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--by Madeleine Lynn

  All his life Chairman Mao loved swimming and regarded it as the best of sports, the struggle of man against nature. The Yangtze had powerful associations for him. He grew up with the stories of the heroic battles of the Three Kingdoms period (AD 220--65) which took place along the Yangtze and often sailed the river. His Luxurious boat, the Kunlun, later became a tourist vessel. A constant theme in his writings is the overcoming of natural and man--made obstacles through sheer determination and courage. As he once observed; 'The Yangtze is big river, people say. lt is big, but not frightening. Is imperialist America big? We challenged it, nothing happened. So, there are things in this world that are big but not frightening.'

  Naturally the idea of taming the Yangtze greatly appealed to him. In his 1956 poem 'Swimming', written about the Yangtze, he dreams of a great bridge and a dam to reshape the river forever :
Yangtze River
  Great plans are afoot:
  A bridge will fly to span the north and south,
  Turning a deep chasm into a thoroughfare,
  ; Walls of stone will stand upstream to the west
  To hold back Wushan's clouds and rain
  Till a smooth lake rises in the narrow gorges
  The mountain goddess if she is still there
  Will marvel at a world so changed.

  He was referring to the bridge at Wuhan linking Hanyang and Wuchang,whose opening he presided at a few months later in 1957, naming it 'Iron and Steel Rainbow'. Mao expected that the Three Gorges dam would soon follow but fierce controversy over the project delayed his Yangtze Riverdream until 1993, when work was finally begun.

  In 1956, 1958 and again most famously in 1966, Mao made a series of highly publicized long swims across the Yangtze at Wuhan (the above poem was written after the first of these). These were all years when Mao felt that his position was threatened by rum ours of bad health and by the machinations of his enemies. Swimming the Yangtze was his way of showing the world that he was still health and in command, that he could keep his head above water, so to speak.

  The celebrated 1966 swim, when Mao was 73, was part of the launch of the Cultural Revolution and the cult of Mao as a superhuman figure. Power struggles had been going on behind the scenes. Mao's whereabouts were kept secret and he had appeared in public only once all year. There were rum ours that he wa5 gravely ill or even dead. Then came the 16 July swim. Accompanying 5,000 young swimmers in the annual race across the river at Wuhan, he is reported to have swum almost 15 kilometers (nine miles) in 65 minutes, swimming along with the currents. Pictures of Mao's head bobbing above the water, surrounded by swimmers carrying huge banners celebrating his achieve-ment, were seen not only throughout China but around the world. The message was clear, even in his 70s, Mao was a force to be reckoned with.

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