Người Cầm Lái

A Opera-play Người Cầm Lái (April 2022) presented Ho Chi Minh as the helmsman. By ‘The People’s Public Security Theatre, it celebrates ‘the beloved President’s 132nd birthday (1890-2022) along with the theatre’s 40th founding anniversary (1982-2022)’ (Nhan Dan 2022).

Nhan Dan, (2022, April 4th) ‘Opera staged in honour of President Ho Chi Minh’ Nhan Dan

But there is a longer record…

In 1927, in Duong Cach Menh (part of which is recently translated here), Bac Ho refers to to the Party as the necessarily firm hand on the tiller of the revolution (page 86 Selected Ho Chi Minh).

The trope has history of course can be sought out in many literatures – see Homer, Virgil – but this is also a venerable tradition in communist histories Lenin, Stalin, Mao. Perhaps worth documenting:

The year before Ho Chi Minh described the Party as giving the necessary steer, but while he had already been teaching the course for a year, in 1926 a poster by Mitrofanov described Lenin as the Helmsman (корmчии) of the Soviet state (Media Storehouse 2004):

1926 poster by Mitrofanov – from Media Storehouse 2004 ‘Lenin as the Helmsman of the Soviet state’ Online at

But perhaps my favourite of Lenin is a 1932 lithograph picturing him at the helm of a red-sailed ship (must be a pirate ship as I see some renegades there too, so the date might be wrong as this implies pre- 1929 and Look and Learn, where I’ve nicked the image, was a British children’s mag from 1962 onwards – look and get things distorted is of course a staple of all English history curricula):

5234061 (colour litho) by Russian School (20th century); Private Collection; ( Portrait of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924), depicted as a helmsman steering a ship with red sails, representing the USSR, 1932.); Look and Learn / Elgar Collection.

Let us not think this was not a wider party thing in the USSR though – Stalin, in 1933, was depicted on that same ship:

In China, Quan Gian for the Hong Kong based China media Project, tells us that Mao was already described as the “great helmsman,” or wěidà de duòshǒu (伟大的舵手) in 1949. Quite possibly earlier.

Quan Gian. (2020, November, 2) A Brief History of the Helmsman. China Media Project, Hong Kong online at

‘on February 21, 1950, the People’s Daily published a verse by the poet Tian Jian (田间) that praised both Stalin and Mao. Written in a time of deep friendship between the CCP and the Soviet Union, the poem was called: “Two Good Helmsmen, in the Same Boat” (两位好舵手,同御一条船)’ (Quan 2020)

but earlier Lenin and Stalin were also called helmsmen in China, according to Quan, a search the archives of the People’s Daily, launched 1946, shows ‘that “helmsman” Lenin was referred to as well as Stalin. Lenin was the helmsman. Stalin was the helmsan. And Mao was of course the helmsman. In all instances they were referred to as the duoshou (舵手)’ (Quan 2020).

There was a 1940s Chinese Communist Party song – “You Are The Beacon” (你是灯塔) that refers to Mao as  helmsman: The lyrics went: ‘You are the beacon, shining on the ocean before dawn. You are the helmsman, piloting us forward.’ (Quan 2020)

and a cultural revolution era revolutionary song, ‘“Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman” (大海航行靠舵手), written by Wang Shuangyin in 1964’ (Quan 2020). You can find that here:

All good. But…

I think it might also be possible that Ho Chi Minh was referring to a folk lyric he remembered when he referred to ‘Người Cầm Lái’ in Duong Cach Menh. Not my area of expertise at all but I imagine him critically reworking the (somewhat problematic) tradition here. The lyrics refer to the need for stability (we can keep the reference to chồng dated to the times, though today sometiems also…):

Chồng chành như nón không quai – Rocking like a conical hat without a chin strap

Như thuyên không lái, như ai không chồng – A boat without a rudder, she has no old man at home.

Much as I would like to provide, I do not have a reference for this – so, kindly please, I ask for help, anyone?

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