Mao's doctor's book

Chris Burford cburford at
Thu Apr 13 07:55:20 MDT 1995

Lisa has candidly raised, without axe-grinding, the truth of "Mao's
Doctor's Book" and Louis has replied in a non-sectarian way.

I would love to give a more considered reply, but a day is a long time on
this list and unless I catch the moment it will have gone.

I presume we are all talking about "The Private Life of Chairman Mao: The
inside story of the man who made modern China", by Zhisui Li published 1994.
I have a hard back English edition by Chatto and Windus, London and it is
claimed to be a best seller in London's best bookshop.

For me the book is an absolute must. It is tragic, and hilarious. And it
provides invaluable source material on one of the noblest struggles for
socialism this century among the largest cultural group on this planet,
now numbering 1000 million, in this planet's oldest civilisation which
among other things had dialectics as part of its culture. Oh and its not

If this list cannot discuss China more, and more intelligently, it is not
discussing Marxism. And it is not discussing concrete reality, but living
in an abstracted idealist world.

Besides as Louis pointed out, other media, eg also New Left Review, are
discussing China.

 > On Wed, 12 Apr 1995, Lisa Rogers wrote:
 > > Are the contents of Mao's doctor's book factually innacurate?

Although I think the introduction is propaganda, having read the later
sections of the book I would grasp the nettle and say it is invaluable
source material by an able and very conscientious doctor. I read it on
the assumption that

a) everything he writes has a high probability of being factually accurate

b) everything he writes is from his point of view.

That point of view is both extremely well informed and blinkered at the
same time. There is an amazing insight on how to survive in the hot-house
atmosphere of a highly political court. How people go up or down in
social standing - and therefore fortune through little gestures and
understandings will be familiar to anyone who has any experience of
institutional politics.

[Let me ask half the subscribers to this list, are
you on reasonably friendly terms with a person who is on friendly terms
with the head of your department? Do you know if that person will put in
a word for you to cover your back if you appear to be in a bit of
trouble, will she or he help you get the next grant allocation? - why
after all is this book a best seller, if in a strangely different world,
almost as different as a science fiction novel, it does not describe
something all too familiar]

But science fiction at times it appears. The last stages before the fall
of the "Gang of Four" include tests like how to respond to a request from
Jiang Qing to join an apple-picking party with her in the grounds of
the imperial palace? (Each response has extreme dangers).

Hilarity: The scene in which for reasons of group psychology disastrously
bungled through the political power struggles, the Politbureau order a
last minute change of policy and require poor doctor Zhisui Li to
preserve the body at the last minute by pumping 20 litres of formaldehyde
into the corpse until it starts to look like a barrage balloon and then
starts oozing: would make any reader a materialist for life. Coupled with
the drama that if Zhisui cannot stop the oozing he is highly likely to be
accused of having killed Mao himself.

My impressions are the author is somewhat embittered from having lived in
a very privileged position and having fallen from grace. It is in some
degree a self-vindicating portrait of a conscientious courtier who has
fallen on hard times. Furthermore as the English saying goes, no officer
can be a hero to his batman. Zhisui knew everything about Mao without Mao
knowing that it would all be published. There are even two references in
the index to Mao's genitals. Gripping stuff!

Sex: It would appear that Mao enjoyed sex as much as John Kennedy, that
other benefactor of the cult of the individual, and he was as cynically
protected by those in the know, as was Kennedy. Zhisui has some
interesting observations about how the power relations though one sided,
did not always go Mao's way, and the great man, did not always understand
how other people saw him. I have not yet picked up evidence of any of his
partners committing suicide.

My impression though is that the pre-occupation with sex and his body was
the polarised other side of the coin to his abstract idealism. When there
was a political crisis, he would get ill and retire to his bed for weeks.

I look forward to reading the whole book. My impressions are that Mao is
confirmed for all his peasant ways as an infinitely more civilised man
than Stalin and the Chinese revolution as a more complex and
perhaps even a more important social event, including its highly problematic
phases. Which are not yet over....

Zhisui stayed neutral from all political analysis so has nothing to say
about the merits or demerits of trying to keep socialism fresh by
criticising tendencies to revert to capitalist practices (although his
evidence suggests that the Chinese way of doing it in the third quarter
of this centry was open to disastrous distortions).

Psychologically, he reports that following Lin Biao's defection (from my
reading, clearly the fault of poor group dynamics) Mao sank into a
depression, from which he never recovered, but he did start setting right
the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. I feel the fact that he took
this turn rather than a crudely paranoid turn, which I would imagine of
Stalin, is in indicator of greater humanity and depth.

The bit a find most serious, and I have not yet read in full the handling
of the amazing idealist Great Leap forward, is as follows:

"So far as I could tell, despite his initial friendliness at first
meetings, Mao was devoid of human feeling, incapable of love, friendship,
or warmth. Once, in Shanghai, I was sitting next to the Chairman during a
performance when a young acrobat - a child - suddenly slipped and was
seriously injured. The crowd was aghast, transfixed by the tragedy, and
the child's mother was inconsolable. But Mao continued talking and
laughing without concern, as though nothing had happened. Nor, to my
knowledge, did he ever inquire about the fate of the young performer.

"I never understood his apparent callousness, Perhaps he had seen so many
people die that he had become inured to human suffering. His first wife,
Yang Kaihui, had been executed by the Guomindang, and so had his two
brothers. His elder son had been killed during the Korean War. Several
other children had been lost during the Long March in the mid-1930's and
never found. But I never saw him express any emotion over those losses.
The fact that he had lived while so many others died seemed only to
confirm his belief that his life would be long. As for those who had
died, he would simply say that 'lives have to be sacrificed for the cause
of revolution' "

Dr Zhisui was of course not a psychiatrist but I think the passage gives
some insight. The day when leaders of a revolution can safely discuss
their vulnerability with a psychiatrist or a psychotherapist is perhaps
not yet here, and would imply a wholely different sort of revolution.

The most tender passage, for me of course, is the description of Mao
meeting his second wife again in 1961:

"He Zizhen was elderly by then. Her hair was silver-gray and she walked
with the unsteady gait of the aged. But her pallid face burst with
deilight as soon as she saw Mao.

"Mao rose immediately and walked toward her, taking her hands into his,
and escorting her to a chair as He Zhizhen's eyes filled with tears.

"He gave her a little hug and said with a smile, 'Did you get my letter?
Did you receive the money?' He was good to her, as gentle and kind as I
had ever seen him.

" 'Yes, I received your letter and also the money,'she said.

"Mao wanted to know more about her life and about the medical treatment
she was receiving. Her voice was barely audible, and after the brief
flash of recognition her words became incoherent. She seemed flushed with
excitement, but her face had gone blank. Mao invited her to have dinner
with him, but she refused.

" 'All right,' Mao said soothingly. 'We have seen each other now, but you
haven't talked much, have you? After you go back, listen to your doctor
and take good care of yourself. We'll see each other again.'

"And then she was gone.

"For a long while after she left, I remained with Mao as he sat silently,
smoking cigarette after cigarette, overcome with what I took to be
melancholy. I had never seen him in such a mood. I sensed in him a great
sorrow over He Zhizhen.

"Finally, he spoke. He was barely audible. 'She is so old. And so sick.'

"He turned to me. 'This Dr Su Zonghua, the one who treated Jiang Qing
last ime in Guangzhou, is he the same doctor who has been treating He

"I said that he was.

" 'And whas is her illness called after all?'

" 'It is called schizophrenia.'

"'What is schizophrenia?'

" 'It is a condition in which the mind cannot corectly relate to reality.
Its cause is not yet clearly understood, and the drugs used to treat it
have proven very effective.'

" 'Is it the same illness that Mao Anqing has?'


Yes Lisa, I would suggest it is better to assume that Mao's doctor has
tried to be factually accurate, as he saw things.

Let the interpretation start....

Chris Burford, psychiatrist, working mainly with schizophrenia, London.

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