[This review appear in the Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, Summer 1998, pp. 216-219; and also in The St. Croix Review, December 1999, pp. 60-62.]
The Private Life of Chairman Mao
Dr. Li Zhisui
Random House, New York, 1994,
ISBN 0-679-76443-7, 682 pages, $20 paperback
Humanity's understanding of the twentieth century has been so colored by ideology that virtually all of the century's history is bound to be rewritten over time as facts come to light and as the ideological miasma dissipates. Dr. Li Zhisui's memoir as Chairman Mao's personal physician for twenty-two years between 1954 and 1976 is best understood as yet another "nail in the coffin" of the conventional understanding of this past century.
Even today, after all the revelations of recent years, the western public would not instantly think of Mao when asked to name the century's more vicious villains. And yet we see in Dr. Li's book further confirmation of an enormity: that in just the three years of the Great Leap Forward (said to be from 1958-1960, but leading to a vast famine between 1960 and 1962) Mao knowingly pursued policies that starved a variously estimated 25 to 43 million people to death. If we had photographs of the emaciated victims and museums to commemorate the deaths, we would realize that those were real, living human beings. If the millions of Mao's other victims were also taken into account (and the same were done with Stalin's and Pol Pot's), in what countless ways would our perspective of the twentieth century change from what it now is?
Because he was at Mao's side during all those years, Dr. Li, who died in 1995, was almost certainly Mao's most intimate observer. It is interesting, however, that even the worst excesses are told without recoil. This has the advantage of producing a calm, "objective" telling even amid scenes as to which an application of normal human standards would more appropriately call for passionate abhorrence. Dr. Li was brought to this by having first been a Communist true believer and then, for the last 18 years, a secretly-dissenting sycophant smiling cheerfully and serving Mao out of an elemental desire to keep himself and his family alive.
Here are some of Mao's personal characteristics as reported by Dr. Li:
1. Upon first meeting Mao, people found him charming, sympathetic and casual. But a more intimate acquaintanceship showed him devoid of feeling, and incapable of love, friendship or warmth. "The more one knew Mao, the less he could be respected."
2. He was constantly suspicious and manipulative, keeping his associates on permanent probation. Mao encouraged people to take a position so he could turn against them, and was ruthless toward people, no matter how close to him they had been, if they lost their usefulness. Even Dr. Li feared for his life for long stretches of time.
3. The dichotomy between Mao's private and public life was cynically hypocritical. Even though he and the Communist Party preached asceticism to the masses, Mao and the leadership lived sumptuously. Although dancing was prohibited in China as "bourgeois," Mao enjoyed weekly dance parties. His puritanism in public was matched by a bisexual sex life with an "uncountable" number of young women and some men. He especially liked having several young women in bed with him simultaneously. Mao gave them venereal disease without qualm - and they considered it an honor to receive it. He didn't bathe, but considered that "washing his genitals in the vaginal secretions of the young women" was enough. He spent most of his day in bed, and sometimes stayed in bed for months at a time.
Mao and the leadership enjoyed all the trappings of imperial majesty. Each province built Mao a villa. Train traffic became snarled in China for a week when he set out in his luxuriously appointed eleven-car train, as all traffic was stopped on the line and the stations were closed as his train passed. Potemkin villages were constructed to impress him, and during the Great Leap Forward thriving fields were planted along the tracks as though there were a bountiful crop despite the famine that was killing millions. Sentries would be posted every fifty yards along the entire route. When Mao flew, all air traffic in China was grounded.
The government was an odd mixture of personal dictatorship and collective rule. Dr. Li says that in 1962 Mao didn't have the ability to purge the Party on his own, but had to back up his actions by mobilizing the masses through ideology. All important decisions were made by 30 or 40 leaders at the top. And yet, Mao occupied "the spider's position at the center," playing people off against one another and having their secretaries and guards spy on them. The pervasive atmosphere was totalitarian: when, for example, the other doctors came under attack, Dr. Li dared not speak out; he said his survival depended upon betraying his conscience.
The Cult of Mao began in 1964 with the first publication of his Quotations and poured adoration upon him, but Mao had no concern about the fate of the masses. He told Nehru that the deaths of 20 to 30 million Chinese in an atomic war would be acceptable - and in Moscow he told the Russians he was willing to lose 300 million. This wasn't just talk; he backed it up with his cheerful callousness as millions died during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution (not to mention the rest of the time).
Much welcome detail is given about the Great Leap Forward. Mao insisted that everyone participate in steel production through backyard furnaces. Peopled melted down their household implements and tools, producing useless iron nuggets, and even fired the furnaces with their furniture. Even though the weather was splendid during those years, harvests rotted in the fields as the farmers worked on the furnaces. Local leaders were induced to make fantastic targets for their expected harvest, and then taxes were levied on the basis of those estimates, taking away all the grain. Millions starved even as grain was exported, but official propaganda proclaimed the opposite, and the Cult of Mao grew. All the while, "Mao knew that people were dying by the millions. He did not care."
The Cultural Revolution that began in 1966 and lasted until Mao's death in 1976 was ostensibly to attack "bourgeois" elements. It was mainly, however, to undercut Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping's brand of Communism expressed in "the principles of the Eighth Party Congress" in 1956 as embracing collective leadership and a denial of a cult of personality. Mao, Dr. Li says, never had a plan for the Cultural Revolution, but thoroughly enjoyed the chaos, believing that "great chaos will lead to great order." The Cultural Revolution consisted of Mao's appeal directly to the young, bypassing both the Party and the State. Led by Mao's wife Jiang Qing, students rioted and gigantic "character posters" attacked officials at all levels. Millions of party cadres were exiled to hard labor in the countryside. Universities were taken over by "worker propaganda teams." "All China was wearing Mao buttons and carrying his little red book and reciting his quotations." As was fitting, this decade-long caprice ended capriciously when Mao first turned against his wife and brought back Deng Xiaoping, only to support a later effort to reaffirm the Cultural Revolution and oppose Deng.
To gods on Olympus looking down upon the human comedy, this would all be incredibly funny. It happened, though, to real people - and in our own time. How many Anne Franks were among those tens of millions, leaving diaries we should be reading? Though Dr. Li was hardly a hero or a martyr, his revealing chronicle of the history will have to do until their stories are told.
Dwight D. Murphey