For Truly Great Men, Look to This Age Alone

Watching China Watching (XII)

Imperial metaphors are frequently used both in reporting on and studying modern China. Since his rise to power in 2012, Xi Jinping has been described variously as ‘a new emperor’ or ‘red emperor’. The lineage of China’s metaphorical modern emperors, however, goes back to the founding of the People’s Republic itself. In understanding contemporary China — as we noted in I’m So Ronree — Watching China Watching (XI) — imperial metaphors although alluring can occlude as much as they reveal. They can be a lazy convenience used in place of complex, more painstaking analysis of the kind described in Watching China Watching (I) and (II).

The essay ‘For Truly Great Men, Look to this Age Alone’, discusses and attempts to answer the question: Was Mao Zedong a new emperor?

Old for New

Regardless of arguments about how ‘new’ the New China may or may not be or, recently, that Xi Jinping’s vaunted New Epoch 新時期 lays claim to being some unique historical moment, the Chinese party-state has itself frequently manipulated imperial metaphors as part of its decades-long propaganda push to Make China Great Again. This has been particularly evident from the 1990s. Since then the Party has made an uncomfortable peace with the Manchu-Qing dynasty (1644-1912), an era long excoriated for China’s ‘century of humiliation’. Empire redux has been an even more notable feature of the Chinese propaganda landscape in the new millennium.

As I noted in the introduction to The Forbidden City:

Thirty-five years after the fall of the Qing dynasty, at the time of the creation of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong and his comrades … chose to locate their Communist government in the former imperial enclave of the Lake Palaces [Zhongnan Hai 中南海]. This only reinforced the impression, however, that, while rulers may come and go, the system as well as the habits of Chinese autocracy stay the same. As Franz Kafka put it, ‘the empire is immortal’. As much as Mao and his fellow revolutionaries might rail against the habits of the feudal past, their language, literary references and political infighting were carried out in its shadow. The palace, a metaphor for Old China, persisted as a metaphor for New China. …

Throughout their rule, Mao and his supporters would use the symbols and language of the dynastic past and convert them into elements of their own political performances and vocabulary. They employed tradition when it suited them and repudiated it when the need arose. … The Forbidden City and the China that it represented … retained a power that was not so easily dispelled. While its buildings were subject to decay and change, the China of secretive politics, rigid political codes and autocratic behaviour continued to exert an influence far beyond the walls of the former palace.

— The Forbidden City, Cambridge,
Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008,
pp.xiv-xv & 2

The Lake Palaces, centre of the Chinese party-state government, Beijing

Mao, the chief inhabitant of the Lake Palaces from 1949 until his demise in 1976, both used and was ensnared by imperial legacies. This was something that even an insightful twenty-four year-old could see: in a diary entry dated 29 July 1966, Yu Luoke 遇羅克 observed that the Cultural Revolution was a ‘palace coup’ 宮廷政變 that had created widespread chaos that had noting to do either with culture or class differences 總之,這跟文化毫無關係,也跟階級毫無關係.

Revived Fortunes

Reverberating through the red noise of New China Newspeak is a threnody of imperial metaphor. It evolved from the emotive aspirations for national (or race) revival that featured in anti-Manchu revolutionary movements from the nineteenth century. It was no coincidence that upon the founding of the Chinese Republic in 1912, the revolutionary turned president Sun Yat-sen visited the tomb of Zhu Yuanzhang, the founding emperor of the Ming dynasty in 1368 and read a proclamation addressed to the long-dead ruler announcing that the foreign yoke of the Manchus had been cast off and that ‘the light shines once more’ 光復 (see Light Returns, China Heritage Annual 2017: Nanking).

In post-Mao China, dynastic terminology became more overt. In 1999, Jiang Zemin, the Communist Party General Secretary and President of China from 1989 to 2003, used the relatively arcane term zhong xing 中興 (‘restoration’) in a poem composed to celebrate the country’s two congresses that spring. To some observers he was pointedly referring to the concept behind zhongxing — that is the restitution of political strength after a period of chaos and decline. The last time China’s rulers had declared that their fortunes were undergoing a zhongxing-revival was during the Tongzhi Restoration 同治中興 dated from 1861. (See China’s Flat Earth: History and 8 August 2008).

A few years later, in 2003, another hoary term was invested with new metaphorical power. The expression jiangshan 江山 (also heshan 河山), literally ‘Rivers and Mountains’ has particular political connotations. In traditional terms it means the political territory of an empire or kingdom, incorporating its landscape — its ‘rivers’ and ‘mountains’. It is different from the culturally inflected expression ‘mountains and waters’, shanshui 山水, the landscape of poetry and painting. Previously, jiangshan was recast as an enduring political expression by Mao Zedong when he used it in his most famous poem, ‘Snow’ in the 1930s in which he exclaims ‘This land so rich in beauty’ 江山如此多嬌 (see below).

‘Restore Our Territory’ 還我河山, an expression made famous by the Song dynasty general Yue Fei 岳飛

At around the same time the controversial pro-democracy TV series Towards a Republic 走向共和 screened in 2003, another multipart production preached the virtues of one-party rule. Rivers and Mountains 江山 produced by China Central Television was set in the crucial period years 1949-1950, when the Communists first came to power following victory in the civil war. The theme song of the show was sung by an army artiste, Peng Liyuan 彭丽媛 who happened to be married to an upcoming Party leader by the name of Xi Jinping. The song, the singer, and its context, were controversial enough within the Chinese critical world since, given Xi Jinping’s background, and political trajectory, Peng’s performances had an air of the presumptive (see, for example, Peng’s 1 August 2007 rendition of the song):

Conquering All-Under-Heaven
Ruling the Rivers and Mountains
Wholeheartedly for
The Weal of the Common People


In 2005, the Central Chinese TV Spring Festival Gala 春節聯歡晚會 — the most popular television event in the calendar and an annual moment of celebratory national unity — featured a dance performance titled ‘Grand Celebration of the Prosperous Age’ 盛世大聯歡. It was a significant moment for cognoscenti of Chinese history for the term ‘Prosperous Age’ 盛世 has particular, imperial connotations. As the People’s Republic prepared for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the official media openly extolled the country’s new ‘Harmonious Prosperous Age’ 和諧盛世, a ‘golden age’ of a kind unknown since the glory days of the Qianlong reign period of the mid eighteenth century. (See China’s Prosperous Age 盛世, an issue of China Heritage Quarterly devoted to the subject.)

History Incarnate

Shortly after assuming power, Xi Jinping availed himself of an imperial allusion. During his first Tour of the South in December 2012, the just-appointed General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party is said to have referred to the reasons behind the collapse of the Soviet Union. In doing so he supposedly quoted a famous line of poetry from the dynastic past: ‘No real man among their number’ 更無一個是男兒. It comes from a verse attributed to Madam Flower Bud 花蕊, a concubine of Meng Chang 後主孟昶, ruler of the kingdom of Later Shu 後蜀. The poem reads in full:

Flags of surrender on the ramparts/ Deep in the palace how can I know:/ 140,000 lay down their arms,/ No real man among their number. 君王城上竪降旗,妾在深宮哪得知;十四萬人齊解甲,更無一個是男兒.

At the same time, Xi’s alacrity in denouncing egregious official behaviour and corruption recalled Zhu Yuanzhang who, upon establishing the Ming dynastic capital in Nanking reined in official waste by, among other measures, restricting banquets to four dishes and soup 四菜一湯. On 29 December 2012, during a visit of condolence to an impoverished community, Xi made a point of ordering only four dishes and soup be served at the banquet put on for him. Thereafter, Party cadres were enjoined to follow the leader’s austere example.

Xi Jinping is only the latest in a long line of imperial pretenders whose hands are on the levers of power in what is, as Simon Leys observed, a gang-like state (see Peking Duck Soup). Like Mao, Xi is both master of and servant to empowering and stifling traditions. Whether he is described as an emperor or a CEO, we argue that as the head of China’s party-state-army Xi has not only become the Chairman-of-Everything and Chairman-for-Life but, since the Nineteenth Party Congress of October 2017, he is also Chairman of Everyone 黨政軍民學 and Chairman of Everywhere 東南西北中. With Wealth and Power backing up such titular immodesty, comparisons of Chairman Xi with Mao Zedong, or even with traditional emperors like Qianlong — he went so far as to fashion himself as a chakravartin चक्रवर्तिन्, a universal, ‘wheel-turning ruler’ — may prove to be inadequate.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
27 January 2018

Related Material:


to the tune of Spring in Qin Garden

沁園春 · 雪

Mao Zedong

Mao’s poem ‘Snow — to the tune of Spring in Qin Garden’. Officially dated February 1936

North country scene:
A hundred leagues locked in ice,
A thousand leagues of whirling snow.
Both sides of the Great Wall
One single white immensity.
The Yellow River’s swift current
Is stilled from end to end.
The mountains dance like silver snakes
And the highlands charge like wax-hued elephants,
Vying with heaven in stature.
On a fine day, the land,
Clad in white, adorned in red,
Grows more enchanting.

This land so rich in beauty
Has made countless heroes bow in homage.
But alas! Qin Shihuang and Han Wudi
Were lacking in literary grace,
And Tang Taizong and Song Taizu
Had little poetry in their souls;
And Genghis Khan,
Proud Son of Heaven for a day,
Knew only shooting eagles, bow outstretched
All are past and gone!
For truly great men
Look to this age alone.




See 1959: This Land So Rich in Beauty,
China Heritage Annual 2017: Nanking

Mao’s poem ‘Snow’, although dated 1936, was not published until late 1945. Despite the Chairman’s later claims the last lines referred to ‘the broad masses of the proletariat’, at the time commentators had no doubt that ‘truly great men’ was a reference to Mao and Mao alone. ‘Here was the peasant boy,’ the Shanghai writer Li Jie observed in the 1989, ‘listing all of the major father figures in Chinese history, leaving the last and most glorious position, however, for himself.’

The poem exudes the bravado that Mao’s opponents have excoriated for decades; nonetheless, it reflects too the kind of self-assertiveness and egomania that continue to beguile those for whom Mao Zedong represents the abiding genius or eidolon of China.

— from Geremie R. Barmé, Shades of Mao:
The Posthumous Cult of the Great Leader,
New York, 1996, p.4

This Land So Rich in Beauty, by Fu Baoshi and Guan Shanyue, a painting commissioned for the Great Hall of the People, Beijing, 1959


For Truly Great Men, Look to This Age Alone

— was Mao Zedong a New Emperor?

Geremie R. Barmé*


In 1980, the political scientist Yan Jiaqi offered a critique of what he called the ‘disguised monarchism’ of twentieth-century China. He was writing during a unique period of re-evaluation following the death of Mao Zedong in September 1976 and the formal end of the Cultural Revolution era (c.1964-78).[1]

What Yan meant by ‘disguised monarchism’ was the persistence in twentieth-century China of a politics that saw ‘the concentration of supreme power in the hands of one person and his secretive courtiers, for life’. Yan argued that, despite the notional end of two millennia of dynastic rule when the last emperor abdicated the throne in 1911, monarchism survived as a style of rule. In practice, it included such features as ‘the deification of the ruler; the periodic slaughter of meritorious ministers below the ruler, whose jealousy of such ministers was preordained; incessant struggles among court factions; and the occasional usurpations of power by eunuchs or by the ruler’s relatives, including relatives of his mother or wives.’[2] For Yan, among many others in the late 1970s and early 1980s, these were all characteristics of Mao Zedong’s last two decades in power.

Sun Yat-sen surrounded by post-imperial paraphernalia at Xiaoling
Sun Yat-sen in 1912 flanked by the flags of the nascent Republic of China at Xiaoling 孝陵, tomb of Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of the Ming dynasty.

In an important study of the lingering traditions of, and hankerings for, the imperial in China, the historian Alexander Woodside pointed out that, apart from ‘change-resistant links to the old emperorship’ (that is, real ‘remnants of feudalism’), there have been ‘other phenomena related to the inability of post-1911 Chinese governments to create widespread respect for new institutions quickly enough; their need to legitimise themselves at various levels of the popular consciousness; and their consequent deliberate tactical exploitation of what they imagine to be traditional values’.[3]

The Air of a King, the Wiles of Monkey[4]

The late 1970s and early 80s was a period during which the Chinese Communist Party was struggling with the legacy of its recently deceased leader, Mao Zedong. In 1981, it would approve an official evaluation of the Chairman and his controversial role in the first decades of the People’s Republic. It was also a time when public opinion found expression in samizdat publications, wall posters, art and various forms of literature. Academics employing a veiled language spoke of ‘feudal despotism’ and persistent historical traits.[5] Although many of the countervailing views of Mao would eventually be outlawed, or at least fall into abeyance, the career, impact and heritage of the Chairman continue to be debated. Over the years, a sanitised corpus of Mao Thought, now interpreted as the crystallisation of the party’s collective wisdom, would be used both by the Communist Party itself and by various of its opponents as a source of self-justification, and for the purposes of self-preservation.[6]

Mao Zedong—political leader, strategist, thinker, ‘demagogue-oracle’, writer, poet, the symbol of national revival, rebellion and revolution—retains an appeal for many, just as his leadership during the first decades of the People’s Republic continues to elicit heated discussion. The present short study revisits some well-known material. It also attempts to offer its own perspective on some issues related to Mao’s contested legacy. To do so, I address the question of whether Mao Zedong was a new emperor. In many writings about Mao and his era—in Chinese as well as in English—it is assumed that the answer is in the affirmative.

In a review-essay of the best-selling 2005 biography Mao, the Unknown Story by Chang Jung and Jon Halliday, I remarked:

Not only do Chang-Halliday bruise the protocols of serious history writing and reinforce, albeit unintentionally, a callousness in regard to the nature and ongoing problems of China’s situation, but they also employ a language that all too readily evokes the image of oriental obliquity. Mao’s colleagues are spoken of as a court, the Chinese people are his subjects (pp. 337, 500);[7] the mayor of Shanghai, Ke Qingshi, is “a favourite retainer” (p. 515); PLA Unit 8341 charged with the security of Zhongnan Hai is dubbed “the Praetorian Guard” (p. 274ff). Wang Dongxing is the leader’s “trusted chamberlain” (p. 532), and Zhou Enlai his “slave” (pp. 271-72). Even when Mao employs the pronoun of faux Party collectivity, the authors claim that, as usual, he is using the “royal we” (p. 589).[8]

In China itself casting the party leader as a new emperor is nothing new. As we will see, it was a common political tactic employed both by Mao and by his opponents from the 1940s. To define him, or indeed his successors, as ‘new emperors’, however, is not simply, or merely, an act of careless essentialism that promotes a belief in an unchanging Chinese essence that pre-determines political or cultural behaviour. As I observed in my review of Mao, the Unknown Story, in the case of the Chairman it also generates ‘a metaphorical schema that places Mao firmly at some quaint, incomprehensible oriental remove, reducing a complex history to one of personal fiat and imperial hauteur’. This, in turn, aids and abets a distorting cultural determinism, be it in the context of Sinophone discourse, or more broadly in the international realm. Similarly, we are ill-served by attempts to ignore or exaggerate the persistent elements of dynastic heritage when considering Mao. It is important to consider the extent to which framing Mao and his achievement predominantly in terms of imperial politics and history—as did Yan Jiaqi in 1980—obscures the complex relationship between tradition and modernity. Just as crucially, we should ask whether limiting Mao to the role of a non-dynastic founding emperor undermines our ability to appreciate the abiding attraction of him as a thinker and political leader.

Simon Leys, a prescient commentator on the Cultural Revolution era, remarked on Mao and his cult that:

More than two thousand years of imperial tradition have created in the collective consciousness the constant need for a unique, supreme, quasi-mystical head; the shaky and brief republican interlude did not succeed in providing any convincing substitute for this, and Mao knew shrewdly how to manipulate this traditional legacy to his own advantage.[9]

In considering this paradox, we enter into the very quandary faced at every turn by thinking Chinese people, and by students of the Sinophone world: where does the dynastic/ imperial/ imperious end, and the modern/ civil and individual begin? Indeed, how do they overlap and relate to one another? As I have remarked elsewhere, ‘As much as Mao and his fellow revolutionaries might rail against the habits of the feudal past, their language, literary references and political infighting were carried out in its shadow… . Throughout their rule, Mao and his supporters would use the symbols and language of the dynastic past and convert them into elements of their own political performances and vocabulary. They employed tradition when it suited them and repudiated it when the need arose.’[10]

The heritage of the dynastic past is never simple or unproblematic. It enthrals and constrains just as it enlivens. This essay offers a review of the ways in which Mao invoked the image of the emperor, or dynastic politics, in his writings, as well as for specific political purposes in speeches, asides and comments. It also touches on the fact that Mao’s colleagues, as well has his opponents (sometimes they were one and the same), drew on the tradition in their engagement with as well as in their resistance to the Chairman. It considers, too, the elements of the imperial tradition that we can identify as being particular to an emperor, and how their evocation also enmeshes those who employ them. In the context of history and its tensions, I will attempt to delineate those things that are ‘imperial’, that belong to the heritage of autocracy, and those which militate against it. In this we will touch on some of the ambiguities that lie at the heart of modern Chinese history, ambiguities that concern the relationships between dynastic rule and modern political behaviour, as well as between the imperial cultural order and the symbolism of the evolving modern state.

Mao in his study/ office at Juxiang Shuwu, a courtyard in Fengze Yuan 豐澤園, part of the imperial pleasure gardens at the Lake Palaces next to the Forbidden City

Mao’s repeated use of historical allusions makes it easy to frame many of his views, and actions, in the context of the imperial tradition, or in terms of a ‘persistent monarchism’.[11] The Communist Party itself, in its evolution both in opposition and as a ruling power, also reinforced elements of traditional statecraft. However, it should be evident that by laying too much emphasis on the weight of tradition and presumed cultural inertia the revolutionary character of much that Mao and his cohort pursued is too easily overlooked, or discounted.[12] As a result, both the history of his times, and the behaviour of his successors become perhaps harder, not easier, to understand.

This discussion presupposes another fundamental question: what was an emperor as understood in the context of Chinese dynastic practice? Like the subject at hand, this too is a complex topic, and one that can only be covered in the most cursory fashion here. An emperor was the head of a lineage to which the Mandate of Heaven (tianming 天命) passed in what was thought of as a numinous or predestined fashion. The Mandate sanctioned the rule of an imperial house whose head, the emperor (referred to as the Son of Heaven, or tianzi 天子), would act as the intermediary between Heaven and Earth, a semi-divine yet human instrument for the terrestrial realisation of the moral order of heaven. He would rule over All Under Heaven (tianxia 天下), the geo-cultural realm in which he and his ministers held sway, and one which over time could transform the uncivilised or barbaric peoples beyond it. Through ritual observance he, or those acting on his behalf, would modulate the ways in which the dao 道 or Way of Heaven would find expression through virtuous government. Through the observance of li 禮, the codes of ritual behaviour, the emperor was also at the pinnacle of social relationships, an encompassing framework of formal behaviour and etiquette that ordered all social strata.

As a cultivated individual 君子, and as well as being a moral and a cultural exemplar, an emperor would theoretically hold sway over the civilising aspects of the society. He would be succeeded by a son or, in some cases, a brother. A crown prince—a chosen successor, often but not always the eldest son—might be named while the emperor was still alive. An emperor’s formal injunctions were treated as ‘sacred edicts’ 聖旨, and were regarded as inviolable. Imperial instructions and decisions often invoked historical precedent and the study of the past provided a guide, or at least a cloak, for present political action.

The founding emperor of a new dynasty—a particular type of ruler as understood both historically and in popular culture—would often exhibit a number of other traits. Such a founder in particular tended to act as an absolute monarch who would brook little interference. With the general run of emperors, however, a camarilla of advisers, courtiers, empresses, concubines, as well as eunuchs, who were not constrained by formal dynastic statecraft, could exercise considerable influence. Thus, members of the imperial seraglio or harem could and did become involved in politics and there are notorious cases of their unbridled exercise of power, or intimate involvement in court politics. The Mandate of Heaven was made manifest when the emperor, or his court, ruled well and the empire flourished. Natural disasters, uprisings, unusual astronomical phenomena would, however, be interpreted as signs of Heaven’s displeasure, or of a decline in the Way. This would open up the possibility that the Mandate should justifiably pass into the capable hands of one who, through his personal virtue (and, by extension, righteous might), was deemed more fit to hold sway over All Under Heaven. More often than not, a victorious ruler would justify his rise to power by divining post facto signs that the Mandate had passed into his hands.

Poetic Fancy

Speculation about Mao Zedong’s imperial ambitions found public expression as early as 1945, during a crucial turning point in the unsteady history of the Republic of China. As the country faced the prospect of peace after the long years of war with Japan, there were renewed attempts to form a coalition government between the antagonistic forces of the Communists, led by Mao, and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists, whose wartime government was based in the Sichuan city of Chongqing. To this end, in August 1945 Mao travelled from his wartime base at Yan’an in the loess hills of Shaanxi province in the country’s northwest, to meet with Chiang.

Shortly after that trip, and its fruitless negotiations, a ci-lyric poem from Mao’s hand was published in the Chongqing press. The poem, ‘Snow, to the Tune of Spring in Qinyuan’, was dated February 1936. This was shortly after the Red Army had reached Yan’an following the Long March that had seen the Communists break through the deadly encirclement campaigns launched by Chiang in an attempt to obliterate the bumpkin rebels under their ‘peasant emperor’ 土皇帝.

The second stanza of the poem read:

This land so rich in beauty
Has made countless heroes bow in homage.
But alas! Qin Shihuang and Han Wud
Lacked literary grace;
The founding emperors of the Tang and Song
Had little poetry in their souls;
And Genghis Khan,
Proud Son of Heaven for a day,
Could only shoot eagles, bow outstretched.
All are past and gone!
For truly great men
Look to this age alone.[13]


In the poem Mao ostensibly rejected the emperors of tradition and extolled in their place the ‘true heroes’ of history, the people of modern China, or at least their progressive vanguard, the Communist Party and its military arm.[14] Following its appearance, the poem sparked spirited debate in Chongqing and a number of writers, including those of a more progressive, or pro-Communist bent, detected in it an unsettling message. The publisher Wang Yunsheng, for example, sent a hand-written copy of ‘Snow’ to the noted historian Fu Sinian who had himself only recently returned from a meeting with Mao in Yan’an (more of this below). ‘I’ve specifically made a copy of it…’, Wang wrote, adding, ‘so that you can see what kind of ideas fill this man’s head’.[15] Indeed, Wang was so unsettled by the poem that he published a critique and declared himself fearful that history might repeat itself. He hinted that perhaps another autocrat like Yuan Shikai (the early Republican president who declared himself emperor) might now attempt to found a new dynasty and mount the dragon throne. Wang exhorted the Chinese people: ‘Stand up for yourselves, work hard for the present, be not mired in outmoded thinking. May the little people of China advance towards democracy!’[16]

The novelist and literary historian Wu Zuxiang had only recently noted in a diary entry that the Chongqing press had published Mao’s 1942 ‘Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Art and Literature’, which emphasised the needs of the masses and the importance of collective creativity. In this poem, however, Wu divined a message that was completely at variance with this avowed policy. ‘When he says, “For truly great men/ Look to this age alone”,’ Wu remarked, ‘it appears that he regards himself as being in personal competition with hegemons like Qin Shihuang and Emperor Wu of the Han, as well as with the great rulers of the Tang and Song dynasties. In his titanic struggle with Mr Chiang [Kai-shek] he has revealed himself to be a person of inordinate pride. He declares that the “rich beauty of the land” is the reason why heroes both of today and the past struggle for domination. By so doing he claims to be one of these heroes. There’s a malodour about it all that makes me extremely uncomfortable.’[17] Not surprisingly, Chiang Kai-shek, a man hardly lacking in political afflatus himself, was also perturbed by the poem. It confirmed his view that Mao had gone to Chongqing not to engage in substantive peace negotiations, but in effect to ‘declare himself emperor’ 稱帝.[18]

In September 1945, a delegation of political and intellectual figures visited the Communist stronghold at Yan’an. From the right: Mao Zedong, Huang Yanpei 黃炎培, Chu Fucheng 褚輔成, Zhang Bojun 章伯鈞, Leng Yu 冷遹, Fu Sinian 傅斯年, Zuo Shunsheng 左舜生, Zhu De 朱德, Zhou Enlai 周恩來

Mao’s initial intentions in composing and eventually publishing the poem remain unknown. After 1949, he would assert that he only meant to praise the proletariat, the true heroes of the day.[19] But evidence involving another poem that Mao used in 1945 would suggest a somewhat more complex motivation behind the writing and publication of ‘Snow’. The August 1945 Chongqing meetings followed on from protracted negotiations with Yan’an, and only the previous month a delegation of six Republican government counsellors had visited the Communist Party base.[20]It included Fu Sinian, a noted May Fourth-era activist and a leading historian who, among other things, had been writing A Revolutionary History of the Chinese Nation.[21]

Fu was a student leader during the 4 May 1919 demonstrations,[22] and was already an established cultural figure when he first encountered Mao who was a lowly library assistant at Peking University. The Communist leader recalled with chagrin that famous men like Fu had no time for a country bumpkin like himself. When they met again in Yan’an in 1945, however, Mao did not mention this long-harboured grievance. Instead, during the course of a private conversation on 4 July, Mao praised Fu for his intellectual contributions to the anti-feudal push of the May Fourth era, which itself helped engender the creation of the Communist Party. With suitable modesty Fu responded that his generation of agitators were like the upstarts Chen Sheng and Wu Guang who had rebelled against the tyranny of the Qin dynasty (second century BCE); it was Mao and his colleagues who were the real heroes, like Liu Bang and Xiang Yu. After all, Liu Bang went on to become the founding emperor of the Han, one of the greatest dynasties in Chinese history. It was a tactful response, one that flattered the Communist leader while preserving Fu’s own sense of dignity. It was an exchange also well suited to Yan’an, which was in the heartland of the area that formed the core of the Qin empire over two millennia earlier.

As was common practice among men of letters at the time, Fu asked Mao for a piece of calligraphy as a memento of their encounter. The following day he received a hand-written copy of ‘The Pit of Burned Books’ 焚書坑 by the late-Tang poet Zhang Jie 章碣 (eighth century). In the accompanying note Mao remarked, ‘I fear you were being too self-effacing when you spoke of Chen Sheng and Wu Guang…. I’ve copied out a poem by a Tang writer to expand [on our discussion]’.[23] The poem spoke of the vain attempt by Qin Shihuang (the First Emperor of the Qin, hereafter referred to as the First Emperor) to quell opposition to his draconian rule by burning books and burying scholars. The last lines read, ‘The ashes in the pit not yet cold, rebellion rose in the east, / Liu Bang and Xiang Yu were hardly men of letters’ 坑灰未冷山東亂, 劉項原來不讀書. (In full the poem reads: 竹帛煙銷帝業虛, 關河空鎖祖龍居。坑灰未冷山東亂, 劉項原來不讀書.)

Fu Sinian Mausoleum at National Taiwan University, Taipei

It was Mao’s way of chiding a man who had been at the intellectual forefront for many years. In effect, he was saying that Fu Sinian’s rebellion against the feudal traditions of China was indeed vainglorious, moreso than the failed uprising of the peasant rebels Chen Sheng and Wu Guang against the Qin. And besides real heroes like Liu Bang and Xiang Yu were men of action and had no care for book learning—to Mao the fatal flaw of so many May Fourth era intellectual activists. Mao’s false modesty in claiming that he and his cohort were, like Liu and Xiang, unlettered rebels, also betrayed a confidence that he would lead the Communist army to victory over the existing political order. It was a theme to which he would return many times.[24] Nearly thirty years later, for example, during a conversation with the prominent Cultural Revolution-era party activists and Politburo members Zhang Chunqiao and Wang Hongwen in July 1973, Mao once more mocked the bookishness of would-be rebels and praised the guile of leaders like Liu Bang.[25]

In the exchange with Fu Sinian, coupled with the publication of Mao’s famous poem ‘Snow’ later that same year, we see both the hauteur of the Communist leader and his ambivalence in regard to traditional rulership. He evokes that tradition both through historical reference and in actual practice. By placing his cause, and that of the Chinese people, in the context of dynastic-era peasant uprisings, Mao Zedong expressly, and repeatedly, identified with a history of rebellion. He declared that this latest uprising, led by a proletarian vanguard and directed by visionary revolutionary leaders with a modern anti-feudal political philosophy, would break the dynastic cycle forever (the persistent dangers of the ‘cyclical law’ of autocracy were famously discussed by the educationalist Huang Yanpei during his own meeting with Mao in Yan’an) and found a new government that would outshine in achievement all the greatness of the past. It was this same ambivalence—a claim both for legitimacy in traditional terms and a self-identification with the role of rebel outsider at war with the past—that would be evident a few years later when the Communist forces marched on the old imperial capital of Beiping.

A Metaphorical Emperor

In 1948, as the civil war between the Communists and Nationalists that broke out following the withdrawal of the defeated Japanese neared a dramatic conclusion, Mao and his colleagues prepared to set up their capital in the former majestic imperial city of Beijing, which had reverted to its early Ming name of Beiping in 1928. The Communist leader, based at Xibaipo in Hebei, not far from the old capital [a ‘red tourist site’ that Xi Jinping visited in December 2012 upon becoming party chairman — Ed.], famously admonished his followers not to repeat the mistakes of Li Zicheng and his peasant army—dismissed as ‘wandering bandits’ 流寇, as were Mao’s own forces some three hundred years later. Li had victoriously entered Beijing in 1644 after defeating the Ming army, but was soon forced to flee following a period of disastrous misrule. At the same time, Mao employed another kind of historical analogy to alert his comrades to the mammoth task that, despite their hard-won victory resulting from an extraordinary era of guerrilla warfare, now confronted them.

Sculpture of Mao and his comrades at the reconstructed Xibaipo 西柏坡, Hebei province, on their way ‘to take the test’

Referring to the long-defunct triennial imperial examinations which had been used to select the most capable men to rule the empire, on the eve of victory Mao said that, ‘Today we’re heading into the capital to take the big test 趕考, no wonder everyone is nervous.’ He added, ‘If anyone has to retreat it means we’ve all failed. Under no circumstances can we be like Li Zicheng. All of us have to make the grade’.[26] Here Mao used two mutually conflicting tropes to discuss the party and its army: on the one hand, they were candidates taking part in an orderly examination to prove their fitness to rule the empire within the context of the traditional world order. On the other hand, Mao encouraged his colleagues to identify with a peasant-led rebellion that overturned the last Han-Chinese imperial dynasty, the Ming. The tensions of this double-edged schema would be a feature (although hardly the only one) of Mao’s direction of the party in the first decades of the People’s Republic.

Years later, when evaluating his achievement, Mao would reiterate that he had accomplished two things in his political career. One was to have forced Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists to retreat to Taiwan and to have ‘fought our way to Beijing, at last entering the Forbidden City’ (although it is noteworthy that despite taking up residence in the Lake Palaces, Zhongnan Hai 中南海, after 1949 Mao never entered the Forbidden City proper). The other, far less acclaimed achievement, was to have launched the Cultural Revolution.[27] Although the Nationalists would continue to claim legitimacy as the rulers of China and inheritors of a national enterprise that recalled the Ming dynasty, in other respects harking back to the Ming and a revival of the fortunes of the Han-Chinese would also be a prominent feature of the early years of the People’s Republic. During that time it was also easy to detect in Mao’s political persona, and even some of his less-than-revolutionary actions, the shadow of the first Ming ruler, Zhu Yuanzhang. As Simon Leys remarks:

The fact is, the founder of the Ming dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang, shared a remarkable number of significant features with the founder of the People’s Republic. Zhu was an adventurer, from peasant stock, poorly educated, a man of action, a bold and shrewd tactician, a visionary mind, in many respects a creative genius; naturally coarse, cynical, and ruthless, he eventually showed symptoms of paranoia bordering on psychopathy.[28]

Mao Zedong at the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum, Nanking. 1953. He also visited the nearby tomb of the founder of the Ming dynasty

It was not long after ‘entering the Forbidden City’ that Mao visited Ming Xiaoling, the tomb of the first Ming ruler outside Nanjing. It was here that, in 1912, Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of the Republic of China, had read a eulogy reporting to the long-dead imperial ruler that China had rid itself of the foreign yoke of the Manchu-Qing oppressors and that the country was ruled again by Han-Chinese. Visiting the tomb after a trip to the Zijinshan Observatory in February 1953, Mao remarked that although Zhu Yuanzhang started out life as a cowherd he was ‘by no means a fool and had a very insightful strategist’ to advise him. He went on to say that Zhu had developed effective policies against the foreign Yuan dynasty led by the Mongols. It was a strategy summed up in the words ‘store up grain reserves, build city walls and, in due season, claim the throne’ 廣積糧, 高築牆, 緩稱王. The policy gained Zhu wide-based popular support among the disaffected masses and, Mao claimed, it was this that ‘eventually allowed him to win All Under Heaven’. Some two decades later, during the Cultural Revolution, Mao would recast Zhu’s winning strategy as part of his own Three Worlds international policy; in their opposition to the two superpowers, the US and the Soviet Union, he called on the people of China to ‘dig deep [air-raid] shelters, store up grain reserves and not to claim [global] hegemony’ 深挖洞, 廣積糧, 不稱霸.[29]

More immediately, although the new state made the old Ming and Qing imperial city of Beijing its capital, in other ways the legacy of the past came under attack. Plans were soon advanced for the demolition of the Ming-era walls of a city that was the centre of imperial power in China from the time of the third Ming ruler, Yongle (r.1403-25), until the end of the Qing dynasty some five centuries later. The remaking of Beijing was a central feature of the physical re-alignment of the former centre of dynastic power, and it was a process that reflected both imperial-scale symbolism and radical iconoclasm.[30] Simon Leys would later remark on the destruction of imperial Beijing and other vainglorious assaults on what was blithely dubbed ‘feudalism’ during the first decades of the new nation. His observations bear some relevance to the present discussion:

The extent of their depredations gives Maoists the cheap illusion that they have done a great deal; they persuade themselves that they can rid themselves of the past by attacking its material manifestations; but in fact they remain its slaves, bound the more tightly because they refuse to realise the effect of the old traditions within their revolution.[31]

It was in the more ineffable area of behaviour and rulership that both the iconoclasm of revolution and the lure of the old came into play. Mao’s (and indeed the Communist Party’s) own ambivalent relationship with tradition (be it real, imagined or invented) increasingly played itself out in pronouncements and decisions made within the context of the changing terrain of state socialism. The one-party state was, however, caught on the horns of a dilemma. Its avowedly radical revolutionary enterprise was carried out under the tutelage of the late-Stalinist Soviet Union, while at the same time attempting to give form to China’s national aspirations. One noted critic would sum up the confluence of these forces in a powerful and succinct expression.

Chu Anping (d.1966) was a liberal journalist and editor pressed into the service of the party. Encouraged to participate in the Hundred Flowers campaign of 1956, ostensibly launched to elicit the help of outsiders to help the party to improve its rule, after much prodding Chu reluctantly wrote a speech addressed at both Mao and the Premier, Zhou Enlai. In it he spoke about what he dubbed the ‘Party Empire’ 黨天下.[32] Chu’s neologism encapsulated the powerful commingling of China’s imperial tradition, and its notion that the whole nation was the property of the court, with the ethos of a modern totalitarian political party that had insinuated itself into every corner of what was a modernising and aspirational society. The result was not just that Mao behaved like a would-be emperor; the Communist Party itself became the mechanism for an imperial-scale domination of China’s present, as well as of its past. Chu warned that this state of affairs would have dire consequences for the wellbeing and development of the nation.

Mao’s abrupt volte-face during the Hundred Flowers period and the purge of critics during the subsequent Anti-Rightist Movement in 1957 mark for many the Chairman’s own autocratic transformation. Mao and his cohort had long employed aspects of the imperial tradition in their creation of a new state, and in the careful management of the Chairman’s public image. But Mao’s ultimate ascent to ‘imperial hauteur’ was to follow soon thereafter. In 1958, the party launched the Great Leap Forward, a mass movement aimed at hastening the country’s realisation of socialism and its advance towards an ideal communist society. One could argue that this was a period in which, more than before, Mao Zedong became a ‘metaphorical emperor’. Ironically, this happened during a period when party policy itself declared that ‘man could conquer nature’ 人定勝天, a voluntarist proposition that was in stark contrast to the imperial ethos, according to which human activity must accord with the ways of nature.

Much has been written about Mao’s own realisation that the precipitous Great Leap push towards utopia was faltering and causing great suffering. Some believe that he was considering curtailing the excesses of the movement when he was petitioned by an old comrade, the Minister of Defence Peng Dehuai, at the July 1959 Lushan Conference. Peng’s formal submission to Mao called for a rethinking of the Great Leap in light of the devastation the policies had already visited on the nation. This document is usually spoken of as being a ‘petition to the throne’ 上書. In the event, Mao was outraged by Peng’s temerity and deeply suspicious that it was a ruse that disguised an insidious plot against him and party policy. He turned on Peng and his associates. Resorting once more to words that recalled the language of peasant rebellion, the Chairman declared that if the clash at Lushan led to nationwide divisions he ‘would go to the countryside to lead the peasants to overthrow the government’.[33] In couching his response to Peng in such terms Mao expressed a view that despite his paramount position he felt himself somehow to be still an outsider, a rebel set against the status quo. The subsequent purge of what was dubbed ‘rightist deviation’ is regarded as a turning point in the party’s generally collective-style leadership that had featured since the Yan’an days of the 1930s and 40s.

Despite what would be seen as increasingly erratic behaviour, and the imminent danger for those who dared disagree, Mao still encouraged colleagues to speak out and criticise errors in the party’s work. In other speeches during the Great Leap period, for example, the Chairman availed himself of traditional literature and dynastic history when making his point. Quoting the scheming Wang Xifeng from the famous eighteenth-century novel The Dream of the Red Chamber 紅樓夢, he would repeatedly use the line ‘dare to drag the emperor off his horse even if it means you’ll suffer a death of a thousand cuts’ 捨得一身剮, 敢把皇帝拉下馬 to extol what he called ‘the dauntless spirit needed in our struggle to build socialism and communism’.[34] His other historical exemplar was an outspoken critic of the Ming-dynasty Jiajing Emperor (r.1522-66), an official by the name of Hai Rui.

An Apotheosis

During this time, Deng Tuo (1912-66), a leading party intellectual, was exemplary of the relationship between the loyal party man and the increasingly quixotic leader. Just as Mao employed historical anecdote and oblique literary allusions to communicate many of his opinions, a small coterie of well-connected writers like Deng began to express their frustrations, and sense of duty as engaged loyal party men of letters, by using the cloaked language of tradition. In the ideological and policy struggles of the late 1950s, Deng soon found himself sidelined.

Interior of the Donglin Academy in Wuxi, destroyed in 1625 and totally rebuilt in 2002

In a poem published in 1960, Deng Tuo praised the Donglin Academy (also known as the Guishan Academy), a centre of learning in Wuxi the site of which he had once visited. During the early seventeenth century, scholars at the Donglin Academy openly expressed their opposition to the corrupt rule of the court in Beijing, reserving their particular ire for the notorious ‘eunuch dictator’ Wei Zhongxian who held sway during the Tianqi reign (1621-27). Deng’s poem recalled those scholars, and invoked the tradition of loyal opposition:

Donglin’s teachings inherit those of Guishan
Forever concerned with human affairs.
Think not that men of letters are vacuous
The blood stains mark where their heads fall.[35]


In the cultural topography of that period, historical incident, and precedent, provided crucial lieux de memoire for engaged activists, writers, thinkers, as well as revolutionary leaders. Recalling or writing about the Ming dynasty had been a feature of Han-Chinese oppositionist culture during the Qing era (1644-1911), as well as in the revolutionary culture of the Republican era. The use of ‘the past to satirise the present’ 借古諷今 that unfolded in the early 1960s has been depicted as a ‘turn inward’, one that also opened up a narrow avenue for possible critique to writers like Deng Tuo.[36] At the time, the party intelligentsia might have wished to castigate ‘the emperor’, but they stopped short of calling the system itself into question. Just as the post-Cultural Revolution evaluation of the Chairman critiqued Mao’s autocratic behaviour and partially absolved the party of responsibility, in the early 1960s critics of the leader’s increasingly tyrannical behaviour would shy away from drawing out the implications for one-party rule.

Mao Zedong’s own shifting attitude to history during these years was evident in his initial praise for the daring critical spirit of the Ming minister Hai Rui mentioned in the above. Only a few years later it was followed by his rejection of that same minister for his having upbraided the emperor of the day, Jiajing. One of Deng Tuo’s colleagues, Wu Han, a Ming historian and vice-mayor of Beijing, had initially been encouraged by Mao to write about the daring of the ‘Hai Rui spirit’. He did so in essays and in two plays one of which, Hai Rui is Dismissed from Office, was eventually denounced, as were the poems and essays of Deng Tuo, as part of the pretext for the launching of the Cultural Revolution. Just as Mao’s evaluation of the First Emperor varied depending on the exigencies of the moment (see below), so too did the reputation of Hai Rui fluctuate.

In 1965, Mao was behind the claims that Wu Han was part of a covert anti-party clique within the central leadership, supporting accusations that Wu’s praise for Hai Rui was a coded appeal for the rehabilitation of the ousted Defence Minister Peng Dehuai, a rejection of the Great Leap Forward and, more generally, of the socialist line. By means of this political sleight of hand, Mao declared that if Peng Dehuai was Hai Rui, then the man who had denounced him—Mao himself—was none other than the capricious Jiajing emperor.[37] As the political struggle of 1965-66 unfolded through this series of historical feints, one prescient, young non-party writer by the name of Yu Luoke was quick to describe the Cultural Revolution as neither cultural nor revolutionary in nature. He rejected the party media’s version of events, one that spoke of intense class struggle, a titanic battle between two opposing political lines and the supposedly frenzied attempts by the long-defeated bourgeoisie to regain lost power through dupes in the party bureaucracy. In a diary entry written on 29 July 1966, Yu described the purge involving Deng Tuo, Wu Han and the Beijing Municipal Committee as being nothing less than a ‘palace revolt’ 宮廷政變.[38]

‘Han Pavilion’, in the hand of Deng Xiaoping. The lakeside pavilion at Tsinghua University is dedicated to the memory of the murdered historian, Wu Han

As the Cultural Revolution unfolded, Mao’s status as the saviour of the Chinese people and the omniscient guide of world revolution was further enhanced. The irony is that it was this final transformation occurred in the midst of the collapse of party rule and the reimposition of the very kinds of controls that had made Mao rebel against the status quo. Regardless, in the years 1964-71, Mao would achieve something akin to an apotheosis, a status of sanctity and omnipotence with which few, if any, imperial-era rulers could have competed. The one historical ruler who did offer a measure of comparison, however, was the First Emperor.

Early in his political career Mao had spoken approvingly of the First Emperor, Qin Shihuang. He might have chided the Qin emperor for ‘lacking literary grace’ 略輸文采 when listing the great rulers of China’s past in his 1936 poem ‘Snow’, but overall he approved of the draconian nature of ‘Qin rule’ 秦政.[39] He would return to the theme of the Qin era and his own relationship with the tradition in the early months of 1966. In a rescript dated 14 April 1966 written on a document related to students at arts colleges in Beijing who were combining study with labour in factories or the communes, Mao once more quoted the poem of the Tang-dynasty writer Zhang Jie mentioned above. He remarked, ‘Some comrades [that is, himself] are of the opinion that “Those with little learning overthrow the learned; the young overthrow the old”. This is an age-old principle.’[40]

Mao was not the only one to invoke the First Emperor when referring to his domination of the Communist Party in those years. As the Cultural Revolution progressed, some of his colleagues would also remark on the unsettling similarities between their own Great Leader and the founder of the Qin.

In ‘Notes on “Project 571”’, the alleged plans for an armed insurrection against the Chairman attributed to Lin Liguo in 1971, the rationale for a coup was expressed in the following way:

Of course, we don’t deny the historical role he [Mao] played in uniting China. It is for this very reason that historically our revolutionaries gave him a well-deserved place and their support. But now he is abusing the trust and position bestowed on him by the Chinese people, and he is heading in the wrong historical direction. In reality, he has already become a modern-day First Emperor. Our sense of responsibility to the Chinese people and China’s history will not allow us to stand by patiently! He is not a true Marxist-Leninist. Rather he is the greatest feudal tyrant in Chinese history who is pursuing the path of Confucius and Mencius while wrapping himself in the guise of a Marxist-Leninist and behaving like the First Emperor.[41]

After the failure of the plot against Mao, and the death of those involved in it (including the Chairman’s hand-picked successor, Lin Biao), the unflattering comparison did not force Mao to abandon his penchant for referring to the Qin ruler. Indeed, not long after the Lin Biao debacle, the Chairman wrote a poem to the party hack scholar Guo Moruo referring to the abiding relevance of Qin, and the reactionary nature of the Confucian tradition (with which Lin Biao was now, absurdly, associated). In it he made oblique reference to the poem by Zhang Jie that he had given to Fu Sinian in the mid 1940s:

I advise you not to criticise the Emperor of Qin,
There’s more to say about burning books and burying scholars.
The ancestral dragon may be dead but Qin lives on,
While Confucian scholarship despite its reputation is but chaff.
A hundred generations have pursued the rule of Qin…[42]


Guo Moruo and Mao Zedong

It was also in these last years that Mao returned to the theme of power and cooptation. As was the case of his 1945 exchange with Fu Sinian in Yan’an, Mao in his decline continued to make frequent reference to historical upstarts and peasant rebellions. He would be regarded as behaving like a isolated emperor in his dotage, but after a life-long political career in which he supported turning historical verdicts on their head, the Chairman continued to side with outsider rebels. In August 1975, just over a year before he died, he made a series of comments on the band of sworn brothers and rebels that feature in Shi Nai’an’s fourteenth-century novel Water Margin 水滸傳. He criticised the ultimate message of the book for being one that extolled slavish compliance to the power-holders. ‘[The novel] only opposes corrupt officials, not the emperor himself’, he remarked.[43]

Isolated by physical infirmity as well as by the increasingly idiosyncratic nature of his rule, Mao featured in the international media as a lone figure surrounded by political schemers. The Chinese press in Hong Kong and Taiwan frequently used imperial metaphors to describe the twilight of this ‘red court’. In 1970, in remarks made to the sympathetic American journalist Edgar Snow (to whom, some three decades earlier, Mao had criticised self-important May Fourth academics like Fu Sinian) following the National Day parade in Beijing the Chairman supposedly lamented that he was like ‘a lone monk walking the world with a leaky umbrella’.[44] Snow’s understanding of the comment was the result of a delicious combination of under-translation and misperception. Mao had, in fact, used a common kind of allegorical humour, a xiehou yu 歇後語, in which the second punning part of the saying is left unstated. He was ‘a monk carrying an umbrella’ 和尚打傘. What he left unsaid (and his interpreter therefore did not communicate to Snow) was that like a monk he was ‘hairless’ (無髮 / 法: a pun for lawless) and that since he was carrying an umbrella there was no sky above him (無天: a pun for following no pre-ordained principle). Mao was in effect saying that he, or rather the revolutionary enterprise he led, was beyond restraint. It was a remarkable, and given Mao’s usual linguistic acrobatics, hubristic admission. It was also a statement that, while perhaps imperial in portent, had little to do with the Chinese tradition of kingship. If there was much in Mao’s life, persona and behaviour that reflected the imperial, one could also argue that his belief in the manifestation of History in his actions related more to European traditions of divine rulership, and revolutionary sagehood, than it did to Chinese notions of imperial authority. One could argue that he saw himself as a Napoleon-like ‘homme providentiel’.

Unquiet Grave

The advantage of democratic systems is that they allow men of destiny to be dumped as soon as the storm blows over (cf. Churchill, de Gaulle, etc.); in fact, in a normal everyday situation where ‘his giant’s wings prevent him from walking’, any Great Leader worth his salt has a strong tendency to stir up artificial gales in order to get some wind back under his pinions. At that point he can become a nuisance, and nations which do not have the opportunity of getting rid of their geniuses are sometimes liable to pay very dearly for the privilege of being led by them.[45]

A popular saying dating back to the Jin dynasty (fourth century CE) holds that only after the coffin of the deceased has been sealed can a final judgement on an individual’s life be advanced 蓋棺論定. Mao himself observed that the verdict on a person could only be determined posthumously.[46] Various official and popular verdicts have been passed on the achievements and legacies of the Chairman. Historians and political scientists have pronounced, as have the mass media, and the regnant Chinese propaganda authorities. But, as I have argued elsewhere, Mao’s remains an unquiet grave. His death marked but the beginning of what has already been an eventful posthumous career.[47]

The Quick and the Dead, 1977

To ensure the reliability and appropriateness of the medical procedures undertaken to maintain Mao’s body in a presentable form (How much water should be retained in the corpse? At what levels should the cocktail of preservatives be kept? And so on), it was deemed necessary to find a ‘standard body’ 標準體 on which to experiment. The task to enlist the unwitting services of a suitably proportioned corpse fell to Xu Jingxian, the pro-Maoist party leader of Shanghai, a city that was ideologically proximate to the wishes of the leadership even though physically at an appropriate remove from the political centre. In his memoirs, Xu recalls that it was necessary to bring forward the execution of a criminal on death row so that such a ‘standard body’ could be procured at short notice. While today actors specialising in playing Mao on stage and screen might come and go,[48] in death the corpse of that nameless double still shadows the Chairman so that, to distort the Bard, ‘age cannot wither him, nor custom stale’.[49]

In late-dynastic tradition, emperors would devote considerable thought to the selection of a geomantically suitable tomb site (‘a propitious location for eternity’ 萬年吉地). When it came to finding a permanent home for the embalmed corpse of Mao, a different set of problems and possibilities presented themselves to party leaders. The devotion of time, energy and resources to the preservation and eventual final resting place of Mao’s body were, nonetheless, regal in scale. If Mao had employed imperial tropes to considerable effect during his life, in death his successors would be equally drawn to, entrapped by and wary of traditional precedent and practice.

The most recent entombment of a national leader prior to that of Mao Zedong was itself indirectly imperial, and in 1976 party leaders drew inspiration from the Zhongshan Mausoleum built for the founding father of the Republic of China, Sun Yat-sen (d.1924 and formally buried in 1929), located in the hills outside Nanjing. Sun’s mausoleum (陵—the term itself has imperial overtones) was in a tradition that consciously invoked imperial funerary custom.[50] Mao’s own corpse eventually found a final resting place in the southern precinct of Tiananmen Square, but this was by no means the only choice considered for a grand monument to the dead leader. For a short time in September-October 1976 a number of alternate locations were under discussion.[51]

Mao seated in his Beijing mausoleum

Most of these sites were ruled out due to the odium of imperial associations. The final choice in favour of Tiananmen placed Mao in the heart of what had been designed as a grand imperial city, in a square that had been built to lay claim to the grand sweep and vision of the city’s dynastic rulers. Inside the actual Mao Memorial Hall—an unprepossessing marble box—a statue of a seated Mao was positioned to greet mourners in obvious emulation of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. The wall behind the statue featured a landscape mural reminiscent of the painting ‘This Land So Rich in Beauty’ 江山如此多嬌, used as an illustration at the beginning of this essay.

During his life Mao had been obsessed with the ever-present danger of counter-revolution, which included not only presumed threats against party rule from the defeated bourgeoisie, but also the menace of the hierarchical order of old China. It is of some ironic interest to note that on the night of Mao’s state funeral held in Tiananmen Square on 18 September 1976, a peasant by the name of Li Pirui in Liling county, Hunan province, declared that he would be the Prime Minister to a new emperor who would soon establish his own dynasty, the Great China Buddhist Kingdom 大中華佛國. Working with followers attracted by the moral rightness of his cause, Li declared the following year that he had discovered the new True Dragon Emperor 真龍天子 in the person of an illiterate peasant by the name of Shi Jinxin. Together they amassed a court of over one hundred civilian and martial officials in Hunan and Jiangxi provinces. Shi Jinxin ‘mounted the throne’ 登極 in October 1983 whereupon a new dynasty was formally inaugurated. Its mission was ‘to overthrow the Communist Party, establish the Great China Buddha Kingdom in China and to extend its rule over the whole planet’. The presumptive dynasty was short-lived. In December 1983, Shi and his court were arrested. Li Pirui was sentenced to death in May 1985 and Shi, along with seventeen courtiers, was given a lengthy prison sentence.[52]

Others saw no need to support the establishment of a new dynasty; they argued that Mao had anointed a successor of his own. Although the Chairman’s son, Mao Anying, a man thought of as a potential political heir, had died in the Korean War, people would claim that Hua Guofeng (d. 2008) was in fact Mao’s offspring and that he had created a dynastic hand-over by selecting him as the new party Chairman in 1976. Although Hua’s tenure was brief—rumours persisted that he was Mao’s illegitimate child—continuity has worked in other ways. With each subsequent leader—Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao—there have been favourites, and the veiled politics of the Communist Party has seen their rise and, in some cases, fall. Mao immersed himself in Chinese history and literature, but for all of his familiarity with the pitfalls of rulership he failed to establish an orderly transfer of power. Deng Xiaoping, a man far less interested in the past (one recalls here the line from Zhang Jie’s poem: ‘Liu Bang and Xiang Yu were hardly men of letters’), in contrast proved his talent at ‘ruling behind the screen’ 垂簾聽政—a reference to the Empress Dowager’s rule during the late-Qing dynasty, and one used to criticise Deng from the time of the 1989 Protest Movement). If one is to talk of the maintenance of ‘dynastic stability’ and ‘imperial succession’, Deng was far more adept in his management of affairs than his predecessor. Indeed, during the Deng era, and ever since, the language of court politics has continued to influence both formal and informal discussions of China’s power-holders.

The post-Cultural Revolution era has also witnessed the precipitous rise of what is called the ‘Princelings’ Faction’ 太子黨, the term taizi enjoying a dynastic provenance and meaning ‘crown prince’. At the writing of this essay, Xi Jinping, the son of the late military leader and former member of the Politburo Xi Zhongxun, is rumoured to be a possible successor to the present incumbent. So, while not dynastic, the Communist Party continues to follow ‘ways that are dark’—those influenced by pre-modern politics and traditions be it in overt actions or through immanent behaviour.[53]

Shades of Mao

Given the history of twentieth-century China, the rise of modern Han-Chinese nationalism, the significance that the Ming dynasty had in both the founding of the Republic of China in 1912, and in the establishment of the capital of the People’s Republic in the ancient Ming capital of Beijing in 1949, it is perhaps not surprising that some of the first posthumous criticisms of Mao Zedong were articulated in re-appraisals of Zhu Yuanzhang, the Ming founding emperor Taizu.[54]

Many writers found in Mao’s persona and actions in the first decades of the People’s Republic resonances of a ‘founding emperor complex’. Like rulers of the past, they identified him as being a canny local rebel who led a mass army to seize power. Once in control of a new political regime, he grew accustomed to the authority and charisma associated with leadership. In ways that are reminiscent of the behaviour of other founders of new states, to maintain stability in the crucial first years of power he introduced harsh measures to ensure unity, order and stability, regardless of the individual, or indeed social, cost. The great paradox is that the series of political ructions that saw Mao Zedong’s apotheosis in pursuit of his political ideals and authority during the Cultural Revolution, also fatally undermined the very ideology and unity that had turned him into a revolutionary leader and demi-god in the first place. Despite this shorter-term failure, however, Mao and his cohort were successful in melding powerful symbolism from the past with the requirements of a developing nation-state. In the rituals, symbols and behaviour of the new nation, tradition has been repeatedly reinvented and refined to provide continuities that are today more evident than at any other period in the history of the People’s Republic.

The contradictory evaluations of Mao that range from acknowledging him primarily as a patriot, or revolutionary leader, to being a latter-day imperial autocrat, or even a monster, were encouraged by party-state ordained denunciations of his last circle of followers, the ‘Gang of Four’ from 1976.[55] Attacks on Jiang Qing, Mao’s widow, as the ‘Empress of the Red Capital’ (紅都女皇—the title of the Chinese translation of Roxanne Witke’s 1977 Comrade Chiang Ch’ing)—reflected back on Mao himself. While the dead Chairman could not be denounced directly, in works of art and literature throughout the late 1970s and early 80s frequent, often oblique, references were made to his imperial style. It would take the party some five years to evaluate Mao and his later career in terms that would retain the rationale of the Chinese revolution while erasing the politics of the left from his legacy.

Was Mao the last Chinese autocrat? Certainly, he was educated in the tradition of autocratic rule or diwang shu 帝王術, just as he was an avid student of modern ideologies. Like many politically active members of his generation, he too deployed the tradition as he understood it with devastating effect. While it is meaningful to investigate issues related to Mao’s personal psychology, his arrant and idiosyncratic behaviour, I would argue that to concentrate on these aspects of his life and thought distracts too readily from or dominates discussions of other historical dimensions, and abiding elements, of the Mao era.

As we have seen, Mao made numerous contradictory and complex references to rulership, and to traditional modes of imperial power. In his last years he appeared to be surrounded by a court, his associates sychophants, his long-term colleagues engaged in a constant struggle to gain access to him. His gnomic utterances were used to direct the party and the nation. Even in his waning years he had a voracious appetite for classical histories and literature. Given his career and his later years it is then hardly surprising that commentators have repeatedly availed themselves of the imperial metaphor. Moreover, one could argue that the Communist Party itself has allowed metaphors of the imperial to occlude the revolutionary message of Mao Thought and to mask its legacy of ideas relating to equality, class differences, bureaucracy and power, and their continuing relevance to contemporary Chinese politics, the economy and society.

Obversely, to leave unmentioned the imperial and the dynastic in discussions of the Maoist era and contemporary China, is to blind ourselves to the persistence, reinvention, manipulation and limitations of tradition. Mao used history—he claimed that he obsessively read the Song-dynasty work The Mirror of Government 資治通鑒, among other classical histories—in his political life, but also by so doing he undermined the revolutionary reordering of society that he oversaw. His obsession with tradition and dynastic history was a central feature of high Maoism. To ignore this reality in favour of some facile and acceptable Maoism, one evacuated of lived content and reconstituted for the benefit of contemporary left-leaning political causes (and academic careers), is to limit our understanding of Mao, just as an excessive emphasis on his ‘imperial pretensions’ locates him within narratives of industrial-scale autocracy but beyond the pale of revolutionary modernity. It is the enlivening and entrapping heritage of the past, as relived in the present that lies at the core of an understanding of modernity in the Chinese context.[56]

The incidents and historic moments discussed in this short essay offer some indication of how the language of China’s classical past, in particular the rhetoric of dynastic rule and Confucian statecraft, were married to political thought and action in the revolutionary heyday of twentieth-century China. Needless to say, this same language has been put to quite different, although perhaps even more potent, uses in the post-Maoist era. The longevity of this kind of rhetoric must be understood in the context of its ever-changing connotations. This differs fundamentally from any Orientalist assumption about ‘dynastic China’. The idea of ‘Mao the emperor’ has the same essentializing effect. Cleaving to it holds history captive to an imagined ‘eternal’ pattern.[57]

It is in this broader historical perspective that we can hope to understand the abiding fascination with, if not the cult of, Chairman Mao. His memory lives both within the history of which he was a part and which, as one of the ‘truly great men’, he helped forge. The continuous evocations of that past allow for the constant reinvention of Mao himself. New leftist thinkers and essayists ransack the Maoist-era heritage in search of renewal; the Communist Party itself inherits a complex legacy, one that it can use for its present ideological needs (after all, the ‘harmonious society’ which is presently in vogue can be traced back to Confucian thought, but equally to Mao’s own use of the expression li zhi yong, he wei gui 禮之用, 和為貴). In terms of popular culture, Mao and his era continue to provide rich material for films, TV shows and popular literature. However, as I argued in Shades of Mao, the Chairman is also within and above contemporary history. He is part of a narrative continuity, one that offers a populist, and popular story about the historical record. As the founding figure of a new state he will continue to share fame with rulers like the First Emperor, Liu Bang of the Han, Taizong of the Tang and so on, all of whom he listed in his poem ‘Snow’.

Mao’s hubristic belief that the ‘truly great men’ would be able to change objective reality through sheer will and human effort goes, as has been noted, against the very nature of traditional Chinese imperial thinking. It was also the failure of ‘imagined reality’ to create a realignment of the stars, and to change practical realities, that marked his years as the demiurge of high socialism. It is his heroic voluntarism, as well as his ideological and nationalist conceit, however, that still generates a charismatic aura for Mao personally and, for some, a sense of abiding possibility within the Maoist legacy. Or, as it is expressed in the concluding lines of Morning Sun, the 2005 film on the Cultural Revolution,

For many the revolution is dead. Utopian promise now appears in different guises.
But the specter of Mao is never far away.

When people feel oppressed and powerless, when a system permits no legitimate protest or dissent, Mao emerges as a possibility, a champion of the right to rebel.[58]

‘The Rivers Forever Onward Flow’, in the hand of Yu Youren 于右任

Anecdotal evidence may, however, suggest a more ironic reality. A writer and long-time China specialist with a background in journalism reported that, during her travels in China in late 2008, she frequently encountered young people who when they spoke about the ‘old society’ or the ‘feudal past’, were invariably referring not to pre-1949 ‘Old China’ and the founding of the People’s Republic, but to the dark days of their parents’ lives. These were then the oppressive years during which their parents had been sent off to the countryside, or attacked and abused by quixotic party policy. This ‘old society’, this ‘feudal past’, was for them none other than the era of Chairman Mao.[59]

In 1976, Simon Leys noted that although Mao did not pass away until 9 September of that year, Maoism itself had died on 5 April 1976, the day of the Qingming Festival, when masses of people gathered in Tiananmen Square to commemorate the recently deceased Premier Zhou Enlai and to attack the ‘modern-day First Emperor’, Mao Zedong. Exactly twenty years earlier the People’s Daily had published an editorial denouncing Nikita Khrushchev’s secret attack on Stalin at the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party. At the time, an enlarged meeting of the Politburo of the Chinese party had discussed the issue of Khrushchev at length, and formulated the editorial, which marked a parting of the way with the Soviets.

At the meeting, Mao recited a famous poem by the Tang writer Du Fu. The last lines contain sentiments that perhaps best sum up his own posthumous career, one that as I have argued elsewhere has only just begun:

Wang, Yang, Lu and Luo are the writers of the day
You may mock them now, but
While you and your fame will fade
The rivers forever onward flow.[60]



This study was written for A Cambridge Critical Introduction to Mao Zedong, edited by Timothy Cheek, Cambridge University Press, 2010, pp.243-272.



* My thanks to Sang Ye, Gloria Davies, Duncan Campbell, Hal Kahn, John Minford, Richard Rigby and Mark Selden for their comments on various drafts of this essay. I am particularly grateful to Timothy Cheek for inviting me to revisit the history, and cult, of Mao Zedong. The typographical style of the original has been retained.

[1] The Communist Party, its historians and subsequently majority opinion frame the Cultural Revolution as ‘ten years of chaos’. In terms of the policies that were pursued, however, the era could well be dated from the Socialist Education Campaign launched in 1964 up to the time of the Third Plenum of the party’s Eight Congress in late 1978.

[2] Yan Jiaqi, ‘Wangguo xunhuan yuanyin lun’ [On the reasons for the cycle of monarchic rule] in his Quanli yu zhenli [Power and Truth] (Beijing: Guangming Ribao chubanshe, 1987), pp. 89-90. I base the second paragraph of this essay on Alexander Woodside, ‘Emperors and the Chinese Political System’, in Kenneth Lieberthal, Joyce Kallgren, Roderick Macfarquhar, Frederic Wakeman Jr., et al, eds., Perspectives on Modern China: Four Anniversaries (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1991), pp. 5-30 at p. 5.

[3] Woodside, ‘Emperors and the Chinese Political System’, p. 7.

[4] See Mao’s self-description in his putative 8 July 1966 letter to Jiang Qing. Liu Changqing, ed., Mao Zedong jiashu pindu [Reading Mao Zedong’s Letters to Family Members] (Beijing: Hongqi chubanshe, 2004), pp. 247-48.

[5] See, for example, Lawrence R. Sullivan, ‘The Controversy over “Feudal Despotism”: Politics and Historiography in China, 1978-82’, in Jonathan Unger, ed., Using the Past to Serve the Present: Historiography and Politics in Contemporary China (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1993), pp. 174-204.

[6] For details of the new cult, see my Shades of Mao, the Posthumous Career of the Great Leader (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1996).

[7] These pages references are to the UK and Commonwealth edition of the book.

[8] See my ‘I’m So Roneree’, The China Journal, no.55 (January 2006), pp. 128-139.

[9] Simon Leys, ‘Aspects of Mao Tse-tung (1893-1976)’, in his Broken Images: Essays on Chinese Culture and Politics, trans. Steve Cox (New York: St. Martin’s Place, 1979), p. 64.

[10] Barmé, The Forbidden City (London: Profile Books & Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 2008), pp. xiv-v & 2 respectively.

[11] A relevant study in this context is Zhengyuan Fu’s Autocratic Tradition and Chinese Politics (Cambridge University Press, 1993), esp. pp. 187ff.

[12] In this context, see Benjamin I. Schwartz, ‘The Reign of Virtue: Some Broad Perspectives on Leader and Party in the Cultural Revolution’, The China Quarterly, 35 (July-September 1968), 17.

[13] For an illuminating discussion of this poem in the context of the Chinese literary tradition, see C. N. Tay, ‘From Snow to Plum Blossoms: A Commentary on Some Poems by Mao Tse-Tung’, The Journal of Asian Studies, vol.25, no.2 (February 1966), 287-303.

[14] The poem was published under Mao’s original name, Mao Runzhi. In October 1945, Mao had a copy of the poem sent to his old acquaintance in Chongqing, Liu Yazi. It was published on 4 November 1945 in the evening supplement of the left-leaning newspaper Xinmin Bao [New Citizen]. It was immediately widely reprinted. The handwritten version of the poem eventually appeared in the Shanghai Wenhui Bao [Wenhui Daily] on 8 January 1951. A formal version of the text was carried by in the January 1957 issue of Shi Kan [Poetry].

[15] This quotation can be found in Wang Fangsen and Du Zhengsheng, eds., Fu Sinian wenwu ziliao xuanji [Selected Cultural Materials of Fu Sinian] (Taipei: Fu Sinan xiansheng bailing jinian choubeihui/ Zhongyang Yanjiu Yuan Jindaishi Yanjiu Suo, 1995), p. 216, also quoted in Xie Yong, ‘Guanyu Qinyuan chun, Xue de liangze shiliao’ [Two Documents Related to ‘Snow’], Nanfang Zhoumo [Southern Weekend], 7 May 2008.

[16] Wang Yunsheng, ‘Wo dui Zhongguo lishide yizhong kanfa’ [My view of Chinese history], Dagong Bao [L’Impartial], 8 December 1945, quoted in Du Zhongming, ‘Qinyuan chun, Xue’chuanqi [The Legend of ‘Snow’] (Beijing: Zhongyang wenxian chubanshe, 2007), p. 137.

[17] Shangfang Xide on Wu Zuxiang in Xin wenxue shiliao [New Historical Materials on Literature], 2008: 1, 34, quoted in Xie Yong, ‘Guanyu Qinyuan chun, Xue de liangze shiliao’, Nanfang zhoumo, 7 May 2008.

[18] See Zhang Yunxin, ‘Mao Zedong Xinyuan chun, Xue fabiao qianhou’ [Events Surrounding the Publication of Mao Zedong’s ‘Snow’], Dang’an daguan [Archival Overview], 12 September 2008, no.380, p. 3. Much would be made of Chiang’s own imperial behaviour, pointedly denounced by Chen Boda in the 1940s as representing ‘the Chiang family dynasty’ (Chiang jia wangchao).

[19] On 21 December 1958, Mao finally published a note aimed at the conflicting interpretations. He wrote that ‘Snow’ was ‘anti-feudal, a critique of one reactionary aspect of two millennia of feudalism…. Other interpretations are incorrect. As for the last three lines…they refer to the proletariat’. See ‘Dui Mao zhuxi shici shijiu shoude pizhu’ [Notes on Nineteen Poems by Chairman Mao], in Mao Zedong, Mao Zedong wenji[Writings of Mao Zedong] (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 1999), vol.7, pp. 430-31.

[20] The delegation consisted of Chu Fucheng, Huang Yanpei, Leng Yu, Fu Sinian, Zuo Shunsheng and Zhang Bojun.

[21] Although never completed, the manuscript work contains ideas that have over time become part of China’s national discourse. See Q. Edward Q. Wang, Inventing China Through History: The May Fourth Approach to Historiography(Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2001), pp. 173-75.

[19] On 21 December 1958, Mao finally published a note aimed at the conflicting interpretations. He wrote that ‘Snow’ was ‘anti-feudal, a critique of one reactionary aspect of two millennia of feudalism…. Other interpretations are incorrect. As for the last three lines…they refer to the proletariat’. See ‘Dui Mao zhuxi shici shijiu shoude pizhu’ [Notes on Nineteen Poems by Chairman Mao], in Mao Zedong, Mao Zedong wenji [Writings of Mao Zedong] (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 1999), vol.7, pp. 430-31.

[20] The delegation consisted of Chu Fucheng, Huang Yanpei, Leng Yu, Fu Sinian, Zuo Shunsheng and Zhang Bojun.

[21] Although never completed, the manuscript work contains ideas that have over time become part of China’s national discourse. See Q. Edward Q. Wang, Inventing China Through History: The May Fourth Approach to Historiography (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2001), pp. 173-75.

[22] See Xu Jilin, Historical Memories of May Fourth: Patriotism, but of what kind?, translated by Duncan Campbell in China Heritage Quarterly, Issue 17 (March 2009).

[23] ‘Mao Zedong song Fu xiansheng ziji xinfeng’ [Envelop bearing Mao Zedong’s handwriting sent to Mr Fu], ‘Fu Sinian Dang’an, I-38’ [Fu Sinian Archive, I-38], at the Fu Sinian Library, Zhongyang yanjiuyuan Lishi Yuyan Suo, Taipei. See also Yue Nan, Chen Yinque yu Fu Sinian [Chen Yinque and Fu Sinian] (Xi’an: Shaanxi shifan daxue chubanshe, 2008), chapter 10, pp. 225-32.

[24] See, for example, Chen Jin, et al, Mao Zedong dushu biji jiexi [Exegisis on Mao Zedong’s Reading Notes] (Guangzhou: Guangdong renmin chubanshe, 1996), vol.2, pp. 926-31.

[25] See, ‘Qin shihuang zuowei, yuansheng shusheng yiqi’ [The actions of the First Emperor were far superior to the wilfulness of the bookish], Chen Jin, et al, Mao Zedong dushu biji jiexi, vol.2, pp. 1271-72.

[26] The material in these paragraphs is based on my The Forbidden City, pp. 143-44. See also the online notes for that book at:

[27] Quoted in Frederick C. Teiwes and Warren Sun, The End of the Maoist Era: Chinese Politics during the Twilight of the Cultural Revolution, 1972-1976 (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2007), p. 595. Interestingly, Mao did not mention the War of Resistance Against the Japanese, although the defeat of the Nationalists might include this.

[28] Simon Leys, ‘Ravished by Oranges’, a review of Jonathan D. Spence’s Return to Dragon Mountain: Memories of a Late Ming Man, in The New York Review of Books, 20 December 2007 (vol.54, no.20).

[29] Wu Jiangxiong, et al, eds., Mao Zedong tan gu lun jin [Mao Zedong on the Past and Present] (Hefei: Anhui Renmin Chubanshe, 1998), vol.2, pp. 601-607.

[30] For details, see Wu Hung, The Remaking of Beijing: Tiananmen Square and the Creation of a Political Space (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), pp. 15ff; and, Barmé, The Forbidden City, pp. 1-25.

[31] Simon Leys, Chinese Shadows (New York: Viking, 1978), p. 58.

[32] See Chu Anping, ‘The Party Empire: Some Advice to Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou Enlai’, in Geremie Barmé and Linda Jaivin, eds., New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices (New York: Times Books, 1992), pp. 360-61.

[33] Quoted in Frederick C. Teiwes, Politics and Purges in China: Rectification and the Decline of Party Norms, 1950-1965 (Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1979), p. 414.

[34] Mao, ‘Speech at the Communist Party’s National Conference on Propaganda Work’, 12 March 1957, and again in March 1958, when he also attacked Chu Anping by name. See Mao, ‘Talks at the Chengdu Conference (Talk of 22 March)’, in Stuart Schram, ed., John Chinnery and Tieyun, trans., Mao Zedong Unrehearsed, Talks and Letters: 1956-71 (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1974), p. 122.

[35] Zuo Hai (Deng Tuo), ‘Gechang Taihu—“Jiangnan yincao” zhi san’ [Praise for Taihu Lake], Guangming Ribao [Guangming Daily], 7 September 1960, later collected in Deng Tuo shici xuan [Selected Poems of Deng Tuo] (Beijing: Renmin wenxue chubanshe, 1979), p. 79. My translation. Referred to in Timothy Cheek, Propaganda and Culture in Mao’s China: Deng Tuo and the Intelligentsia (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), p. 201.

[36] See Merle Goldman, ‘The Unique “Blooming and Contending” of 1961-62’, The China Quarterly, 37 (January-March 1969), 63; and, Stephen Uhalley, Jr, ‘The Cultural Revolution and the Attack on the “Three Family Village” ’, The China Quarterly, 27 (July-September 1966), 149-61.

[37] For studies of this incident, see James Pusey, Wu Han: Attacking the Present through the Past, (Cambridge, Ma.: East Asian Research Center, Harvard University, 1969); Rudolf Wagner, The Contemporary Chinese Historical Drama: Four Studies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990); and, Timothy Cheek, Propaganda and Culture in Mao’s China.

[38] Yu Luoke, Riji [Diary], 29 July 1966.

[39] See Jia Yi’s famous second-century BCE essay Guo Qin [The Faults of Qin].

[40] Mao Zedong, ‘Dui “Zai Jing yishu yuanxiao shixing bangong (nong) bandu” yiwende piyu (1966 nian 4 yue 14 ri)’ [Rescript on the document ‘Implementing Study and Manual Labour at the Tertiary Arts Schools of the Capital (14 April 1966)’], in Zhonggong zhongyang wenxian yanjiushi, ed., Jianguo yilai Mao Zedong wengao [Mao Zedong’s Manuscripts Since the Establishment of the People’s Republic of China] (Beijing: Zhongyang wenxian chubanshe, 1998), vol.12, p. 35.

[41] Lin Liguo, et al, ‘ “571 Gongcheng” jiyao’ [Notes on ‘Project 571’], in ‘Fan geming zhengbian gangling (“571 Gongcheng” jiyao) (shougao yingyinjian)’ [Program for a Counter-revolutionary Coup (Notes on ‘Project 571’) (Photocopies of hand-written materials)], material appended to ‘Zhongfa 1972 di 4 hao’ [Central Party Document 1972 No. 4], Beijing, 1972.

[42] Mao Zedong, ‘Du Fengjian lun cheng Guo lao’ [Presented to Guo Moruo After Reading ‘On the Feudal’], 5 August 1973, from Zhonggong zhongyang wenxian yanjiushi, ed., Jianguo yilai Mao Zedong wengao, vol.13, p. 361.

[43] Chen Jin, et al, Mao Zedong dushu biji jiexi, vol.2, pp. 1374-75. Mao chose not to mention that the literary paragon, Lu Xun, whose reputation survived the Cultural Revolution, offered the same insight some fifty years earlier. This observation, which appears in several of Lu Xun’s essays, is a particular feature of his 1929 reflections on ‘the evolution of hooligans’. See his ‘Liumangde bianqian’ [Evolution of the louts], in Lu Xun quanji [The Complete Works of Lu Xun] (Beijing: Renmin wenxue chubanshe, 1981), vol.4, pp. 155-158.

[44] Life Magazine, 30 April 1971. See also Note 12 in my Jiǎ Yǐ Bǐng Dīng 甲乙丙丁: Beginning Chinese with Pierre Ryckmans, The China Story, 30 November 2015.

[45] Simon Leys, ‘Mao Tse-tung and Chinese History’, in his Broken Images, pp. 54-55.

[46] He first quoted the third in a series of five poems by Bo Juyi entitled ‘Fang yan wu shou’ to this effect in a 1939 speech entitled ‘Yongyuan fendou’ [Struggle Forever]. He returned to the theme and quoting the last lines of the poem again in 1972 when discussing the fall of Lin Biao. See Chen Jin, Mao Zedong dushu biji jiexi, vol.2, pp. 1295-96.

[47] See ‘The Irresistible Fall and Rise of Chairman Mao’, Barmé, Shades of Mao, pp. 3-73, esp. pp. 53-54.

[48] See ‘In a Glass Darkly: An Interview with Gu Yue’, Shades of Mao, pp. 177-182; and, David Moser, ‘Red Stars Over China: the Mao Impersonators’, 7 October 2004, at

[49] Xu Jingxian, Shi nian yi meng [A Decade in a Dream] (Hong Kong: Shidai guoji chuban gongsi, 2005), pp. 410-13.

[50] For more on the funeral of Sun Yat-sen in Beijing in 1925 and his eventual entombment in the Purple Mountains outside Nanjing in 1929, both events which were echoed in the mourning for and burial of Mao, see Henrietta Harrison, The Making of the Republican Citisen, Political Ceremonies and Symbols in China, 1911-1929 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 133-44 & pp. 207-35.

[51] For more on the sites for Mao’s final resting place, see Sang Ye and Geremie R. Barmé, A Beijing that Isn’t (Part I), China Heritage Quarterly, Issue 14 (June 2008).

[52] See Mo Xin, ed., Dimeng jing Hua [Imperial Dreams Shock China] (Guangzhou: Guangzhou chubanshe, 1998), pp. 1-35. For another instance of imperial presumption dating from early 1980s Hunan, see Ann S. Anagnost, ‘The Beginning and End of an Emperor: A Counterrepresentation of the State’, Modern China 11, 2 (April 1985), 147-76.

[53] As it has been noted in the above, the Hong Kong and Taiwan media have used dynastic language to describe mainland politics for decades. English-language accounts have also frequently used imperial metaphors to discuss the Communist-era, something evident even in the titles of works such as George Paloczi-Horvath’s Mao Tse-Tung, Emperor of the Blue Ants (London: Secker & Warburg, 1962), Dick Wilson’s Mao, the People’s Emperor (London: Hutchinson, 1979) and Harrison Salisbury’s The New Emperors: China in the Era of Mao and Deng (Boston: Little Brown, 1992).

[54] See Sullivan, ‘The Controversy over “Feudal Despotism”’, in Unger, Using the Past to Serve the Present, p. 193, n.48.

[55] For example, shortly after their detention in early October 1976, Guo Moruo, ‘the most notorious intellectual prostitute in China’, wrote a poem denouncing the Gang of Four and Jiang Qing in particular,

…The white skeleton ghost
Who likened herself to Empress Wu
Is gone in one sweep of the broom….

See Simon Leys, ‘Comrade Chiang Ch’ing’, Broken Images, p. 83.

[56] For an engaging overview of evaluations of Mao in the English-language and Chinese media over recent years, see Mobo Gao, The Battle for China’s Past: Mao & the Cultural Revolution (London: Pluto Press, 2008).

[57] In this context see Daniel Frederick Vukovich, ‘Sinological-Orientalism: The Production of the West’s Post-Mao China’, PhD Thesis (Rubanan-Champaign: University of Illinois, 2005), cited in Gao, The Battle for China’s Past, p. 38.

[58] Carma Hinton, Geremie R. Barmé and Richard Gordon, Morning Sun (Boston: Long Bow Group, 2003), see

[59] These observations were made to the author by the novelist and writer Linda Jaivin.

[60] Based on a memoir written by Huang Kecheng, see ‘Ercao shen yu ming ju mie, bu fei jianghe wangu liu’, in Wu Jiangxiong, Mao Zedong tan gu lun jin, vol.2, pp. 674-81.