An intimate portrait of China's Mao Zedong

The dictator's long-time physician reveals an eccentric man behind a statesman's facade

FOR decades, the Western image of Mao Zedong as a callous dictator has evolved mainly from reports of immense human suffering under his rule. Tens of millions of Chinese died from the famine caused by Mao's Great Leap Forward (1958-60); millions more faced political persecution or murder by Red Guards during his fanatical Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Even as Chinese endured abuse under Mao's radical campaigns, they were forced to worship him under a massive state-imposed personality cult.

Yet as Mao's disastrous policies cast him as one of China's most brutal rulers, his private life remained a mystery. China-watchers scoured Mao's published speeches and charted his official appearances for clues to his thinking and political strategies. More recently, they gleaned some guarded impressions of Mao from the memoirs of other Chinese leaders. Still lacking, though, was a thorough, uncensored, and first-hand account of Mao, the man.

Now, Li Zhisui has filled this gap with his intimate, close-up portrait, ``The Private Life of Chairman Mao.'' Dr. Li, Mao's personal physician and confidant for 22 years, says he wrote the book both to lay bare Mao's dictatorship and to explain how it forced many Chinese, Li included, to sacrifice their ideals.

Li describes Mao as excessively demanding, lustful, suspicious, and manipulative. In often startling, concrete detail, drawn from his diaries and memory, Li reveals the minutiae of Mao's daily life as well as his musings on major political events. He tears away the mask of propaganda and shows us the man.

The picture that emerges is of a self-absorbed and indulgent tyrant. Li describes how Mao, typically dressed in worn robes and slippers, liked to conduct business from his huge, specially crafted wooden bed or while lounging by the indoor pool at Zhongnanhai, the Chinese leadership compound. Official photographs of Mao working in his office, formally dressed, were all staged, Li says.

Childishly uncooperative, Mao refused to sit still while having his hair cut. He would not brush his teeth, rinsing his mouth instead with green tea and eating the leaves according to Chinese peasant custom. Coddled by his staff, Mao never combed his own hair and rarely dressed himself. He rebelled against any schedule, viewing it as a means of control. He ate, slept, and worked at all hours of day or night.

Mao ``reveled in his own unpredictability,'' Li writes. This created a nightmare for Mao's security staff, who went to extremes to ensure his safety. Whenever Mao traveled in his private train, the line was cleared of traffic, the stations emptied, and the entire route lined with hundreds of guards. The train moved only when Mao was awake. Mao's wildly heralded swims in the Yangtze River (he actually floated on his back, Li says) alarmed his bodyguards, who knew that any mishap would cost them their careers or even their lives.

Mao remained mercurial, but in his later years he also began to fear for his safety. His paranoia led him to imagine ``poisons'' all around him. Li believes that Mao's fears were rooted in the party's factional struggles. The only poison, Li writes, was political. When faced with political setbacks Mao would retreat to his bed for weeks, often unable to sleep despite his heavy use of barbiturates.

Isolated, with little normal human contact, Mao seemed to Li incapable of empathizing with the suffering of ordinary Chinese. Sometimes during conversations with Li, Mao praised ancient emperors reviled in China for the countless deaths they inflicted. Mao argued that these lost lives were outweighed by the emperors' achievements in unifying and expanding China.

Li saw this attitude mirrored in Mao's general unconcern for the deaths caused by his own campaigns, such as the Great Leap and Cultural Revolution. Even when he learned of the starvation and political killings brought about by the campaigns, Mao refused to call them off out of pride, self-delusion, and cold calculation.

``We have so many people,'' Mao would tell Li. ``We can afford to lose a few. What difference does it make?''

Li highlights Mao's indifference to human suffering by describing how he carried on flagrant affairs with dozens of women, even as China was devastated by economic disaster and political chaos. In 1961, a year of severe famine, Mao still attended twice weekly ``dance parties'' where he had his pick of female companions. At the same time, a huge room was set aside for Mao to entertain his harem at the cavernous Great Hall of the People on the edge of Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

Similarly, we see Mao at the end of the Cultural Revolution, as power struggles raged around him, watching nightly movies from Hong Kong and Taiwan sitting by the Zhongnanhai swimming pool with his favorite mistress, Zhang Yufeng. Even as Mao indulged in dancing, philandering, watching banned movies and other practices considered the height of ``bourgeois decadence,'' China's propagandists depicted him as a model of revolutionary puritanism.

PERHAPS the most interesting part of the book is how Mao was able to maintain this facade - and his dictatorial powers - with the help of his fawning inner circle of followers. Mao used his consorts, bodyguards, and medical staff, as well as his wife, Jiang Qing, and other leaders, including Premier Zhou Enlai, to gather intelligence about his political enemies and plots against him. ``Is there any news?'' Mao would routinely ask as a greeting to Li and other members of his entourage.

Mao ensured the loyalty of his inner court by surrounding himself with people who owed him their political survival, and sometimes their lives. Fear, rather than respect, kept them loyal. In turn, they gained Mao's protection. Li recounts how Mao repeatedly intervened to save him from being purged in political campaigns.

Even more telling is that, as Li says, what he has exposed about Mao is nothing new to China's top leadership. ``[Mao's] private life was an open secret among the party elite,'' which included Deng Xiaoping and others ruling the country today.

Chinese leaders continue to hide the truth about Mao, indicating that their authority still depends to a degree on the chairman's legacy. Their deception also underscores the likelihood that such abuses are far from limited to Mao. Inherently unstable and corrupt, Mao's system of personal patronage persists in China in the 1990s - at an incalculable cost to all Chinese.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.