The Private Life of Chairman Mao

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“The most revealing book ever published on Mao, perhaps on any dictator in history.”—Professor Andrew J. Nathan, Columbia University

From 1954 until Mao Zedong's death twenty-two years later, Dr. Li Zhisui was the Chinese ruler's personal physician, which put him in daily—and increasingly intimate—contact with Mao and his inner circle. in The Private Life of Chairman Mao, Dr. Li vividly reconstructs his extraordinary experience at the center of Mao's decadent imperial court.

Dr. Li clarifies numerous long-standing puzzles, such as the true nature of Mao's feelings toward the United States and the Soviet Union. He describes Mao's deliberate rudeness toward Khrushchev and reveals the actual catalyst of Nixon's historic visit. Here are also surprising details of Mao's personal depravity (we see him dependent on barbiturates and refusing to wash, dress, or brush his teeth) and the sexual politics of his court. To millions of Chinese, Mao was more god than man, but for Dr. Li, he was all too human. Dr. Li's intimate account of this lecherous, paranoid tyrant, callously indifferent to the suffering of his people, will forever alter our view of Chairman Mao and of China under his rule.

Praise for The Private Life of Chairman Mao

“From now one no one will be able to pretend to understand Chairman Mao's place in history without reference to this revealing account.”—Professor Lucian Pye, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

“Dr. Li does for Mao what the physician Lord Moran's memoir did for Winston Churchill—turns him into a human being. Here is Mao unveiled: eccentric, demanding, suspicious, unregretful, lascivious, and unfailingly fascinating. Our view of Mao will never be the same again.”—Ross Terrill, author of China in Our Time

“An extraordinarily intimate portrait of Mao. [Dr. Li] portrays [Mao's imperial court] as a place of boundless decadence, licentiousness, selfishness, relentless toadying and cutthroat political intrigue.”—Richard Bernstein, The New York Times

“One of the most provocative books on Mao to appear since the publication of Edgar Snow's Red Star Over China.—Paul G. Pickowicz, The Wall Street Journal

Under the Cover

An excerpt from The Private Life of Chairman Mao

1
 
 
“Chairman, you called for me?”
 
Mao struggled to open his eyes and move his lips. The oxygen mask had slipped from his face and he was struggling for breath. I leaned over. “Ah … ah … ah …” was all I could hear. His mind was clear, but his speech was hopeless.
 
I was Mao’s personal physician, in charge of the medical team—sixteen of China’s best doctors and twenty-four excellent nurses—trying to save his life. For more than two months—since June 26, 1976, when Mao suffered his second myocardial infarction—we had been on duty around the clock. Eight nurses and three doctors were constantly by Mao’s side while another two doctors monitored his electrocardiogram. The shifts changed every eight hours. I was always on call, sleeping fitfully some three or four hours a night. My office was a cubbyhole just outside Mao’s sickroom.
 
The citizens of China had not been told their leader was ill. They had traced Mao’s physical decline only through occasional photographs of his rare visits with foreign dignitaries. The last of them was the photograph of Mao meeting with Laotian leader Kaysone Phoumvihan in May 1976. The press continued to say he was healthy, but the photograph with Kaysone Phoumvihan proved that their leader had grown shockingly old. Still, hundreds of millions had begun that morning, September 8, 1976, chanting in rhythm, “Ten Thousand Years to Chairman Mao.”
 
But those of us on duty in Mao’s sickroom that night knew the end was hours, even minutes, away. He had been failing since June. Two members of the Communist party politburo, paired by rank and political proclivity—moderate party vice-chairman Hua Guofeng with radical party vice-chairman Wang Hongwen, radical politburo member Zhang Chunqiao with moderate politburo member Wang Dongxing—also kept vigil twenty-four hours a day, rotating every twelve hours.
 
Hua Guofeng, in charge of the efforts to save the Chairman’s life, was genuinely loyal to Mao, deeply concerned about his health and comfort, conscientiously trying to understand the doctors’ explanations, trusting that we were doing all we could to save Mao. When we recommended new, and sometimes uncomfortable, medical procedures, like running a tube through Mao’s nose and into his stomach for feeding, Hua Guofeng alone among the leaders had been willing to try the new procedures first on himself. I liked Hua Guofeng. His integrity and sincerity were rare amid the corruption and decay among the party elite.
 
I had first met Hua Guofeng in 1959, during the Great Leap Forward, when I accompanied Mao on a visit to his native village of Shaoshan, in Hunan province. Hua was the first party secretary of Xiangtan, the prefecture where Mao’s village was located, and Mao had liked him enormously. Two years later, when local officials continued to pretend that food production was increasing even as the Great Leap Forward had plunged the country into economic depression, Hua Guofeng had the courage to say that “the people are losing weight, the cattle are losing weight, even the land is losing weight. How can we talk about increases in food?”
 
“No one else tells the truth like Hua Guofeng,” Mao said to me then.
 
Hua had come to his present position in April 1976, an early victor in the power struggle that was unfolding as Mao’s death approached. In January 1976, Mao had appointed Hua acting premier to succeed the deceased Zhou Enlai as head of the State Council, in charge of the daily affairs of government. In early April, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Tiananmen Square to mourn Zhou’s death and protest the policies of such radical leaders as Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, and her Shanghai cronies Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan, and Wang Hongwen. The demonstrations were publicly declared “counterrevolutionary,” and Mao placated the radicals by purging the moderate Deng Xiaoping, charging him with having fomented the disturbance. Always the balancer, Mao then disappointed the radicals by appointing Hua first vice-chairman of the party. Hua Guofeng was thus confirmed both as head of government and as Mao’s chosen successor to head the party. This made me very happy. I thought Mao had chosen the right person to lead the party and the government. Even Jiang Qing’s chef was delighted, commenting that at last the Chairman had made a sharp decision. But the radicals had begun accusing him of leaning to the right.
 
As a result, Hua decided he could no longer continue. I was at the swimming pool on April 30, 1976, when he told Mao that the attacks against him made it impossible for him to serve. After the meeting, Hua had told me of their conversation and showed me the notes Mao had written. There were three of them: “With you in charge,” Mao had scrawled, “my mind is at ease”; “Act according to the decisions laid down”; “Don’t be nervous; take it easy.” By then, Mao’s speech was incomprehensible, and he had to communicate by pen.
 
Mao’s scribbled blessing became the document that legitimized Hua’s succession.
 
Shortly before midnight on September 8, 1976, the doctors had administered an intravenous injection of shengmai san, a traditional Chinese herbal concoction consisting primarily of ginseng, in an effort to stimulate Mao’s heart. His blood pressure had risen from 86 over 66 to 104 over 72 and his pulse had firmed up a bit, but the improvement, I knew, would be fleeting.
 
Hua Guofeng pulled me aside just after we administered the injection. “Dr. Li,” he whispered as politburo members Zhang Chunqiao and Wang Dongxing strained to hear. “Is there anything else you can do?”
 
I said nothing. Hua knew there was no hope, and I did not know what to say. I could not yet bring myself to use the word death.
 
Silently, I looked at Hua Guofeng. The air was frozen. The whirring of Mao’s respirator was the only sound in the room. Then I shook my head. “We have done all we can,” I whispered hoarsely.
 
Hua turned to Wang Dongxing, director of the Central Committee’s General Office in charge of party affairs and longtime head of Mao’s bodyguards. Wang had first met Mao in Yanan, and for decades he had been in charge of the Chairman’s safety. Few men had a longer or closer association with Mao.
 
“Ask Comrade Jiang Qing and the politburo members in Beijing to come here immediately,” Hua instructed Wang, “and notify the politburo members in other parts of the country to report to Beijing.” Wang turned to go.
 
As Wang was leaving, a nurse rushed up to me. “Dr. Li, Zhang Yufeng says that Chairman wants to see you.” I rushed to his side.
 
Once a stewardess on the special train that Mao used in his travels through China and now his confidential secretary, Zhang Yufeng had long been Mao’s close companion. I first saw Zhang Yufeng and Mao together at a dance he was hosting in Changsha. She was an innocent-looking eighteen-year-old girl with big round eyes and lovely white skin, and she asked the Chairman to dance. I watched as he took her openly from the dance floor to his guest house, where they spent the night together.
 
The relationship had sometimes been tumultuous, and Mao had had many other women in his life as well. Even now two young dancers were serving unofficially as nurses, sponging his body and feeding him. But Zhang Yufeng had been with Mao the longest, and though she had grown coarse—and fond of alcohol—she had managed to retain his trust. In 1974, after Xu Yefu, Mao’s longtime confidential secretary, was hospitalized with lung cancer, Zhang took over the task of sending and receiving the voluminous documents that Mao read and commented upon each day, and when Mao’s eyesight failed, she read the materials to him as well. In late 1974, she had been officially appointed Mao’s confidential secretary by Wang Dongxing.
 
As Mao’s doctor, I was allowed unimpeded access, but everyone else had to go through Zhang to get to Mao. After 1974, even Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, and ranking members of the politburo had to go through Zhang Yufeng, and she treated even the highest leaders with disdain. One day in June 1976, when Hua Guofeng had come to see Mao, Zhang Yufeng had been napping and the attendants on duty were afraid to rouse her. Two hours later, when Zhang had still not gotten up, Hua, second in command only to Mao, finally left without seeing his superior. Earlier in the same year, Deng Xiaoping had been ill and under political attack, separated from his family. His youngest daughter, Deng Rong, had written to Mao for permission to stay with her father. Zhang Yufeng did not deliver the letter to Mao, and Deng Rong was never permitted to be with her father.
 
Much of Zhang Yufeng’s power came from the fact that only she could understand his speech. She had to interpret even for me.
 
“Dr. Li,” she said as I went to Mao’s side, “Chairman wants to know if there is any hope.” With some effort, Mao nodded and slowly extended his right arm, taking my hand. His hand felt limp as I took his pulse, and the pulse itself was weak and difficult to find. The roundness of his cheeks, so familiar to the Chinese people, was gone and his skin was ashen. His eyes stared vacantly, without their usual luster. The line on the electrocardiograph fluttered.
 
We had moved Mao into this room in Building 202 of Zhongnanhai six weeks previously, in the early morning hours of July 28, 1976, when Beijing, and much of that part of China, had been hit by an earthquake that completely destroyed the city of Tangshan, some one hundred miles east of Beijing. More than 250,000 people had died instantaneously. In Beijing few people had died, but there was much damage, and fears of another earthquake led millions of residents to spend the next several weeks living in makeshift tents in the streets. Mao’s sickbed in his study beside the indoor swimming pool, where he had moved early in the Cultural Revolution, had been violently shaken by the quake. We had to move him to safer ground.
 
Building 202 was the only choice. Connected to the swimming pool by a corridor, Building 202 had been constructed especially for Mao in 1974 and was meant to withstand a major earthquake. That evening, after we had moved him, another major aftershock hit in the midst of a heavy rain, but we barely felt it in Building 202. The whole sky could have fallen in at that point and I would not have noticed, so completely was I focused on saving the Chairman’s life.
 
Now Hua Guofeng, Zhang Chunqiao, Wang Hongwen, and Wang Dongxing walked quietly up to Mao’s bed. From behind the screen I could hear others come quietly in. The room was filling in preparation for the midnight change of shift.

- About the author -

Born in Beijing in 1919, Dr. Li Zhi-Sui descended from a long line of eminent doctors. He recieved an MD from the West China Union University Medical School in 1945 and was appointed Mao Zedong's personal physician in 1954, a position he held until the Chairman's death in 1976. After emigrating to the United States, he published a critical biography of Mao based on his experiences. He died on February 14, 1995, shortly after its publication.

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The Private Life of Chairman Mao

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The Private Life of Chairman Mao

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