1956 | Yangtze River

Things Flow Away

Mao Zedong builds a dam.

I have just drunk the waters of Changsha
And come to eat the fish of Wuchang.
Now I am swimming across the great Yangtze,
Looking afar to the open sky of Chu.
Let the wind blow and waves beat,
Better far than idly strolling in a courtyard.
Today I am at ease.
“It was by a stream that the Master said—
‘Thus do things flow away!’ ”

Sails move with the wind.
Tortoise and Snake are still.
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.

Black and white photograph of Mao Zedong with raised arm.

Mao Zedong

“Swimming.” Mao began swimming as a child, in his father’s pond, and as a young man he swam even in winter; he later spent so much time in his indoor pool in the Imperial City that he moved in to the building that housed it. In June 1956, he took a swim in the Yangtze; he then wrote this poem and announced a plan to dam the river. “Mao governed China the way he swam, insisting on policies no one else had ever imagined, dangerous, risky policies,” Mao’s physician Li Zhisui, who was skeptical of the project, recalled. The Three Gorges Dam is now the world’s largest hydroelectric power plant.