I Lost My Proud Poplar
by Mao Tse-tung, 1893-1976
I reviewed a collection of Mao's poems for the March 2009 issue of The New Criterion. The collection was a re-issue of Willis Barnstone's 1972 book The Poems of Mao Tse Tung with some minor changes, for example in the spelling of the poet's name. The re-issue, by the University of California Press, is titled The Poems of Mao Zedong. It contains the same basic material as the original: thirty-five of Mao's poems both in Chinese and in translations by Barnstone, with an introduction and notes also by Barnstone.
My review was not kind to the Chairman. Why should it have been? His despotic regime brought about the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese people. It is statistically certain that many of those who died — not to mention the tens of millions of others terrorized into silence — were better poets than Mao. The dictator used his position of supreme power to promote his own writings, like Nero playing his fiddle. One should not be respectful to the self-advertisements of tyrants. There is in fact, I believe, a moral imperative to be dis-respectful.
I did allow, though that some of Mao's stuff is halfway memorable. The example I gave was this poem, written in 1957, when the despot was 63 years old. I thought curious readers of The New Criterion might like to hear the poem read, so here it is, as best I can render it.
Mao didn't give the poem a proper title, so I haven't either. Barnstone gives it the English title "The Gods," which I suppose is as good as any.
• Barnstone's notes on the poem [with additions by me in color].
title Poem written for Li Shuyi, a teacher in the Tenth Middle School at Changsha, the widow of Liu Zhixun. Liu was killed in the battle of Honghui in September 1933. Mao sent the poem to the widow Li with the following note: "I am sending you a poem describing an imaginary journey to heaven. This is different from other ancient ci in this style in that the author himself is not the traveler …" Liu was secretary general of the Provincial Peasants Association and a friend of the poet. [That word ci, which is pronounced "tsz," names a family of traditional poetic forms. This poem is written in one of those forms — see below.]
The poem is addressed to Li and also to Mao's wife Yang Kaihui, whom Mao had married in the winter of 1921. In 1930 the Guomindang general He Jian arrested Yang Kaihui and Mao's sister Mao Zehong. General He insisted that Yang Kaihui renounce her marriage to Mao. She refused and was beheaded. Mao Zehong was also executed.
proud poplar and you your willow Poplar refers to Mao's wife Yang, for the character for the name Yang also means "poplar." Willow refers to Liu Zhixun, for the character for the name Liu also means "willow." Thus for poplar and willow, we may substitute the names Yang and Liu. The character for "proud" also has an intended secondary meaning of "sensual" or "charming."
Wu Gang According to an old legend Wu Gang committed some crimes while seeking immortality. His punishment was to go to the moon and cut down the cassia tree. The tree was five thousand feet in height and before each new blow of the ax it would grow whole again. Thus he had to go on felling it forever. It is a Sisyphean labor.
wine from the cassia tree Wine made from the flowers of the cassia tree is wine of the gods or the immortals. In going to the moon Yang and Liu have become gods or immortals.
The lonely lady of the moon, Chang E According to tradition the beautiful lady Chang E in the Xia period (2205-1766 b.c.) stole the elixir of immortality from the Western Mother Goddess. She fled to the moon to become its goddess. But she is lonely in her realm. As the Tang poet Li Shangyin (a.d. 813-58) wrote: "each night she longs for green seas and blue skies." However, she greets the new souls from the earth, Yang and Liu, and entertains them.
tiger's defeat The tiger is probably Jiang Jieshi. [Which is to say, Chiang Kai-shek.]
tears Tears of joy.
upturned bowl of rain The character usually translated as torrential or heavy rain mean literally an upturned bowl of rain. This meaning follows the Chinese image.
form After the Song [Song, also spelt Sung, is the name of a medieval dynasty.] ci [See above.] Die Lian Hua, meaning "Butterflies Courting Flowers." The ci is based, however, on an earlier Tang song, Chiao Ta Chih, [Barnstone has slipped into the older method of transcription here, I have no idea why. To be consistent he should have written Qiao Ta Zhi.] meaning "Magpie Perching on a Branch." In reference to Mao's statement that in his poem he does not accompany the god or immortals, he is referring to a kind of poem begun by Qu Yuan (340-278 b.c.), often called the father of Chinese poetry, who in his poem "Far Wanderings" accompanies the immortals.
• Play the reading
The poem in Chinese.
The poem in pinyin transcription.
Wo shi jiao yang jun shi liu
Yang liu qing yang zhi shang chong xiao jiu
Wen xun Wu Gang he suo you
Wu Gang peng chu gui hua jiu
Ji mo Chang E shu guang xiu
Wan li chang kong qie wei zhong hun wu
Hu bao ren jian ceng fu hu
Lei fei dun zuo qing pen yu
The poem in a perfectly literal translation.
I lose proud poplar you lose willow
Poplar willow lightly soar straight up layer heaven nine
Ask query Wu Gang what that-which there-is
Wu Gang offer-with-both-hands out cassia flower wine
Lonely silent Chang E spread wide sleeve
Ten-thousand mile long void then for loyal soul dance
Sudden report human domain already submit tiger
Tears fly pause make overturned bowl rain
The poem in Barnstone's translation.
I lost my proud poplar and you your willow.
As poplar and willow they soar straight up
into the ninth heaven
and ask the prisoner of the moon, Wu Gang, what is there.
He offers them wine from the cassia tree.
The lonely lady on the moon, Chang E,
spreads her vast sleeves
and dances for these good souls in the unending sky.
Down on earth a sudden report of the tiger's defeat.
Tears fly down from a great upturned bowl of rain.