Unmasking the Monster

Unmasking the Monster

In 755 the Tang dynasty poet Tu Fu wrote about the corruptions of court life:

In the central halls there are fair goddesses; An air of perfume moves with each charming figure. They clothe their guests with warm furs of sable, Entertain them with the finest music and pipe and string, Feed them with the broth of camel’s pad, With pungent tangerines, and oranges ripened in frost. Behind the red-lacquered gates, wine is left to sour, meat to rot. Outside these gates lie the bones of the frozen and the starved. The flourishing and the withered are just a foot apart—It rends my heart to ponder on it.1

Twelve hundred, and four years later, on December 26, 1959, far from Peking in Zhejiang province, Mao Zedong celebrated his sixty-sixth birthday. At a banquet he did not attend there were eighty guests, eating what Mao’s doctor, Li Zhisui, described as “the finest, most expensive delicacies Chinese cuisine can offer.” These included bird’s-nest soup with baby doves, and shark’s fin soup. The commander of Mao’s security guards, Wang Jingxian, said to Dr. Li, “It’s shameful for us to be consuming such a feast…. So many people are starving to death.” The doctor recalls that outside the gates of Mao’s villa,

beyond the special privileges of the country’s leaders, the peasants of China were starving…. The deaths were now in the millions, and before the famine was over tens of millions would die. And as so many of my countrymen starved, I sat…celebrating the sixty-sixth birthday of the absent emperor Mao…. I lived in a world apart. We in Group One had no rules. There was no law. It was a paradise, free from restraint, subject only to the whim of Mao and the guilt that gnawed those of us whose consciences remained intact.

* * *

Mao is famous for saying that he was subject to neither “law nor god.” That is what Dr. Li’s astounding book is about. I say astounding deliberately. Dr. Li was Mao’s doctor for twenty-two years, and although it is not exactly true to say, as he does, that he saw Mao every day from 1954 until his death in 1976, he was with him most of the time as a truly intimate member of the inner court, of Group One, or the Swimming Pool (Mao spent much of his time in the building housing his private pool), and there is nothing about Mao that his doctor did not know. He never brushed his teeth or bathed; he transmitted venereal infections to his dozens or hundreds of young women; his wife Jiang Qing had six toes on her right foot; he fondled his handsome male guards; and he couldn’t sleep just before he did something especially horrible, either to a person or to the whole country.

I agree with the Columbia scholar Andrew Nathan, who writes in his introduction, “No other dictator has…been as intimately observed as Mao is in this memoir…. No authorized account offers a portrait of Mao that rings as true as Dr. Li’s. It is the most revealing book ever published on Mao, perhaps on any dictator in history.”

But is it true? Dr. Li’s account, in which he only rarely describes events where he was not present or conversations which he did not hear, can often be corroborated from the existing Mao literature. That he was constantly around Mao is proved by photographs taken over the years, including some of the most famous, of Mao in Tiananmen or Mao swimming, when Dr. Li was at his side. There are few surprises so far as major events such as the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution are concerned. When Dr. Li was there, or off-stage, or behind the door (as when Mao was holding mumbled conversations with Richard Nixon in 1972), what he reports is usually a decision by Mao that is now part of the historical record. But Dr. Li gives for the first time a day to day account of Mao’s attitudes toward people and events, and he provides fascinating details not previously reported.

Mao was a millionaire, says Dr. Li, one of the richest men in the country, from the sales of his Selected Works and his little red book of quotations. Mao believed that Edgar Snow, author of Red Star Over China and many other works that displayed his unique access to the Chairman, was a CIAagent. In 1959, while Deng Xiaoping was recovering from a broken leg, he made pregnant the special nurse Dr. Li had obtained for him.

The main problem in assessing Dr. Li’s evidence is his copious use of quotations (often with references to accompanying gestures) which he recalls from as long ago as fifty years. Between 1954 and 1966 he compiled forty volumes of notes; fearful that these would be found by Red Guards who were ransacking the quarters of those who served Mao, he burned them at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. In 1977, the year after Mao’s death, he began composing what would come to be twenty more volumes. Dr. Li says, “Because Mao’s language was so colorful and vivid and deeply etched in my brain, I was able to recall verbatim much of what he had said.” This sounds far-fetched but still, Mao was Mao.

Dr. Li extends this total recall, however, to conversations with relatives, friends, and colleagues starting in 1949 up to Mao’s death in 1976, and he includes a great many quotations from them: “‘It’s been a long hard day,’ Luo Ruiqing said [in 1955], turning to us. ‘Be back here at six-thirty. Don’t be late.”’

Reading such quotations, one must be deeply skeptical. But the scholars who have worked with Dr. Li or have closely examined his account find his book convincing, quite apart from its quotations. These experts include Anne Thurston, a well-known writer on contemporary China, who meticulously edited the book during two years of collaboration with Dr. Li; his research assistant, Xu Yamin, whose own knowledge of the Cultural Revolution is extensive; and others who have met Dr. Li, such as the China specialist Emily MacFarquhar, or have read his book in the light of their own detailed knowledge of the period, such as Lucian Pye of MIT and Roderick MacFarquhar of Harvard.

* * *

Jiang Qing understood her husband only too well. Mao had already been married three times by the time he met her in 1937, and she knew his habits both personal and political. She told Dr. Li, “In the matter of political struggle, none of the Chinese and Soviet leaders can beat him. In the matter of his personal conduct, nobody can keep him in check either.” Wang Dongxing, the official in charge of Mao’s security, who was as close to Mao as his doctor, similarly commented, “Mao considers no one in the whole Communist party indispensable to the party except himself.”

Until recently most of the many studies of Mao and reports did not take this view. Other words were used to describe him, such as “heavenstorming,” “unique,” and “thoughtful.” Foreigners who met him often insisted that he was modest, warmhearted, even Lincolnesque. In 1981 the Party issued a carefully drawn up “Resolution” on Mao, whose composition was supervised by Deng Xiaoping in order to ensure it was not too destructive of the myth of the founding warrior-sage. The judgments in this document are surprisingly harsh, although it says that Mao “was a great Marxist and a great proletarian revolutionary, strategist, and theorist….His merits are primary and his errors secondary.” The Resolution says that during the ten years leading up to the Cultural Revolution, which happen to coincide with Dr. Li’s first ten years as his doctor, Mao’s “personal arbitrariness gradually undermined democratic centralism in Party life and the personality cult grew graver and graver.” As for the Cultural Revolution, between 1966 and 1976, the document describes it as the largest catastrophe for the Party, state, and people since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949; it says of this “error comprehensive in magnitude and protracted in duration” that the “chief responsibility… does indeed lie with Comrade Mao Zedong,” although it promptly adds that “after all, it was the error of a great proletarian revolutionary.”2

In China, few if any of the roughly eighty monographs published in this, Mao’s centennial year or the many anniversary articles come up to even this standard of judgment. The studies are cautious and one finds in them no criticism at all of Mao’s record in the years before 1958, the year when the official evaluation says that the “tragedy” of his regime began. Still, a reconsideration has begun and many taboo subjects can now be explored. Throughout the Eighties it was no longer a near-capital crime in China to damage a piece of paper bearing Mao’s picture or words, and until the last year or two no one wore a Mao badge. And new documents began to emerge.

Some Western scholars have been disturbed on reading them. Professor Benjamin Schwartz of Harvard, for example, who had devoted his scholarly career to examining Mao’s Thought with the care usually accorded serious philosophers, said in 1989 of some of Mao’s unedited remarks, which had recently come to light, “I will confess at the outset that, for this reader, a perusal of these hitherto unpublished, informal utterances of Chairman Mao…do not, on the whole, enhance his stature.” He wondered if Mao’s thought “had any autonomous inertial weight of its own…” apart from “the menacing and bullying tone of his sarcasm directed against individuals and groups.”3

Stuart Schram, now at Harvard, and the other leading Mao specialist, maintained that “despite the terrible cost of his reign, Mao did in some ways move the country forward,” and he called Mao “a modernizing despot.” More damningly, he writes that the “appalling catastrophes of his later years” arose from twenty-seven years of “faulty judgment, refusal to face the facts and errors caused by arrogance, impetuosity and vindictiveness towards those who dared to cross him.”4

Frederick Teiwes, a specialist on Party politics at Sydney University, writing in 1978, two years after Mao’s death, was one of the few scholars who portrayed “a Mao who dominated his colleagues.” More information began to appear in China, and it became increasingly common for Western scholars, Teiwes later wrote, to accept the image of “the imperial palace, of the emperor surrounded by anxious courtiers seeking to gain and retain his favour…based on a political culture of submissiveness [which] existed at both high and low levels within the CCP.”5

But by far the keenest early observer of Mao was Lucian Pye of MIT, who in 1976 wrote,

Throughout Mao’s career the most persistent pattern has been one of building and then breaking personal ties with associates, first with superiors and then with subordinates, and especially potent successors…. The…story of Mao’s falling out with colleagues is in fact the history of the Chinese Communist movement. For once Mao achieved some position of authority in the Party, he began a remarkable pattern of intimacy followed by abandonment.6

But what we see in Dr. Li’s book goes well beyond an imperial court and a culture of submissiveness and beyond Pye’s insights. Here Mao is clearly a monster—egomaniacal, oblivious to twentieth-century science, technology, and language, paranoid, cruel, cunning, deceitful, and a sexual predator. His redeeming qualities, such as his occasional great charm and simplicity, were mostly used to instill false confidence, create gratitude, or extract information.

* * *

Dr. Li left a job in Australia to return to China in 1949. He was chosen as Mao’s doctor in 1954 when he was only thirty-four and he adored Mao during the first few years he treated him; but from the beginning he feared him and before long came to despise him. By 1959, he says, “My dreams for China and the party had been destroyed. My image of Mao had been shattered. My only hope was to save myself.” He had worked for Mao only a few years; there were to be seventeen more.

Dr. Li found that Mao’s determination to have his own way had no limits: Mao was convinced that he was China and China was his. This explains Mao’s passion for swimming in dangerous rivers in the face of alarmed advice not to do so. Taking to the water was Mao’s show of infantile insistence on having his way no matter what; he could not imagine anything within Chinese life that he could not change. Here again Lucian Pye’s early analysis is perceptive. When dealing with Mao as the charismatic leader who told Edgar Snow that in human affairs there is always “the desire to be worshipped and the desire to worship.” Pye sees both dependency and narcissism. In infancy, “when the self has not been differentiated from others or from the environment…there is a confusion of impotence and helplessness…[the] hero’s joy in being worshipped barely masks his anxieties over being ignored.”7 The best Dr. Li can say for Mao is that he may not have known what the worst effects were of some of his policies—but the policies themselves could have led to nothing but disaster, especially because Mao created an atmosphere in which everyone constantly lied to him.

* * *

Dr. Li does not portray himself heroically in this book, although his stamina was remarkable, nor does he see himself as a man who maintained his moral sense while others were losing theirs. For the first few years he worked for Mao, he writes, “I still revered him. I had no independent will or opinions. What Mao thought, I thought. It was not that I had contrary opinions that I had to suppress or keep to myself. Mao’s opinions were mine. The possibility of differing with the Chairman never crossed my mind.” But even during this period Dr. Li felt he was being forced to attack colleagues

for my own survival and for the survival of my family. I had to lie. It was the only way to save my job and be promoted. I wanted, above all, to survive…. I know I would behave that way again. I felt I had no other choice…. If I were to return today and be asked to support the atrocities committed by the Chinese army on June 4, 1989, I would do so. Even today, the Communist party continues to demand that people attack the innocent. It requires people to pledge public support for policies with which they do not agree. Survival in China, then and now, depends on constantly betraying one’s conscience.

There is much truth here—Deng Xiaoping warned his own children to testify against him once he realized that he was about to be purged by Mao in 1966. But it must be said that a significant number of Chinese did not, and do not, behave this way.

Dr. Li came from a long line of rich Chinese doctors, although he received his own medical education under Western doctors at a hospital in western China. He was flattered to be asked to care for the highest Party leaders, and although uneasy he was even more flattered to be asked to look after Mao. “My whole world had changed. The sky had opened up and the earth had embraced me. I was no longer a nobody…. I was Chairman Mao’s doctor. I was ecstatic!” This was more than simple ambition. Dr. Li was very eager to show himself to be a patriotic Chinese. He was ashamed of his father, a high official under Chiang Kai-shek and a faithless husband. Because of this family history Dr. Li had undergone careful screening before he was allowed to join the Party in 1952. But having a “bad class background,” which in Mao’s China could be literally lethal, tormented Dr. Li throughout his time with the Chairman, who reminded him of it when they met and artfully earned his doctor’s groveling gratitude by assuring him—Mao often used forgiveness as a way of binding people to him—that it made no difference.

Almost immediately after joining Mao’s entourage he received a warning he never forgot. Ren Bishi, one of the top five officials in the Party, died in 1950, and soon after Dr. Li entered Mao’s entourage Ren’s widow told him that Mao “has a terrible temper and can turn mercilessly against you at the slightest provocation.” Even though she was the widow of a revolutionary hero, Dr. Li notes, for speaking to him like this “she could have been accused of being a counter-revolutionary, anti-party element….”

* * *

Dr. Li describes a dangerous psychopath. “…Mao had no friends and was isolated from normal human contact…. So far as I could tell, despite his initial friendliness at first meetings, Mao was devoid of human feeling, incapable of love, friendship, or warmth.” Dr. Li was sitting next to Mao at the Shanghai circus when a child acrobat fell and was badly hurt. The crowd was horrified, “Mao continued talking and laughing without concern, as though nothing had happened. Nor, to my knowledge, did he ever inquire about the fate of the young performer.”

Of course, Mao could be actively cruel, and on a large scale. At first, when Mao told Dr. Li that he didn’t believe in killing people, he thought the Chairman was a generous man who actually wanted his enemies to reform. Thus, for example, when Mao ordered “reform” for the “Rightists,” the intellectuals who in 1957 and 1958 had dared to criticize him when invited to do so, Dr. Li supported him. “Mao was good and the Communist party was good. They had saved China.” But he was to learn that 500,000 people had been “falsely accused” of being Rightists; and while “it is true that Mao did not kill his opponents right away,” the reforms—that is, backbreaking hard labor for long periods—”often meant a torturously slow and painful death.”

Later, Dr. Li heard Mao estimate that there were 30 million bad elements, counter-revolutionaries, rich peasants, and Rightists in China who would now be the objects of attack. “We have so many people,” Mao said. “We can afford to lose a few. What difference does it make?”

This was not mere hyperbole on Mao’s part. The historian of Party affairs, Dai Qing, told Perry Link of Princeton that at Yan’an, Mao’s headquarters during the guerrilla period between 1936 and 1947, “Chinese communists numbering as many as ten thousand and including ‘many excellent, independent-minded people,’ were accused of being ‘Trotskyites’ or ‘Nationalist agents’ and ‘eliminated by drowning, burying alive, or death in squalid prisons.”’8 This was the purge in which the father of Jung Chang, the author of Wild Swans, was arrested. He was so terrified that he warned his wife not to weep while she was having a miscarriage. He gave her a handkerchief to stifle her sobs; if she did not her “comrades would say she was not worthy of ‘being in the revolution,’ even a coward.”9

* * *

In their remarkable new book on the meaning of Yan’an to those who remember and survived it, Revolutionary Discourse in Mao’s Republic, David Apter of Yale and Tony Saitch of the University of Leiden observe that in the four key inner-Party struggles that took place in Yan’an while Mao was consolidating his power, “‘each…ended in the death or exile of Mao’s designated opponent. In each case his victory was complete.” As a result, “no one doubted where power lay and the consequences of standing up to it.” This created a culture of violence within the Party which Apter and Saitch argue dominates the thinking and feeling of the old men—Mao’s former comrades—who ordered the Tiananmen killings in 1989.

Locked into their historical memories they are plagued by guilty knowledge. For only they know what they have done to one another, both before Yan’an, when communist plotted against and killed communist as well as other enemies… and afterwards, when they came to power.”10

The inner circle “spent their lives lying, saying things weixinhua, against their hearts.”

Andrew Nathan in his book China’s Crisis writes that Bo Yibo, a high Party official, “was the only leader to admit publicly to a guilty conscience for anything that happened in the years since 1949.”11 In the most telling passage in their book, which sums up the experiences of those who cast their lot with Mao, Apter and Saitch describe China as “a country of angry widows. Each shift in the party produced its own legacy of such widows whose husbands were pulled down, humiliated, subjected to trials, committed suicide or died of beatings, or were atrophied by long prison sentences.”12

* * *

What is particularly fascinating about this cruelty is the extent to which it was necessary to lie about it, either by denying that it happened at all, covering up the causes, or in some way explaining that it was both exaggerated and necessary (as with the Tiananmen repression). But the 1958 Great Leap Forward, which the Party’s official 1981 statement on Mao now condemns, and which caused vast suffering to millions because of its consequent famine (of which the document, however, makes no mention) was based on contemporary lies. One of the biggest had to do with the efficacy of the notorious backyard furnaces which were irrationally constructed because Mao was determined that China must catch up with Britain in steel production within fifteen years. According to another false claim, stupendous increases in the production of grain would result only if new and, as it turned out, crazy agricultural methods were employed.

“History was being made,” Dr. Li recalls the mood of the time. “China had finally found the way from poverty to abundance. The salvation of the Chinese peasantry was at hand.”

Millions of Chinese were swept into melting household implements into nuggets which were arbitrarily called steel. “I was astounded,” recalls Dr. Li. “…I had no idea whether the ingots were of good-quality steel, but it did seem ridiculous.” Eventually even the scientifically ignorant Mao was forced to ask, “If these small backyard furnaces can really produce so much steel…why do foreigners build such gigantic steel mills. Are foreigners really so stupid?”

But the damage was done. China, as the doctor observes, had become possessed with a mass hysteria provoked by Mao, to which the Chairman himself succumbed. No one dared question the absurdity of the backyard furnaces—not Deng Xiaoping, Zhou Enlai, or Liu Shaoqi. Everywhere Mao went on his imperial train he could see flames from the furnaces brightening the night sky. Male farmers left the fields, in which the harvest had been unusually good to tend the furnaces. Later, to disguise the disaster, it was claimed that the weather, in fact excellent, had been unusually bad. Although the women and elderly men left in the fields could not bring in the harvest, the figures on agricultural production given to Mao were obviously false but Mao—supposedly a repository of peasant wisdom—believed them. One of his secretaries, Tian Jiaying, who would commit suicide during the Cultural Revolution, said to Dr. Li—but not to Mao—”In the past, our party has always sought truth from facts, but this isn’t what we are doing now. People are telling lies, boasting. They have lost their sense of shame.” Tian blamed the Chairman himself, comparing him to an ancient king whose concubines all starved themselves to death because he wanted a slim consort. “When the master lets his preference be known, the servants pursue it with a vengeance.”

China had become a gigantic Potemkin Village. Another of Mao’s secretaries, Lin Ke, told Dr. Li that what Mao was seeing out the train window “was staged, a multi-act nationwide Chinese opera performed especially for Mao. The party secretaries ordered furnaces constructed everywhere along the rail route…” In Hubei province the Party secretary

ordered the peasants to remove the rice plants from faraway fields and transplant them along Mao’s route, to give the impression of a wildly abundant crop. The rice was planted so closely together that electric fans had to be set up around the fields to circulate air in order to prevent the plants from rotting…. And what was coming out of the backyard steel furnaces was useless…. The finished steel I had seen…was fake, delivered there from a huge, modern factory.

Dr. Li admits he did not believe Lin Ke, and one of the guards warned Lin that such talk was dangerous.

* * *

Although the 1958 harvest was potentially the greatest in history, by winter the displacement of peasant labor had caused serious food shortages. Crops lay in the fields and rotted because the women and children could not harvest them. And because the claims of high production had to be substantiated, many districts were giving all of their harvest to the state, much of which was then exported to the Soviet Union to pay off debts. “It was a question of face,” says Dr Li. “Mao could not admit that the communes Khrushchev had so vigorously opposed [during a secret visit to China in July 1958] were anything less than a success.” In that first ominous winter, when even those living within the supreme leaders’ compound in the Forbidden City, including the doctor’s family, began to starve, Mao held his sixty-sixth birthday party in the southeast. It was on this occasion that his guard commander remarked that the feast being served was a scandal with people starving just outside the walls.

Dr. Li’s narrative helps to explain what happened in China’s villages. In the book Chinese Village, Socialist State, there are details of what happened in Raoyang county where, only 120 miles south of Peking, temples and town and school walls were dismantled so their bricks could be used to construct kilns in which house gates and pillaged coffins from the rich were burned for fuel. Farmers were drawn from the fields to make useless lumps of metal. In Raoyang the harvest was excellent, but the crops rotted. Among other reasons the sickles had been melted down and the wheat had to be yanked out of the soil by people with bleeding hands. And yet villagers, as elsewhere in China, were compelled to send twice as much grain to the state as the previous year.

People starved to death [in Raoyang]…trapped and killed by a system promoting rapid progress toward communism…. The cruel treatment of individuals and their families who were branded as class enemies for pointing to hunger and disaster forced people and officials to swallow their cries.

Although people in Raoyang did not dig up corpses for food, as in neighboring regions, “the sound of politics had the ring of death. The countryside fell silent.”13

When he learned there were food shortages Mao gave up eating meat. But, says Dr. Li,

Mao’s greatest fear was not that food was short or that targets were too high or that backyard steel furnaces were wasting labor and producing worthless iron. He was afraid that the creative energies of the masses, unleashed by the Leap, would somehow be dampened. If he knew the country was careening toward disaster, he gave no hint. I did not really know either…I remained oblivious to the world outside.

This strikes a rare false note in the book. The doctor had heard what was going on from Mao’s secretaries and knew his own family was going hungry. His only explanation is that “I still thought the problems were temporary, a result of misreporting at the lower levels.” Elsewhere, however, he says that “Mao knew that people were dying by the millions. He didn’t care.” The doctor’s claim of obliviousness is puzzling.

* * *

In a recent article Richard Pipes of Harvard, writing about the ultimate failure of Soviet communism, makes two observations of particular relevance to the Chinese experience and to Mao in particular. Like the tsars, says Pipes, Lenin thought of his personal rule as “unconstrained by either constitution or representative bodies….the Soviet ruler claimed title to the country’s productive and income-producing wealth…. He also owned its people.” Pipes writes that “Lenin showed no human feelings…. A high Cheka official… stressed with unconcealed pride how Lenin ‘mercilessly made short shrift of philistine party members who complained of mercilessness of the Cheka, how he laughed at and mocked the “humanness” of the capitalist world.”’14 For his part Mao, according to Dr. Li,

had grandiose ideas of his place in history…. He was the greatest leader, the greatest emperor, of them all….His own greatness and China’s were intertwined. All of China was Mao’s to experiment with as he wished. Mao was China…. He was ruthless in disposing of his enemies. The life of his subjects was cheap.

This is why he was able to say on more than one occasion that if there were a nuclear war resulting in the death of tens of millions or even half the population “the country would suffer no great loss. We could produce more people.” Many members of his immediate family, including his second wife and two brothers died violently at the hands of Chiang Kai-shek’s executioners. One son was killed in Korea, and two children disappeared. Dr. Li says, “I never saw him express any emotion over those losses.” Perhaps Dr. Li does not know that one of Mao’s poems expresses deep sadness about the murder of his second wife.

Mao’s favorite rulers, whose biographies comprised much of his reading from the piles of books that littered his huge bed, and lined his study, were China’s most cruel emperors. Emperor Zhou of the eleventh century BC, for example, mutilated his enemies, but these and other excesses, including his habit of filling his swimming pool with wine, were negligible, said Mao, because the emperor “greatly expanded China’s territory.” Similarly, Emperor Qin in the third century BC, regarded by most Chinese as their history’s most brutal, was justified in the killing of his scholars, Mao insisted to Dr. Li, “because they got in the way of his efforts to unify China and build the Chinese empire.” As for Emperor Sui Yang, in the seventh century AD, who caused many to die in constructing the Grand Canal—he liked to have beautiful women pull his barge along it—Mao said that he, too, was “a great unifier.”

Having made such judgments, Mao could then permit himself an imperial style of life even while his subjects starved. An important element was the pose of simplicity which took in so many visitors. Edgar Snow, interviewing Mao for Red Star Over China, was impressed by his shabby clothes, his taste for ordinary food, and his habit of reaching into his baggy trousers to scratch himself. Even in those days nothing aroused Mao’s fury more than having someone mention the hypocrisy of this seeming simplicity and call attention to the greedy reality. At Yan’an the essayist Wang Shiwei fell foul of Mao and was finally executed, with the Chairman’s implicit approval, for saying: “The ‘great masters’ take ‘inevitability’ as an excuse for being very lenient with themselves…. men with heavier responsibilities ought to share the life-style of lower level comrades….”15

The only other man who dared confront Mao about his personal life was Marshal Peng Dehuai, one of the greatest of the revolutionary commanders, and according to Dr. Li “the most honest man on the politburo, the only top leader who consistently dared to confront Mao. He accused him of behaving like an emperor, with a harem of three thousand concubines.” In 1959 Peng paid a high price for such frankness. He was accused of being a “bourgeois democrat,” and disgraced until his posthumous rehabilitation in 1978. “I knew Peng was not an enemy of the party,” writes Dr. Li. “I knew him to be a good and honest man.”

* * *

The imperial Mao lived in great seclusion and great comfort, often, as Pipes also showed with Soviet rulers, behaving in much the same way as his imperial predecessors. He paid little attention to time. His movements were unpredictable and kept secret. When he traveled by train, all rail traffic on the line was diverted for days if not weeks. When Mao flew, all other planes were grounded. His food, which came from a special farm near Peking, was shipped to him wherever he was in China. Because Mao was deeply paranoid it was always tested for poison. He rarely met the other top leaders—it is not true, as was supposed by some experts until now, that until the late 1950s they met somewhat like the knights of the Round Table with Mao first among equals. He usually communicated with them by sending written orders, and he spied on them constantly. Contrary to a widespread impression, Zhou Enlai was, in Mao’s presence, a groveling yes-man.

The Chairman never bathed, preferring to be rubbed down with a hot towel by one of his handsome guards, whom he occasionally fondled sexually. (Dr. Li asserts that Mao had “an insatiable appetite for any form of sex.”) He never brushed his teeth, which appeared to be covered with green lacquer and oozed pus. “Everything was done for Mao,” says the doctor. “He never had to raise a hand, never put on his own socks or shoes or trousers, never combed his own hair.” Wang Dongxing, his security chief, said, “To serve Mao, then, is to serve the people, isn’t it?”

He was addicted to sleeping pills and spent weeks and months in bed, often in a state of depression which exhibited itself in insomnia, dizziness, itching, impotence, and anxiety attacks. Dr. Li believed such disorders, which he calls “neurasthenia,” were a “peculiarly communist disease, the result of being trapped in a system with no escape” (the doctor himself was often ill). Mao’s particular neurasthenia, which Dr. Li also calls depression, arose from “his continuing fear that other ranking leaders were not loyal to him…” Until he had settled in his mind how his enemies were to be destroyed Mao could not sleep.

One of the ways Mao attempted to rid himself of depression, foil impotence, and generally indulge himself was to have a great many sexual partners, invariably very young, pretty, and uneducated. This was well known among the inner circle, a few of whose members gave Harrison Salisbury enough information for him to write about it two years ago in The New Emperors. One of Salisbury’s sources was Li Rui, a secretary of Mao’s. But when Dr. Li appeared on a BBC film last year for a little more than two minutes and spoke of Mao’s sexual habits, the government in Peking was outraged. Several BBC reporters were banned from China, and Rupert Murdoch, who is eager to do business in the People’s Republic, dropped all BBC programs from his TV network based in Hong Kong.

* * *

Even when Mao was old, fat, gross in his personal habits, and continually promiscuous, the young women who were brought into his service felt they had been chosen for “an incomparable honor, beyond their most extravagant dreams.” As with the emperors, Mao’s courtiers knew his tastes, and wherever he went he was supplied with women, sometimes from official acting and dancing troupes, sometimes from the servants who were carefully selected to work on his trains and in his villas. “They never loved Mao in the conventional sense. They loved him rather as their great leader, their teacher and savior, and most knew the liaison would be temporary.” One of them said to Dr. Li, “The Chairman is such an interesting person…. But he cannot tell the difference between one’s love of him as the leader and love of him as a man. Isn’t that funny?”

Mao studied texts of the Daoists—followers of Zhuang Tze and Lao Tze—describing a variety of sexual practices that were said to increase orgasmic pleasure, and he recommended them to his nearly illiterate companions, who begged Dr. Li to help them with the difficult classical language. One of Mao’s young concubines told Dr. Li, “He is great at everything— simply intoxicating.” Mao loved dancing parties and after an hour or two with a new partner would take her into one of the rooms which was always ready for this purpose when he wasn’t at home in his huge bed. Room 118, the Beijing Room, in Peking’s Great Hall of the People, was reserved for Mao’s sexual encounters in case there was a state occasion that required his presence.

Mao believed the Daoists were right when they advocated that men have as many sexual partners as possible, and that they absorb the woman’s secretions, ejaculating only rarely. “He encouraged his partners to introduce him to others for shared orgies, allegedly in the interest of his longevity and strength.” Wang Dongxing, the security chief, was outraged at some of Mao’s antics. After Mao had indulged himself with two sisters he said, “If the girls’ mother were still alive, the Chairman would have her, too…” But Wang also saw the Chairman’s sexual adventures as “a fear of death…leading Mao to grab as many young women as he could.”

* * *

Here again we see Mao’s dangerous combination of scientific ignorance, egomania, and cruelty. Dr. Li says that venereal infections were common within the Chairman’s entourage, and that Mao had genital herpes as well. Once Mao was infected he spread the venereal diseases to the women he slept with and then sent the women to Dr. Li for treatment. “But treating Mao’s women did not solve the problem. Because Mao was the carrier, the epidemic could be stopped only if he received treatment himself. I wanted him to halt his sexual activities until the drugs had done their work.”

Mao simply scoffed. “If it’s not hurting me,” he said, “then it doesn’t matter. Why are you getting so excited about it?”

The doctor suggested that at least Mao should wash himself. “His genitals were never cleaned. But Mao refused to to bathe. ‘I wash myself inside the bodies of my women,’ he retorted…. Mao remained a carrier the rest of his life.”

Mao had always mixed sex with brutality and political persecution. Dai Qing has written about his sexual promiscuity at Yan’an and his punishment of those who condemned him for such habits. Agnes Smedley, the radical American journalist at Yan’an, told Edgar Snow that in 1937, when Mao was married to his third wife, He Zizhen, he was already involved with the actress Lily Wu. One night He Zizhen surprised Mao creeping into Wu’s cave. He Zizhen was not a person who would easily tolerate betrayal. She was one of the few women to have survived the Long March, and she had been forced to abandon two of her and Mao’s children. She began beating Mao with a flashlight. She also accused Smedley, an “Imperialist,” of arranging the assignation and hit her as well. “Not one to turn the other cheek, Smedley flattened Mrs. Mao with a single punch.”

Pleading that he and Lily were just chatting, Mao told his wife, “You’re acting like a rich woman in a bad American movie.” But the event caused a scandal in Yan’an. People asked if Mao “can’t control his own wife, what sort of order can he impose on other people?” The Central Committee treated the quarrel as “a secret matter.” Lily Wu was banished. Mao asked the Central Committee for permission to divorce He Zizhen. According to Snow, many of the Yan’an wives wanted to save her, but the Central Committee “made a quick and simple decision…. Mao’s wife was reprimanded for acting inappropriately for a Communist and revolutionary.” She was sent to Moscow “for continued ‘political education.’ ” In fact she underwent psychiatric treatment as a schizophrenic at the hands of Stalin’s specialists.16 The following year Mao married Jiang Qing, who years later confessed to Dr. Li that she lived in dread that Mao would abandon her.

In 1961 He Zizhen was reunited for a few minutes with Mao at a mountain retreat. He had been supporting her in a house in Shanghai. When she saw Mao her face lit up. “He gave her a little hug,” and soon she lapsed into incoherence and left. The doctor describes the event as an unusual example of Mao being kind. He asked Dr. Li what was wrong with his ex-wife and learned that, like Mao’s surviving son, Anqing, she was “schizophrenic.” Mao had never heard of it. He commented only that He Zizhen “is so old.” The only other time Dr. Li ever saw him in a nostalgic mood was the next year, 1962, when the very first woman Mao had ever slept with, fifty years before, was taken to meet him. He had given He Zizhen 1000 yuan. He gave the earlier lover 2000 and again commented on how old she looked.

Dr. Li was holding Mao’s hand when he died on September 9, 1976. “I felt no sorrow at his passing.” The doctor was filled with dread. For allowing the bloated, diseased tyrant to die he could be executed. Instead, he had to oversee the grotesque taxidermy which produced the corpse now lying in Tiananmen Square. In the cellar of the mausoleum, he tells us, is an exact copy in wax. If the stuffed Mao decomposes, he can be slid away and the Big Lie can continue.

Is it possible after reading Dr. Li’s book to regard Mao with anything except horror and rage, mixed with curiosity that such a person could, through the skillful use of propaganda and terror, have stayed in power? Richard Pipes finds it intolerable to consider the calamity of Soviet Bolshevism with dispassion. He agrees with Aristotle: “Those who are not angry at things they should be angry at are deemed fools.”17 And it would, indeed, be foolish not to be angry at the death, suffering, and deception caused by the most destructive tyrant in recorded history.

  1. William Hung, Tu Fu: China’s Greatest Poet (Harvard University Press, 1952), p. 88.
  2. BBC, Summary of World Broadcasts, July 2, 1981, FE/6764/pp. C/21, C/12, C/15.
  3. Roderick MacFarquhar, Timothy Cheek, and Eugene Wu, editors, The Secret Speeches of Chairman Mao: From the Hundred Flowers to the Great Leap Forward (Harvard University Press, 1989), pp. 19, 21. Reviewed in these pages, June 29, 1989.
  4. Stuart Schram, “Mao Zedong a Hundred Years On: The Legacy of a Ruler,” The China Quarterly, No. 137 (March 1994), pp. 143, 135.
  5. Politics and Purges in China: Rectification and the Decline of Party Norms, 1950–1965, second edition (M.E. Sharpe, 1993), pp. xv, lxii, lxiii.
  6. Lucian W. Pye, Mao Tse-Tung: The Man in the Leader (Basic Books, 1976), pp. 271–272.
  7. Pye, Mao Tse-Tung: The Man in the Leader, pp. 12, 13.
  8. Perry Link, Evening Chats in Beijing (Norton, 1993), p. 145. For a recent description of the Yan’an persecutions see Dai Qing, Wang Shiwei and ‘Wild Lilies’: Rectification and Purges in the Chinese Communist Party, 1942–1944 (M.E. Sharpe, 1994).
  9. Wild Swans (Flamingo, 1993), p. 192.
  10. Harvard University Press, 1994, pp. 35, 292, 29.
  11. Columbia University Press, 1990, p. 13.
  12. David Apter and Tony Saitch, Revolutionary Discourse in Mao’s Republic, p. 20.
  13. Edward Friedman, Paul G. Pickowicz, Mark Selden, editors, Chinese Village, Socialist State (Yale University Press, 1991), p. 240; reviewed in these pages, March 23, 1993.
  14. Richard Pipes, “Did The Russian Revolution Have to Happen?” The American Scholar (Spring 1994), pp. 229–230.
  15. Dai Qing, Wang Shiwei, pp. 17, 19.
  16. Janice R. MacKinnon and Stephen R. MacKinnon, Agnes Smedley: The Life and Times of an American Radical (University of California Press, 1988), pp. 190–191.
  17. Pipes, “Did the Russian Revolution Have to Happen?” p. 23.
Jonathan Mirsky was born in New York in 1932 and educated at Columbia University, Cambridge University, and the University of Pennsylvania. He has taught Chinese and Vietnamese history, Comparative...
Reviewed in This Article

The Private Life of Chairman Mao: The Memoirs of Mao’s Personal Physician, Dr. Li Zhisui
translated by Tai Hung-chao, with the editorial assistance of Anne F. Thurston, foreword by Andrew J. Nathan
Random House, 682 pp.

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This article was first published in the November 17, 1994 issue of the New York Review of Books.



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Charlie Soong, born in 1866, was a new kind of figure in Chinese history, an independent-minded youngster with an openness to the world who came to Boston from Hainan Island at the age of twelve to work in a store. At fourteen he stowed away on a Coast Guard cutter, was baptized...

Specters of a Chinese Master


1.Luo Ping, who lived from 1733 to 1799, was perfectly placed by time and circumstance to view the shifts in fortune that were so prominent in China at that period. He grew up in Yangzhou, a prosperous city on the Grand Canal, just north of the Yangzi River, which linked the...

The Mystery of Zhou Enlai


Through the ups and downs of the unpredictable Chinese Revolution, Zhou Enlai’s reputation has seemed to stand untarnished. The reasons for this are in part old-fashioned ones: in a world of violent change, not noted for its finesse, Zhou Enlai stood out...

The Passions of Joseph Needham


It is now a little over four hundred years since a scattering of Westerners first began to try to learn the Chinese language. Across that long span, the number of scholars studying Chinese has grown, but their responses to the challenges of Chinese script have been generally...

China: Humiliation & the Olympics


The IncidentOn a snowy winter day in 1991, Lu Gang, a slightly built Chinese scholar who had recently received his Ph.D. in plasma physics, walked into a seminar room at the University of Iowa’s Van Allen Hall, raised a snub-nose .38-caliber Taurus pistol, and killed Professor...

Casting a Lifeline


Sixty pages or so into Ma Jian’s novel Beijing Coma, the hero, Dai Wei, is troubled by the memory of a harrowing anatomy lecture that he attended as a university student. Taught by “a celebrated cardiovascular specialist,” the class observed the dissection of the fresh...

Sentimental Education in Shanghai


1.In April 1924 Rabindranath Tagore arrived in Shanghai for a lecture tour of China. Soon after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, Tagore had become an international literary celebrity, lecturing to packed audiences from Japan to Argentina. His message—that...

The Quiet Heroes of Tibet


Earlier this year, shortly before boarding the new Chinese train from Beijing to Lhasa, I met Woeser, a Tibetan poet and essayist (she uses only one name). Unusual among Tibetans in China, who tend to avoid talking to foreigners, she spoke frankly about Chinese rule over Tibet....

Mission to Mao


“This was the week that changed the world” was Richard Nixon’s summing up at the end of his trip to China in February 1972.1 The hyperbole was justified, for this visit to China by an American president was a turning point in the cold war. Hitherto, the Soviet Union and...

China’s Great Terror


Long before August 1966, when immense chanting crowds of young Chinese Red Guards began to mass before Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square, alerting those in the wider world to the onset of the Cultural Revolution, senior figures in the Chinese leadership began to seek their own...

‘June Fourth’ Seventeen Years Later: How I Kept a Promise


The weekend of June 3, 2006, was the seventeenth anniversary of the Beijing massacre and also the first time I ever received a summons. It happened, as the police put it, “according to law.” Twice within twenty-four hours Deputy Chief Sun Di of Department 1 of the Beijing...

Liu Binyan (1925-2005)


Liu Binyan, the distinguished Chinese journalist and writer who died of cancer on December 5, 2005, in exile in New Jersey, at the age of eighty, was an inveterate defender of the poor and the oppressed, a man with a powerful analytic mind. But the trait that most determined his...

On Leaving a Chinese Prison


Jiang Qisheng, a former student of philosophy and a human rights activist, was arrested in 1999 for commemorating the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. After four years in prison, he was recently released. He wrote the following statement upon accepting the Spirit of...

A Little Leap Forward


The Communist dynasty is collapsing in China, and in retrospect one of the first signs was a Chinese-language computer virus that began spreading when I was a reporter in Beijing in the early 1990s. The virus would pop up on your screen and ask a question about the hard-line...



1.To stand somewhere in the center of an East Asian metropolis, Seoul, say, or Guangzhou, is to face an odd cultural conundrum. Little of what you see, apart from the writing on billboards, can be described as traditionally Asian. There are the faux-traditional façades—...

China: The Anaconda in the Chandelier


In China’s Mao years you could be detained and persecuted for talking with your neighbor about your cat. The Chinese word for “cat” (mao, high level tone) is a near homonym for the name of the Great Leader (mao, rising tone), and a tip to the police from an eavesdropper who...

Found Horizon


1.Traveling recently by bus from Shigatse to Lhasa, squeezed in between a heavily made-up bar hostess from Sichuan who was vomiting her breakfast out the window and a minor Tibetan official in a shiny brown suit who asked me about Manchester United football club before noisily...

East Is West


Chang-rae Lee has an extraordinary talent for describing violence. Here is his account of the gang rape and murder of a Korean sex slave (“comfort woman”) in a Japanese army camp during World War II:I ran up the north path by the latrines, toward the clearing, as it was known...

Divine Killer


“If there was anything Mao wouldn’t want to see, it was tears. Mao said on one occasion, ‘I can’t bear to see poor people cry. When I see their tears, I can’t hold back my own.’ “Another thing which upset Mao was bloodshed.” —From Mao Zedong: Man, Not God by...

China in Cyberspace


1.It is not widely known that the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan are now at war. The battles are not being fought on land, however, or at sea, or even, strictly speaking, in the air; they take place in cyberspace, where nobody so far has ever died. The soldiers in this...

The Jiang Zemin Mystery


1.Since the Chinese Communist Party leaders will not allow themselves to be criticized in the press or on television, critics have had to find other means to express their political grievances. Historically speaking, one of the most telling ways to make a protest known has been...

Sex and Democracy in Taiwan


Fairly or not, sex scandals in politics have acquired a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon ring. The French boast of taking a more sophisticated view of the private lives of public men—that is to say, those lives are shielded from public scrutiny. Germans smack their lips when their...

Selling Out Hong Kong


1.And so it finally came to pass, at midnight, June 30, 1997, in the brand-new Hong Kong convention center, resembling, local people say, a giant cockroach: the red flag of the People’s Republic of China, snapping in the breeze of wind machines, went up, and the Union Jack came...

Holding Out in Hong Kong


1.The Master said: “If seeking wealth were a decent pursuit, I too would seek it, even if I had to work as a janitor. As it is, I’d rather follow my inclinations.”—Confucius: Analects1Flicking through the April issue of the Hong Kong Tatler, a glossy high life magazine...

China: The Defining Moment


The evolution of the People’s Republic of China since its founding in 1949 has been tumultuous and bloody, and marked by the suffering of millions. It has been anything but peaceful. Yet it is precisely the prospect of “peaceful evolution,” which in Peking has the special...

The Beginning of the End


Failed rebellions are often like failed marriages: former partners and their friends blame the other side for what went wrong; old tensions are magnified; the past is rewritten; feuding camps are formed. This pretty much sums up the situation among the survivors of the Beijing...

In China’s Gulag


Near the end of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn includes a chapter he calls “The Muses in Gulag.” Most of the chapter describes the absurdity and uselessness of the Communist Party’s Cultural and Educational Section, but he also briefly reflects on the relationship...

History on the Wing


Golden Inches is a charming memoir of an American couple who built up the YMCA in Chengtu and Chungking. Their careers on America’s farthest Western cultural frontier in Szechwan province give us a sense of the day-to-day texture of Chinese-American relations during the golden...

From the Ming to Deng Xiaoping


When I began teaching Chinese history at Harvard in 1936 my first students turned out to be the brightest I would ever have—Theodore White as an undergraduate and Mary Clabaugh as a Ph.D. candidate. Mary Clabaugh was a Vassar graduate from Tuscaloosa who came to study...

The Last Days of Hong Kong


1.“Everything you need to know about a new life abroad…. It’s all in the pages of The Emigrant.”—Advertisement for a new Hong Kong periodical, 1989May 1983: It was exactly seven months after Mrs. Thatcher stumbled and fell on the steps of the Great Hall of the People in...

Keeping the Faith


On June 4, the day after the People’s Liberation Army opened fire on the citizens of Beijing, the distinguished Chinese astrophysicist and dissident intellectual, Fang Lizhi, reluctantly sought refuge in the American embassy in Beijing with his physicist wife, Li Shuxian. They...

Stories from the Ice Age


Since the Tiananmen Square killings it has become fashionable within the Chinese leadership to refer to dissident intellectuals as “scum.” That was Mao’s view, too. In 1942, the chairman, his armies besieged by both Chiang Kai-shek and the Japanese army, took time off for...

Why China’s Rulers Fear Democracy


To try to understand is not to condone or forgive. Quite the contrary. In this bicentennial year when a euphoria for democratic rights seemed to be sweeping the world, why was it stopped in Tiananmen Square? Why do China’s rulers attack their students like enemies when in our...

The End of the Chinese Revolution


When Deng Xiaoping suppressed the Beijing Spring last month, he thought he was putting down a new Cultural Revolution. Pirated notes from a Party meeting in late April quoted him as telling his colleagues:This is not an ordinary student movement. It is turmoil…. What they are...

The Price China Has Paid: An Interview with Liu Binyan


Liu Binyan is a sixty-two-year-old writer and journalist who is regarded as the preeminent intellectual advocating reform in China today. During the mid-1950s and again throughout the post-Mao period, he has strongly criticized Communist party officials for abusing their power...

Roots of Revolution


The books by Frank Ching and Zhang Xianliang are vastly different in content, aim, and style, as opposite as yang and yin. Yet each casts light on the Cultural Revolution. Considered together, they may even begin to explain it.Mao’s venomous “class struggle” against his own...

Passing the Baton in Beijing


Succession has become an omnipresent problem not only in China but throughout Asia. Long-lasting regimes under aging rulers are entering their twilight zone in North Korea, Burma, and Indonesia, and face a period of weakness and uncertainty, for the moment...

Our Mission in China


This is the bicentennial year for contacts between the United States and China, since it was in 1784 that the merchant ship Empress of China sailed to Canton from New York. It was an auspicious beginning, at least for the American backers of the voyage; the trip netted them 30...

China: How Much Dissent?


In the year 278 BC an aristocrat and poet named Qu Yuan took his own life by throwing himself into the waters of the Milo River. Qu Yuan had once been the powerful adviser to the ruler of the Chu kingdom, specializing in legal affairs and diplomacy, but the monarch was tricked...

Sitting on Top of the World


Remoteness is often a condition of status and an attitude cultivated by parties to inequality. Chinese peasants, for more than twenty centuries subjects not citizens of the realm, were being literal when they said, “Heaven is high and the emperor far away.” Their world was...

Rules of the Game


On September 18, 1931, a very small bomb caused a very minor explosion on the South Manchurian Railway just north of Mukden, a railway controlled by the Japanese and crucial to their economic domination of Manchuria. The explosion was denounced as the work of Chinese saboteurs....

Bringing Up the Red Guards


Revolutionaries are Monkey Kings, their golden rods are powerful, their supernatural powers far-reaching and their magic omnipotent, for they possess Mao Tsetung’s great invincible thought. We wield our golden rods, display our supernatural powers and use our magic to turn the...

Peanuts and the Good Soldier


In 1927, the province of Shantung was under the control of the warlord Chang Tsung-chang, a ferocious ex-coolie with a taste for white mercenaries and white women. His forces included a Russian brigade with four armored trains; he himself went to war with a trainload of forty-two...

Still Mysterious


Within mainland China today the ratio of Westerners to Chinese is probably no greater than it was in Marco Polo’s time seven hundred years ago. Sino-foreign contact is so minimal that it almost meets the old Taoist stay-at-home ideal, “to live hearing the dogs bark in the...

A Mao for All Seasons


A psychologist and an expert on the Far East, Mr. Lifton believes that the most fruitful way to look at Mao Tse-tung and the Cultural Revolution is to combine the investigation of psychological motives with historical analysis in what he calls the “...

The Great Wall


China is so distant, big, and complex that each Marco Polo nowadays tells a different tale. The authors of the three books under review—a cool Swedish journalist, a passionate Chinese true-believer, and a philosophical Frenchman—give very different impressions of Chairman Mao...

How to Deal with the Chinese Revolution


The Vietnam debate reflects our intellectual unpreparedness. Crisis has arisen on the farthest frontier of public knowledge, and viewpoints diverge widely because we all lack background information. “Vietnam” was not even a label on our horizon twenty years ago. It was still...