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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 CIA agent. 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

  1. 1

    William Hung, Tu Fu: China’s Greatest Poet (Harvard University Press, 1952), p. 88.

  2. 2

    BBC, Summary of World Broadcasts, July 2, 1981, FE/6764/pp. C/21, C/12, C/15.

  3. 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. 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. 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. 6

    Lucian W. Pye, Mao Tse-Tung: The Man in the Leader (Basic Books, 1976), pp. 271–272.

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