", a place in Xinjiang, here means far away places.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Short (2001), p. 630.
  2. ^ The original poem written by Mao
  3. ^ a b Barnstone, Willis (1972). The Poems of Mao Tse-tung. Bantam. p. 164. 
  4. ^ 恒元,Paul Wood.毛泽东诗词:汉英对照[M].天津:天津人民出版社.1993:66-69.
  5. ^ Poems of Mao Zedong (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).