When Chen Mingyuan discovered 20 years ago that some of his own poems had been included in a collection attributed to Mao Tse-tung, he immediately took steps to let the founder of communist China know about it. What happened to Mr. Chen after he boldly approached China's top leaders on the matter has only recently become public knowledge.
Chen lived through a 12-year ordeal, including imprisonment and four years of manual labor which almost defeated him.
In an article in the official international magazine, Beijing Review, he said he refused to renounce authorship of his poems, despite harassment and physical punishment, though at one point he tried to commit suicide.
The revelation that a number of popular poems attributed to Mao at the height of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) were written by someone else comes almost 10 years after Mao's death and eight years after Chen was allowed to resume a normal life. It first appeared in an obscure publication named ``Weekend'' and was reprinted by the Beijing Review in March. A fuller account of Chen's ordeal, including an interview with him, appears in the current issue of the Review.
There is no obvious reason why the story should surface now, except that, in China, time has a way of uncovering many embarrassing details of history and politics which, even years later, remain somewhat sensitive.
Chen was a student of the classics, as was Mao, and he wrote in a classical style that was rare among post-1949 poets.
``The combination of his study of the classics and of Mao's poetry had given Chen's poems a unique look, leaving Mao's worshippers certain the poems were Mao's latest masterpieces,'' the Beijing Review said.
``It was all by chance,'' Chen said. ``To tell you the truth, it was a surprise to me and to my colleagues, too. The poems were of a classical style that I wrote for exercise and had never been published.''
``Young and simple-minded, I thought I could correct the mistake myself,'' he said.
When Chen discovered in 1966 that 12 of his poems had been included in ``A Collection of Unpublished Poems by Chairman Mao Zedong,'' he immediately wrote a letter to then-Premier Chou En-lai in which he asserted his authorship and asked that the letter be forwarded to Mao himself.
Chou responded by giving instructions to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, where Chen was working, saying that Chen was right to try to correct the matter. According to Chen, the premier recommended that the pamphlet not be circulated any longer and that no investigation was needed to determine responsibility for the case. He also said that Chen should not be punished for speaking out.
``At that time,'' said Chen, ``many of us thought that the premier's responses to the matter were representative of Mao's as well.''
It is not clear what Mao's response was. But Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, and others in her group of political radicals who were manipulating Mao's public image, accused Chen of forging the chairman's poems and had him detained as a ``counterrevolutionary.''
The record was set straight in 1978, and Chen was allowed to resume his career as a writer, linguist, and mathematician -- though there was no public acknowledgement that he had been wronged. He now teaches at the Peking Foreign Languages Institute.
Chen has defended Mao's reputation against the assertion that Mao must have known of the literary theft.
``Only those who are ignorant or have ulterior motives will say Chairman Mao lifted my poems,'' said Chen.
Writing poetry is still the hallmark of an educated and accomplished Chinese. As a measure of respect, poems of Communist Party veterans such as Zhu De, Ye Jianying, and Mao have received much public praise. Their poetry has contributed to their political stature. Chou En-lai was one of the few poem writers among the top communist leaders who resisted the temptation to publish during his lifetime.