In the early 1960s, as the Great Leap Forward led China into political, social and economic disasters, the opposition to Mao Zedong’s leadership grew; Chairman Mao’s reaction was to purge the party leadership of intellectuals and officials in what is now termed, “the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.”
On July 16th 1966, amidst persistent rumors that he was ill or suffered a heart attack, Mao staged a media event to indicate that he was still vigorous and capable to lead China. It was a swim in the Yangtze River at Wuhan. Throughout his life, Mao loved swimming and regarded it as the best of sports; he took the first of his sporadic swims in the Yangtze in 1956, but as Simon Winchester wrote in The River At the Centre of the World, “the one that [Mao] accomplished on July 16, 1966 when he was seventy-three years old and, as it happened, even more frustrated with his country’s progress than he had been ten years before—that was a truly great event, a swim seen round the world.”
The Chinese press spared no adjectives in its account of Mao’s dip; the report said. Mao contested energetically with waves stirred up by 20-mph winds. His cheeks were “glowing” and “ruddy”. Mao “swam with steady strokes”, “cleaved through the waves” and “floated to view the azure sky above.” When he passed by a swimmer who knew only one stroke, the report continued, the chairman paused to teach the girl the backstroke. The spectators went into “spasms of cheers” and they were quoted as saying “Our respected and beloved leader Chairman Mao is in such wonderful health” and “this is the greatest happiness for … revolutionary people throughout the world.”
The international media was more skeptical. Time reported that Mao swam “nearly 15 km in 65 minutes that day–a world-record pace, if true.” The photo released (above) was thought to have been doctored; the London Daily Mirror described the photograph as “astonishing.” “Have you ever seen a picture or live men swimming and none of their arms showing? … A picture where no man-made ripple breaks the surface [and] not one of the swimmers has his mouth open?”
At least on this occasion, this healthy skepticism was unfounded. His aquatic feats may have been exaggerated but Mao’s celebrated dip did happen. An entire episode of the 12-part documentary “Mao Zedong” (broadcast in December 1993 by China Central Television) is devoted to Mao’s swim and includes footage of his particular chaise-longue swimming style (below). To this day, July 16th remains a memorable day in the Communist calendar. The swimming costume Mao wore on that occasion has been preserved and is on display in Zhongnanhai. Mao’s successor as the paramount leader of China, Deng Xiaoping would also jump into the Yangtze when he was in his eighties to prove his credentials.
See Gao Qiang’s painting of a sickly-looking Mao swimming in a blood-red Yangtze River here.