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…
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