“You’re stepping on my shadow, please back off,” she said.

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman

毛主席死啦 (lit. Chairman Mao is Dead)

Essay by Tang Danhong.


Chairman Mao Is Dead!

Translated by Anne Henochowicz

Translator’s Note: This short memoir, which Tang posted to her blog “Moments of Samsara,” captures the confusion of childhood, the personal tragedy brought on by political and natural disasters, and the first inkling of the author’s emerging moral compass. She shows us her conception of the world on the eve of Mao Zedong’s death on September 9, 1976, when she was in fourth grade, and how that worldview underwent its own seismic shift when the “Great Helmsman” left. The Cultural Revolution had worn on for a decade and had shaped Tang, but not quite in the way the Communist Party intended.

Mao died two months after the 1976 Tangshan earthquake killed anywhere from 240,000 to 779,000 in the northeastern port city of Tianjin (the far lower official estimate conflicts with the initial numbers reported by the Hebei Province Revolutionary Committee), and the “feudal” notion still lingered that natural disaster means the ruler has lost the Mandate of Heaven. As an “heir to the revolution,” Tang wasn’t aware of such portent, and as a child, her greatest lament was that the earthquake didn’t amount to much at home in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. The link between disaster and death had not yet revealed itself to her, nor to her peers. Decades later, in 2008, the Wenchuan earthquake would strike not far from her hometown, killing 70,000 and leaving another 18,000 missing. Over 5,000 of the dead were children, crushed under the rubble of their flimsy school buildings.

Tang writes in a deceptively simple style. I laughed out loud while translating some of the passages in this story. Sadly, most of Tang’s puns didn’t make it. Her story opens with her staring at caterpillars, which in Mandarin are máomaochóng 毛毛虫, literally “hairy bugs.” The character for hair, máo , is the same as Mao Zedong’s surname. I played with using “maomao bugs” instead of “caterpillars,” but decided it was too confusing. There’s a second beastly allusion toward the end of the story, when Tang’s aunt recounts how a woman from the country mourned “Lord Mao” (Máo Zhǔ) with such a thick rural twang that it sounded like “wild boar” (máozhū). I did my best to preserve this pun by having the woman lament “Chairman Sow.” I don’t know if “Mao” could really be misheard as “sow,” but I like the rhyme. – Anne Henochowicz


Chairman Mao Is Dead! (chinachannel.org) LARB China Channel Oct. 2017 Online