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Power Swim in the Yangtse

Throughout his life, Mao Zedong had been an advocate and practitioner of physical fitness not only for health reasons, but also for revolutionary ends. From his youth, he had had a penchant for swimming, in particular as a kind of ablution as a political ritual and as an exercise in self-discipline. This predilection assumed national importance from the mid-1950s onward, when the Chairman told the People that: "Swimming is a sport in which the swimmers battle against nature; you should go into the big rivers and seas to temper yourselves."*

Fear not fierce wind and waves
I swim as though strolling leisurely in a garden

Swimming, Mao Zedong

On July 16, 1966, after having spent many months out of public view, Mao announced his resumption of power by undertaking an 'heroic' swim of fifteen kilometers (over nine miles) down the Yangtse River, at the age of seventy-three.

Mao said: "Everyone says the Yangtse is huge. Huge doesn't make it scary. Isn’t American Imperialism huge too? But we took a jab at it [during the Korean War], and there was not much to it. So, there are some big things in this world that are not scary at all."*

In the months prior to Mao’s July 1966 swim, the Cultural Revolution had been unfolding throughout China, with power struggles among the leadership and the rise of Red Guards among Chinese youth. In June, after consulting with Mao who was then in the South, Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping sent work teams, or government supervisory groups, to schools and universities in an attempt to reassert Party control. These work teams tried to control the rising mass movement by banning protests and big-character posters against the authorities.

Mao sat quietly in South China, letting Liu and Deng handle this very difficult situation, until his Yangtse swim.

What joy it is to struggle with heaven!
What joy it is to struggle with the earth!
What joy it is to struggle with man!
— Mao Zedong, 1919

“On the Founding and Operation of the Society for the Promotion of Health,” published in Xiangjiang Review (no. 1, Interim Supplement Issue), 21 July 1919.

New Wave
The Yangtse swim made headlines around the world. In China, this supposedly Olympian feat of strength and vitality was reported as an act with both political and quasi-religious significance. Chinese newspapers were printed in red ink, and newsreels of the event were shown at movie theaters throughout China.

Mao returned to Beijing two days later where he expressed his extreme displeasure with the “erroneous leadership” exercised in his absence by Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, warning that "Anyone who represses a student movement will come to no good end!" (Comment reportedly made in July 1966, cited in the People’s Daily, April 24, 1967.) Then, on August 1, 1966, Mao wrote a letter affirming the right of the Red Guards to “rebel against all reactionaries.” (“A Letter to the Red Guards of Tsinghua University Middle School,” 1 August 1966, in Stuart Schram, editor, Chairman Mao Talks to the People, Talks and Letters: 1956-1971, New York: Pantheon Books, 1974, pp. 260-261.)

*"Chairman Mao Swims in the Yangtse," China Pictorial, October 1966.

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