Books: The Private Life of Chairman Mao (1994)
Profession: Doctor, writer
Perspective: A largely negative biographical account of Mao Zedong
Li Zhisui was Mao Zedong’s personal doctor rather than a historian – however his book The Private Life of Chairman Mao has proved a popular and influential account of Mao’s life and character. Li was born in Beijing to affluent parents, in the year of the May Fourth uprising. He studied medicine at an American-funded school and during the 1940s worked as a surgeon in Australia. In 1949 Li returned to China at the request of the new communist regime. He joined the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1952 and two years later became Mao’s personal physician. He remained in this role for 22 years, attending hundreds of private audiences with Mao. Not only did Li provide the Chairman with medical treatment, he also engaged in conversation about personal and political matters.
Li was a prolific diarist who kept notes of his observations and discussions with Mao, however, he destroyed most of them to avoid recriminations during the Cultural Revolution. After Mao’s death, Li reconstructed his notes from memory. He moved to the United States in 1988 and began writing a book about his time with Mao. Released in 1994, Private Life of Chairman Mao paints an unflattering picture of the Chinese leader, as well as the infighting and internal politics of the CCP. At first in awe of Mao, Li considered the Chairman a coarse and simple figure, given to poor personal hygiene and sexual liaisons with a procession of young girls. While the cult of Mao depicted the Chairman as a political genius, Li’s account suggests he was paranoid, self-serving, manipulative and dishonest. The Private Life of Chairman Mao was not without its critics, who questioned Li’s recollections and the book’s emphasis on Mao’s personal habits. Nevertheless, Li certainly had unfettered access to Mao and many of his claims are corroborated by other sources.
“In all the years I worked for him, I was never able to educate Mao in medicine. His thinking remained pre-scientific.”
“Mao did not understand the human reproductive system but I quickly learned that he was remarkably preoccupied with sex… Mao’s appetite for sex was enormous.”
“Party and army political departments, guardians of the nation’s morality, recruited young women of sterling proletarian background and excellent physical appearance, supposedly to engage in ballroom dancing with the leader, actually for possible service in his bed. Honoured by the opportunity, some of those chosen introduced their sisters.”
“Mao spent much of his time in bed or lounging by the side of a private pool, not dressing for days at a time. He ate oily food, rinsed his mouth with tea, and slept with country girls. During a 1958 tour of Henan, Mao’s party was followed everywhere by a truckload of watermelons. Mao liked cloth shoes; if he had to wear leather ones for a diplomatic function, he let someone else break them in. He did not bathe, preferring a rubdown with hot towels, although this made it hard to stop the spread of venereal infections among his female companions.”
“The laboratory tests from the prostate examination came back, revealing that he was infertile. The sperm were dead… He feared the end of his sexual activity was approaching. He had begun to experience bouts of impotency and linked sexual desire to health. So long as he wanted sex, he was healthy.”
“He [Mao] asked me to get him a toothbrush and toothpaste and began brushing his teeth. But after a few days, he stopped. Rinsing his mouth with tea was deeply ingrained, one of the many peasant habits that he would never change… His teeth became blackened and began falling out. Fortunately, his lips usually covered the remaining few teeth, even when he talked and smiled.”
“Mao was not above feigning ill health… in 1963, at a low point in Sino-Soviet relations, he put on a great dramatic performance before the Soviet ambassador to China, as a way of testing Soviet reaction to his possible death. He rehearsed the act several times in front of me, covering himself with a blanket, feigning lethargy and pain… Then he called the Soviet envoy to his bedside and staged an excellent dramatic performance.”
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