Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Mao Zedong And I Were Beggars (continued)


I'm not posting this in any kind of order because...well...because...a lot of what I wrote kinda sucks too much for my latent anal nature to post it...unfortunately that means you will miss the stories of Mao's obsession with Chinese novels like "Three Kingdoms" (he rooted for the villain Cao Cao, which shouldn't come as a total surprise) and how he managed to outmanuever his father to get the modern education that he craved...


In the autumn of 1913, the Hunan Fourth Normal School, where Mao had originally enrolled, merged with the more established First Normal School. Xiao Yu was a third year student at First Normal, the top in his class, he relates, particularly skilled at the writing of essays. He recalls his first impressions of Mao on the day that the Fourth Normal School's students, some two hundred of them, were transferred to the First. They were not as well dressed as the First Normal Students, who wore smart blue woolen uniforms. Xiao Yu thought the Fourth Normal students looked like raw army recruits. One of them "was a tall, clumsy, dirtily dressed young man whose shoes badly needed repairing. This young man was Mao Zedong."

There was nothing unusual about Mao's appearance, Xiao Yu reports; he was no "devil with hair growing low on his forehead," as some of his enemies would later portray him. "To me, he always seemed quite an ordinary, normal-looking person. His face was rather large, but his eyes were neither large nor penetrating, nor had they the sly, cunning look sometimes attributed to them. His nose was flattish and of a typical Chinese shape. His ears were well proportioned; his mouth, quite small; his teeth very white and even. These good white teeth helped to make his smile quite charming, so that no one would imagine that he was not genuinely sincere. He walked rather slowly, with his legs somewhat separated, in a way that reminded one of a duck waddling. His movements in sitting or standing were very slow. Also, he spoke slowly and he was by no means a gifted speaker."

"From the first day," Xiao Yu tells us, "I knew that he was Mao Zedong and he knew that I was Xiao Shutung (Xiao Yu's school name)," probably thanks to brother Emi, Mao's close friend at Dongshan Academy. But as a senior student, Xiao Yu had "neither time nor desire to form trivial friendships with those in lower classes," in his words. It was not until Mao complimented Xiao Yu on his essays, which were on public display, that the two had their first conversation. Several of Mao's essays had been honored this way as well, but what had impressed Xiao Yu most about them was the poor quality of Mao's calligraphy. Xiao Yu, let's face it, was a bit of a snob.

One day, Mao politely inquired if he might come around to Xiao Yu's study to look at his essays, a way of showing his respect for the writer and offering his friendship, which Xiao Yu accepted. Mao in those days seemed drawn to "superior" individuals, the best and the brightest of the people around him, a way perhaps of absorbing more of the learning that he had so single-mindedly pursued, of making up for the time he had lost hauling manure buckets on the family farm. And to be accepted by superior men meant that he must be one of them as well.

The two spent their first meeting in Xiao Yu's study (a communal dormitory he shared with several other upper classmen), avoiding for the most part any personal topics, focusing instead on "a discussion of the organization, curriculum, and teachers of the school, stating frankly our opinions on each."

As it turned out, neither Mao nor Xiao Yu were terribly impressed with their gym teachers. They had four, "one of whom specialized in military drill, another in dancing. But we did not like them, and we found it difficult to show any respect. They were too smartly dressed for teachers, and we suspected their moral standards were not what they should have been." The gym teachers, it seems, had a habit of missing morning classes because they stayed up too late playing cards.

There was another teacher about whom Mao Zedong and Xiao Yu agreed, in a positive sense. This was Yang Changji, the ethics teacher, called "Confucius of the First Normal School" by his students due to his impeccable conduct. Mao did not actually take a class from Professor Yang, who only taught upperclassmen, until 1915, but Yang seems to have been an influence on Mao from the time of his enrollment at First Normal. Mao's classroom notes from 1913 frequently quote from Yang's writings. Professor Yang was Mao's first real mentor, later to become his father-in-law, one of the few figures in his life for whom Mao expressed unqualified admiration. "He was an idealist and a man of high moral character," Mao told Edgar Snow, some fifteen years later. "He believed in his ethics very strongly and tried to imbue his students with the desire to become just, moral virtuous men, useful in society."

Yang was a "returned student" who had studied in Japan and Europe, receiving his first philosophy degree from Edinburgh University, his second in Germany. He was fifty years old, "clean shaven, with a swarthy complexion," Xiao Yu tells us. "His eyes were deep set and rather small." He was not, apparently, an immediately inspiring speaker; his first students at First Normal were "deeply disappointed" by the awkwardness of his speech, his seeming disinterest in explaining his texts and encouraging classroom discussion. Xiao Yu relates how he helped avert a student strike over Teacher Yang by contending that if one would only carefully study Yang Changji's writings, "he would find it most valuable."

"Also, it was important for us to explain and interpret Mr. Yang's 'Confucian' personality to them," Xiao Yu continues. It's not surprising that Yang Changji's personality might require some interpretation. Certainly Mao Zedong would not have ever previously met a person with Yang Changji's wide range of life-experiences and depth of philosophical study. This was a man who had spent ten years studying abroad, with degrees from two different European universities, an enthusiastic disciple of both Kant and Neo-Confucianist Chu Hsi. He professed the values of physical culture and insisted on taking cold baths every morning as a means to strengthen his will. Nonetheless, he arrived each day to teach his classes at First Normal borne in a sedan chair.

Within a school year, the students who had petitioned for Yang Changji's removal now dubbed him "Confucius of First Normal School." His favorites competed for "the Famous 100 plus five," a sort of A plus. Xiao Yu frequently received the coveted mark. Mao only got it once, according to Xiao Yu, for an essay entitled "A Discourse on the Force of the Mind." "Mao was very proud since it was the only time he received such a high grade, and he never tired of telling people about it."

And indeed, this essay was still on Mao's mind some fifteen years later, although he did not actually mention the Famous 100 plus Five. "Under his (Yang Changji's) influence," Mao tells Edgar Snow, "I read a book on ethics translated by Cai Yuanpei" (this was Friedrich Paulsen's "A System of Ethics," which Mao read in 1917), "and was inspired to write an essay which I entitled 'The Energy of the Mind.' I was then an idealist and my essay was highly praised by Professor Yang Changji, from his idealistic viewpoint. He gave me a mark of 100 for it." Mao could still take pride in his youthful work, but maybe the Famous 100 plus Five was a tad too elitist for the leader of the Chinese Communist movement.

The truth was, by both Mao and Xiao Yu's accounts, Mao was at times brilliant, but only when he was interested in the subject. He didn't care for courses in natural sciences, and he thought a compulsory course in still-life drawing "extremely stupid."

"I used to think of the simplest subjects possible to draw," he told Edgar Snow, " finish up quickly and leave the class. I remember once drawing a picture of the 'half-sun, half-rock' (a reference to a line in a famous Tang dynasty poem), which I represented by a straight line with a semi-circle over it."

"In drawing, the only thing he managed was a circle," Xiao Yu tells us.

"Another time during an examination in drawing," Mao tells Edgar Snow, chuckling over the red-felt table some fifteen years later, "I contented myself with making an oval. I called it an egg."

What Mao could do, and actually applied himself to doing, was write. Again, his ironic skill in composing classical essays worked greatly to his advantage. Mao was further polished by a teacher he called "Yuan the Big Beard." Yuan "ridiculed my writing and called it the work of a journalist. He despised Liang Qichao, who had been my model, and considered him half-literate. I was obliged to alter my style. I studied the writings of Han Yu, and mastered the old Classical phraseology. Thanks to Yuan the Big Beard, therefore, I can today still turn out a passable Classical essay if required."

"Of all the subjects in the curriculum, only his essay writing was good," Xiao Yu writes in his memoirs, with perhaps just a touch of condescension. "But at that time, essay writing was considered all-important. If the essay was good, then the student was good. So Mao was a good student!"

Mao was, apparently, good enough for Yang Changji to consider him one of the top three students in First Normal's Confucius's six years of teaching in Changsha. Xiao Yu himself tells us this. "In his diary, Mr. Yang paid me a compliment which he repeated on several occasions in public. 'My three most notable students, of the several thousands I taught during my six years in Changsha, were first, Xiao Shutung; second, Cai Hesen, and third, Mao Zedong.'"

Not surprisingly, the three became close friends, eventually styling themselves the "Three Worthies" after the heroes of Mao's favorite novel, Three Kingdoms.

"In relating the beginnings of the Chinese Communist Party," Xiao Yu writes, "mention must be made of our friend Cai Hesen, who was the first Chinese to accept, unreservedly, the principles of the Communist doctrine. He played a very important party in the conversion of Mao to Communism" (the quasi-religious nature of Communist conversion is oft-encountered in these narratives)

Cai Hesen's mother supported Hesen and his younger sister, Chang; father is not in the picture. Mother ran the town school, a position apparently not well-compensated, as the family was "desperately poor and often had no rice to cook on the fire," according to Xiao Yu. Xiao Yu describes Cai Hesen as being both "strong-willed" and lacking in initiative, but nonetheless, eternally kind to his friends. "Though he was one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party," Xiao Yu sums, "Hesen remained a dear and highly respected friend to the last."

Cai Hesen was a few classes behind Xiao Yu at First Normal, but in spite of Xiao Yu's stated lack of interest in forming friendships with underclassmen, Cai Hesen was Xiao Yu's friend before he was Mao's. One would assume that Mao and Cai Hesen became closer after Xiao Yu graduated and went to teach a few miles away.

Cai Hesen's lack of initiative coupled with his unwillingness to ask for help from others, Xiao Yu says, left him jobless after graduation. In Xiao Yu's account, Mao Zedong hears from another friend that Cai Hesen has taken a basket of books and gone to live in an open-air pavilion, where he dined on "the winds for his meals," Mao tells Xiao Yu. Mao himself has not spoken to Hesen; "there is nothing I can do to help him," he says with a shrug. Xiao Yu goes to Hesen's pavilion, where Hesen sits on a stone, book held in one hand, appearing "for all the world like a statue." Xiao Yu invites him to live on the campus where he teaches, in a little cubicle next to his quarters. At first, Cai Hesen turns him down, not wanting to make trouble. But Xiao Yu convinces him, saying that he feels very lonely there, and this way, they can "chat together."

Cai Hesen would become known as the theorist to Mao's realist among the progressive students of the Xin Min Study association -- a dramatic, uncompromising young man. Rigid, even. He seldom smiled, Xiao Yu remarked. Committed to the cause, though he hadn't found it as of yet. He would rather starve, sleeping with his books in an open-air pavilion, than ask a friend for assistance. He would have a great deal to do with establishing a Communist movement in China and die while still a young man, a life trajectory forming the perfect arc of a revolutionary martyr. I believe I have a drawing of him somewhere, hair tousled, hands bound, resolutely awaiting his execution.

Like many progressive students of the time, Mao and his friends devoured New Youth, a journal committed to radical reform that had begun publication in the fall of 1915. New Youth was edited by Chen Duxiu, a professor at Peking University who would later become the founding secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. "I would rather see the ruin of our national essence than the extinction of our race in the present and the future because of its inaptitude for survival," Chen declared in the inaugural issue. China must embrace the West's "Mr. Science and Mr. Technology" to cure "the dark maladies in Chinese politics, morality, learning and thought," cast out the old and corrupt traditions to survive. "The Chinese compliment others by saying, 'he acts like an old man although still young,'" Chen wrote in the periodical's first editorial, "Call To Youth." "Englishmen and Americans encourage one another by saying, 'Keep young while growing old.' Such is one respect in which the different ways of thought of the East and West are manifested. Youth is like early spring, like the rising sun, like trees and grass in bud, like a newly sharpened blade. It is the most valuable period of life. The function of youth in society is the same as that of a fresh and vital cell in a human body. In the processes of metabolism, the old and the rotten are incessantly eliminated to be replaced by the fresh and living...if metabolism functions properly in a human body, the person will be healthy; if the old and rotten cells accumulate and fill the body, the person will die. If metabolism functions properly in a society, it will flourish; if old and rotten elements fill the society, then it will cease to exist.

"According to the standard, then, is the society of our nation flourishing, or is it about to perish? I cannot bear to answer. As for those old and rotten elements, I shall leave them to the process of natural selection. I do not wish to waste my fleeting time in arguing with them on this and that and hoping for them to be reborn and thoroughly remolded. I merely, with tears, place my plea before the fresh and vital youth, in hope that they will achieve self-awareness, and begin to struggle. What is this self-awareness? It is to be conscious of the value and responsibility of one's young life and vitality, to maintain one's self-respect, which should not be lowered. What is the struggle? It is to exert one's intellect, discard resolutely the old and rotten, regard them as enemies and as a flood or savage beasts keep away from their neighborhood and refuse to be contaminated by their poisonous germs."

The impact of such explosive sentiments, written in non-literary vernacular language, cannot be underestimated. "It came to us like a clap of thunder which awakened us in the midst of a restless dream," recalled one reader. Chow Tse-tsung writes, in his classic study of the May 4th Movement, "As soon as a new issue appeared in bookstores, they (students) anxiously rushed to buy it, and, upon reading it, "could not refrain from rapture," as if they had obtained "the most precious gem." "The fifth issue of the magazine came out today," a young man wrote the editor, 'and I bought and read it earnestly. You must know that before this I had asked the bookstore several times, and could not wait any longer. After reading several pages I felt that every sentence in it deeply penetrated my mind. I was so greatly touched and aroused that I longed to introduce the magazine to vast numbers of the public." Chow points out that the Letters to the Editor section marked the first time that a Chinese publication created a forum for public discussion of important issues, something not only unprecedented for a magazine but largely unavailable elsewhere.

For young men like Xiao Yu and Mao Zedong, ideas were the meat of their lives, their bread and water. Xiao Yu wrote of how he and Mao would stay up past curfew engaged in passionate discussion, composing collaborative poetry, ignoring the blare of the trumpets summoning students to the dormitories as they walked along a riverbank that ran by the school grounds. Often Mao Zedong and Xiao Yu would climb a small hill behind the school called the Miao Kao Feng, where they could look down on the campus and across to Mount Yao-lu, watch "the little lights of the ten thousand homes...shining below we sat and talked under the moon and the stars."

"They must be going into the Common room now," one would say to the other, hearing the first trumpet call, in imitation of an Army bugle. "Now they will be going into the dormitory," they would say, hearing the next. A half an hour later, a final blast signaled that the dormitory lights had been put out. But Mao and Xiao Yu continued to talk, having more important things than campus curfew to consider: China's national salvation, and how they, as "superior men," might contribute to it. During one such occasion, Xiao Yu claims, the two formed the basis for the Xin Min Xue Hui, the New People's Study Association, a group whose membership would ultimately contain many founding members of China's Communist Party. In this first incarnation in 1914, the Xin Min was essentially apolitical: eleven young men "of high moral character" whose collective goal was to "strengthen our moral and spiritual well as bring about needed reforms in the country," Xiao Yu writes. "In the ardor of our youth, we considered ourselves eleven 'sages,' guardians of the wisdom of the ages!" Mao echoes this sentiment in his interviews with Edgar Snow. "It was a serious-minded little group of men and they had no time to discuss trivialities. Everything they did or said must have purpose. They had no time for love or 'romance' and considered the times too critical and the needs too urgent to discuss women or personal matters. I was not interested in women. My parents had married me when I was fourteen to a girl of twenty, but I had never lived with her - and subsequently never did. I did not consider her my wife and at this time gave little thought to her...My friends and I preferred to talk only of large matters - the nature of men, of human society, of China, the world, and the Universe!"

A frequent point of discussion was the conflict between remaining virtuous and reforming society. Mao and Xiao Yu saw themselves as superior men, persons of virtue who acted according to moral principles for the sake of the principles, virtue being its own reward. Activity, in much Chinese philosophy, is inherently suspect. Particularly Taoism, which sees human goodness as a sort of second-best fall-back position if you have lost the Way. Confucianism allows for considerably more action, but the emphasis is on remaining morally pure, refraining from involvement with politics if one's integrity might become compromised (and one didn't want to drown oneself in a lake, as outlined earlier). The force of virtue alone would eventually transform society. Such a stance led Chen Duxiu to write in the first New Youth, "While the tide of evil is now rushing onward, would it not be rare virtue for one or two self-respecting scholars to retire from the world, to keep themselves clean? But if your aim is to influence the people and establish a new tradition, I suggest that you make further progress from your present high position. It is impossible to avoid the struggle for survival, and so long as one draws breath, there can be no place where one can retire for a tranquil hermit's life. It is our natural obligation in life to advance in spite of numerous difficulties. Stated in kindly terms, retirement is the action of the superior man in order to get away from the vulgar world. Stated in hostile terms, it is a phenomena of the weak who are unable to struggle for survival."

Eventually Cai Hesen would condemn Confucian morality even more harshly, exclaiming in a 1918 letter to his good friend Mao Zedong, that in a time when evil men perpetrated immoral acts, such Superior Men "are able only to perpetrate acts of false goodness and not of false evil. What I advocate is to commit wrongs in order to achieve a greater good. In my view, it is impossible to be completely good without any evil. Even if the evil of the just man hides goodness, to demand perfection nonetheless easily leads to hypocrisy..." The true Superior Man "can commit any good, any evil," as long as the act was for the good of the whole, Cai wrote Mao. Such a man was Lenin, who by committing evil in the service of improving society, made the heroic sacrifice of his personal reputation. Heroic, because it seems that the reputation of virtue is nearly impossible to separate from the actuality of it.

Through much of his career at First Normal, Mao would wrestle with the idea of the superior man. In this he was hardly unique for his time and circumstances. But perhaps in the intensity of his feelings, in his struggle to understand and apply these ideas to his own life, he was somewhat extraordinary.

Ordinary people have much in common with one another, but have no spirit of independence," Mao wrote in his 1913 class notes - he was paraphrasing Professor Yang Changji. "Those who have a spirit of independence are heroes."

"Those who are criticized by others are also men of honor," Mao wrote on another occasion in 1913 (responding to a lecture on Han Yu). "Only the ordinary are not controversial. Men of virtue are the targets of the multitude. Therefore, it has been said: "After something has been accomplished, there arise slanders; people of high moral character tend to attract condemnation." (this is after Han Yu)

Quoting Wang Chuanshan, a Ming scholar at the time of the dynasty's fall to the Manchus: "'There have been heroes who were not sages, but there have never been sages who were not heroes.'" Mao's comment: "Sages are those who are perfect both in virtue and in accomplishment; heroes lack virtue, but have great achievements and fame. Napoleon was a hero, but not a sage."

Quoting Mencius: "'The mass of men wait for a King Wen, and then they will receive a rousing impulse. Scholars distinguished from the mass, without a King Wen, rouse themselves.'"

"Someone said, 'I see, in history, some great men did not regret even the sacrifice of their own lives and families.'" Mao wrote this in his classroom notes of 1913, again paraphrasing Yang Changji. "The Sages and worthies who wanted to save the world have acted thus, such as Confucius...Jesus...and Socrates."

Mao continues to quote directly from a journal written by Yang Changji that had been published in 1903.

"A saying goes like this. 'When a strong soldier's hand was bitten by a poisonous snake, he had to sever his wrist, not because he did not love his wrist, but because if he had not cut if off, he could not have saved his whole body. A benevolent man looks at the whole world and the whole of humanity as his body, and considers one individual and one family as his wrist. Because he loves the whole world, even if it costs his own life and that of his family, he is at peace about it...'"

Words that the future revolutionary leader would learn to live by, some of them anyway.

Because for Mao, this mixture of romanticism and detachment from familial - indeed, from all personal relationships - seems undeniably appealing.

There's something a bit chilly to Yang Changji, beyond his penchant for cold baths in winter. Xiao Yu was a frequent guest in Professor Yang's home, both in Changsha and later in Beijing, and he took many meals with the professor, Mrs. Yang and their teenage daughter, Yang Kaihui. "At the table we were always joined by Kaihui and her mother. When they entered we merely bowed our heads politely in greeting but none of us ever spoke. Every week for two whole years we ate our meal rapidly and in silence, not one of us ever uttering a single word...Mr. Yang himself never said a word and we all respected his silence and ate as rapidly as possible. The atmosphere reminded one of people praying in a church. Mr. Yang paid a great deal of attention to matters of hygiene but apparently he did not realize that it is better for one's health to talk and laugh normally during meals, that a happy atmosphere aids digestion."

Regardless, Yang Changji seems to have been the first person in some kind of position of respect and authority who recognized Mao's genius. For this reason, perhaps, Mao remained unreservedly loyal to him, to his memory at least, for the professor would not live long enough to see that loyalty tested. In fact, Xiao Yu believed that Yang Changji's icy baths in the frigid Beijing winter - "Every day one must do something difficult to strengthen one's will," Yang once told him - contributed to his death in 1919 at the early age of fifty-six.

In April 1915, Yang Changji wrote about Mao in his journal. Mao was a peasant, from a family of peasants, Yang Changji reported. "And yet it is truly difficult to find someone so intelligent and handsome as Mao. Since many unusual talents have come from peasant families, I exhorted him, using the examples of Zeng Disheng and Liang Rengong. Student Mao had worked as a peasant for two years and had also been a soldier for half a year at the time when the Republic superceded the empire. He has truly had an interesting life history."

This journal entry by his mentor sums up what First Normal gave to Mao Zedong: a measure of acceptance. For the first time, the great detriment to being recognized as a Superior Man, his grubby peasant background, was something else entirely. A strength to which he could play, a role to act - the rough, native genius.

Xiao Yu tells of the summer in 1915 that he and Mao lived together on campus. Mao seemed to delight in exaggerating his slovenly personal habits and teasing Xiao Yu about his somewhat compulsive fastidiousness. You take too many baths, Mao would exclaim, and brushing one's teeth after every meal was undeniably a bourgeois habit. Xiao Yu, for his part, "could not see why belonging to the proletariat and being a Communist prevented one from having a free will in such matters, or compelled one to be dirty." Mao, according to Xiao Yu, smelled so gamy that that the other two students staying at school that summer preferred to eat at a separate table. Observing Mao's habitually messy study, Xiao Yu joked: "if a great hero does not clean and sweep his own room how can he possibly think he is capable of cleaning up the universe." To which Mao responded: "A great hero who thinks about cleaning up the universe has not time to think about sweeping rooms!"

But at this time Mao was by no means certain that he was a great hero.

"Except for you, who would speak to me of the way?" Mao writes Xiao Yu in a 1915 letter. "After reading your precious statements, my heart feels lightened and refreshed. However, the knots which bind it are still thick, while the many heavy thoughts are deeply accumulated. They multiply and weigh down on me, and I am unable to free myself. Will you allow me to release them by talking to you?"

He is twenty-one years old, doubting his virtue, his will to act as a superior man; he is lonely for human contact, for friendship and understanding. His best friend at First Normal, Xiao Yu, has graduated and gone to teach at a neighboring middle school.

"I am frightened morning and night and ashamed to face up to the ideal of the superior man," Mao tells Xiao Yu, unburdening himself. He then quotes from his journal, an entry he calls "self-accusation." Read it, and you will know the pain in my heart, he writes.

"A guest said to me: 'Do you know the bottle gourd? When the sun shines and the earth begins to warm, it sprouts and spreads...If it is not interfered with by men, it will spread among the thorn bushes and reach out within the confines of the (beds?). The seasons progress in good order, and it throws out a bud furtively, here and there. People will say, "this is only some type of weed," but when autumn descends and the leaves wither, a shepherd boy passes among the plants, cutting away the reeds and separating the shrubs."

"What remains," the guest continues, "that substantial object" is the vine's gourd, a thing which can be used for a practical purpose.

"On the other hand, observe the peony which grows within the garden. Its green calyxes and vermilion blossoms lean this way and that, bursting with energy. Majestic and brilliant, the blossoms compete with one another in beauty and opulence. The unenlightened would say, 'The fruit of this plant must be enormous.' Who would think that when fall arrives and the cold weather returns, the flowers shrivel, and there is not fruit to harvest.

Observing these two plants, asks the guest, which should we emulate?
"I answered: 'the peony flourishes first and later declines. The gourd declines first and later flourishes. The one has no end product and the other has. One should emulate the one with an end product, and is this not the gourd?'

"'I see you have but one crude skill,' the guest responds. "And yet you make a treasured gift of it. You have not achieved any measure of virtue, and yet you wish to make a show for the crowds, gathering your kind around you and putting on airs by rolling up your sleeves and raising your eyebrows. You do not have the capacity for tranquility; you are fickle and excitable. Like a woman preening herself, you know no shame. Your outside looks strong, but your inside is truly empty. Your ambitions for fame and fortune are not suppressed, and your sensual desires grow daily. You enjoy all hearsay and rumor, perturbing the spirit and misusing time and generally delight in yourself. You always emulate what the peony does, without any hope for any end product, but deceive yourself by saying, 'I emulate the gourd.' Is this not dishonesty?'"

To a former teacher, Li Jinxi, who has just moved to Beijing, Mao writes: "Throughout my life, I have never had good teachers or friends. Regrettably, I met you, elder brother, only late. How much I desire to seek your guidance every day! In the last two years, my desire to find friends has become most fervent. After I returned from the summer holidays, I posted a notice in several schools. Five or six people responded. This is the only thing which makes my heart a little lighter these days."

A similar impulse led Mao to publish an advertisement in a Changsha paper, "inviting young men interested in patriotic work to make a contact with me," Mao told Edgar Snow some twenty years later. Mao signed the notice, "28 Strokes," a pseudonym based on the number of strokes needed to write his name. The results were not satisfactory. As he told Edgar Snow, the respondents consisted of "three future reactionaries and one half-hearted fellow named Li Lisan. Li listened to all I had to say, and then went away without making any definite proposals himself, and our friendship never developed." That's a nice way of putting it, really. The "half-hearted" Li would one day be the leader of the Chinese Communist Party, one of Mao's more significant rivals. By the time Edgar Snow interviewed Mao Zedong, Li Lisan had been expelled from his posts and exiled to Moscow. Reviled there as he was in China - nobody likes a loser - he was accused of "deviationism," interrogated and detained until he was allowed to return to China in 1945. During the Cultural Revolution, Li became a target for political attacks and supposedly committed suicide. These things tended to happen to Mao's rivals - even ones so thoroughly vanquished such a long time ago.

But in this moment of his life, Mao is more open about his emotions than he will ever be again. He longs for friendship, for comrades who will listen to his dreams, his fears, share in his goals, who will accept him. In the face of his country's continuing chaotic spiral, he is willing to admit his own fear, his despair at the ugliness of martial conflict that he would later celebrate. "Since we said good-bye, the rains have been very heavy, and I have not been able to return home," he writes Xiao Yu in 1916. "Also because robbery continues and unrest is breaking out on all sides, I dare not risk travelling." His mother is ill at home, he continues, "how can a wandering son be unmoved?

"...These bleak surroundings are depressing. In the vicinity are only soldiers, a rough crowd that comes from the mountain wilds. They talk like birds and look like animals...What my eyes and mind encounter is mostly tragic. Suddenly, I hear the blowing of a trumpet, then the clanking of army equipment, rousing martial sounds of fighting and battle. When I hear them in the deep of night, the tears begin to fall unawares...

"Regarding my earlier request that you write me, I hope you will not let me down," he signs off his letter to Xiao Yu. "Also please take care of your health. I have no way of revealing all that is in my heart."

But not two days after this somewhat despairing missive, Mao writes Xiao Yu in a far different mood: "I walked seventy li and stayed at the Yintian Temple. As I was previously acquainted with the host, I feel quite comfortable here. Although my limbs really ache, my spirit is full of joy. I washed off the dust, shook out my clothes, and grasped a brush to write this letter...

"The Guangxi Army is stationed outside of the city, where they swagger down the road, looking askance at those around them, gathering and gambling with other good-for-nothings in the big intersections. The patrolmen sees them often, but dare not question them...After questioning the men closely, I feel they are rather pitiful...

"The scenery along the road is emerald wherever one looks. The water in the ponds runs clear, and the fields are luxuriant with sprouts. At dusk, when smoke hangs in the sky, the clear dew splashes down, and the warm air steams upward. The mountain mists unfold; the gorgeous clouds intermingle; and as far as one can see, everywhere it is like a painting."

Mao would tell Edgar Snow that he was inspired to spend the summer walking through Hunan by a story about two Chinese students who had traveled across China, nearly to Tibet. "I wanted to follow their example, but I had no money, and thought I should first try out travelling in Hunan." In Xiao Yu's version of events, it was orginally his idea, not Mao's, to spend the summer as beggars.

Xiao Yu had just completed his first year teaching, that summer of 1916, and felt the need for some spiritual refreshment. To live by one's wits, unencumbered by material possessions, "outside the accepted pale of society," was the highest form of freedom, he explained to Mao, quoting the saying, "After three years of life as a beggar, one would not accept even a post as a mandarin."

Regardless of who originated the idea, it is agreed that the two set off together one summer, with shaved heads, worn tunics and peasant-style shorts, journeying through five counties of Hunan by begging their food and lodging. "On both sides of the road were fields of young rice plants," Xiao Yu recalls. "At the crossroads were stone signposts with chiseled characters, but we didn't look at these; rather, we looked at the roads and took the one that was widest," walking on the cool grass at the road's side rather than the slate slabs that ran down the middle and absorbed the summer's heat. They visited farm houses, monasteries, even a district capital, earning their meals by composing clever couplets and presenting calligraphic scrolls.

In Xiao Yu's account, the two argued politics and philosophy, as usual, with Mao coming down on the side of a strong state and Xiao Yu supporting a sort of utopian anarchism. Xiao Yu rails against the danger of political power; Mao considers it necessary to organize a nation. People are a flock of sheep, Mao argues, and it is necessary that the government play shepherd. Money power is worse than political power, in Mao's view, "the accumulated blood and sweat of the workers," the "father and grandfather of the mean of spirit." Money grants respect and power to the most unprincipled, wicked people, merely by its possession. Xiao Yu does not disagree with this; he will only argue for the transcendent necessity of following high principles of living. "When people are starving, they are not going to meditate on their moral development," Mao counters. And on and on, in teashops, on riverbanks, on the cool roadside grass.

Toward the end of their trip, as they traveled along the main road that leads to the district city of Yuankiang, the two decide to stay at a small inn. The owner, a pretty young woman, comes over to their table to chat while they have supper. It seems she has skill in reading faces and a gift for prophesy. Hesitantly, she agrees to tell their fortunes, only if the two promise that they will not be angry if her words are disagreeable.

Xiao Yu is "more like a spirit than a human being," she tells them. He will travel far but have "only a 'half' son, because a spirit wants neither family nor son..."

Mao will have six wives, she predicts, and he could become a great general, a Prime Minister, or a great bandit chief. "You are very audacious and have great ambition," she tells him, "but you have no sentiment at all! You could kill ten thousand or even a hundred thousand people without turning a single hair! But you are very patient."

Mao and Xiao Yu found this all quite amusing, with Xiao Yu joking that when Mao fulfills his destiny as Prime Minister or bandit chief, he will have to invite the fortune teller to serve as his advisor.

"She laughed loudly at my joke," Xiao Yu recalls, " and replied: "But he is a person without sentiment! At that time he will have completely forgotten me; he will not even remember a bit of my shadow.'"

It is the kind of story that is so ridiculously romantic that who knows, it might even have happened. And it is true that when Mao recalls that summer for Edgar Snow, of his best friend Xiao Yu, he says only that "this fellow" later became a Guomindang official and held the office of curator in the Beijing Palace Museum, where he "sold some of the most valuable treasures in the museum and absconded with the funds in 1934."

Later, official Chinese historians would characterize this philosophical ramble as a prescient investigation into the living conditions of the peasantry, part of a pattern to establish that Mao was not only the most correct of his comrades, he was also always the first.

The following summer, Mao repeated the experiment with Cai Hesen, this time as the experienced beggar of the team.

His summer travels seemed to reinforce in Mao an already established belief in physical culture, a value he shared with many progressives of his time, including "New Youth" editor Chen Duxiu, who would shortly publish Mao's theories on the subject. "In the winter holidays we tramped through the fields, up and down mountains, along city walls, and across streams and rivers," Mao tells Edgar Snow. "If it rained we took off our shirts and called it a rain bath. When the sun was hot we also doffed shirts and called it a sun-bath. In the spring winds we shouted that this was a new sport called 'wind bathing.'"

Serious young men, taking bare-chested walks together in the name of national salvation...

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