Private Life of Chairman Mao, The
by Li Zhisui
3/10 (Neither respectable, nor credible, nor eyewitness for the most part)
I came to this book looking for a credible, respectable, fly-on-the-wall account of Mao Zedong’s life. It ended up only partially meeting one of those three basic criteria; it was neither respectable nor was the source very credible, and for large portions (especially the later years, when Dr. Li had admittedly fallen out of favor with Mao) we did not even get eyewitness accounts.
A bizarre warning comes in the very introduction when Dr. Li, who has just given a thorough explanation of his journaling practices (ostensibly to support the credentials of the ensuing account), then explains how he eventually burned all his notes but still remembers verbatim conversations with Mao almost 20 years later “(b)ecause Mao’s language was so colorful and vivid and deeply etched in my brain” and, “My survival and that of my family had always depended on Mao’s words; I could not forget them.” (p.xvii) My thoughts after reading that passage went something like this: “Oh, okay, that sounds reasonable enou— waaait a second. . . does that. . . umm. . . yeah. . . so that means he kept notes but didn’t use them for this and just relied on his seventy-something year-old memory for events that happened 20-30 years ago?. . .okaaaaayyy. . . that actually sounds like complete bullshit.”
Credibility, meet your undoing.
Dr. Li’s credibility is further damaged by the way he narrates certain events. His accounts are conspicuous for their absence of meaningful self-criticism. Sure he occasionally says he should have done something differently, but he doesn’t ever seem sincere. Here’s an example:
I am grateful that I did not understand Mao at the time, did not know how widespread his purges were, how horribly my fellow intellectuals were suffering, how many people were dying. I had tried to escape from Mao’s circle so many times, and always Mao had pulled me back. Now I was trapped, with no hope of leaving. There was much that I could have seen then but did not. What if I really had known clearly what was happening outside my protective cocoon? What if I really had understood the depth and extent of the purges? I could never have accepted it, but I would have been powerless to do anything, either. I would not have been able to leave the circle and I would not have been able to live within it.
The Chinese have an expression, nande hutu, which means that it is difficult to be muddle-headed — but lucky. It is an expression reserved for situations like mine. Looking back, I know that I was muddle-headed during those years. I had to be. It was the only way to survive.
So to sum up: Excuse, excuse, justification, excuse, rationalization and half-hearted self-criticism.
The overwhelming takeaway from a passage such as this is Dr. Li’s timidity and conventionality. And of course how much can we really trust the account of such a person? Are we to just assume from the absence in his memoir that he did not actively participate in any of the persecutions, that his actions did not result in the “purging” or condemnation of anyone else? He depicts himself a little too cleanly to really believe. And just from reading the passage above you would never guess that the “so many” escape attempts were really just him asking a superior to transfer him to another post. It’s sort of an insult to people who actually were courageous at that time and committed much more drastic actions.
The respectability of the proceedings runs into problems when Dr. Li spends an inordinate amount of time speaking of the sexual and physical characteristics of his subjects. On p.100 he needlessly describes how he masturbated Mao, and later on in the book he commits what to me seems a pretty huge transgression when he uses a patient’s reaction to physical crisis to comment on his lack of courage. This came across as both unethical and immoral, regardless of whether the then-patient is currently living or not.
Finally, the scope of the book was disappointing in that it was not quite as advertised. A good portion of the book, maybe half, doesn’t have to do much with Mao’s “private life” at all, but rather deals with the situation in China as a whole and its effect on Dr. Li. Perhaps it could have been more accurately called “The Private Life of Dr. Li Who Occasionally Glimpsed the Private Life of Chairman Mao.”
Especially in the later years, as I already mentioned, Dr. Li wasn’t even really around Mao, so he (somewhat self-consciously, it appears) has to fill up pages with minor details about Politburo factions and in-fighting. He doesn’t necessarily seem to be glorifying his role in the proceedings, but a more cynical person than myself might read it that way (I’m told such people exist but have not yet confirmed it). Also, the book gets repetitive and tedious at times.
Overall, I did learn much about Mao the man and his era in Chinese history. His supreme egomania and narcissism are striking, as is his complete amorality. You could probably accurately call him a psychopath. I now want to rewatch the movie “To Live” to see again the sumptuous recreation of the Cultural Revolution. I just wish Dr. Li would have kept the focus of the book tighter and maintained more professional discipline in what he chose to divulge. I also wish he wouldn’t have passed it off as perfectly-recreated dialogue even after burning his notes, as that just defies belief.