The Body Politic : More than you ever wanted to know about Mao’s innards : THE PRIVATE LIFE OF CHAIRMAN MAO, <i> By Dr. Li Zhisui with the editorial assistance of Anne F. Thurston (Random House: $30; 682 pp.)</i>

<i> Hong Yung Lee teaches politics at U.C. Berkeley</i>

Mao Tse-tung continues to haunt the collective consciousness of the Chinese even now, almost 20 years after his death. Writings on him tend to reflect China’s rapidly changing political reality in all of its inconsistencies. With the publication of more than 80 monographs on his life, Mao has been at once demystified, commercialized and deified. Books published in Hong Kong titillate the public with glimpses of Mao’s private life and revel in the sordid details of his sexual debauchery and excess. Yet in Beijing, taxi drivers carry his picture for their safety, converting a symbol of loyalty into an icon.

“The Private Life of Chairman Mao” is an unusual book in many ways. Mao’s personal physician between 1954 to 1976, Dr. Li was, according to his own accounts, privy to Mao at his most unguarded moments; while attending to every detail of Mao’s physical well-being, he became intimately acquainted with the behind-the-scenes struggles of such momentous historical events as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. This fly-on-the-wall’s perspective yields tantalizing tidbits and fascinating anecdotes on Mao’s personality, personal hygiene and interpersonal relations. It is not surprising, however, that Li’s understanding of Chinese politics is closely connected to his knowledge of Mao’s body.

In “The Private Life of Chairman Mao,” Li implies that the private Mao--driven by an unsatisfiable desire for absolute power and for sex--was inextricably linked to the major policy decisions that led China into one catastrophe after another. “Mao’s health and the country’s politics were often intertwined,” Li writes. Under political attack, Mao would retreat to bed. “Mao’s neurasthenia was rooted in his continuing fear that other ranking leaders were not loyal to him and that there were few within the party whom he could genuinely trust.” When Mao took the political offensive, his health would rebound. As he prepared for the Cultural Revolution, Mao stopped complaining about impotence, a condition which had greatly worried him before.

His sexual prowess, according to Li, was also connected to his political insecurity. “He craved affection and acclaim. As his disgrace within the party grew, so did his hunger for approval. . . . He needed his women more, and he needed more of them, because he had lost so much face.”


Despite his Populist pretensions, Mao lived like a traditional emperor with all the material comforts that China could afford. His physical needs were taken care of by attendants recruited from young, uneducated peasants, who bathed and clothed him and combed his hair but who couldn’t be his conversational partners. “Devoid of human feeling, incapable of love, friendship, or warmth,” Mao lived a lonely life and suffered from insomnia, which drove him to nightly doses of sleeping pills. Expecting “total and indivisible loyalty” rather than principle, and driven by an uncontrollable quest for power, Mao was petty, tricky and suspicious, trying to gather information from members of his entourage by constantly asking, “Any news?” in order to check their loyalty and to play one member of the staff off against another.

Perhaps the most eye-catching accounts in Li’s book have to do with Mao’s sex life. Despite his infertility, Mao indulged in young women--sometimes more than one at the same time--and engaged in Taoist sexual practice to prolong his life. Mao even had a special bed made for his sexual activity, with the edge of one side raised about four inches higher than the rest of the bed, which he took every place he traveled, even to Moscow. His hygiene was even more eccentric; according to Li, Mao’s “genitals were never cleaned.” Instead, Mao said, “I wash myself inside the bodies of my women.” He never brushed his teeth, either; instead, he simply used tea to rinse out his mouth when he woke, eating the leaves after drinking the water, as many peasants in southern China did.

Outside of these vivid details, the composite picture of Mao and the narrative of Chinese politics offered in the book by and large confirms what has already been known. The author tells his story as if he was an “eyewitness” to many important political events, using innumerable quotations, some of which are from Chinese official documents. His personal memories are interwoven with public knowledge so that the distinction between his own experiences and what became known later is blurred. This manner of presentation strategically makes Li as the bridge between Mao the person and the Chinese political process.

Because of his indebtedness to the protection of Mao’s chief bodyguard, Wang Dongxing, Li’s view largely reflects the partisan view of Wang’s faction, known as the “whatever faction” for their defense of whatever Mao said. (This faction was later pushed aside by Deng Xiaoping’s group, composed of the Cultural Revolution victims who were later rehabilitated.) In the atmosphere of extreme paranoia and suspicion that surrounded Mao and his inner circle, Wang apparently trusted Li enough to confide that he would get rid of Madam Mao three months before he actually did. “I swear I will do everything I can to bring Jiang Qing down,” Li reports Wang as saying.


Jiang, with six toes in her right foot and her excessive sensitivity to noise and light, is portrayed as penny-wise and unbelievably bad-tempered, frequently accusing nurses and doctors of conspiring to poison her. She constantly feared being abandoned by Mao, and as a result, suffered from neurasthenia. Jiang’s only sympathetic quality lies in her despair over Mao’s love affairs, which frequently involved her own nurses. According to Li’s interpretations, Mao made a deal with Jiang: “If Jiang Qing kept quiet about his infidelity, Mao would support Jiang Qing’s effort to build her own power.”

In the entire book of 800-odd pages, no Chinese leaders emerge without a stain. Most of the Chinese leaders around Mao are depicted as petty, rancorous, submissive sycophants, competing to curry favor with Mao. Premier Chou En-lai was “Mao’s slave,” absolutely obedient and without “a shred of independent thought,” while Kang Sheng, the long-time boss of Chinese secret police, suffered from schizophrenia. The book does not make much mention of the present paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping. The only leader to emerge with a semblance of decency is Hua Guofeng--another member of the “whatever faction"--whose “integrity and sincerity” the author holds in high esteem.

Despite his partisan view, the author’s sense of self-righteousness emerges very strongly, like the traditional official who considered only himself as standing above the dirty world. Nonetheless, this book seems to have been written primarily for a Western audience. Li’s upper-class family background and exposure to Western training and experiences made him an oddity in Mao’s personal entourage. But this orientation leads one to question to what extent he understood Chinese reality and its immense problems.

The official image of revolutionaries struggling for principles and public interests that influenced political radicalism all over the world is never mentioned in Li’s book. There is no discussion of the clash of ideals, the policy differences and the disagreements over national priorities that are often assumed to have shaped the contours of Chinese politics. This distance between the public and private spaces is so wide that it compels readers to wonder about the nature of the forces that determine history. Li’s book indicates that the reasons for the series of political upheavals that exacted such heavy costs from Chinese people during the Mao era was nothing more than selfish personal ambitions and lust for political power.


BOOK MARK: For an excerpt from “The Private Life of Chairman Mao,” see the Opinion section.