One of the most remarkable firsthand accounts of the lifestyle of a dictator is The Private Life of Chairman Mao (1994), written by Zhisui Li, Mao Zedong’s personal physician for 22 years. Aside from the insight it provides into the inner workings and intrigue of the Chinese Communist Party, the most fascinating thing about this book is what a depraved, even bourgeois, lifestyle it describes Chairman Mao as having led. Li wrote his book at his wife’s urging after they retired to the United States in 1988. When the Chinese Communist Party learned what was afoot, they tried to force Li to stop, first asking him return to China and then threatening to confiscate his property there. Undeterred, Li went ahead with publication. The Party carried out its threat, and banned and denounced his book.
Compare Li’s book with state-approved portrayals of Mao and you have a contrast so stark that it’s almost impossible to believe that they depict the same person. Take, for example, Hongqiang Shenchu (roughly, “Deep behind the Red Wall”), a Chinese-language book by Quan Yanchi (Sichuan People’s Press, 2010) that is part of the cottage industry of thousands of similar books, television series, and articles that the Party uses to fortify the myth of Mao. This book, now in its second edition, is made up of profiles of and interviews with the dictator’s former personal staff. It assures readers on its back cover that it “depicts a well-rounded, three dimensional Mao Zedong.”
In Li’s book, Mao is shown to have led an “imperial” lifestyle, surrounded by servants as he shuttled across the country between guesthouses of his choice on a luxury private train (while ordering millions in the country to live on communes). He is an insomniac who stays up deep into the night and rises late in the afternoon, giving orders from a bed half-filled with books. Li writes:
I had not worked long for Mao before realizing he was the centre around which everything revolved, a precious treasure which had to be protected and coddled and wooed. Everything was done for Mao. He never had to raise a hand, never put on his own socks or shoes or trousers, never combed his own hair.
The only of these features that makes it into Hongqiao Shenchu, however, is Mao’s insomnia—here, though, it is caused by his tireless work ethic and superhuman stamina. He could often, we are told, be found looking exhausted or slumped asleep fully clothed at his desk with a pen still in hand. His sleep was further disturbed when large events affected the country (“and what month or week didn’t have this?”):
It was difficult to clearly calculate how many hours Mao slept per day; we could only estimate how many it was per week. According to my memory, Mao didn’t sleep more than 30 hours a week. Once, when he slept 35 hours in a week, we, his staff, were all so happy that we toasted to it. [My translation.]
Furthermore, Mao was so fanatically focused on his task of building a “new China” that he also often neglected eating for long stretches. “When I tell most people about this situation nowadays, most of them don’t believe me,” a former bodyguard tells Quan.
Li’s book also touches on asceticism, but his version of events is very different. “Asceticism,” he writes, “was the public watchword of the Cultural Revolution, but the more ascetic and moralistic the party’s preachings, the further the Chairman himself descended into hedonism.” According to the doctor, Mao was a lecher who slept with thousands of young peasant women during his travels across China, holding special dances where he could select them. He was also jealous, dismissing any bodyguard he thought caught the eye of the women he was sleeping with. Li reports that when he told Mao he was infecting these women with a sexually transmitted disease, the latter replied, “If it’s not hurting me, then it doesn’t matter. Why are you getting so excited about it?”
Mao attends dances in Hongqiang Shenchu, too. However, even when he is dancing with young women, his main focus here is on the music. He does nothing untoward. Besides, as time goes on, he is usually too exhausted from all his work, “with bloodshot eyes and yawning deeply,” to even dance much. Far from being jealous, he benevolently helps one guard edit his love letters. And there is no talk of diseases of any kind—earlier in the book Mao is described as an unusually healthy and fit man: “…but how did he never get ill? It is as if God created him especially to serve as the leader of China, as its great liberator.”
Li said he wrote his book “to serve as a reminder of the terrible human consequences of Mao’s dictatorship and of how good and talented people living under his regime were forced to violate their consciences and sacrifice their ideals in order to survive.” He paid a real price for his revelations: the loss of his property in China and the right to return to his homeland ever again. Quan’s book, on the other hand, conforms wonderfully to the Party line. The author is obviously in a position to profit from his target audience, which furthermore is denied the opportunity to read Li’s book. Which version is telling the truth I will leave to the reader to decide.