Friday, December 28, 2007

"The Private Life of Chairman Mao" by Li Zhi-Sui

"Here's a picture of the daily life of a man who has absolute power, and the fascinating thing is how absolute power sort of deranges the possessor of it, so that the boundary between fantasy and reality is obliterated because there's nothing to check his will."--Professor Andrew J. Nathan

December 26 was Mao Zedong's birthday. In America, many people remember that this is the day that JonBenet Ramsey of Boulder, Colorado, was brutally murdered.

Mao's birthday is remembered by the Maoist MIM where he lists recent articles. The MIM also devotes its site to defending Boulder's fired University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill.

In 1994, the New York Times reviewed a book written by Dr. Li Zhisui, Mao Zedong's physician:

Mao Zedong, China's "Great Helmsman" whose brilliance, the official doctrine insists, led a vast nation to restored greatness, was actually an irritable, manipulative egotist incapable of human feeling who surrounded himself with sycophants and refused even to be treated for a sexually transmitted disease, though he knew he was spreading it to the numerous young women who shared his bed.

Those are among the elements of an extraordinarily intimate portrait of Mao drawn by Li Zhisui, who was his private physician from 1955 until Mao's death in 1976 at the age of 82.

Dr. Li, who has lived in the United States since 1988, has written "The Private Life of Chairman Mao," a 663-page memoir of the imperial court of Mao that, in absolute contrast with the official image, portrays it as a place of boundless decadence, licentiousness, selfishness, relentless toadying and cutthroat political intrigue.

...Once, Dr. Li recalls, Mao sent him one of his sexual partners, a young woman who had come down with trichomonas vaginalis, which is sexually transmitted. Dr. Li treated her and several others who got the disease.

"The young women were proud to be infected," he writes. "The illness, transmitted by Mao, was a badge of honor, testimony to their close relations with the Chairman."

Mao himself showed no symptoms of the disease, though he was clearly a carrier of it, Dr. Li said. When Dr. Li suggested that he take some antibiotic to protect his sexual partners, Mao told Dr. Li: "If it's not hurting me, then it doesn't matter. Why are you getting so excited about it?"

...Dr. Li acknowledges that for his first few years with Mao, he was held in his spell, and admired him as China's savior. As the years passed, however, Mao's cruelty and selfishness filled him with loathing.

"If I had known what I was getting myself into in 1949, I would have stayed in Australia," Dr. Li said. "For so many years, I did yes-man work, just to survive." [full text]

A reviewer at Amazon posted this comment:

This book opens with one of the most hilarious opening chapters of a book that I have read. Mao has just died and in what had become a tradition for Communist regimes his body had to be preserved to be kept on display. The problem was that on one knew how to preserve bodies. Calls were made to Lenin's Tomb and to the display in which Ho chi Min was kept all to no avail. It appeared that Lenin's mummification had not worked well as his nose had fallen off. A substitute nose had to be put in place. The feedback was to ring America as they were good at that sort of thing. A call to America suggested filling the blood stream with formaldehyde. There was a debate about how much to put in and it was decided to put in double the advised amount to make sure there were no mistakes. Mao after all was important and heads would roll (literally) if his body started to decompose. Huge amounts of formaldehyde were pumped into the body. Unfortunately it started to look like the Michelen Man. The assembled doctors realised that they had to do something so that they decided to massage the body to pump out the excess. The only problem was that during the massage process part of Mao's face broke of. This had to be hurriedly repaired using wax. A General came in to look at the body and looking at the face wanted to start a murder investigation.

The other chapters can't keep pace with this frantic opening but it is a batman's biography of one of China's most important leaders. The author was his doctor for most of his later years and gives an account not just of the politics of Mao but of every aspect of his life.

The author's role was to keep Mao alive and to fend of disease. This was not easy. Mao for instance refused to clean his teeth. As a result his teeth were covered in a sort of green coating. Although Mao liked to swim and (his residences) he never liked to wash. Mao was sexually predatory and large numbers of young women went through his bed. He picked up a number of sexual diseases and refused to be treated for them and thus spread them to his companions.

The book however is more interesting than a list of scandals. It describes he mechanics of power and the court that Mao ran. The author was there constantly. He was used by Mao as a source of gossip and as such perhaps learned more of his subject than most physicians. The book describes the way that Mao's favourites would circle around him drifting in and out of favour and how they would be used by Mao so that he could remain at the centre of power.

The book is not only important as a close source about one of histories (perhaps regrettably) towering figures but is fascinating to read. It has the grim fascination that a work of fiction can never have as you know that the events unfolded just a short time ago.

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