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The Vine

The Tomato Nation advice column addresses your questions on etiquette, grammar, romance, and pet misbehavior. Ask The Readers about books or fashion today!

Home » The Vine

The Vine: Ask The Readers Book-a-thon #4

Submitted by on March 3, 2010 – 11:22 AM6 Comments

Dear Sars,

I’m hoping readers can point me toward a poem. In a college Asian history class, our professor showed us a Chinese poem. It was a nice but fairly standard poem, had been submitted anonymously to a Chinese newspaper, and was maybe five lines long.

However, after it was published, people realized that if you read the characters diagonally from the top corner, the message was something like, “Down with Mao.” The professor showed us a translation with the hidden message’s words in roughly the same arrangement. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the actual message — it may or may not have been about Mao, but it was definitely something critical that couldn’t normally be expressed.

Because China has a very, very long history of poetry, any combination of search terms pulls up a million unrelated things. I’m hoping one of the readers has more detailed memories of Asian-history classes? I wanted to show it to a friend, and it’s been driving me crazy.





  • Kari says:

    I didn’t know anything, but it was so intriguing that I started searching, too. I found a website that seemed to mention it:

    One of the biggest news events of this spring provides a more recent example of the government’s attitude. A Chinese poet published a poem in a popular newspaper which, on its surface, sang the praises of the Communist regime. However, if one read the characters diagonally across the poem, it said, “Li Peng Step Down.” The poet was denounced by the government and was next heard from in hiding. The newspaper that published the poem had its editorial staff “purged,” which means they were all fired and reassigned to jobs on collective farms.

    And here is a link to the poem:

    (Googling “Li Peng Step Down” will probably get more results as well.)

  • TashiAnn says:

    I forwarded this to a colleague of mine since he is a China scholar and he said:

    I’ve certainly heard of this KIND of thing, if not this particular example. It brings new meaning to ‘reading between the lines’. I vaguely recollect that People’s Daily editorials attacking Zhou Enlai during the Cultural Revolution did a similar thing where the first character in each para when strung into a sentence said something like “down with the rightist revisionist Zhou” or some such.

    Could it have been something less than poetic? Sorry to not be more helpful but hope this helps.

  • KG says:

    I think I found it. The link goes straight to a (small) PDF document, though:

    It’s on page 7 of the PDF.

  • Cora says:

    I’m not sure of the author, but a good place to start would be here. If had to guess, I’d say it might be Wang Meng, but I’m not sure. You may want to surf Wikipedia using either Wang Meng or Liu Binyan as your starting point, looking at who they worked with or knew.

  • Rachel says:

    If your professor is still teaching, perhaps you could reach out to her/him? Most profs keep copies of previous syllabi on hand and it sounds like you have enough detail to jog her/his memory.

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