Mao’s ‘shameless poet’: Guo Moruo and his checkered legacy

Society & Culture

At one time, Guo Moruo was at the forefront of Chinese arts and literature, considered a romantic and iconoclast. But all that changed during the Cultural Revolution, when, in the face of persecution, he failed to rise up to the moment.

Illustration of Guo Moruo
Illustration by Derek Zheng

The words are tinged with bitter irony:

“My poetry, my poetry is my life! Can I take my life, take my most precious life, trample on it myself and let someone else trample on it? I follow the way of the Spirit of Creation: I create freely, and freely express myself.”

Taken from his book of poems The Goddesses (1920), these lines tell us far more about the man who penned them, Guō Mòruò 郭沫若, than the character uttering them, a fictionalized version of Warring States poet Qū Yuán 屈原. Guo started as a romantic poet of the May Fourth Movement, passionately championing creativity and individualism. But his actions in the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976) — condemning colleagues, writing awful poetry in praise of Mao, and urging his past work be burnt — made contemporaries brand him the first of the “Four Shameless Poets.” As an important figure in CCP history, this is a legacy modern China is keen to forget.

Who is Guo Moruo? (“The Chinese Goethe”)

Guo had always been a rebellious and stormy soul. It was also very hard to shame him. He railed against the strict authority of Confucian education and family life he was born into in 1892. The son of a wealthy businessman in Sichuan, Guo became a troublemaker at school who easily defied authority. Classmates would choose him to convey their demands to fearsome teachers. He was spared expulsion several times due to his brilliance, but was finally thrown out in 1909. He treated this as a blessing, setting off for a school in Chengdu.

In a culture of intense filial piety, Guo only stayed with his arranged bride for five days in 1912, then abandoned her forever. For context, fellow romantic poet Xú Zhìmó 徐志摩 would get “the first divorce in China” in 1922, but only after seven years in his own arranged marriage. It would have brought shame upon both Guo’s and the bride’s family. But that didn’t concern him.

In 1914 he followed his older brothers to Japan and started a de facto marriage with a Japanese woman, enrolling in medical school but slowly seduced by Western literature. Many writers of the future May Fourth Movement favoured the Romantic poets of 19th-century Germany and England. By contrast to the stagnation and rigid rules of Qing China, Romanticism hit the right note — born at a time of yearning for liberty and revolution, it “breaks open the rules that shackle human freedom,” said prominent novelist Máo Dùn 茅盾 in his 1930 A Survey of Western Literature.

Guo threw himself into the collective brainstorming of May Fourth. He both translated and compared himself to Goethe, and founded a modern literary journal dedicated to eradicating the moth-eaten ways of Imperial China. His first book of poetry, The Goddesses, is considered the first significant collection of poetry in vernacular Chinese (but not the first to be written), showing the passion that vernacular (普通话 pǔtōnghuà) can tap into. It made his name amongst the intelligentsia, with parts still taught in Chinese schools today.

But romantic poetry wouldn’t save China, which was rapidly being devoured by warlords, corrupt politicians, and invading foreigners. “We want to howl like the storm, we want to erupt like a volcano, we want to radically exterminate and incinerate all existing filthiness,” Guo fumed in The New Movement of Our Literature in 1923.

A more collective ideology was needed. He’d already declared himself a Communist in his introductory poem to The Goddesses, but officially converted to Marxism while translating the work of a Japanese Marxist philosopher in 1924. “Marxism is the only precious raft” for China’s troubled times, he said in a letter to a friend.

His personal revolution soon shifted against foreigners. In 1925 came the “May 30th Incident,” where foreign police lethally put down a riot by poor workers in Shanghai. “Several times I wanted to rush out to grab the pistols from those Western constables and shoot them,” Guo wrote shortly afterwards.

He began to speak at anti-imperialist demonstrations, slowly bringing him into the circle of future Communist leaders. During a stint as chair of the Department of Literature at the University of Guangdong in Guangzhou (a “Red Capital”), he first encountered Máo Zédōng 毛泽东 and Zhōu Ēnlái 周恩来. The latter arranged for Guo to become head of the National Revolutionary Army’s Department of Propaganda when the Northern Expedition started in June 1926.

But Guo and other Communists began to distrust Chiang Kai-shek (蒋介石 Jiǎng Jièshí). When Chiang tried to purge their ranks, they staged an uprising in Nanchang in 1927, with Guo fleeing to Japan when it was crushed. He would stay there for the next 10 years, becoming a foremost expert in the categorization of the “oracle bones” of ancient China.

Guo was well-positioned to pen the book Research on Ancient Chinese Society in 1930, highly influential to how China officially views its history. Marx theorized societies transfer through different stages, each with higher classes who owned the labor of the lower class. Guo applied this to China: up until the final centuries of the Zhou Dynasty (c.1046 – 256 BC), China had been a “slave society,” but from then to now had been stuck in a feudal era of agrarian landlords and farm laborers which the West had shrugged off in the Industrial Revolution. It was why Mao targeted the peasants to drive China’s revolution rather than the proletariat of China’s fledgling industrial cities.

In 1937, Guo rushed back to defend China in the Second Sino-Japanese War, breaking all ties with his Japanese family, even refusing to see his former wife when she tried to visit in 1948. He took up his former position in army propaganda but stayed away from the majority of the fighting.

Instead, he wrote a series of traditional operas that merged old and new, elite and popular art forms. Designed for Communist troops, they told classic stories of ancient China but made them relevant to the present. In the most famous, “Qu Yuan” (1942), Guo made the ancient poet a man of the people, defending their rights and the nation’s honor in the face of foreign invasion and a tyrannical king reminiscent of Chiang Kai-shek.

The victor is spoiled

After Lǔ Xùn’s 鲁迅 death, Guo was the next intellectual Communist in line to lead Chinese arts and philosophy. It shows in the prominent positions he was given after 1949: Vice Premier of the State Council; Vice Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress; Director of the State Culture and Education Commission; the first President of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, all allowing him control over the nation’s intellectual line. He was in charge of important historical projects to cement the legitimacy of the new regime, but went about it with little reverence for the past (blasting a hole in the wall of Ming Emperor Wanli’s tomb when he couldn’t find the entrance).

Although initially shielded by Mao, who believed “his merits outweigh his demerits,” this ended in 1966 with the start of the Cultural Revolution. His operas became bourgeois, his assessment of similarities between Marx and Confucius linking him to the ancient regime.

It was enough. “Guo is said to be a Communist, but reveres Confucius and Laozi,” wrote Mao in a poem. Guo hurriedly stated that all his previous work was in error and should be burned. Shocked foreign commentators believed it wasn’t possible for such a rebellious and fiery writer to have said this uncoerced, especially when writers like Lǎo Shě 老舍 would later choose suicide over recanting.

But Guo insisted his sentiment “comes from a voice deep in my heart.” Perhaps he really had internalized Mao’s messages of the Yan’an Forum about art being accessible and in service of the people — The Goddesses, a work of intellectual brilliance in an elite journal, was hardly for the peasantry. But a more pressing factor was probably the Red Guards who had started massing outside his house.

So started the fall of a great mind. Guo denounced old intellectual friends and colleagues. He bent his assessments of classical poets to whatever Mao preferred, praised his calligraphy as the “pinnacle” of the genre, and wrote poems fervently praising Mao and his wife Jiāng Qīng 江青. Devoid of imagery or metaphor, they read like bland political statements thinly covering desperate shrieks for survival:

Dear Comrade Jiang Qing,

You are a good example for us to follow.

You’re good at living out the invincible Mao Zedong Thought

You’ve put yourself in harm’s way on the cultural front

Filled the Chinese stage with heroic images of workers and peasants.

How oppressive had China become to force Guo to conform?

Late life

Guo returned to prominence in the early ’70s, his lavish lifestyle restored: a residence in the palace of a former Qing prince, filled with antiques, servants, and a limousine. But it had come at a cost: two of his sons were killed in the blaze of public humiliations and self-criticisms. He copied out one of their diaries, stroke by stroke, as penance.

Once the Gang of Four was safely overthrown in 1978, he labored on his deathbed to undo some of the damage (or perhaps lunge toward the right side of history) in a poem celebrating their overthrow: “What wonderful news! / Rooting out the Gang of Four.” Jiang Qing got special treatment as a “White-Boned Demon,” “swept away by the iron broom.”

Future leaders cherry-picked from his legacy, keen to keep intellectuals on side and distance themselves from Mao’s excesses. Dèng Xiǎopíng’s 邓小平 eulogy to Guo praised his “infinite loyalty to the party, to the people, and to the revolution.” But, he noted, his adherence “to a scientific attitude of seeking truth through facts…expressing his own opinions…and never using power to overpower others” was also to be valued.

It’s uncomfortable to remember how the revolution devoured its own children, especially one as fondly remembered as Guo. No mention of the Cultural Revolution nestles among lists of Guo’s great deeds on Baidu Baike, China’s Wikipedia. His desire to burn his own work almost certainly won’t appear in a newly opened “Moruo Drama Town” in Sichuan, dedicated to the accessibility of his 11 traditional Chinese operas. But academics haven’t forgotten. Lǐ Chénjiǎn 李沉简, disgraced vice dean of Peking University, used his example to highlight national intellectual bankruptcy in an education system that teaches survival over criticism, the “nurturing of shrewd liars instead of advocates for truth.”

Unlike the principled Lao She or Lín Zhāo 林昭, Guo was perfectly adapted to swim through these troubled waters. It had taken a man with no shame to challenge the status quo, so why couldn’t he sell his own soul too?