The 11 years since the death of Mao Tse-tung have witnessed a systematic attempt to dismantle the once pervasive cult of his personality. Recently, for instance, in an astonishing manifestation of the late helmsman's new status, the present regime issued new currency with pictures of both Mao and his arch-enemy Liu Shao-ch'i (the ill-fated "number one person taking the capitalist road") on the same denominations. As historians and social scientists rapidly move toward a re-evaluation of the political events of the Mao years, it seems appropriate that his aesthetic and cultural endeavors also be scrutinized.
Curiously, a large gap exists in this regard, and it is Ma Wen-yee's contribution to offer a complete volume of the Chairman's poems "combined with pertinent commentary so that the entire collection of Mao's poems can be read within a proper historical framework." As a bilingual and bicultural Chinese with impressive teaching credentials--including Harvard, l'Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, and presently, Tufts University--she brings a high degree of skill to that most demanding and least requited of the language arts, translation.
Unlike the editors of most previous volumes of Mao's poems, Ma wisely opts for a style of free translation which, while sometimes not hewing to the literal meaning of the Chinese characters in the poems, is much more useful in conveying the actual essence of them. Mao wrote his poetry in the T'ang Dynasty shih and Sung Dynasty ts'u styles, classical forms of a language that the noted linguist Herrlee Creel once described as "heroically terse."
Though written in classical form, the poems, with only a few exceptions, reflect a radical departure in theme. Mao's poems are largely impersonal and dwell on such topics as "nature, history, the universe, world revolution, and China's destiny." As Ma notes, "Traditional themes such as parting sorrow, fleeting time, and the transigence of human existence do appear. But they are generally used to support a bigger thematic scheme. . . ." This can be readily seen in the eight poems that are published in English for the first time in this volume, including "An Enigma for Nixon," and two poems attributed to Mao that mourn the death of Chou En-lai.
One of the attractive features of this book is its format. Each poem is presented at the beginning of a chapter and is followed by a lengthy explanatory text. The poems are arranged in chronological order, and the notes and commentary do an admirable job of placing things in perspective.
Unfortunately, there are also some annoyingly sloppy proof-reading and editing mistakes. The calligraphy of the poem "Snow," for instance, is reproduced upside down. More confusing for the non-expert is the mis-dating of the poem "On the Occasion of the Liberation of Nanking by the People's Liberation Army." The date given under the title of the poem, 1935 (incorrect) is contradicted on the same page in the text where it is given as 1949 (the correct date).
For all these technical flaws, however, the book is quite readable and, more important, takes an important step toward bringing the reflective side of one of this century's most controversial giants to a wider audience. On balance, that's no mean accomplishment.