Mao’s last poem: The dialectical journey from idealism to broken dreams, and the sorrow of the lone leader

Suffering from tuberculosis and schizophrenia, Feng Laiheng lay on his deathbed at the young age of 62, plagued with the nightmares of China’s Cultural Revolution and the persecution he received from Chairman Mao’s avenging angels, the Red Guards, because of a painting he completed almost 23 years before his death (Sullivan, 1996). In 1959, Feng Laiheng, known more popularly by his moniker Shi Lu, completed one of the masterpieces of the 20th century, Fighting in Northern Shaanxi. This “Chinese Van Gogh” (Jia, 2005) had created a bold landscape painting that hearkened back to Shi Lu’s admiration of the painter Shi Tao and his encapsulation of the lone daoist contemplating the vast emptiness of the universe in Waterfall on Mount Lu (17th century), except instead of the hero admiring everything and nothing, the hero in Shi Lu’s painting is standing in pyrrhic victory over the bones of his fallen comrades (Chang & Halliday, 2005), the sun filled with blood as a constant reminder to the Great Helmsman of the cost of change. Inspired by one of Mao’s personal poems (released in 1958 to the public), Fighting was a victory song of brutal and martial language (Appendix II:4-5), exclaiming both the tragedy of war and the power of a singular vision. Shi Lu encapsulated Mao Zedong’s mythic power as a leader in his painting: the utter loneliness of his character, contrasted with the roiling world beneath him, swirling in chaos, tragedy, and the lifeblood of people he had sworn himself (Chan, 2011).

Fighting in Northern Shaanxi (Shi Li, 1959)

Fighting in Northern Shaanxi (Shi Li, 1959)

In this paper, seven significant time periods of Mao Zedong’s life will be discussed, and in each time period I will discuss how, in my opinion, Mao saw himself change as a leader through the circumstances that impacted him (by discussing seven of his poems). Mao was an intensely personal but public man, his feelings both open to all for scrutiny and worship, but also closed even to himself. I will begin by discussing his coming into power as a Communist leader, and end with the events that eventually caused his downfall, with several significant events serving as descriptions of his leadership.

The lone hero. In 1925, Mao Zedong had left the honeymoon stage of his tenure as the representative of the Communist Party for the province of Hunan. After being criticized by Sergei Dalin (an envoy from Moscow shepherding many CCP activities in China), Mao was fired from his position and promptly joined the Nationalist Party (Chang & Halliday, 2005), fleeing from Shanghai back to his hometown for a brief respite, where he wrote the poem entitled Changsha, his first major poetic work and a startling clear account of his vision as a leader.

Mao’s poem Changsha introduces several core aspects of what would eventually define his unique model of leadership, the Lone Hero model. While he viewed companions as necessary to accomplish tasks (Appendix I:14), his particular dialectical materialistic point-of-view supposed that morality had less distinction with absolute principles of good and evil, but more distinction as a scale of transformation. “Who are our enemies, and who are our friends?” (Pye, 1976) For Mao, everything was mutually transformable, including enemies. For this reason, Mao states with vivacity that he “counted the mighty no more than muck” (Appendix I:22), showing a rare worldview that did not abide by the Confucian respect of authority in which the leader was a man of virtue, benevolence, and authoritarian sagacity (Chen & Lee, 2008), but instead was as malleable as “the waters” struck by Mao and his companions, in order to “stay the speeding boats” (Appendix I:24-25).

Another important attribute of Mao’s leadership philosophy was his loneliness (Tay, 1970). From the first line of the poem (“alone I stand”) to the end of the first stanza, Mao writes about his singular calling to save China from the calamity of the age (Tay, referencing the Huainanzi) and rule over the destiny of his country (Appendix I:13). Mao was very reticent in publishing his poems, whatever critics may accuse him of using his poetry to inspire his followers (there is no evidence of this), and agreed only when the aim would serve a political purpose (Li, 2010). Perhaps he saw in himself, the “man” referenced by the historian Ch’en Liang (Mao’s favorite author), who stated that “which heaven and earth and all the gods and spirits cannot change, is changed by man.” (Tay)

The philosopher. Mao was a trained classicist; from a young age to his elderly years, he was known to have slept on a “bed of books,” often sleeping on a custom-designed bed to make room for his library of Chinese classics next to his pillow (Chang & Halliday, 2005). One of the most well-read men of his age (at least in terms of Chinese classical education), Mao was also a prodigious philosopher and wrote a book on dialectical materialism called “On Contradiction” which claimed that the most basic law in the universe was the law of opposites (Chen & Lee, 2008). How did his philosophical discipline and his practice of writing poetry influence his practice of leadership?

One of Mao’s most famous poems was Snow (Appendix III), a verse he wrote after he had completed the Long March and effectively taken control of the Chinese Communist Party, or at least their military. In a moment of sublime meditation, Mao looked upon the lands north of the Great Wall, and imagined himself like the heroes of old: Qin Shihuang (who built the Great Wall), Han Wudi (founder of the Han Dynasty and the largest people group i China), Tang Taizong and Taizu of Song (the two kings of China’s “golden age”), and Genghis Khan (the only foreigner to conquer China).

However, his estimation of them, at least according to his poem, is quite low, stating quite plainly that both Qin Shihuang and Han Wudi were illiterate fools (Appendix III:17), Taizong and Taizu with shallow souls and petty appetites (19), and Genghis Khan as a man whose primary accomplishment was the fact he could shoot arrows better than any other man (22). Imagining himself as a conqueror, he planned to establish a base in Mongolia (Chang & Halliday, 2005), and perhaps much of his inspiration came from that feverish moment, looking upon the vastness of the Great Wall in the dead of winter, dreaming himself the prime hero of the ages, physical strength coupled with intellectual brilliance. The last line of his poem encapsulates perfectly his belief: “For truly great men look to this age alone” (Appendix III:24-25). In many ways Mao Zedong saw himself as one of the immortals, relating himself to the the intellectual hero of the Chinese classic Sanguo, Zhou Yu, through the art of alluding to another heroic poem, “Thoughts of the past at Red Cliff” (Tay, 1966).

The harbinger. 1961 was a tumultuous year for Mao Zedong. In the late 50s, Mao had attempted to force China into the position of a global superpower, through his policies of the Great Leap Forward. However, his policies backfired, and close to 30 million people died from famine, starvation, and disease. Mao’s own daughter grew sickly and diseased during the Great Leap, because she was forced to eat university rations and wasn’t allowed at her father’s table (Chang & Halliday, 2005). However, in 1961 the CCP took action and ousted Mao as the president, electing Li Shaoqi in his place at a little place called Lushan, a retreat center for top government officials with a lake for swimming, nestled in the heart of the mountains. Two poems written in 1961 point to how Mao saw himself transforming as a leader, The Fairy Cave and Ode to the Plum Blossom, written four months apart from each other but showcasing a dangerous metamorphosis worthy of Kafka.

In August of 1961, the CCP met at the beautiful retreat of Lushan. As Mao and his comrades were swimming in the lake (even holding meetings in their swimsuits), there was a tense feeling in the air (Fenby, 2008). Mao was ignored by many of his former friends, and he began to form a dangerous liaison with his former enemy Lin Biao, a monstrous (but effective) man whose wife wrote of him that his greatest virtue was his ability to hate (Chang & Halliday, 2005). A few days after the retreat ended, Mao wrote a frightening poem, The Fairy Cave, in which he stated that beauty could only be found in danger: “On perilous peaks dwells beauty in her infinite variety” (Appendix V:4). Earlier in the poem, Mao wrote, “riotous clouds sweep past, swift and tranquil” alluding to his struggles at the Lushan Conference, but then he continued, “Nature has excelled herself in the Fairy Cave,” referring to the mythic cave of the Eight Immortals, buried deep within the mountains of Lushan.

Four months later during the harsh winter in which he daughter had returned home from school after having grown too sick to study, Mao wrote another poem, Ode to the Plum Blossoms (VI), in which he called himself the “harbinger of Spring” (VI:6). Calling upon the ancient forces of classical Chinese poetry, Mao related himself as the plum blossom, ushering in a rebirth of Nature (Tay, 1966).

The visionary. The last leadership element of Mao’s Lone Hero model would be his capacity for visionary leadership. In a strange way, Mao believed that he was fundamentally transformational in everything he did, if we understand his concept of transformation as being a social architect (as proposed by Bennis & Nanus, 1985) who designs and fashions a society through the demolition of the old. However, unlike Bennis & Nanus’s social architect, Mao saw trust as his reliability as “the desire to be worshiped” (Pye, 1976) rather than articulating consistency and straightforward direction. In Mao’s poem Swimming, he relates a Master stating, “Thus do things flow away!” (Appendix IV:9). In 1956, Mao had just obtained nuclear technology and told his inner circle, “we must control the earth!” (Chang & Halliday, 2005). However, his aspirations for nuclear power went far beyond a simple arms race: being a superpower was a passion, a way for him to step beyond Soviet control (Fenby, 2008), a symbol of self-sufficiency. Much of Mao’s leadership decisions come with an attitude of risk, to where Mao even trivializes through arguments of dialectical logic (Pye).

Beyond turning China into a superpower, though, Mao sought to establish an immortal legacy for himself in his own country. Much of his poem, Swimming, relates his visionary dream to complete the project that Sun Yat-Sen (the first president of the Republic of China) began, but later was abandoned because of the rise of the warlords. Mao sees his dream of building the dam in mythic proportions, relating how even the mountain goddess will look in awe upon his creation (Appendix IV:18-19), foreshadowing the belief that he was equal to the gods and could alter the course of Nature as a chaotic harbinger of change, uniting a land that for thousands of years had been fractured.

Looking back on Mao Zedong’s leadership philosophy, much of what he believed was admirable: a man of vision to even rival the ancient mythic heroes, a force of change and transformation, a deeply educated mind with a passion for beauty, and a heroic nature which aims for the most basic of societal changes: elevating us to progress, so that we in turn can transform our world.

So what happened?

A refraction of logic: why talk about Mao’s leadership philosophy at all? Transformational leadership theory is most weak when viewed through examples of “heroic leadership” (Yukl, 1999), such as cases like Mao Zedong. Transformational leadership is easily abused, and the danger of transformational leaders is the lack of accountability; even today, scholars have not figured out acceptable ways to measure the factors and variables (Northouse, 2013). Even transformational leadership prophets (such as James MacGregor Burns) make the mistake of equating the best transformational leaders as an exercise of dictatorship in retrospect (2004), as evidenced by Burns’ two favorite transformational leaders, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, presidents who are more or less equated as benevolent dictators or beloved princes.

Two final poems must be discussed, to find an answer to the enigma of Mao Zedong’s transformational leadership. In autumn of 1963, Mao and his inner circle finally made a move that would alter them forever: they broke away from Russia. For more than 50 years, the U.S.S.R. had infiltrated and controlled Chinese politics, from training the Nationalist army and supporting the Nationalist Assembly, to even writing checks for their Com-interns (such as Mao and his peers in the CCP) around China. But in 1963, Mao finally ideologically split from Russia, refusing to even speak with them any more about issues of political importance. To Mao, the day he split from Russia was a day of salvation. In the last poem Mao ever wrote, he proclaimed: “Don’t you know a triple pact was signed / under the bright autumn moon two years ago? / There’ll be plenty to eat, / potatoes piping hot, / beef-filled goulash” (Appendix VIII:14-20). But one line later, be bemoans, “Stop your windy nonsense! / Look, the world is being turned upside down” (21-22). Somehow, from the moment when he broke away from Russia, from that bright and beautiful autumn evening in 1963, to his last poem (1965), something went terribly wrong. Something had transformed Mao into the conquering hero he so despised; after he wrote that fateful final line, he never wrote another piece of poetry again. His lasting legacy would not be a poem, but the Cultural Revolution, the moment that took Shi Lu’s soul.

Guo Muoru: from friend to foe, to the end. Comrade Guo Muoru was one of a kind. An intellectual who fell in love with communism, he came from a long-line of scholars, was swept into revolutionary fervor, and became a close friend of Mao Zedong. Muoru went abroad to study in Japan (much like Sun Yat-Sen and Lu Xun, contemporaries of a generation before), married a Japanese Christian woman and had several children. When the war against Japan broke out, he returned to China while his wife stayed in Japan (she was not allowed to come with him), she discovered to her sadness that he had remarried and had several more children with his second wife. A fiery intellectual, Muoru wrote several treatises on the slave society of old China, and Mao became enamored of him, even going to far as to put Muoru’s diatribes into his own speeches as justification to rail against the old Confucian society.

However, in 1963, Guo Muoru wrote a poem criticizing Mao Zedong’s policies. Muoru’s son had just been sent to the countryside for re-education, and was upset enough to publicly humiliate Mao with a poem criticizing Mao’s divisive tactics in trying to destroy those who tried to take his power. Unlike other criticisms, Mao was incensed, relating Muoru like those “flies [that] dash themselves against the wall, humming without cease… shrilling… moaning… [trying to] topple the giant tree” (Appendix VII:1-7). At heart, Mao was an optimist, and he could not believe that people did not understand what he was trying to do; yet they did not. Not only did his peers not support him after the failure of the Great Leap, but his plans for turning China into a global superpower also failed, and his allies that he spent years nurturing and millions of currency supporting… most of them were toppled in revolutions much like his own. In his final poem, Mao (with a bit of sage-like wonder) writes, “Gunfire licks the heavens, / shells pit the earth… / a sparrow in his bush is scared stiff! / “This is one hell of a mess!” (VIII:6-9). In 1965, almost immediately after writing that poem, Mao Zedong began plans for the Cultural Revolution, setting up Cultural Revolution offices around the country, and preparing for the moment when he would unleash his “avenging angels” against his enemies.

A retrospective. The importance of maintaining healthy leadership philosophies is paramount, even equal with the work a leader does in his or her capacity. Mao Zedong transformed his country, but at great cost. Were he here today, he might even reply, “The cost was inevitable.” But was the cost for Mao’s soul worth it? In the end, he became like those leaders he laughed at in his poem, Snow. Violent dullards who only knew how to conquer and little else. By the end of Mao’s life, he was hanging on by a thread. Hundreds of mistresses later, four wives, and out of ten children, only three survived to adulthood. One of his sons died in the Korean War, two of his sons died or disappeared during the Chinese Civil War, and the rest of his children either died in infancy or were abandoned. Mao was a figure who was constantly in flux, never in one place for long, and obsessed with the idea that through dissolution could come re-imagination; even in his own life.

Mao Zedong was purity, if purity could be composed of the essence of change. Yet I have to question if the purity of philosophy as a leader is viable to long-lasting positive change, especially as a Christian who believes that God’s grace is immeasurable and Christ’s love can heal all wounds. Mao truly believed that he was above the par, and he longed for that spiritual connection that he absolved himself with every night, sleeping on his bed of books. He longed to be welcomed into the abodes of the gods, into the cave of the immortals, and into the annals of great men. There is nothing wrong with that by itself. All leaders desire legacy.

However, we do not live in a vacuum. Mao’s concept of the lone leader, while he was able to accomplish many things, in the end he could not save himself. None of us can. We are incapable of self-salvation, and we will always fail when we try. There is only one way of salvation, and that is to make peace with our Creator, and understand that while we may live in a world where destruction breeds life and life is destroyed, our path as living creatures lies along the road of love. As leaders, there is a humbling to that – we cannot live without community, and we cannot live without love. To go without one or the other lies the loneliness of lamentation. To go with – is beyond purity: the eternal.


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I. Changsha (1925)

II. Loushan Pass (1935)

III. Snow (1936)

IV. Swimming (1956)

V. The Fairy Cave (1961)

VI. Ode to the Plum Blossom (1961)

VII. Reply to Comrade Guo Muoru (1963)

VIII. Two Birds: A Dialogue (1965)