The Poetry of Chinese Politics


To those interested in Chinese politics, the past several months have produced two tales so gripping – and so outlandish – that they almost seem the stuff of (bad) fiction.

First the Communist Party turns on one of its own “princelings,” Bo Xilai, removing him from office and accusing his wife, Gu Kailai, of murdering a Briton by poisoning him in a hillside resort.  Then a blind human rights lawyer, Chen Guangcheng, who has been illegally and unconscionably imprisoned in his own home in rural Shandong province for eighteen months, escapes.  He somehow evades dozens of security guards, climbs a series of walls, makes his way to a waiting car, travels 300 miles to Beijing, enters the US Embassy – and appears on YouTube – before anyone notices he is missing.  In the midst of this embarrassing crisis, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in Beijing for the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue, along with scores of American government officials.

Then, with the attention of the global media focused on China, laser-like, President Hu Jintao takes the stage at the opening convocation of the Strategic Dialogue – and recites poetry.

While this may seem an unusual response to one of the most challenging periods the Communist Party has faced in more than two decades, it isn’t.  On the contrary, China’s leaders have long wielded poetry – their own and others’ – as weapon and warning, found in it refuge and solace, and used it to express thoughts that might be perceived as rude, proud, or overly personal if said directly.

The verse that President Hu quoted – 草木知春不久归,百般红紫斗芳菲/ All plants, aware that spring will soon return, With their brightest hues of rose and purple contend – was written by Han Yu. It means, in President Hu’s explanation, that time and tide wait for no man, so we must forge ahead. In other words, the US-China relationship has made progress and encountered pitfalls, but we must get on with it – and over this Chen Guangcheng kerfuffle.

Han Yu lived in the Tang (618-907), the golden age of Chinese poetry and, not incidentally, the go-to dynasty for poetry quotes.  It was during the Tang, in the reign of China’s only female emperor, Wu Zetian, that poetry was made a critical part of the state examination system; henceforth, until the exam system was abandoned in 1905, to be an official one also had to be a passable poet.  Though poetry is no longer required of officials, it is still expected; just as American presidents must be able to pitch a baseball, Chinese leaders must be able to craft, and fluently quote, poems.

Mao Zedong is no doubt the top poet of the Communist era; even those who hate Mao as man and leader will admit to an appreciation for his poems.  When Jindong was in middle school during the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s poetry formed a major part of the curriculum and he can still recite many of Mao’s verses from memory – and parse them for the political meaning that lurked behind the verses.  “Man Jiang Hong,” for instance, was a response to a poem penned by the writer Guo Morou in an ancient style.  In it, Mao weaves together the forces of nature and politics; the shrilling “pests” are the United States and the Soviet Union:

On this tiny globe
A few flies dash themselves against the wall,
Humming without cease,
Sometimes shrilling,
Sometimes moaning.
Ants on the locust tree assume a great-nation swagger
And mayflies lightly plot to topple the giant tree.
The west wind scatters leaves over Changan,
And the arrows are flying, twanging.
So many deeds cry out to be done,
And always urgently;
The world rolls on,
Time presses.
Ten thousand years are too long,
Seize the day, seize the hour!
The Four Seas are rising, clouds and waters raging,
The Five Continents are rocking, wind and thunder roaring.
Our force is irresistible,
Away with all pests!

Mao’s reputation as a poet was such that US President Richard Nixon actually memorized several of Mao’s poems before his groundbreaking trip to China – and quoted them back to Mao in Beijing, while clutching an English translation of “The Poems of Mao Zedong.” Later, Nixon and Chinese premier Zhou Enlai discussed Mao’s poetry in detail, with Zhou reading Mao’s “Ode to the Plum Blossom” to Nixon:

Wind and rain escorted Spring’s departure,
Flying snow welcomes Spring’s return.
On the ice-clad rock rising high and sheer
A flower blooms sweet and fair.
Sweet and fair, she craves not Spring for herself alone,
To be the harbinger of Spring she is content.
When the mountain flowers are in full bloom
She will smile mingling in their midst.

As Willis Barnstone explains in his book, “The Poems of Mao Zedong,” Zhou then said, “What this really means is…You have undertaken this initiative at considerable risk.  You may not be there to witness its – its success, but we will welcome your return.”

Deng Xiaoping is more known for pithy, folksy sayings than poetic verses, but his successor Jiang Zemin was a dedicated reciter, and writer, of poetry.  Indeed, on May 29, 2001, Jiang’s poem of “random thoughts on climbing Huangshan” ran on the front page of People’s Daily and was quickly included in textbooks and set to music (but scoffed at by many Chinese, who found Jiang’s poetry and calligraphy woefully inadequate in comparison to Mao’s).   In 2011, well into his retirement, Jiang made the news again with a new poem, about an old revolutionary.  The poem, which was published by papers throughout Jiang’s home province, was interpreted by some as a reminder from Jiang that he remained powerful, and would be involved in the choice of the next generation of leaders.

Hu Jintao is not widely known for reciting poetry – or anything else – but his premier, Wen Jiabao, is near-fanatical about it.  Indeed, Wen quotes ancient poets so frequently when making speeches or responding to journalists that the internet comes alive with discussions of poetry, and its intended meaning, every time Wen makes a speech; on one occasion, his translator even became something of a folk hero because she so adeptly translated the ancient verse he quoted into modern English.

In a 2010 press conference, for instance, Wen opened with a line from “Strategies of the Warring States,” which was compiled in the first century BCE, and then went on to quote “The Lament” of Qu Yuan, the patron saint of frustrated Chinese intellectuals: “亦余心之所善兮,虽九死其犹未悔/ For the ideal that I cherish in my heart, I would not regret dying a thousand times.”  On another occasion, he answered a question about US-China relations with a line from a poem by Wang Anshi, a Northern Song poet he quotes so often that Chinese journalists have labeled him an“alter-ego.” At his last press conference as premier in March of this year, Wen quoted little-known poets from Taiwan and Hong Kong in response to questions about both regions. Chinese Netizens then began photo-shopping the premier’s head onto the bodies of ancient poets, like the one in this post, which shows Wen’s head on the Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu’s body.  Of course, Wen also writes poems, like this one, which he penned in Kampala during a 7-nation tour of Africa:

Over mountains and across the ocean

To my brothers on the African land.

Overwhelmed by flowers, flags and resounding drums,

A brotherly love deeper than the sea

Fifty years of journey sharing weal and woe

Brings Chinese and African hearts closer and ever so.


Indeed, I have come home!

Dances of greetings, songs of adieu, a moment frozen into eternity.

Short is our meeting, lasting is our fraternity,

And endless words bespeak one common wish:

Let us strive together for progress and prosperity benefiting all.


Indeed, I have come home!

The sound of wind and rain kept me awake at night,

Hardly have we enjoyed happy reunion when it’s time to part.

People meet and part, just as the moon becoming full and waning soon,

Yet, to leave my African brothers grieves my heart.

The Great Wall and Lake Victoria lie far apart

But the powerful tie of sincere friendship knows no distance.

It isn’t only leaders who use poetry as a political tool.  In April of 1976, tens of thousands of people flooded Tiananmen Square to glue hand-written poems to the Monument to the People’s Heroes.  While most of the poems were written to mourn the passing of the beloved premier Zhou Enlai, a small portion were thinly veiled criticism of Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, and her Gang of Four.  Jindong photographed some of the poems, but never had them developed due to the crackdown that followed the protests. In 1989, Tiananmen Square was again plastered with poetry; we still have boxes of these poems.  More recently, in February of this year, the political activist Zhu Yufu was given a seven-year jail sentence for inciting subversion of state power – through a poem.  Here it is:

It’s time, people of China! It’s time.
The Square belongs to everyone.
With your own two feet
It’s time to head to the Square and make your choice.

It’s time, people of China! It’s time.
A song belongs to everyone.
From your own throat
It’s time to voice the song in your heart.

It’s time, people of China! It’s time.
China belongs to everyone.
Of your own will
It’s time to choose what China shall be.


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    • says

      Thanks. And as to your question, hmmmnn, can’t think of any, but I did find this at! (
      1. For NASA, space is still a high priority.
      2. I love California, I practically grew up in Phoenix.
      3. Welcome to President Bush, Mrs. Bush, and my fellow astronauts.
      4. [It’s] time for the human race to enter the solar system.
      5. The American people would not want to know of any misquotes that Dan Quayle may or may not make.
      6. We are ready for any unforeseen event that may or may not occur.
      7. When I have been asked during these last weeks who caused the riots and the killing in L.A., my answer has been direct and simple: Who is to blame for the riots? The rioters are to blame. Who is to blame for the killings? The killers are to blame.
      8. I am not part of the problem. I am a Republican.
      9. I stand by all the misstatements that I’ve made.
      10. The future will be better tomorrow.
      11. One word sums up probably the responsibility of any vice president, and that one word is ‘to be prepared’.
      12. The Holocaust was an obscene period in our nation’s history. I mean in this century’s history. But we all lived in this century. I didn’t live in this century.
      13. Mars is essentially in the same orbit… Mars is somewhat the same distance from the Sun, which is very important. We have seen pictures where there are canals, we believe, and water. If there is water, that means there is oxygen. If oxygen, that means we can breathe.
      14. If we don’t succeed, we run the risk of failure.
      15. It is wonderful to be here in the great state of Chicago.
      16. My fellow astronauts…
      17. It was just a job. It wasn’t any special interest in consumer affairs. I needed a paycheck and the Attorney General said that I would be best to go down there, because he knew I was anti-consumer.
      18. You have a part-time job, and that’s better than no job at all.
      19. [The U.S. victory in Gulf war was] a stirring victory for the forces of aggression.
      20. Vietnam is a jungle. You had jungle warfare. Kuwait, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, you have sand. [There is no need to worry about a protracted war because] from a historical basis, Middle East conflicts do not last a long time.
      21. People that are really weird can get into sensitive positions and have a tremendous impact on history.
      22. Make no mistake about it: Operation Desert Storm truly was a victory of good over evil, of freedom over tyranny, of peace over war.
      23. We’re all capable of mistakes, but I do not care to enlighten you on the mistakes we may or may not have made.
      24. Quite frankly, teachers are the only profession that teach our children.
      25. Murphy Brown is doing better than I am. At least she knows she still has a job next year.
      26. Illegitimacy is something we should talk about in terms of not having it.
      27. A low voter turnout is an indication of fewer people going to the polls.
      28. Public speaking is very easy.
      29. We have a firm commitment to NATO, we are a *part* of NATO. We have a firm commitment to Europe. We are a *part* of Europe.
      30. People that are really very weird can get into sensitive positions and have a tremendous impact on history.
      31. We’re going to have the best-educated American people in the world.
      32. I have made good judgements in the Past. I have made good judgements in the Future.
      33. We don’t want to go back to tomorrow, we want to go forward.
      34. Verbosity leads to unclear, inarticulate things.
      35. I believe we are on an irreversible trend toward more freedom and democracy – but that could change.
      36. What a waste it is to lose one’s mind. Or not to have a mind is being very wasteful. How true that is.
      37. Republicans understand the importance of bondage between a mother and child.

  1. Bill says

    Dear Ms. Melvin,

    Thank you for this excellent posting on an equally excellent blog.

    You state that even people who hate Mao admire his poetry. I was reminded of a couple astute critics who were not quite as complimentary:

    “Mao was also a poet and a calligrapher. In “President Mao’s New Clothes” Simon Leys disabuses us, however: “One should not have any illusions about the artistic value of Mao’s creations; had he not played such a role on history’s stage, his poetic production, slight and often gauche, could hardly differentiate itself from that of those of hundred of thousands of amateur poets China counts with each generation of men of letters.” To conclude, let us ponder a sentence uttered by the famous British sinologist, Arthur Waley: “Mao’s poetry is less bad than Hitler’s painting, but not as good as Churchill’s.”

    Most people will agree that Leys and Waley are discerning readers, but as with admirers of Mao’s poetry, it was virtually impossible for them to separate their feelings for the man from the poetry. It seems that it should be possible to do a blind taste test, as it were, of Mao’s poetry. Choose, say, a group of Taiwan graduate students in classical Chinese literature (a group that possibly has never read Mao’s poetry and have developed good literary taste), and give them Mao’s poetry anonymously interspersed among the works of the multitude of unknown poets. If Mao’s work stands out to discriminating readers in this blind taste test, then there is some evidence for his poetic greatness. If not, Mao’s poetry would be another example of how the outside world misjudged the man.

    PS: your link to Mao as the top poet does not work.

    • says

      Dear Mr. Watkins,

      Thank you very much for taking the time to read our blog, and to comment.

      I welcome your thoughts, and largely agree with them; it is very hard for anyone to separate the historic Mao, whatever one’s perception of him, from his poetry. I love your idea of the poetry judging in which Mao’s works are anonymously interspersed with those of unknown contemporaries and evaluated – but I think if I had to bet, I’d say they would stand out.

      I thought you might enjoy Mao’s evaluation of his own work, in case you haven’t come across it before. This was said in a conversation with Robert Payne about the poem “Snow.” ( The poem can be found here:

      “I wrote it in the airplane. It was the first time I had ever been in an airplane. I was astonished by the beauty of my country from the air – and there were other things.”

      “What other things?”

      “So many. You must remember when the poem was written. It was when there was so much hope in the air, when we trusted the Generalissimo.” A moment later he said: “My poems are so stupid – you mustn’t take them seriously.”

      That was in 1946. In 1957, he wrote this to a friend who wanted to publish some of his poems:

      ” Up to now, I have never wanted to make these things known in any formal way because they are in the old style and I was afraid this might encourage a wrong trend and exercise a bad influence on young people. Besides, they are not much as poetry, and there is nothing outstanding about them.”

      I am sure there is false modesty in these statements, but also probably a genuine assessment from a flawed man who loved poetry. Would you agree?

      I am sorry the link did not work – try this:

      But, i again recommend Willis Barnstone’s translations in his book called “The Poems of Mao Zedong.”



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