What Mao Traded for Sex

Ross Terrill, a visiting professor at the University of Texas, is the author of the biographies "Mao" and "Madame Mao."

As sex and politics danced a pas de deux in the Beijing of Mao Tse-tung, the self-indulgence of the top leader spanned the personal and the political, and private excesses had consequences for bystanders and public policy. Despite enormous differences in the Chinese and U.S. political systems, Mao’s conduct may provide some insights into President Bill Clinton’s alleged problem.

Jiang Qing, like Hillary Rodham Clinton, had a career (stage and screen) that she gave up for her husband’s sake. Both women remained ambitious, but as their husbands rose to supreme power, both stood at a tangent to the lines of political authority. “Jiang Qing could only make suggestions,” a bodyguard recalled, “not make decisions.” But what suggestions she made during the Red Guard turmoil of the Cultural Revolution! The structural ambiguity made Jiang the object of excessive fear, flattery and scapegoating.

Both Jiang and Hillary Clinton knew the pain of seeing power act like an aphrodisiac on their husband. Mao recruited young military women at dance parties arranged in close proximity to his bedroom. He drew to his custom-built, sloping, wooden bed a number of nurses on duty in the Forbidden City. Sometimes, if a favored female told Mao she planned to marry, a loud quarrel ensued, which aides would overhear. One day a male guard touched one of Mao’s mistresses on her buttocks. Mao had the man sent to prison, and no one at Mao’s court ever heard of him again.


Mao said to his doctor in reference to his wife, “Only Jiang Qing supports me.” Commented Dr. Li Zhisui: “He was right. Jiang Qing always supported Mao in all that he did. She had to.” The wife of Mao had few cards to play in the last 25 years of their 38-year marriage. Her predecessor had been dispatched to a mental asylum in Moscow to make room for Jiang herself.

But Jiang did have one card to play: Mao’s philandering, deeply hurtful to Jiang in the 1950s, led to a quid pro quo between the two a decade later. She would hold her tongue as he took other women to bed if he gave a nod to her left-wing politics. A bonus for Mao was that Jiang fiercely pushed her husband’s interests and assailed his enemies.

Hillary Clinton sees a “vast right-wing conspiracy” threatening her husband. Jiang saw a “capitalist-road conspiracy” undermining her husband. Since both women were politically ambitious, their husband’s philandering could be seen as a secondary matter. Saving him was saving herself. The young female friends could fall as they may.

Mao’s steps into promiscuity coincided with his growing isolation from longtime colleagues. A pivotal quarrel had Defense Minister Peng Dehuai criticize Mao both for the disaster of the Great Leap Forward (communes, back-yard steel furnaces) and for his emperor-like habit ofgoing with young females from military circles.

The link between philandering and disdain for trusted co-workers during the Great Leap Forward was Mao’s growing self-indulgence. Extramarital sex at home and purges in the office were equal parts of an obsessive quest for rejuvenation, both personal and political. Ultimately, it was a story of vanity after years in power, petulance in the face of political opposition and the growing specter of mortality as middle age passed.

“He came to trust women far more than men,” said Dr. Li in a remark that tied together Mao’s personal and political mood. “He craved affection and acclaim. As criticism of him rose within the party, so did his hunger for approval.” An excellent way to get it was from the adoring lips of innocent girls.


There was a certain dignity to Jiang Qing’s indirect references to Mao’s womanizing. “In the matter of political struggle,” she remarked, “none of the Chinese and Soviet leaders can beat him. In the matter of his personal conduct, nobody can keep him in check, either.” One must respect also the dignity of Hillary Clinton in the face of complex feelings that must underlie her staunch support for her husband.

In Canton on Mao’s 65th birthday, a dinner party was thrown in Mao’s honor, but he excused himself, sending his wife instead--he had other plans. During the night, Jiang Qing, searching for her nurse, found the young woman in bed with Mao. Jiang lost her temper with Mao. He left for Beijing in the middle of the night. Soon, however, Jiang wrote Mao a note of apology, which quoted a line from “Journey to the West.” In the novel, when the Chinese monk travels to India in search of Buddhist scriptures, he leaves Monkey behind in Water Curtain Cave. Monkey is upset. But he says to the monk: “My body is in Water Curtain Cave, but my heart is following you.”

Jiang quoted this line. Mao was pleased. Finally, she appeared to have accepted that her husband’s high calling gave him the right to a personal life exactly as he pleased.

Filmed swimming feats were Mao’s way of communicating a carefree, masterful image of himself to the people, over the heads of his perceived enemies, a rough equivalent of Clinton looking the nation in the eye on TV and exuding sincerity. Climbing out of the waters of the Yangtze River, Mao said to the writer wife of a old colleague: “People should not like to show off. I swam for too long! I felt utterly exhausted, but I wanted to show off, so I kept going. If it hadn’t been for [the bodyguard] making me get back on the ship, I would have died.”

“I don’t believe that,” rejoined the writer. “You swim very well.”

“You don’t believe,” said Mao, “and the audience on the banks of the river didn’t believe, either. I understood the illusion; therefore, the more I swam, the more I was encouraged.” How well Mao understood his own conning of the Chinese people!

In his last years, Mao made no bones about his affair with Zhang Yufeng, a Hunanese with large eyes whom he picked up when she served tea on his special train. Zhang was given the title “confidential secretary.” If Jiang wished to talk with Mao, she had to go through Zhang. Jiang resigned herself to this galling situation--and went on exacting her political rewards.


In November 1973, Jiang sharply criticized Premier Zhou Enlai for an alleged pro-foreign attitude. Soon, Mao embraced some of her criticism of Zhou. In education policy, Mao often permitted Jiang her left-wing sallies. So it went on, with Jiang cashing in the chips owed her for Mao’s philandering.

This being China, not a democratic country, there were no “leaks” to an inquiring press informing the public that Mao’s intermittent lurchings to the left were related to a marital arrangement. Was private life not the business alone of those involved in it? In this case, no. The quid pro quo for a leader’s promiscuity cast a long shadow on public life.

In the Chinese dictatorship, the growing self-indulgence of Mao and the resulting deal that unleashed his wife could hardly be known to ordinary people. The U.S. democracy, with a free press and a free-wheeling Congress, is different. Should we ever be conned by lies that self-indulgence at the top and the deals and maneuvers it may have produced, we would have only ourselves to blame.