My Review of Dragon in Ambush on MCLC

Dragon in Ambush

Today courtesy of Nick Kaldis and Kirk Denton at MCLC


Dragon in Ambush:
The Art of War in the Poems of Mao Zedong
By Jeremy Ingalls

Reviewed by Paul Manfredi
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright October, 2015)

Jeremy Ingalls (compiled and edited by Allen Wittenborn). Dragon in Ambush: The Art of War in the Poems of Mao Zedong. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013. 420 pp. ISBN: 978-0-7391-7782-2 Hardback ($90.00 / £60.00); E-ISBN: 978-0-7391-7783-9 eBook ($89.99 / £60.00)
Jeremy Ingalls (compiled and edited by Allen Wittenborn).
Dragon in Ambush: The Art of War in the Poems of Mao Zedong
. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013. 420 pp. ISBN: 978-0-7391-7782-2 Hardback ($90.00 / £60.00); E-ISBN: 978-0-7391-7783-9 eBook ($89.99 / £60.00)

Jeremy Ingalls’ translation and explication of Mao Zedong’s poems is an extraordinary work, so full of information that it seems bursting at its roughly 500-page seams. This is not an entirely good thing, because the information provided, while often rich and resonate, is also frequently far-fetched and the assemblage of contents is somewhat unusual. In the Preface, we are told the work is a “critique and new translation of the first twenty of Mao Zedong’s published poems” (xi). This is a deceptively simple description of what is actually a tour de force of literary scholarship, but one that veers into an odd combination of reverential reading of Mao’s poems and diatribe against Mao himself and all that he stood for.

Ingalls, for those not already familiar, was born Mildred Dodge Jeremy Ingalls in 1911 and passed away in 2000. She was a scholar, essayist, and student of Asian Languages who taught in both English and Asian Studies at University of Chicago, Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio, and Rockford College in Illinois. Over the course of her career she was awarded the Yale Series of Young Poets Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, American Academy of Arts and Letters grant, and other awards, as well as an honorary Doctor of Literature and Letters (Litt.D.) from Tufts University in 1965, five years after her retirement. The appearance of this book in 2013 was due to the painstaking efforts of Allen Wittenborn, an associate and friend of Ingalls. Wittenborn met Ingalls at the University of Arizona, where Wittenborn was completing his graduate work in the 1970s. Wittenborn returned to the University of Arizona archives later and produced, from some fifty boxes of posthumous papers, Dragon in Ambush. Wittenborn’s presence in the manuscript is notable: large editorial notes fill out the work in important places, providing background information necessary to hold the great span of truly disparate concerns together in one work.

Structurally, the book is not particularly unusual. It is comprised of two major sections, with Part 1 “Recognizing the Terrain” (a little over one hundred pages) divided into two chapters—”Methods of Approach” and “A Rationale for Ruthlessness”—and Part 2 “Mao’s Poems 1-20” (nearly 300 pages) comprising the translations, with poems appearing in pinyin, traditional and simplified characters, and English. Why, precisely, it was necessary to include both traditional and simplified characters is a bit of a mystery, and the pinyin also seems overkill, but the work is consistently thorough, and these elements are in keeping with that trait. The commentary that follows each poem, meanwhile, is truly exhaustive, working through line by line with general historical setting for twenty of Mao’s poems composed between 1925 and 1936, full explication of textual origins wherein demonstration of Ingalls’ extensive knowledge of classical Chinese literature is in full display, and a smattering of notes on translation issues, particularly as they relate to potential cultural miscommunication. In the translation discussion we can see that Ingalls takes her readership to be those generally interested in Mao’s work but with little knowledge of Chinese literature, recent or ancient.

The really curious part of the work is its intent. Ingalls seems less inclined to educate readers about Mao’s poetic writing than to make them acutely aware of the way Mao’s dastardly plans for world domination are manifest in his poetical writing. In Ingalls’ estimation, the poetry can be read first as a chronicle of Mao’s political thinking of the time, but also as a grand plan for the future for those learned enough to “read between the lines” (3). Ingalls observes:

Acquaintance with what these poems are asserting and proposing is crucial for those of us who recognize the continuing costs to humanity of seemingly effective despotisms and the aggravation of those costs by eloquence dedicated to the celebration of massively artful control over the destinies of other human beings. (ibid)

Two points about this bear immediate mention. First, that poetry could be used in such a way—to cleverly communicate a momentous scheme to a group of would-be political followers—is in itself fascinating. Ingalls’ view is that Mao the poet writes work that is consistently bifurcated, simultaneously communicating on one level with the masses and offering on another an esoteric layer of often conflicting information to be comprehended only by the truly worthy. The second point, perhaps less of a novelty in Mao studies generally but still fresh in the context of literary studies of Mao, is that the textual origins of Mao’s lyrical personae lie almost entirely outside of Marxist-Leninism. They are instead a collection of classical Chinese texts including principally Sun Zi’s Art of War, the Book of Changes, and Laozi’s Dao De Jing. The crux of Ingalls’ work is the identification of a stratum of readers, of which she is the preeminent example, who can actually unravel the dense allusions at work Mao’s poetry, revealing at last what Mao intended his poetry to actually do for his contemporaries and future generations. As readers, or “explorers” as Ingalls names us, we are initiated by her into an even deeper cognoscenti status than the one signaled by the texts themselves, aware of Mao’s hidden agenda and those to whom the agenda is addressed.

Ingalls builds the case for Mao’s nefariousness in the second chapter, appropriately titled: “A Rationale for Ruthlessness.” She opens with a discussion of the thirty two instances of the use of tian 天 in Mao’s twenty poems. Here, though, we immediately see a strange combination of scholarly, well-researched material and willfully unusual readings of Chinese classical texts. Chapter V of the Dao De Jing, for instance, begins with the lines: 天地不仁 / 以萬物為芻狗 / 聖人不仁 / 以百姓為芻狗. Ingalls renders these: “Heaven, in dealing with Earth, is ruthless / Using the ten thousand phenomena as straw dogs / The sage, in dealing with humankind, is ruthless / Using all of the people as straw dogs” (41) [italics mine]. This is not to say that her translation is wrong per se, but it is not standard. Though “ruthless” is a reasonable choice, the phrase is actually “not ren,” where ren (benevolent) is a fundamentally human psychological or moral attitude that is not a part of the nature signified by the phrase “Heaven and Earth,” to which it is here predicated. Further, by breaking the first two characters “Heaven and Earth” 天地 into: “Heaven, in dealing with Earth,” she sets up an oppositional force that is odd at best. Regrettably, this is an essential feature of Ingalls’ view of Mao’s appropriation of traditional literature; she believes Mao aligns himself with Heaven in opposition to Earth. Thus, the distance between ruler and ruled recapitulates Heaven’s ruthless “dealing” with Earth. In other words, Mao treats all people as “straw dogs,” only useful in their function of allowing him to achieve his principal goal of total domination. Ingalls writes:

In this rationale, the inherent ruthlessness and the inherent duration predicted, in analogy with Heaven, of the sage as a cosmically validated commander of humankind, supply the premises of Mao’s poems 5 and 21. In these poems he speaks of the ageless energy that he believes he possesses, in common with Heaven, in exercising, like Heaven, a ruthless activation of the process of change. (43)

The readings of the poems demonstrate similar orientation, often leading to interpretations that strain credibility. Poem 17, “Long March” (长征), might strike most readers as a celebration of Red Army exploits at a historical moment when success of the communists was anything but a foregone conclusion. Here is the original poem in full:


As is well known, Mao’s troops were outnumbered by and materially disadvantaged in comparison with the Nationalists. Mao’s poem describes the ease with which the Red Army travel difficult terrain, defiantly smiling as it reaches its goal. In Ingalls reading, though, these lines become something very different. Poem 17, she describes in her commentary, is

marked by a sustained ambiguity as to whose thoughts the poem is expressing. . . . Mao’s phrasing of his poem . . . sets up the suggestion that the thoughts might be those of the Red Armies but indicates, to close readers, that he is, by intention, summarizing, instead, his appraisal of the usefulness of the expedition to his personal political advantage. (292)

And a short time later:

A Mao Zedong who, like some of his predecessors, including the putative Zhou authors of the Zhou text of the Changes, considers himself endowed with unique talents and obligations to impose a “correct” government upon the human race can, without compunction, regard tens of thousands of human beings as expendable as long as, through this process, he grooms survivors docilely obedient to his further commands. (295)

What Ingalls sees as patently sinister in Mao’s work has its origins in Chinese political philosophy, a flawed system perhaps, but also perhaps no more necessarily conducive to world domination than any other. The essential problem with Ingalls’ work, which seems almost too obvious to observe, is that the “world” of Sun Zi, Lao Zi and the Zhou authors was not that of the 1920s and 1930s when Mao was writing, and thus the charge that Mao intended world domination based on his poetic appropriations of those texts is a bit absurd. Equally absurd is that the albeit over-confident and brazen lyrical persona of Mao’s poetic writing would actually have an intended result—if indeed such was Mao’s intent—to sway populations outside of Mao’s actual control. Ingalls again:

It is, therefore, scarcely surprising that Mao should suppose that, having proved himself an even more ruthlessly successful manipulator of human beings and human affairs than Zhuge Liang, the impact of the career of Mao Zedong and of his words . . . will enforce Mao’s dragon-claw grip upon the shaping of human events through many centuries to come. (99)

For anyone interested in Mao’s poems, or even in Mao himself, this book is immensely useful. As Wittenborn observes in the Preface, one cannot glean a full picture of the man without careful reading of the poems, because what Mao presents in his prose writings is for an entirely different audience. The argument that only in the poems does Mao’s true nature reveal itself, a position that might serve as a sort of raison d’être for the work as a whole, is convincing in a way. However, as Ingalls’ prevailing psychological characterization of Mao is that of a ruthless leader unconcerned with the people he purports to lead, the potential value of reading the poetry is greatly diminished. In fact, with Mao’s careful, even masterful, attention to poetic diction and other detailed elements of the texts, a truly astute reading, the like of which Ingalls advocates, could yield far more than a picture of mere ruthlessness at work in Mao’s poems. Unfortunately, for all of her efforts, Ingalls herself seems to be unable to grasp this broader view.

One final point is worth contemplating. From the wary or even alarmist tone of Ingalls writing one might suppose that she was engaged in analysis of the poetical writings of a living world leader, one who could, conceivably, extend his merciless revolutionary influence to lands outside of China. Given the rather restricted nature of information available outside China during the Cultural Revolution in particular, this might account for Ingalls’ concern about a world leader bent on something far more than governing just China. Obviously, limitations resulting from a lack of credible information of what was happening inside China during the Cultural Revolution and shortly thereafter, when Ingalls presumably began work on the project, could easily have been rectified in the years following Mao’s death with some judicious editing and revision. The incubation of Ingalls’ notes was decades long, certainly enough time to accomplish this task. Nonetheless, with the considerable volume of source material created in the 1970s, the sense that the Mao dragon was much more than poetic fantasy makes a degree of sense in the context of that time.

Whatever one’s political position, historical and/or literary training, Ingalls book is a rich source of information about Mao’s poetic work, and in some respects his personal and political philosophy. It is not challenging to sift through the dense commentary—which demonstrates at times an overabundant antipathy for Mao’s political project and slightly hysterical response to his hegemonic intentions—to find insights about his poetical work, particularly as regards his connection to classical Chinese literature. For those who have a low tolerance for narrow ideological reading, though, such a sifting process might be more onerous than it is worth.

Paul Manfredi ([email protected])
Pacific Lutheran University

New Republic Review of Ai Weiwei–the discussion ensues

Below is an exchange of views posted to Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, a listserv managed by Kirk Denton at Ohio State University. The subject was  Noble and Ignoble  : Ai Weiwei: Wonderful dissident, terrible artist  by Jed Perl. The original article is here

My own opinion below, and following the other posts to the list:

What has long intrigued me about Ai as provocateur, which I think is the best way to see his work either as artist or as dissident, is that he seems genuinely fearless. The clear examples are his constant challenges to Beijing (among other) authorities, whether they derive from be art-related, politically-motivated, or, more commonly, perfectly blended activities. The less obvious examples, though, are often more interesting, as with the 2010 interview with CNN ( wherein Ai proclaims (in English) that China has no philosophy, and no humanity. On that occasion I found myself wondering if he might not actually be mocking his interviewer. After all, he can’t really mean that, right?

Regardless, I was pleased with Perl’s review, mostly because I’d yet to see a single critical word about Ai in English-language press, and this fit that bill and then some. Strangely, this also provokes a somewhat defensive response from those of us in the field, myself included, who are quick to point out that Ai’s artistic work in China remains clearly more relevant than derivative. Obviously, the very idea that his work is derivative begins in an historically informed and global context, where his status (“influence”) as artist withers in the face of his heroic, even cinematic stand against the faceless regime. And of course, as Lucas observes, to get into the particulars of the dissent is more than most readers of the New York Times, Guardian, or CNN, are willing to do. But the media game is where, again, I think Ai has been concentrating his efforts since at least 2008, when the Olympics gave him direct access to a global platform. Indeed, this inclination to celebrity goes back to the days in New York, when he and many who now populate the contemporary Chinese cultural elite (image of Feng Xiaogang sitting on top of a taxi cab comes to mind) were dreaming up their somewhat impossible futures.

So my issue with Perl’s review perhaps comes down to the phrase “pleads his case in art museums.” I wonder, in fact, if that’s actually Ai pleading, or is it instead some battery of curators and art directors, who are perhaps better targets for Perl’s critique than a contemporary Chinese artist making his way, albeit willingly, in a veritable mine field of political and aesthetic explosives day after day. What Ai actually cares about is not Perl (or us), but the people who surround him, and this is perhaps the best thing that can be said about him.

The first response came from Lucas Klein.

From: Lucas Klein <[email protected]>
Subject: Ai Weiwei: wonderful dissent, terrible artist (1)

Jed Perl writes: “once upon a time Tatlin, Malevich, and El Lissitzky
imagined that they might unite radical art and radical politics.” In the
circles of American poetry I travel in, The New Republic is known to match
liberal politics with conservative aesthetics (in the same circles, those
liberal politics are often themselves seen as pretty conservative). I
haven’t paid much attention to its art criticism, but this piece by Jed
Perl (who himself is known as rather stodgy in his tastes) demonstrates
that the same may be true in visual art, too.

Here’s an example of Perl’s art historical conservatism: “If the scale of
a work and the way the work is produced are irrelevant to its meaning or
its content, then what on earth is a work of art? Isn’t a work of art by
its very nature a matter of particulars, of size and scale, of who does
what and how?” This seems like a question he might have wanted to ask Sol
Lewitt or other conceptual artists forty or fifty years ago. There’s
always the question, Would Ai Weiwei be so famous if not for his stance
against the Chinese Communist Party? But the flip-side of that is, Would
Ai Weiwei’s identity as an artist be criticized, undermined, or
second-guessed if he weren’t Chinese?

I’m not suggesting that political virtue and artistic value are the same
(I’ve posted reviews to this list specifically stating that they’re not).
But here’s how it works: Art Review magazine listed him as the most
influential person in the art world in 2011
world/). Maybe you think he’s influential for his politics rather than for
his art, but then again, I can think of no other Chinese person who has
ever been considered most influential in the world in his or her métier
while alive; Mo Yan, Gao Xingjian, Bei Dao, Lu Xun, and Li Bai have never
been considered the most influential writers in the world, and hey,
Chairman Mao wasn’t even the most influential Communist in the world! For
some, what’s influential about Ai Weiwei’s art is that he does not want to
define his artwork only by what can be easily put on display, but rather
that his life (also on display for more reasons than one) is his artwork.

This doesn’t mean everything he does is good. I certainly don’t respond to
all his work (the appeals to the government from many mothers following
the Wenchuan earthquake, framed and hung on the wall at the Hong Kong
International Art Fair, where I saw it last May, did not move me
aesthetically, and I found his Gangnam video stupid and indulgent), but my
own take is, actually, that Ai Weiwei is a much more interesting artist
than he is a dissident. I haven’t read all his tweets or collected
writings, or even seen Never Sorry (so this is limited; please write in if
you think my judgment is hasty), but my sense is that as a political
thinker he’s a one-trick pony, saying no more or less than the Party is
bad. I have seen no systematic analysis or developed perspective, but
rather sometimes who will attack from left or right depending on what he
thinks the problem is. That’s fine, but I don’t think it makes a
compelling dissident (Liu Xiaobo, on the other hand, whom I certainly
don’t agree with all the time, has a consistent Liberal standpoint; a more
developed perspective gives him more range as a dissident). In Ai Weiwei’s
artworks, however, I see him engaging much more fully with the depth and
breadth of the Chinese cultural and political identity, and what that
means for, as John Berger put it (quoted in Perl’s piece), the “style he
inherits, the conventions he must obey, [and] his prescribed or freely
chosen subject matter.” I don’t think he can articulate his aesthetics
very well (many artists cannot), but even in the poorly lit, undersized
images of his sculptures on the New Republic webpage (as if consciously
laid out to appear diminutive), I see craft and concept combined in ways I
find not only interesting and intriguing, but beautiful.


Following are numerous others writing to the list.

From: Stanley Seiden <[email protected]>
Subject: Ai Weiwei: wonderful dissident, terrible artist (2)

I think I disagree with both Messrs Perl and Klein.  Or to speak more
positively, I agree with Perl’s assessment of Ai’s dissidence and Klein’s
with his art.

With little artistic background, I feel far less qualified to comment on
Mr. Ai’s artistic work, but as an enjoyer of art I’ve never found Ai’s
work to strike any fewer aesthetic chords in me than the oeuvre others.
The history of artwork as revisualizations of every day objects is far
older than Ai (see Duchamp’s urinal and Creed’s balls of paper).  What’s
more, the mere fact of one viewer’s indifference to a piece of artwork
(such as Perl’s bafflement at Cube Light) does not diminish its impact to
others.  Ai’s animal heads may be devoid of deeper meaning than a
presentation of Chinese cultural icons, but I question Perl’s seeming
renunciation of, say, the entire Pop Art movement, which was built on
nothing but stark portrayal of cultural icons.  It is hard to have
patience for a critic who would allow a conversation of art without Mickey
Mouse (or 生肖鼠, I suppose).

As for the dissidence of Ai, I highly recommend watching Never Sorry for
its detailed portrayal of the shape and form of Ai’s work to criticize the
government.  I say “work” because it is a laborious project.  Ai doesn’t
just post the picture of his brainscan on museum walls (which both Perl
and Klein object to on different merits); he makes numerous trips to
Chengdu, files all his paperwork, and documents the entire process.  The
message I took from Never Sorry, or at least from what it depicted of Ai’s
process, was that it’s never enough to simply denounce the Party as “bad.”
Ai has taken it upon himself to play out the system, follow the threads
to their end, and hold everyone (including himself) accountable for their

I think separating Ai’s artwork from his dissidence (and I don’t really
like splitting his public image into those two boxes in the first place;
there is more to Ai’s promotion of good governance in China than simply
opposition to government policy) is also somewhat self-defeating.  His art
is a form of dissidence; his dissidence emerges as art.  Ai Weiwei is a
man who deeply loves his country and seeks to improve the government
therein, and much of his artwork is documentation of this passion and
pursuit.  Pollack threw paint against a canvas; Ai is throwing himself
against the similarly blank, expressionless expanse of the Chinese
government, in numerous shades and from numerous angles, and then leaves
us to see the marks that are left.  I am a cynical art student, and I
agree with Perl that a list of names typed on paper, on its own, is
largely absent of artistic merit.  But when I read that list, I am moved
by something much more potent than oils and charcoal.  Ai is not going to
win a Nobel Peace Prize any time soon, but he has taught Americans (and
the world) far more about China than Liu Xiaobo or Tan Zuoren.  That, too,
is a power of art: to rush in where dissidents aren’t allowed to tread.

Ai is an artist; these are his works.  They have the power to stir us
emotionally, even if we don’t understand every installation.  Why
shouldn’t we put them in our museums?



From: Kristin E Stapleton <[email protected]>
Subject: Ai Weiwei: wonderful dissident, terrible artist (3)

Dear all,

I agree with a lot of what Lucas Klein wrote in his response to the Perl
review of Ai Weiwei.  Speaking without any credentials as an art critic (I
did forward the review to my colleagues in Visual Studies here in Buffalo
for their thoughts but have not heard back yet), but having seen the
Hirshhorn exhibition and the documentary, I think Ai Weiwei’s work is
trying to deal with Chinese history and the contemporary world in a
variety of interesting ways.  Maybe it is the eclecticism that Perl
objects to? That light cube was not all that moving to me, either, but it
certainly immediately called to mind the total glitz attack of 1990s
Chinese commercial spaces.  The map of China made out of wood reclaimed
from demolished historical buildings is pretty breathtaking, on the other

As for Ai as a “one-trick pony” political activist, I think it’s true that
in politics he is not as eclectic as in his art-making — the ability to
share ones thoughts on any subject with whomever one wants and have free
access to public information that should legally be available are what he
asks for in almost all of his “performance art.”  That’s not a bad one
note for a one-trick pony to hold to, it seems to me, at this point in
history. (His broader approach to the question of the “legacy of Chinese
culture,” explored by destroying ancient artifacts, etc., is also
political, but in a broader context of cultural politics). The Gangnam
thing may be silly, but being silly is not a particular heinous offense
(at least, I certainly hope not!) and perhaps it only became publicly
known because he has decided that it’s better to just make his whole life
public than restrict it to his immediate circle and the public security

By the way, Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Gallery bought a couple of pieces from
the “Moon Chest” installation, which will come here after the exhibition
finishes its tour.

Best wishes,


From: Sean Macdonald <[email protected]>
Subject: Ai Weiwei: wonderful dissident, terrible artist (4)

I read a review like Perl’s with a large grain of salt.

Different forms of contemporary art have trajectories within their
respective historical contexts. Any work or production that merits serious
consideration deserves to be criticized in the context of other works and
their institutions. Although Perl doesn’t seem to be a very nuanced art
critic, I find his comments to the originality, or lack of originality in
Ai’s work, interesting.

Perl seems to want to simply criticize Ai’s production as derivative
because Perl is anchoring Ai’s aesthetic in Western neo or contemporary
avant-garde work, work that does play with ideas of originality and mass
production. Perl has a point here. But Ai also grounds the content of his
work in contemporary PRC politics and society. Perl also seems to
understand that Ai is not the first contemporary artist to articulate
explicit political messages. Perl just doesn’t like Ai’s “messaging.”

The idea of bringing John Berger into a discussion about a contemporary
artist like Ai is also interesting, but maybe this is where Perl doesn’t
get it. For example, extrapolating from Berger, Perl claims Ai’s work
lacks “sense of the means as constituting an opportunity and a restraint.”
And what if the artist’s “lack of restraint” is precisely the point? What
if this “lack of restraint” is a kind of reply to a context (political,
social, and institutional) that still (from the point of view of the
artist) exerts too much restraint?

In the end, it is possible that neither Perl nor Ai are “conservative” or

All the best,