Title: The Private Life of Chairman Mao
Author: Li Zhisui
Zhisui, Dr. Li (1994). The Private Life of Chairman Mao. The Memoirs of Mao’s Personal Physician. New York: Random House
Date Posted: February 10, 2013
This book opens with one of the most hilarious opening chapters of a book that I have read. Mao has just died and in what had become a tradition for Communist regimes his body had to be preserved to be kept on display. The problem was that no one knew how to preserve bodies. Calls were made to Lenin’s Tomb and to the display in which Ho chi Minh was kept all to no avail. It appeared that Lenin’s mummification had not worked well as his nose had fallen off. A substitute nose had to be put in place. The feedback was to ring America as they were good at that sort of thing. A call to America suggested filling the blood stream with formaldehyde. There was a debate about how much to put in and it was decided to put in double the advised amount to make sure there were no mistakes. Mao after all was important and heads would roll (literally) if his body started to decompose. Huge amounts of formaldehyde were pumped into the body. Unfortunately it started to look like the Michelen Man. The assembled doctors realized that they had to do something so that they decided to massage the body to pump out the excess. The only problem was that during the massage process part of Mao’s face broke off. This had to be hurriedly repaired using wax. A general came in to look at the body and looking at the face wanted to start a murder investigation.
The other chapters can’t keep pace with this frantic opening but it is a batman’s biography of one of China’s most important leaders. The author was his doctor for most of his later years and gives an account not just of the politics of Mao but of every aspect of his life.
The author’s role was to keep Mao alive and to fend off disease. This was not easy. Mao for instance refused to clean his teeth. As a result his teeth were covered in a sort of green coating. Although Mao liked to swim and he never liked to wash. Mao was sexually predatory and large numbers of young women went through his bed. He picked up a number of sexual diseases and refused to be treated for them and thus spread them to his companions.
The book however is more interesting than a list of scandals. It describes the mechanics of power and the court that Mao ran. The author was there constantly. He was used by Mao as a source of gossip and as such perhaps learned more of his subject than most physicians. The book describes the way that Mao’s favorites would circle around him drifting in and out of favor and how they would be used by Mao so that he could remain at the centre of power.
The book is not only important as a close source about one of history’s (perhaps regrettably) towering figures but is fascinating to read. It has the grim fascination that a work of fiction can never have as you know that the events unfolded just a short time ago.