On September 9, 1976, Mao Zedong (1893-1976) died in Beijing, China at the age of eighty-two. The late Chairman served as ruler of the People’s Republic of China following the defeat of Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang (KMT) party in 1949. The People’s Liberation Army, under the guidance of Mao, pushed the KMT to complete physical exhaustion before claiming victory. To some, Mao represented the face of a new frontier for the people of China. To others, his regime was viewed as an expansion of Soviet influence as Communism became embraced in Europe and Asia. His failed policy of the Great Leap Forward resulted in mass starvation and is viewed as an epic failure in planning at the highest levels. Over time, many became disillusioned with the “Cultural Revolution” as the reality of a Communist government drearily set in. Mao, seemingly impervious to the deadly effects of his actions, continued to live the opulent lifestyle he had created for himself as the new leader of China. And the “Closed Door” policy afforded him with a shield to protect his empire from the prying eyes of the western hemisphere. But Mao’s meeting with President Richard M. Nixon in 1972 offered a glimmer of hope that the two world powers could form a bond that would in turn bring the two countries together through mutual understanding. Today relations between China and the United States remain tense and show no signs of changing in the foreseeable future. China continues to go through social change but the nation remains haunted by the legacy of Mao Zedong.
Propaganda plays a pivotal role in any ruler’s playbook. Mao created a very carefully crafted image of the supreme leader, unfazed by foreign governments and determined to change China by any means necessary. The public facade largely worked and even today, decades after his death, his name alone is enough to cause a change of expression during conversation. But behind the public facade, there existed another Mao who lived a life that could only be described as unorthodox. He had hired a personal physician, Dr. Li Zhisui to monitor his health and make any recommendations and/or changes when needed. Unbeknownst to the Dr. Zhisui, his left would never be the same again as he took a ringside seat to watch the show that was the private life of Chairman Mao. By his own admission, his wife urged him to write the book before her death. Knowing ahead of time that the publication of the book would require that he leave China, he embraced the project and pulls no punches, revealing the daily insanity that was Mao’s administration. From the beginning it becomes clear that Mao rules with an iron fist and those that serve him do so not out of low but mainly fear. To Mao, nearly all were talked tough were what he called “paper tigers” and he was not afraid to use force when necessary. His ruthless nature and shrewd mind tricks created a climate of suspicion and distrust that gripped everyone working in his inner circle. And as the doctor explains, the wrong words or even suspicions were enough for removal and in some cases far worse.
No story about Mao is complete without a word regarding his widow, Jiang Qing (1914-1991), who served as the Spouse of the Paramount Leader of China from 1949 until Mao’s death in 1976. A former actress, she married Mao on November 28, 1938 becoming his fourth wife. Their marriage and the tribulations contained therein, serve as the back story to the topic at hand. Mao’s infidelities and Qing’s insecurities are key issues in the book and a constant source of tension between her and his chosen physician. She serves as the books antagonist and a mental game of chess develops as she seeks out any chance to put the doctor in the cross hairs of suspicion. At times, the scenes are nothing short of comical and reveal the desperation in Qing’s actions. Her rage at Mao’s philandering were typically directed as other for she lacked the backing or resolve to directly challenge and change the nation’s leader. Following Mao’s death, she was convicted as part of the “Gang of Four” for treason and initially sentenced to death before her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. She died in 1991 after taking her own life while suffering from the effects of throat cancer.
If there is one section of the book that hits home with the reality of Mao’s callousness, it is the doctor’s comments about Mao’s true purpose behind the Great Leap Forward. In fact, it might seem unreal to some readers at first but Dr. Zhisui was there next to Mao witnessing firsthand the Chairman’s erratic behavior. And there is a high probability that Mao never intended for the Great Leap Forward to succeed in any shape form or fashion. There are many cold hard truths in this book but to understand Mao Zedong, his public and personal life must be examined and it is here that Dr. Zhisui has written the best account of crazy, unorthodox and complicated life of Mao Zedong. Highly recommended.