Astoundingly, 40 years after his death, China still celebrates Mao Zedong. He lies permanently preserved in Tiananmen Square and is honored annually by hundreds of thousands of Chinese visitors who come to pay their respects.
Preserving Mao’s body for eternity was the final labor of his personal physician, Dr. Li Zhisui. The Chairman's remains - saturated in gallons of formaldehyde, prettied up with makeup and wax, poised in a crystal coffin – provide the irony of Dr. Li's greatest work, The Private Life of Chairman Mao.
Dr. Li mummified Mao for China's admiration, but preserved the tyrant, egotist, and monster in the pages of his personal account. Communist China still celebrates its founding father, but Li reveals why he deserves the people's hatred, not their honor and respect. He spent decades in the inner circle behind the red banner propaganda, and witnessed Mao's utter depravity, his insatiable greed and lust.
At the start of a promising medical career, young, and newly married, Dr. Li was abruptly selected to serve as the Chairman's personal physician. The Party, always watching, was impressed with his work. He would be tied to his Great Patient every day for 22 years, from their first meeting in 1955 till his death in 1976. Only years later would he manage to escape to the U.S. and publish his memoir.
Despite many "political problems" which kept him from joining the Communist Party, and the anxious years he spent afraid for himself and family, unsure of his standing with the government, Dr. Li was initially enraptured with Mao's leadership.
When the Communists took control in 1949, it was Dr. Li's misfortune to be the son of a wealthy family, one that had served as physicians to the royal family for five generations. Planning to follow that bourgeois tradition, he learned Western medicine at a university founded by American missionaries. His father was a high-ranking official in the Nationalist government, and his wife had worked for both the U.S. Air Force and the British Council. Worst of all, he did not attempt to join the Party until well after The Long March, and was considered a 'reactionary.' For years he resigned himself to the shame of never attaining Party membership.
Medical expertise aside, Dr. Li seemed an outlandish choice to serve the Chairman. But in one of their first meetings, Mao dismissed his political problems with a single comment, "You were just a kid. You didn't know anything then."
Years later, Dr. Li would recognize that what appeared to be forgiveness was one of Mao's many political strategies. He enslaved others to him by discovering their weaknesses and humiliating those who attempted resistance. Dr. Li's political problems remained around his neck, shackled him to Mao, and made escape impossible.
This distinction between glorified appearance and disgusting reality is the central realization of Mao's private life. Dr. Li reveals Mao to be devoid of the morality Maoism espoused. While millions of his people starved, he allowed himself every excess.
Publicly, he promoted self-denial. Meanwhile, government departments recruited young, attractive, impressionable virgins to satisfy the Chairman's unlimited lust. Well into his seventies, Mao continued to take four to five companions to bed, and enjoyed intimate massages by his male security staff. A special room in the Great Hall of the People was kept ready for his mid-meeting orgies. Most abhorrent is the way discarded women considered it an incomparable honor to have pleasured the Chairman for a night. They touted the venereal diseases they contracted like badges of honor, and sang Mao's praises to an embarrassed Dr. Li, one saying, "The Great Helmsman is great in everything, even in bed!"
At least 45 million Chinese people died in the worst famine in human history; still, Mao's lifestyle remained imperial. Every meal he took was airlifted from a special labor camp near Beijing, and taste-tested by his peasant bodyguards lest he be poisoned. Mao rarely dressed, recalls Dr. Li, and conducted the majority of his business from in bed or lounging by his pool (his radio call sign: "swimming pool"). If he had to wear shoes, they were first broken in by a handler. Dr. Li recalls, "I had not worked long for Mao before realizing that he was the center around which everything revolved, a precious treasure that had to be protected and coddled and wooed." Mao never did so much as put on his own socks, or comb his own hair.
Observing the extravagant care given to Mao's comfort and safety, a young Dr. Li recognized the irony of Mao's political slogan "Serve the People." His only ally in Group One, Wang Donxing, head of the Chairman's security, quickly explained that the expression was abstract, and "To serve Mao is to serve the people."
Only years later, would Dr. Li be disillusioned enough to re-recognize that irony. Mao and his vultures had toppled China's emperors and evil landlords, but they railed against the bourgeois even as they assumed lives of extravagant luxury, and debased the morals they espoused. The Communist Party rhetorically praised the masses while building on top of their backs.
How did Mao reconcile his own hypocrisy? He didn't. He never even recognized the contradiction. Mao was a narcissist and considered himself the center of Chinese history. He believed his greatness to be intertwined with China's. Dr. Li explains, "All of China was Mao's to experiment with as he wished. Mao was China." Of course, the people, never Mao, suffered the cost of his failed experiments. Dr. Li's condemnation is final, he writes, "Mao knew that people were dying by the millions. He did not care." After all, as Dr. Li explains, why should Mao have doubted that the communist paradise had arrived when he himself was living in it?
At first, Dr. Li found it difficult to believe Mao could be so selfish. But he was continually astounded by his callous disregard for human life. Mao knowingly carried multiple venereal diseases to each of the countless women he took to bed, saying to his doctor, "If it's not hurting me then it doesn't matter. Why are you so excited about it?" Dr. Li examines his patient's heart and his diagnosis is damning. He writes, "Despite what seemed to be initial friendliness at first meetings, Mao was devoid of human feeling, incapable of love, friendship, or warmth." His own importance made other people easily expendable. This included the Chinese people, and members of his own staff. Mao's disdain for human life extended to nuclear war. In several conversations, he explained to Dr. Li, "The atom bomb is nothing to be afraid of, China has many people. The deaths of ten or twenty million people is nothing to be afraid of."
Indeed, Mao's staff was ploughed over constantly and entirely purged at least twice. Mao cared nothing for virtue or competence, only for blind loyalty. Staff members fought humiliating battles for his favor lest they be discarded and replaced. In creating a murderously competitive environment, Mao secured his own power. Even Dr. Li, despite his many years of careful service, was sentenced to months of hard labor when Mao's paranoia flared. Strikingly, Dr. Li preferred the backbreaking labor to Mao's poisonous presence. The Private Life of Chairman Mao is as much about Mao's calculating brutality and Dr. Li's struggle for survival in the unceasing political turmoil of Group One.
Mao's wickedness is perversely mesmerizing. So is his abject grossness. It was Dr. Li's uncomfortable duty to advise the Chairman's primitive understanding of human health. He called his chain smoking a deep breathing exercise. Mao refused to ever brush his teeth, which oozed with puss and were coated in a green film. When Dr. Li suggested he use a toothbrush; Mao reasoned, "A tiger never brushes his teeth." Mao never bathed, never washed his hands or face, and never used soap. His explanation of how he washed his genitals made his doctor physically ill, and is too graphic to be printed here. Mao egotistically resisted Dr. Li's treatment, even in his final days. Among other fantasies, Mao sincerely believed in his own immortality.
It would be difficult to overstate the extraordinary nature of Dr. Li's account: incredible access coupled with deep insight. "No other leader in history held as much power over so many people for so long as Mao Zedong…nor has any other dictator been as intimately observed as Mao is by Dr. Li," observes Dr. Andrew J. Nathan in his Forward. By guarding every word, and distancing himself from politics, Dr. Li managed to survive near the Chairman. He protected his family from political chaos, but, in doing so, violated his conscience. He gave life-giving care to a man responsible for unfathomable human suffering. The Private Life of Chairman Mao is an attempt to rectify those wrongs. He writes, "I have paid for this book with my life…I want it to serve as a reminder of the terrible human consequences of Mao's dictatorship and of how good people living under his regime were forced to violate their consciences and sacrifice their ideals in order to survive."
If not for a fluke, Dr. Li would have never escaped the country. Understandably, the government has expunged his public record and considers him a non-person. China's Communist Party remains built on Mao and can never acknowledge the truth of Dr. Li's testimony. Instead, they have adopted a mild official verdict, athletically titled, "Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party Since the Founding of the People's Republic of China," it paints Mao as a great visionary whose contributions outweighed the costs of his mistakes. But Dr. Li knows better, he survived on Mao's web, feared for life, and watched in horror as the Great Spider devoured countless innocent people. Forty years after Mao's demise – and with a new proto-Mao now sitting atop the Chinese hierarchy – we must revisit what the good doctor revealed.