• World

The Chairman’s Historic Swim

3 minute read

the early 1960s, china was in the throes of economic catastrophe and widespread famine–both resulting from the radical political and economic experiments of Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward. As opposition to Mao’s leadership grew, the Chairman left Beijing in late 1965 for Hangzhou, where he would map out his last assault on the Communist Party’s revisionist leadership–the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. After months of cloistered plotting, Mao suddenly resurfaced in Wuhan in the summer of 1966 to stage one of his greatest acts of political theater. On July 16 he took a vigorous and well-reported swim in the Yangtze River by the Wuhan bridge. It was a signal that Mao was in robust health–and that he was launching a counterattack against his critics in the party leadership.Although Mao was in his early 70s, party propagandists claimed that the Chairman had swum nearly 15 km in 65 min. that day–a world-record pace, if true. The contention elicited guffaws from foreign observers, who took the claim as a sign that China was descending into political madness. Yet for the old man of the revolution, the swim was a call to China’s younger generation to dive into a political struggle against counterrevolutionary party bureaucrats. If the aging Chairman could conquer the mighty Yangtze, surely the nation’s youth could brave the winds and waves of a political storm and overthrow Mao’s opponents. For Mao, the event appeared to be a symbolic reenactment of his own teenage rebellion against a brutal father, whom he had challenged by pursuing physical activities and learning to swim–in contravention of Confucian notions of physical reserve. Yet Mao’s aquatic incitement of China’s youth failed to produce a new generation of revolutionaries. Violent conflicts between contending Red Guard units in Wuhan and elsewhere served only to discredit the student zealots, and the military finally had to intervene. General Chen Zaidao, commander of the Wuhan military region (and a man who nearly drowned trying to keep up with Mao during an earlier Yangtze swim), rallied party and army conservatives in opposition to the Chairman’s political challenge. Months of conflict between rival Maoist groups had crippled Wuhan’s industries, and party conservatives, fearing that the leftists in Beijing would consolidate their power, supported Chen as his troops moved against the Red Guard factions. With one of China’s major urban centers paralyzed by political turmoil and violence, Premier Zhou Enlai and other Mao lieutenants intervened to negotiate an end to the fighting. After two of the Chairman’s emissaries were kidnapped, central military authorities under Lin Biao launched an invasion of the city. Lin’s troops arrived via paratroop drop and in naval maneuvers up the Yangtze. Chen Zaidao was arrested, and Wuhan returned to leftist control. The political chaos that Mao had unleashed with his improbable swim would finally end only with the Chairman’s death in 1976 and the purge of his wife Jiang Qing and other party radicals. Richard H. Solomon, China specialist in the White House during the Nixon and Ford administrations, is president of the U.S. Institute of Peace and the author of A Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com