Monday, October 15, 2007

"The Private Life of Chairman Mao" Dr Li Zhisui

No man is a hero to his own valet.

Early Summer 1975. Chairman Mao is gravely ill, beginning the long slow descent towards death. Bedridden, he has cataracts, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) with paralysis on his ride side, coronary and pulmonary heart disease, an infection in the lower half of both lungs, with three bulla in the left one, bedsores on his left hip, anoxia, a slight fever and a severe cough. He has had two heart attacks and has poor kidney function. He is addicted to barbiturates and suffers from chronic and acute insomnia. He is 82. He also hasn’t washed for several decades, and has never brushed his teeth, which are covered in a green plaque. God alone knows the state of his genitals.

Mao’s medical team consists of 24 nurses and 15 doctors, headed by Dr Li, Mao’s personal physician for 21 years. Although a member of Mao’s inner court, and one of Mao’s most trusted intimates, living a pampered life within the confines of Mao’s own forbidden city, the government compound Zhongnanhai, Dr Li’s position is distinctly unenviable. His job, to keep Mao alive for ever. Failure is a given, but the possible consequences of that failure range from arrest, solitary confinement, banishment to a ‘Reform Through Labour’ camp, torture, and/or death. As well as dealing with Mao’s impossible health problems, he also has to deal with Mao’s mistress and Mao’s wife. He also has to deal with the various factions of the politburo, all of whom are nervously trying to pass the eventual blame for Mao’s death onto someone else’s shoulders, and politicking secretly over the succession.

The wider world knows nothing of this. Mao is presented in the Chinese media as healthy and apple cheeked.

Mao’s speech is slurred and can only be deciphered reliably by one person –his mistress Zhang Yu Feng, who needless to say relishes her power and takes full advantage of it. His wife, Jiang Ching, AKA Madame Mao, is jockeying to consolidate her power base after the disaster of the Cultural Revolution, which is only now fizzling out. These two appalling women fight to establish their influence over Mao and their supremacy over the medical team, trying to best each other, and in the process reaching the loftiest heights of stupidity. Presented with the diagnosis of ALS, Jiang Ching demands: “Where is your evidence?” On being told of the necessity to insert a nasal tube into the chairman to give him nourishment, she accuses: “A nasal feeding means inserting a tube into his stomach, I know this procedure and it is very painful. Does this mean you want to torture the Chairman?” Zhang Yu Feng, on being told that the Chairman will need to be fed solutions of amino acid, refuses and declares that solutions of glucose will do the job. When the glucose infusions fail, she insists that the amino acid treatment be tried out first on his medical team to see if there are any adverse side effects. The long suffering Dr Li is the first to undergo the infusion.

Dr Li’s memoirs of his life are an extraordinary read, for many reasons. In addition to the insider’s view of the sexual and political shenanigans of the Chinese leadership, there is also the story of Li’s life, and more interestingly, of his inner life. Initially madly enthusiastic about the Communist victory in 1949, he gives up a promising young career in Australia to take part in the efforts to rebuild China after a century of warfare and internal struggle. Recruited after a period of observation as Mao’s personal physician, he is overawed by the honour. Over the years, his attitude changes as he becomes more aware, politically and personally, of the power games being played out in Zhongnanhai, and their effects on the country at large. Through time and bitter experience, he learns how to play the political game, and becomes adept at manipulating the various factions to ensure his own survival, and that of his team. He describes modestly, and always without fuss, the various battles Western science has to fight against Chinese peasant stupidity and against political turpitude. His insight into Mao’s character is always interesting, and always very human. His descriptions of Madame Mao make one’s hair stand on end. And his explanations of some of the influencing factors behind the two great convulsions of late 20th century Chinese history- The Great Leap Forward, and The Cultural Revolution- have all the stamp of the messy, day to day truth. He describes his struggles with his conscience, as an idealistic doctor who takes his Hippocratic oath extremely seriously, as a good patriot, as a father, as a husband, as a loyal friend, as a human being.

This kind of book exemplifies one of the great revenges of history. These great tyrants: Hitler, Stalin, Mao, who lived with one eye on their historical reputations, are often undone by the historians who knew them best, or who have studied them most deeply. History to the defeated may say 'Alas', but cannot help nor pardon...Kershaw in his biography of Hitler is often fabulously, scathingly, contemptuous of Hitler’s pretensions to historical greatness. Jung Chang’s recent biography of Mao has been criticised for its hostile bias. And occasionally Dr Li’s revulsion of the man and of the leader Mao comes through, despite his attempts at a kind of lucid, clinical objectivity that characterises most of the writing. And this is absolutely right. We as historians -writers, readers, those who care to learn, remember, and contemplate the past- must make moral judgements about this kind of person, about the kind of human being who sets himself up as a ruler over other human beings. Dr Li’s noble account does much to add to our understanding of the human cost of Mao’s policies and of his existence as a tyrant.

I devoted my professional life to Mao and China, but now am stateless and homeless, unwelcome in my own country. I write this book in great sorrow for Lillian [his wife] and for everyone who cherishes freedom. 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.


keylawk said...

Very moving review. Perhaps there is a homeland for us exiles after all.

Murr said...

I've always thought of exile as its own homeland, with its own borders, its own customs and fellow travellers... said...
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