Mao’s Pleasure

Leslie Wilson

  • The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Li Zhisui, translated by Tai Hung-Chao
    Chatto, 682 pp, £20.00, November 1994, ISBN 0 7011 4018 6

In 1949, when many of China’s citizens were running from the newly-victorious Communists, Dr Li Zhisui returned to his homeland. He had been making good money as a ship’s doctor with the Australian Oriental Company, and he could have stayed there or joined his wife in Hong Kong. But since Australia only admitted white people to citizenship, and in Hong Kong he could have become only the ‘disenfranchised subject of a foreign king’, he decided to take part in the reconstruction of his own country: this, he writes, was more important to him than making money. Besides, he wanted to become a neurosurgeon, and non-whites were barred from the top medical posts in both Australia and Hong Kong. Dr Li had a letter from Fu Lianzhang, deputy director of public health, which promised him a suitable job in China: five years later he became personal physician to Chairman Mao Zedong. He didn’t want the honour.

Dr Li’s great-grandfather had attended the young Tongzhi emperor, son of the infamous Dowager Empress Cixi. The Emperor liked to go out into Beijing at night and sample the brothels. When he fell ill with syphilis, the Dowager Empress refused to accept the elder Li’s diagnosis and insisted that her son be treated for smallpox. He died, and the physician was disgraced. He warned his descendants never to accept a job at the Imperial court.

There were more immediate reasons for Dr Li’s unease. His father had been a high-ranking official of the defeated Guomindang Government, and his father-in-law had been a wealthy landlord and was now officially declared an ‘enemy of the people’. He himself had been marginally involved in a Guomindang organisation, the National Renaissance Society. The job was not for him, he thought, but for the son of a worker or peasant. If he took it on, he would be watched all the time. The slightest mistake might cause him to be declared a ‘class enemy’. But his protests were useless. He had no choice.

In any case, Mao had long been Dr Li’s hero. ‘Mao’s eyes,’ he writes of their first meeting, ‘seemed full of wisdom and he exuded good feeling ... I felt that I was in the presence of a great man.’ His fears about his dubious background were dealt with: ‘You were only 15 years old in 1935, when you joined the National Renaissance Society – just a kid,’ Mao told him. ‘You didn’t know anything then.’ Dr Li was grateful, and felt safe at last.

Mao liked to be looked after by grateful people. His barber, ‘Big Beard Wang’, had confessed during a rectification campaign in 1942 that he was plotting to murder him, but Mao found out that the barber had been kept awake till he said what his interrogators wanted, and so he saved him. When, early in his career, Li heard this story, the implications were lost on him. The Chairman, he thought, needed people he could trust. It was only later that he realised why he and Wang could be trusted. Mao had them on a knife-edge, and he could destroy them any time he wanted.

‘I have paid for this book with my life,’ says Li Zhisui. He had returned to China prepared to endure hardship, hoping that he could learn to be proud of himself and of his country. He got only hardship: his family life was wrecked by Mao’s demands, his hopes for a new China were dashed and he never became a neurosurgeon. He was forced to remain silent when the innocent were attacked, even, at times, to take part in their destruction. He lived in fear. The book’s photographs show his distress: in all of them he wears the same helpless, unhappy smile. ‘Survival in China,’ he writes, ‘then and now, depends on constantly betraying one’s conscience.’

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