Power of symbolism: The swim that changed Chinese history

Society & Culture

Mao Zedong's dip in the Yangtze River near Wuhan in July 1966 set the stage for the launch of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

Mao swims in the Yangtze

This Week in China’s History: July 16, 1966

Crossing rivers has potent symbolism, especially in times of political upheaval.

Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon and initiated a civil war in Rome. Washington crossed the Delaware in a snowstorm and changed the course of the American Revolution. The Allied plans to secure seven Rhine crossings in 1944 proved, infamously, to be “a bridge too far.” And Máo Zédōng ’s 毛泽东 crossing of the Yangtze as he launched the Cultural Revolution was as momentous as any of these.

Now, to be clear: Mao Zedong did not swim across the Yangtze in July of 1966. But his dip near Wuhan was as consequential as many crossings had been, setting the stage for the launch of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

The point of Mao’s swim was to demonstrate his physical prowess and good health, defying rumors that his age and time out of the spotlight suggested he was anything less than a capable leader. The emphasis on physical fitness had deep roots. One of his very first pieces of public writing was “A study of physical education,” an essay in the celebrated magazine New Youth, published in 1917. Written long before the Cultural Revolution or the People’s Republic — several years before even the founding of the Communist Party — Mao revealed the link between the physical and the intellectual that would guide his actions. “Because man is an animal,” he wrote, “movement is most important for him. And because he is a rational animal, his movements must have a reason.” Throughout his life, these principles applied: Mao valued action above all, and those actions were always based on a principle. More often than not, the principle was what he deemed to be strengthening China.

Swimming, specifically, was one of Mao’s favorite activities. In her article “Embodying Maoism,” historian Poon Shuk Wah tracks Mao’s attempts to use physical fitness, and especially swimming, to combat China’s image as “the sick man of Asia.” “Mao had a genuine love for swimming” that began as an adolescent, Poon writes, when “ he would swim in freezing river water during the winter as a form of physical training.”

His use of swimming for political theater and not just exercise began in 1956, when he swam in three rivers, the Pearl River (near Guangzhou), the Xiang River (at Changsha), and the Yangtze, at Wuhan. Most of his advisers thought these swims were terrible ideas. His personal physician, Lǐ Zhìsuí 李志绥, described in his book The Private Life of Chairman Mao the panic among Mao’s security team and provincial officials, equally fearful of the Chairman’s wrath and what would befall them were Mao to be injured or drown. But there was no stopping him.

For the first of these swims, in the Pearl River, Li was assigned to test the water quality. He had little doubt that, downstream of Guangzhou’s factories and often used as a public sewer, the river was polluted with both industrial and human waste. It didn’t make a difference to the Chairman; he was going swimming. “Mao descended a ladder over the side and plunged into the water,” Li wrote. “I plunged into the water after them, joining the protective circle around Mao. Mao’s decision had come so unexpectedly that he was the only one wearing a bathing suit. The rest of us were in our underwear.”

“The water,” Li went on, “just as I had feared, was filthy. I saw occasional globs of human waste float by. The pollution did not bother Mao. He floated on his back, his big belly sticking up like a round balloon, legs relaxed, as though he were resting on a sofa.”

Pollution notwithstanding, Mao completed all of his swims, and many more. Poon Shuk Wah wrote that Mao swam in the Yangtze 11 times between 1956 and 1962. In his 1917 essay he had written that “students hitherto have paid much attention to moral and intellectual education but have neglected physical education.” Once in power, Mao did not want to be seen as an idle bureaucrat, but a man of action. These river swims were meant to demonstrate this.

And it was the swim of July 1966 that embodied that desire most of all.

Mao had been removed from power after the disaster of the Great Leap Forward; his stature, though, remained. Leaders like Dèng Xiǎopíng 邓小平 and Liú Shàoqí 刘少奇 had grave misgivings about Mao’s policies, but he represented the revolution. The Communist Party brand, it was felt, could not withstand a true reckoning of Mao’s mistakes in the Great Leap and other radical campaigns. So, he was left to serve as a figurehead, the symbolic head of the Party, but with little actual power.

This began to change in early 1966. The Cultural Revolution was, among other things, a strategy by Mao and his allies to regain his power at the expense of the Party leadership that he had helped to install. As the Cultural Revolution gained momentum, Liu, Deng, and Zhōu Ēnlái 周恩来 could take comfort that Mao was an old man far from the capital, with little chance to influence policy directly.

To their dismay, Mao’s swim on July 16 showed a man who was in motion, both physically, as he swam in China’s largest river, and geographically, as he made his way toward Beijing.

The propaganda organs of the state — which Mao had carefully cultivated and made part of his publicity apparatus — outdid themselves with reports of Mao’s swimming prowess. According to the People’s Daily, Mao covered nine miles in just over an hour.

If that seems like a lot…read on.

In the China Media Project, David Bandurski took a deep dive (sorry) into Mao’s swimming accomplishments, partially translating a paper by graduate student Luō Xiǎoyuè 罗晓月 that evaluate the claims.

Luo found Mao swam twice as fast, if the time and distance were recorded correctly, than China’s Olympic champion Sūn Yáng 孙杨, who won a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics. At the 2011 World Championships, Sun’s world record 1500m swim was done at an average speed of 1.7 meters/second, far short of Mao’s 3.8 meters/second.

Critics at the time seized on the impossibility of the feat to ridicule China’s propaganda, but defenders cried foul: the outside observers had missed the point. The Yangtze’s strong current — Mao was swimming downstream — led to the superhuman statistics. The point had never been to imply that he was superhuman, or part fish, or ideologically pure, or possessed some other trait that induced natatorial heroics.

Luo Xiaoyue decided to put this to the test. He assumed that Mao entered the river where the current was the strongest, and took into account that the river is often at its highest volume in July and August, and calculated that the current would have been about 2 meters/second.

Run the numbers and we find that even taking into account the current, Mao is still supposed to have swum at an average rate of 1.8 meters/second: faster than the 2012 Olympic champion’s world record 1500m. And Mao did this over 15 kilometers: 10 times farther than Sun Yang swam.

As laughable as these claims were, the results of Mao’s swim were not funny.

The symbolism of his feat was lost on no one: Mao had served notice that he was fit and ready for battle, political or physical. Within weeks, he had made his way to Beijing, calling on his followers to “Bombard the Headquarters” and oppose the leadership of Liu Shaoqi. In late August he began hosting rallies of a million supporters or more in Tiananmen Square. Mao was returned to power, and he and his supporters wielded that power recklessly and ruthlessly for the better part of a decade. And Mao moved his official residence to the building in Zhongnanhai that housed the indoor swimming pool. He never again swam the Yangtze, but he took almost daily swims for the duration of the Cultural Revolution, right up until his death in September 1976.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.