The Myth of Mao

The Myth of Mao

Some misunderstandings do acquire historical dimensions. In the celebrated interview he granted Edgar Snow, Mao Tsetung allegedly described himself as “a lonely monk walking in the rain under a leaking umbrella.” With its mixture of humorous humility and exoticism, this utterance had a tremendous impact on the Western imagination, already so well attuned to the oriental glamour of “Kung Fu” TV series. Snow’s command of the Chinese language, even at its best, was never very fluent; some 30-odd years spent away from China had done little to improve it, and it is no wonder that he failed to recognize in this “monk under an umbrella” (ho-shang to san) evoked by the Chairman, a most popular Chinese joke. The expression, in the form of a riddle, calls for the conventional answer “no hair (since monks keep their head shaven); “no sky” (it being hidden by the umbrella)—which in turn means by homophony (wu-fa wu-t’ien) “I know no law, I hold nothing sacred.” The blunt cynicism shown by Mao in referring to such a saying to define his basic attitude was as typical of his bold disregard for diplomatic These two notes were written before and the postscript after Mao’s death. niceties, as its mistaken and mawkish English adaptation by Snow is revealing of the compulsion for myth-making, of the demand for politico-religious chromos among a certain type of Western intellectual.

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