To start off, this is one of the more troubling books I have ever read. I did not realize this until after I had finished it and had time to contemplate what I had read. This book is the memoir of Chairman Mao’s private physician, Doctor Li Zhisui. Chairman Mao Zedong, as you all may know was the supreme leader of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from its founding in 1949 till his death in 1976. Dr. Li describes the personal vices of Mao as well as the horrific court intrigues that took place around him. His story paints a picture of decadence and hypocrisy that has become the hallmark of not only Communist Regimes, but of any dictatorship.
Of course this book is not without its own controversy. Many claims have been made to the effect that some of the events portrayed in the story are exaggerated or outright lies. These claims have been leveled more at the publisher of the book rather than the Dr. Li as it is believed that they wanted a more sensationalized story to attract buyers. For the most part I don’t think much was lied about. I think the only instance of exaggeration was a description that towards the end of Mao’s life he liked to get full body massages from soldiers that ended in a very undignified capacity. Everything else mentioned I’m inclined to believe as they have precedent in other Communist countries.For example, it is described how mao has villa’s constructed for him all across China. At these villas nightly parties are held and “dancers” would retire with Mao at the end of the night. The villas are luxuriously appointed. Mao was not living the egalitarian life style that he often preached. I believe this was true. This is because the official residence of much the Communist Leadership continues to be an area of Beijing known as Zhongnanhai (wikipedia article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zhongnanhai). During the long dead Chinese Monarchy, Zhongnanhai was a branch of the Forbidden City Palace Complex and contains many palatial buildings as well as a major artificial lake. How can you still be a communist while still living in a Palace? If you can answer that question you may wish to tell Nicolae Ceaușescu.
The book begins with Dr. Li’s return to China after a period of time working as a doctor in Oceania. He falls in with the upper Communist Party through a family member who holds a mid-level position in the party. Eventually the upper echelons of the Party take notice of Dr. Li and he eventually comes to be Mao’s personal physician. At first Dr. Li is a great admirer of Mao and his beliefs, but as the years go by and Dr. Li sees how decadent Mao and his compatriots are as well as the numerous power struggles that lead to both the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, along with Mao’s cult of personality, he becomes disillusioned with with not only Mao, but the entire system. OVer his years with Mao, Dr. Li also witness many people around Mao be exiled to prison camps are well as to live in the countryside with Chinese peasants. Reasons for exile or worse were often for overblown charges of treason or revisionist thought. Other’s disappeared because of minor disagreements with Mao or his wife, Jiang Qing. For exceptional periods of time Dr. Li is forced to travel the country with Mao or to live with him in private complexes which results in him missing much of his family life.
Much infom was also given on Jiang Qing. This is because she had numerous mental problems. For example she was a hypochondriac and would often claim extreme sensitivity to both low and bright light as well as loud noise. It is also mentioned how she had extreme abandonment issues and constantly worried about Mao leaving her. While this may make her seem to be a person who deserves sympathy, she is one of the more terrible villains in the memoir. She would often start fights with and cause trouble for her staff. Towards the end of the memoir it is shown that she becomes a major player in the PRC government and is one of the main catalysts for the Cultural Revolution which resulted in the deaths of many and the destruction of many priceless historical treasures.
The end of the memoir concludes just after Mao’s death from Lou Gehrig’s Disease. His wife makes a play for power which fails and results in the famous Gang of Four Incident. After this for a time Dr. Li is sent into exile to live as a peasant for a year and a half. After this he becomes the president of a major medical hospital in Beijing. Eventually he immigrates to the US shortly before his wife’s death in the late 80s.
The last few paragraphs in the story are the hardest to read. Dr. Li discusses about how all his beliefs as a young communist were slowly crushed by Mao and his cohorts. He also remarks on how he wasted his life and any chance as a real doctor helping others was ruined by the politics that kept him in the company of Mao. Dr. Li concludes his story with the following statement about his life and story: “I want it 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.”
This statement left me with an overwhelming sense of pity and sadness for Dr. Li.