In 1942, at age 52, Ho Chi Minh, now Chief of State of North Vietnam, was arrested in South China, accused of being a spy. For fourteen months, bound in leg irons, he was shifted from jail to jail. Throughout he kept a diary written in poetry. Following is a selection from Prison Diary, translated from the Chinese by Aileen Palmer and available in paperback from China Books and Periodicals.

Hard Is the Road of Life

Having climbed over steep mountains and high peaks.
How should I expect on the plains to meet greater danger?
In the mountains, I met the tiger and came out unscathed:
On the plains,. I encountered men, and was thrown into prison.

The Flute of the Fellow-Prisoner

Suddenly a flute sounds a nostalgic note;
Sadly the music rises, its tune is close to sobbing:
Over a thousand miles, across mountains and rivers,
Journey’s an aching grief. We seem to see a woman
Climbing a far off tower to watch for someone’s return.


For prisoners, there is no alcohol nor flowers,
But the night is so lovely, how can we celebrate it?
I go to the air-hole and stare up at the moon,
And through the air-hole the moon smiles at the poet

On the Road

Although they have tightly bound my arms and legs,
All over the mountain I hear the songs of birds,
And the forest is filled with the perfume of spring-flowers.
Who can prevent me from freely enjoying these.
Which take from the long journey a little of its loneliness?

On the Way to Nanning

The supple rope has now been replaced with iron fetters.
At every step they jingle as though I wore jade rings.
In spite of being a prisoner, accused of being a spy,
I move with all the dignity of an ancient government official!


To live without freedom is a truly wretched state.
Even the calls of nature are governed by restrictions!
When the door is opened, the belly is not ready to ease itself.
When the call of nature is pressing, the door remains shut.

Sleepless Nights

Through the endless nights, when sleep refuses to come,
I write more than a hundred poems on prison life.
At the end of each quatrain, I put down my brush.
And through the prison bars look up at the free sky.

On Reading ‘Anthology of a Thousand Poets’

The ancients used to like to sing about natural beauty:
Snow and flowers, moon and wind, mists, mountains and rivers.
Today we should make poems including iron and steel,
And the poet also should know to lead an attack.

Autumn Night

In front of the gate, the guard stands with his rifle.
Above, untidy clouds are carrying away the moon.
The bed-bugs are swarming round like army-tanks on manoeuvres,
While the mosquitoes form squadrons, attacking like fighter-planes.
My heart travels a thousand li towards my native land.
My dream intertwines with sadness like a skein of a thousand threads.
Innocent, I have now endured a whole year in prison.
Using my tears for ink, I turn my thoughts into verses.

After Prison a Walk in the Mountains

The clouds embrace the peaks, the peaks embrace the clouds,
The river below shines like a mirror, spotless and clean.
On the crest of the Western Mountains, my heart stirs as I wander
Looking towards the Southern sky and dreaming of old friends.