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

Yang Xiaobin, another poet’s photography


Poet, critic, scholar Yang Xiaobin, now on the faculty at Academia Sinica in Taiwan, has in recent years joined the group of contemporary Chinese poets working in photography (Bei Dao, Mo Mo, Li Li among others). Yang is certainly the one whose engagement is most fully explicated in his own theoretical manner on his 關鍵詞


is constructed in the manner of “keywords”, including “quotidian,” “badness,” “ready-made,” “subjectivity,” “other,” “garbage,” “trace [Derrida],” “automatism,” “abstract/figural,” and so forth. His photographic images, meanwhile, were originally material objects (flat surfaces such as walls, doorways, pavement) at such acutely close-up range as to render them visually unintelligible. Since then he has moved on to something different, more tactile, and readable. Long explication of his “post-photography-ism” is Palimpsest and Trace: Post-Photographism. Sample images from the exhibition site:




More, and I think better, works available on his blog:

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As for Yang’s poetry, it is often described as being difficult, or at least challenging. Here, for instance, in a translation produced by Karla Kelsey, John Gery and the poet himself, is the second of three short poems, this entitled “Bread”



You sliced the loaf of bread with a comb,

finding inside it hairs of the dead, a squamish voice,

and dry, warmed-over love.

the bread darkened and darkened, its crumbs

more and more seared and shriveled:

Before you could wash and dress, you face, too, was burnt:

its features, not easy to swallow,

burgeon with a hunger for beauty.










*translation appears in Another Kind of Nation: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese Poetry edited by Zhang Er and Chen Dongdong (Talisman House, 2007), 290.

Abstract Paintings and Poems by Chin Sung

Here of late my work returns to the abstract. Below two images and two poems, all by once New York-based Chin Sung (Qin Song). The first is a strikingly experimental poem (“Black Rain”) from 1950, following an image (“Black Forest”) from 1959, then an acrylic painting from 1991 (“Variations”) followed by a poem from 2000 “Notes of a Market Goer”. More on Qin’s biography, etc. in subsequent post.

Night Rain

Windy trysts in the wilds and eloped

Night’s kiss of death loses consciousness

Rapping of rain and monk’s monotonous wood fish

In the distance thus cries of flowing water?

Ice cold dream is colorless

Weeping night sings a black song

like a black funeral march

Midwifing tomorrow’s landscape

The resurrected sun robes itself in a red cassock

Resurrected bearing a superlative cross of gold












Notes of a Market-goer

No matter Nirvana attained or not

He goes to the flea market to catch a show

That cream-colored woman with thick red lips

Sways like shadows in the hot sun

Variety of forms don’t impede joy

A parasol a pair of rain boots some

Used stamps envelopes old record albums

And lost missing person items waiting to be found et cetera

Nirvana once attained  numerous trips to the

Performance    you catch those serendipitous

Market shows  (lost items missing persons et cetera found locations unknown)  that cream-colored woman

Thick red lips under a hot sun like a record album

Like a flea     swaying swirling shadows upon

Shadows (lost items found waiting missing persons?)

Serendipitous joy of a market in unknown location

The beauty of slow smoldering ruins long after the fires of war










涅槃寂滅一次    趕墟戲

游數場  彼等趕幾回不約

而會之墟 (失物尋人等招領



跳騷一樣    搖搖晃晃的影子與





Word-image/poem-picture: A White Blossom

Suddenly finding ourselves in the middle of something very like mid-summer here in Pac Northwest, a winter poem by D.H> Lawrence, and my own translation into Chinese. Just for the heck of it.

A White Blossom

A tiny moon as small and white as a single jasmine flower

Leans all alone above my window, on night’s wintry bower,

Liquid as lime-tree blossom, soft as brilliant water or rain

She shines, the first white love of my youth, passionless 

and in vain

(D. H. Lawrence)









Image from Fireflies on the Grass

Word Image by Yu Huaiyu

Going back through some word-image materials in preparation for revising a chapter on the subject, and returning to the work of Yu Huaiyu 于怀玉, one of the leaders of Shanghai’s poetry circles and, more importantly, originator and principal editor of Shigebao 诗歌报, China’s largest online poetry venue. He is also a visual artist, working in ink paintings.

Yu Huaiyu goes by the name “Xiaoyuer” 小鱼儿 ,or “Little Fish.” Somehow the nickname meets the man and the art 1/2 way, even if there’s nothing in fact in his name save homophony that suggests water bound creatures. His poetry and his visual work share a kind of cleverness, breezy, fresh, and often amusing. “Today I entered a Chat Room” is a case in point. My translation follows below, but preceded by two Yu’s ink paintings.


YHY image 1 YHY image 2 YHY image 2 1

This morning I entered a chat room

Where I found two people

Me, Little Fish

And another guy called Everybody Else

I greeted Everybody Else

But he didn’t respond

So   I left

Come afternoon, I went back to the chat room

And that Everybody Else was still there

I didn’t say a thing to him

and  just left

Before getting off work

I went back to the chat room

and said to Everybody Else

Hey, old friend

Isn’t it about time you left?









我 就走了

下午 我又进了聊天室


还在 那里


就 走了




喂 老兄


Luo Qing’s Rewrite

Visual artist poet and scholar Lo Ching (Luo Qing) has been now and again inclined to rework famous pieces of the Chinese tradition. In most cases, the “rework” has to do with visual interpretations of the literary tradition, itself much overlapping with visual. In some cases, though, Lo also rewrites the poems, taking one jueju 絕句 line at a time as the basis for his own new poetic line. In the following poem, the very well known “Deer Hermitage” 鹿 柴  by Wang Wei, Lo takes the final image of sunlight penetrating a deep forest and illuminating moss, and militarizes it. Wang Wei’s poem is in bold, and Lo’s lines follow beneath.

空山不見人     (Empty mountain, no one seen)

    Because I am the very first

                      Primeval animal

             To become suddenly aware of my



但聞人語響     (But human voices are heard)

     Because I am the last person

                      In the whole wide world still able

                  To speak


                                                Animal talk

返景入深林     (Reflected light enters deep forest)

     Because the very last thread of the world

                      Explodes in a flash

     Penetrating deeply

深處                                            My bones and flesh

復照青苔上     (Again shinning on green moss)

     Because what remains of the dark world

     Is but a bit of shrapnel, shimmering

   Upon the thinnest layer

明滅                                            Of moss

Among the many versions of visual performance of the opening lines of this poem (empty mountain, no one seen), the one below is my favorites:

I like this image in particular for the way that the word for person (人) appears in the word for mountain (山) –where, in terms of the characters themselves it does strictly “belong”– is a bit lost even so, drifting about the bottom of the word, slightly off kilter. The two characters at the right, in fact, have come apart from themselves more or less entirely, with the center of emptiness falling down on to the mountain, leaving two watery dots above.

In terms of self-referentiality, a feature notably most out of sync with the Chinese literary-art tradition, there is the obvious presence of Lo’s ink stamp, again not where it “should be,” appearing in the center of the painting. This bold demonstration of self is deftly mitigated, however, by the even more central location of the word NO () that separates the two characters of Luo Qing’s name, becoming something like “Lo NO Qing,” or “Qing NO Lo,” or simple graphic (non-sequential) demonstration of negation.

Xi Chuan in Seattle



Poets Xi Chuan and Zhou Zan were in Seattle on September 29.  They were reading at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, first iteration of a multi-city tour including Chicago, New York, Washington.  Prior to these major cities, though, they will visit Port Townsend, a small town near Seattle that is also home of the Copper Canyon Press, publisher of the anthology Push Open the Window which Xi and Zhou will be promoting.


Below, Xi Chuan outside the Monsoon Cafe, Seattle.  I told him I wanted a shot of him smoking in Seattle, something increasingly subversive on the West Coast of the United States.  He opted to hide the cigarette.  入境随俗,I guess.