Skip to content

Chairman Mao was a Big Jerk


No figure of the 20th century had more of an influence over China than its Communist leader, Mao Zedong. Years after Mao’s death, his personal physician of over 20 years–Li Zhisui–published a lengthy memoir of his experiences with Mao.

The Private Life of Chairman Mao had been sitting on my bookshelf for some time. It’s an intimidating volume, clocking in at well over 600 pages of dense prose. Despite its length, I found it an immensely compelling read. In addition to its portrait of Mao, it offers many insights into recent Chinese history, politics, and culture.

Far from a monolithic nation, Mao’s China was a place of constant turmoil. He took power in the aftermath of a long and bloody civil war with the Kuomintang, the nationalist party that controlled China after the end of its imperial era. Having lost the war, the Kuomintang went on to establish a government-in-exile on the island of Taiwan–a government that continues today, in the form of the Republic of China. Officially, however, China is the People’s Republic of China, controlling the mainland and dominated by the Chinese Communist Party.

But despite what looked to outsiders like an iron grip, Mao’s hold on power was often tenuous. Instead of seeing to the details of governing the country, Mao spent much of his time scheming and plotting, all in the interest of protecting his position and control. He didn’t seem to crave the responsibilities of real government power, but rather to inhabit an untouchable leadership position in which he was adored by the masses and feared by friend and enemy alike. More than once, Mao made his displeasure with political adversaries known by orchestrating public movements against them. The destruction wrought by the Cultural Revolution was itself a product of Mao’s manipulations and obsession with self-preservation.

He was a man who saw enemies everywhere, but was amiable and friendly in face-to-face encounters. Individuals which concerned him, he elevated into positions of authority and influence, ever watchful of their behavior, and quick to organize a purge if he ever believed they might move against him. Mao was not afraid to buy loyalty–to give his enemies something to lose, and then to take it away when he felt his trust threatened. He also vehemently defended his allies. More than once, he saved Dr. Li from prison–or worse.

Li’s own perspective is critical to this work. Western-educated and from a bourgeois background, Li begins as a man charmed by Mao’s friendly demeanor. Over a period of years, however, he grows disillusioned, not just within his role as Mao’s personal physician, but toward Mao himself. Li pines for a career doing research or performing lifesaving treatments on more critical patients, and is instead reduced to being Mao’s companion, often little more than a conversation partner. He loses faith in Mao in the aftermath of the Great Leap Forward, among other reasons. The inability of the Party and of Mao to fully understand the scope of the crisis they’ve created, and then their utter failure to provide workable solutions to it, drives home for Dr. Li that he’s working for an egomaniac who is in over his head and too full of pride to admit it.

Indeed, the book is full of episodes in which Mao is confronted with a problem, and takes one of a few courses each time:

  1. Disbelieve that the problem exists and ignore it.
  2. Disregard expert advice and devise his own outlandish solution.
  3. Prioritize some other problem, real or imagined, avoiding the problem at hand.

At times, Mao is downright petulant. Despite ongoing, worsening dental problems, he refuses to perform basic dental care such as brushing his teeth. When confronted with illness, he refuses treatment, going so far as accusing his doctors of being ignorant fools who will inadvertently kill him with their untrustworthy “modern medicine.” Since Mao also had final say over the medical treatment of Party officials, this affected their health, as well: he would deny access to treatment to political enemies, or merely on the basis of his own ignorance and superstitions.

Mao is shown to be a dedicated womanizer, as well, with elaborate arrangements being made during his journeys around the country to procure attractive young women for him to bed–women who are either all too willing to spend an evening with the godlike Chairman, or who are too frightened of the consequences to refuse. Once Mao has sex with one of these young women, her fate is in his hands: whether she is allowed to be romantically involved with or marry any other man comes at the Chairman’s discretion, and he is not above imprisoning men who encroach upon women he has claimed in this way. Even worse, he is riddled with sexually-transmitted infections which he sees no reason to treat. Again stemming from his ignorance of biology and medicine, he believes that any diseases he carries will clear up on their own–or are simply incurable, and thus not worth worrying about. There’s no way of knowing how many women Mao infected during his decades of rule, though it seems plausible he contributed to STD transmissions that would have ultimately infected thousands and thousands of people.

Another consequence of Mao’s sexual indiscretion comes in the form of his wife, Jiang Qing, who eventually tolerates her husband’s philandering in exchange for growing her own political power base. Jiang is instrumental in the Cultural Revolution, which disrupted civil and governmental institutions around the country and resulted in thousands of deaths, as well as many false imprisonments. Mao knew Jiang was helping to tear the country apart but did nothing, as it kept his own political enemies off-kilter and in perpetual fear. So long as Mao himself wasn’t threatened, chaos could reign.

That seems to be the bottom line for Mao’s China, too: the Chairman held onto power and everyone and everything else be damned. The country stagnated, tens of millions starved to death, political and social upheavals transpired that killed thousands, ruined countless careers and lives, destroyed the country’s institutions, and pitted the classes against one another in perpetual conflict. Mao’s vision was of a socialist revolution in which the masses achieved prosperity through collectivization, seizing control and influence from the bourgeois intellectuals whom he perceived as counterrevolutionaries and rightists. The end goal was a truly communist state, but the fact of the matter is that China lacked an industrialized labor force in the first place. His primary effort to industrialize the country–the Great Leap Forward–was a disaster of epic proportions, not least because he and his government didn’t have a clue how to industrialize such a large (and mostly agrarian) country rapidly.

Dr. Li’s bitterness over the damage Mao inflicted upon China is palpable. He saw his life as having been wasted in the service of a self-aggrandizing dictator. Mao may have been a fine military commander–his prowess on the battlefield during the Long March is what seems to have earned him his high standing in the Revolution–but as a political leader, he was a nightmare.

Naturally, it would make sense for an American like myself to be sympathetic to Li’s perspective. He’s firmly anti-Mao and positions himself as non-ideological, not particularly favoring socialism, communism, capitalism, or any -ism at all. He wasn’t an economist or a revolutionary, and in no way seems to have been a radical. He tells the story of Mao that anti-communist Americans no doubt wanted to hear.

But Mao remains hugely popular in China. Death has only grown his legend. The economic development China has seen over the last 30-40 years are the result of policies Mao staunchly opposed–indeed, China’s economy was only permitted to open up once Mao perished and could no longer stand in the way. Nevertheless, Mao’s status as a champion of the people–especially the poor, the rural farmers, and others of low stature–remains untouchable.

As a human being, Mao comes across as categorically awful–capable of friendly conversation in the best of times, but an insecure, destructive, megalomaniacal child when the least bit threatened. Perhaps these details don’t matter, because the Mao who is so admired is a separate being from the person who truly lived. He’s a legend, a myth, a collective work of fiction who is whatever his admirers need him to be at that particular moment–a religious figure, almost.

Mao went out of his way to develop a cult of personality, to avoid the kind of memetic purge that befell Joseph Stalin when the Soviet strongman died. To that extent, he appears to have succeeded admirably. There is no man more loved in China today than Mao Zedong.

Dr. Li, however, died displaced, disgraced, and stateless–a victim of Mao’s regime well after the Chairman’s death.

The Private Life of Chairman Mao is a book I wholeheartedly recommend, for its thorough and complex examination of Chinese political intrigues and the inner workings of Mao’s reign. It’s very much a sad tale full of tragedy, death, and decay, but it provides an excellent background for those looking to learn more about recent Chinese history.

Photo by Richard.Fisher