Mao: A Life
by Philip Short
Holt, 782 pp., $37.50
by Jonathan Spence
Lipper/Viking, 188 pp., $19.95
“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 Quan Yanchi
These observations should not be taken on trust. The author, a loyal hack of the official Chinese Writers’ Association in Beijing, based his text on interviews with Mao’s former bodyguard, a man named Li Yinqiao. Li knew Mao intimately, it is true. One of his public duties was to unbutton the Chairman’s trousers whenever he sat down, since “Mao was big-bellied” and he didn’t like his pants to “become too tight for comfort.” But unlike Mao’s ex-doctor, Li Zhisui, who wrote his famous account of life with Mao in the freer air of Chicago, Li Yinqiao never left China, where the truth about Mao still cannot be told.
And yet these statements about Mao are not wholly implausible. For squeamishness and sentimentality are often to be found in the truly inhumane. Heinrich Himmler couldn’t stand the sight of blood, and neither, for that matter, could Hitler. Mass murderers on a monumental scale are not, on the whole, drawn to doing the dirty work themselves. On his one field trip to Auschwitz, Himmler found it all too unsettling and resolved never to go near the place again. Men of this kind usually do not kill out of sadistic passion; a sadist after all has a perverse but intimate bond with his victim. People who kill one person often act out of passion—anger, jealousy, or love that has turned into loathing. People who make a habit of killing others for pleasure are usually mad. But those who are responsible for the death of millions appear not to be feeling anything much at all—hence, perhaps, the cheap tears, the watery evidence of displaced emotion.
Squeamishness when it comes to the sticky stuff is not the only thing some murderous tyrants have had in common. Hitler and Mao both suffered from “neurasthenia,” an affliction that is no longer fashionable but was apparently so prevalent in Mao’s entourage that his doctor called it the “Communist disease.” The main symptoms are insomnia, headaches, dizzy spells, and impotence. Mao’s potency, so his doctor informed us, was much affected by his political fortunes. Things went well when Mao felt on top of things, but any threat, real or imagined, to his absolute grip on power and the Chairman wilted, no matter how many girls shared his bed. Such psychosomatic problems are perhaps the price people pay for living in a state of permanent anxiety of being knifed in the back, either by courtiers or, in the case of the courtiers, by the tyrant himself. It is possible that Mao’s chronic constipation and Himmler’s stomach cramps came from the same …