It was probably the most powerful political publicity stunt in Chinese history. Fifty years ago this summer, 73-year-old Chairman Mao Zedong plunged into the Yangtze and led a reported 5,000 adoring followers in Wuhan’s annual swim. The ripple effect would last for a decade.
The stage-managed act of political theatre generated news worldwide, inspiring a series of classic propaganda art posters and even a movie, released in August 1966.
“The water of the river seemed to be smiling that day,” reported the official Chinese news agency.
Those looking on though could hardly have grasped the full significance of the event, which was loaded with symbolism for the Chinese people.
Mao had left Beijing and retreated to the shadows in Hangzhou in late 1965, buffeted by his critics among the revisionist bureaucrats of the Communist Party’s counter-revolutionary faction. He entered the waters at Wuhan the old man of the revolution, his nascent Cultural Revolution still fragile in its conception. He emerged reborn in the eyes of the nation, the inheritor of modern China and once more the Great Helmsman, ready to lead the country to its true revolutionary destiny. Today’s most accomplished spin doctor could not have planned it better.
“The July 1966 swim for Mao is full of political messages,” says Xu Guoqi, professor of history at the University of Hong Kong and author of Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895-2008.
Xu says the swim showed the people that Mao was robust and ready to drive the Cultural Revolution. In Mao’s own political vocabulary, it was time to combat “great wind and great waves” and when the chairman returned to Beijing two days later, he started to purge rivals such as Liu Shaoqi. Mao’s final revolution had gained full momentum.
The consensus among historians is that the swim was a profoundly significant event in modern Chinese history, yet, at the time, Western media were sceptical that it had happened at all and most in Hong Kong treated it as something of a joke.
Mao was accompanied on the swim by six floating bodyguards and several giant floating posters of himself. No Western journalists were present but his party propagandists claimed Mao swam nearly 15km in 65 minutes and “showed no sign of fatigue”.
The claim was indeed impressive. Local newspapers such as the South China Morning Post, in which Mao’s historic feat had made front-page news, pointed out this represented a world-record-breaking performance.
In a piece headlined “Mao Tse-tung for the Olympics?”, the Post reported comments by Australian Empire Games-winning swimmer Judy Joy Davies, who ridiculed Mao’s historic achievement.
Davies noted that not only was Mao’s swim in the Yangtze made at record-shattering speed but he also had time to “float on his back gazing at a spotless blue sky”. She explained that because Mao was apparently swimming a mile in about eight minutes and the world record was just under 20 minutes, “the world has missed seeing the greatest swimmer of all time”.
Satirical correspondence and speculation on the Wuhan swim continued in the pages of local newspapers throughout the summer of 1966, while in Beijing, Mao and the Cultural Revolution Group set about unleashing the fanatical youth of the Red Guards on the revisionists and the “four olds” (old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits) that were undermining the chairman’s revolutionary struggle.
In August, it was reported that Carlos Parriera, president of the World Federation of Long-Distance Swimmers, had announced in Washington that he had invited Mao to compete in the group’s annual competition, in Hamilton, Ontario.
A credible explanation for Mao’s record-breaking time was offered in the letters pages of the Post, by a P.L. Lee, who accused the leader’s detractors of not understanding China’s geography and quoted an ancient poem about the currents in the Yangtze, by Li Bai.
“In my opinion, Mr Mao did swim about 30 li (approx 9 miles) at the unusual speed reported by the New China News Agency [Xinhua] but this is the speed of the swift river flow only,” he wrote.
By mid-August, the controversy and scepticism had provoked the Chinese authorities to release a movie to establish the veracity of the swim.
It is possible to see the movie, or at least parts of it, on YouTube and while there is no footage of Mao entering or leaving the water, there are clips of him confidently performing a ragged side stroke, watched over by anxious acolytes.
“What to Westerners seemed an amusing public-relations exercise, to the Chinese represented a national awakening,” writes Michael Lynch, in his biography of Mao, and there was nothing contrived about the chairman’s love of swimming or his use of it in politics and the development of his personality cult.
According to Ross Terrill’s Mao: A Biography, Mao learned to swim as a small boy in a pond on his father’s property and, as an old man, he made swimming central to his life. Going “to the swimming pool” became a well-known euphemism among Communist Party officials for an appointment with Mao and Terrill reveals the leader later took a liking to swimming naked, female staff members having been removed from the vicinity.
“Mao had been obsessed with physical exercise from a young age and his first known published article was on sports [in April 1917],” says Xu, who explains that the leader had always attached political meaning to sports.
In 1956, Mao’s first swim of the Yangtze inspired him to compose the poem Youyong (“swimming”), which turned the crossing into a memorable feat.
Two years later, Mao turned his love of swimming to his political advantage during his factious relationship with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. The Chinese leader suggested hosting delicate discussions with a Russian delegation inside the Communist Party’s secret Beijing inner sanctum, known as Zhongnanhai, which had a swimming pool: a rare luxury in 1950s China.
Mao was aware that Khrushchev came from a humble rural background, was poorly educated and could not swim but he insisted the portly Russian leader don bathing shorts and join him for a swim. Mao seemed to savour the apparent discomfort of Khrushchev, who gingerly staggered around the shallow end while his Chinese counterpart confidently swam lengths.
Mao’s personal physician, Li Zhisui, said he believed he was playing the role of emperor, “treating Khrushchev like a barbarian come to pay tribute”.
The use of swimming to demonstrate the vitality and strength of a Chinese leader continued after the death of Mao, in 1976, but with varying degrees of success.
Deng Xiaoping claimed to swim an hour every day and it was reported he took an invigorating dip shortly after ordering the bloody military crackdown in Tiananmen Square, on June 4, 1989.
Deng’s successor, Jiang Zemin, failed to achieve anything resembling a Mao-style personality cult. In October 1997, when, during an official visit to the United States, he elected to go swimming on Waikiki Beach, in Hawaii, the unscheduled event was described succinctly by John Pomfret of The Washington Post: “Snapping on a bold red and white bathing cap and a bodacious pair of blue paisley swimming trunks, hiked up high over his paunch, the owlish world leader waddled into the salubrious waters of the Pacific Ocean on Sunday afternoon. He swam. And swam. And swam.”
One Chinese analyst was less charitable, commenting that Jiang looked like a “dead toad floating in the water”.
When Hu Jintao was announced as paramount leader in 2002, he was widely believed to be a non-swimmer and a reluctant participant at the summer Communist Party summits held at Beidaihe beach resort. It was thought in some circles that this somehow made Hu less well equipped to shoulder the burden of office.
“There appears to be no mention of Hu ever swimming in Beidaihe or, indeed, swimming anywhere. Bizarre as it may sound, the lack of records of Hu swimming tells us a lot both about his governing style and about the nature of power in today’s China,” wrote Isaac Stone Fish, Asia editor at Foreign Policy magazine, in a 2012 article titled “Why don’t Chinese leaders swim anymore?”
President Xi Jinping has been accused by some commentators of seeking to develop a Mao-style personality cult and dispensing with the tradition of consensus and collective government established within the party after his death. It was curious, then, that when he disappeared from public view for some days after his succession was announced in September 2012, a party spokesman claimed he had injured his back while swimming.
“He hurt himself in sports and he’s now recovered and he’s now back at work,” Tung Chee-hwa confirmed to CNN. The former Hong Kong chief executive informed the American broadcaster that Xi had been obeying doctors’ orders to get bed rest and undergo physiotherapy. The current leader of China had used swimming to announce his physical disability rather than his infallibility but, like Mao, he is keen to emphasise his affection for sport, with swimming and football being particular favourites.
Xi did unintentionally use swimming to establish his physical superiority over the athletic US President Barack Obama, a keen golfer and basketball player who likes to work out in the gym. According to several online reports, during an official state visit in June 2013, while strolling through the grounds of the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands, in California, the two world leaders exchanged desultory small talk via translators, during which Obama asked Xi if he liked to exercise.
“Oh yes, I like to swim at least 1,000 metres each morning before work,” replied Xi, enthusiastically, but the translator misinterpreted the distance as “10km”, causing Obama to stare slightly incredulously for a moment at Xi’s distinctly unathletic frame.
Chinese leaders are not the only ones to have engaged in swimming for political advantage or to nurture personality cults. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s public image is carefully managed to transmit strength, vitality and defiance.
The photograph of the bare-chested former KGB colonel riding a horse in an idyllic rural setting is probably the most famous (and ridiculous) of him but he has not been slow to see the mileage in swimming for PR purposes.
In October 2015, Esquire magazine published “30 Perfect Photos” of the Russian leader, including images of him engaged in an energetic butterfly stroke, playing with dolphins and, possibly to outdo Mao, descending to great depths in a mini-submarine.
Swimming has played a sinister part in the politics of the totalitarian pariah state of North Korea, where, Soviet intelligence reports once claimed, the late dear leader Kim Jong-il might have been responsible for drowning his five-year-old brother in the family pool, in a mansion in Pyongyang. Kim’s son and successor, Kim Jong-un, is often photographed by swimming pools and reputedly has a floating pleasure palace with a giant pool, water slides and cabins filled with young women.
Nor can leaders of Western liberal democracies resist the allure of swimming.
American Vice-President Joe Biden was recently reported to have a penchant for swimming naked in his private pool, one that female members of his security detail found “inappropriate”. He was only following a noble tradition of skinny-dipping American political leaders started by John Quincy Adams (in office 1825-1829), who took full advantage of the White House’s proximity to the Potomac River by wading through it nude at 5am every day. President Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) also swam naked in the Potomac and evangelist Billy Graham was one of many to go skinny-dipping with president Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969) in the White House pool.
At least Russian, North Korean and Chinese leaders have had the good grace to retain their swimming costumes in public.
Perhaps forgetting that a personality is a prerequisite in the development of a personality cult, former British prime minister David Cameron took a leaf out of Mao’s little red book of propaganda, claiming to have risen in the early hours of June 18, 2013, before a critical G8 summit held in Northern Ireland, in order to swim in the nearby lake. It was not reported whether he wore trunks.
“I have the photographic evidence but I’m not going to share it with any of you,” he told relieved reporters.
Given its propaganda potency in China and elsewhere, no one should be surprised if swimming were to play a part in Hong Kong politics. Despite accusations that his administration is treading water and out of its depth, Hong Kong’s supreme leader, Leung Chun-ying, has hinted at his enthusiasm for swimming.
In his blog, in March, he advocated lunchtime swimming in Victoria Harbour for local office workers. Perhaps he imagined himself emulating Mao, with thousands of devoted citizens following him across the harbour accompanied by large floating banners featuring images of their adored leader.
Alex Kwok Siu-kit, of the Hong Kong and Kowloon Lifeguards’ Union, welcomed Leung’s swimming suggestion, but inadvertently threw cold water on the idea of recreating the glories of Wuhan in 1966.
“Everybody knows you should not swim after lunch, as you might suffer from cramp,” he told the Post.
Hongkongers can only hope the city’s lawmakers do not feel compelled to don their Speedos and launch themselves into the harbour in front of the media to demonstrate their unique strength and vitality.