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The Body Politic : More than you ever wanted to know about Mao's innards : THE PRIVATE LIFE OF CHAIRMAN MAO, By Dr. Li Zhisui with the editorial assistance of Anne F. Thurston (Random House: $30; 682 pp.)

February 19, 1995|Hong Yung Lee | Hong Yung Lee teaches politics at U.C. Berkeley

Mao Tse-tung continues to haunt the collective consciousness of the Chinese even now, almost 20 years after his death. Writings on him tend to reflect China's rapidly changing political reality in all of its inconsistencies. With the publication of more than 80 monographs on his life, Mao has been at once demystified, commercialized and deified. Books published in Hong Kong titillate the public with glimpses of Mao's private life and revel in the sordid details of his sexual debauchery and excess. Yet in Beijing, taxi drivers carry his picture for their safety, converting a symbol of loyalty into an icon.

"The Private Life of Chairman Mao" is an unusual book in many ways. Mao's personal physician between 1954 to 1976, Dr. Li was, according to his own accounts, privy to Mao at his most unguarded moments; while attending to every detail of Mao's physical well-being, he became intimately acquainted with the behind-the-scenes struggles of such momentous historical events as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. This fly-on-the-wall's perspective yields tantalizing tidbits and fascinating anecdotes on Mao's personality, personal hygiene and interpersonal relations. It is not surprising, however, that Li's understanding of Chinese politics is closely connected to his knowledge of Mao's body.

In "The Private Life of Chairman Mao," Li implies that the private Mao--driven by an unsatisfiable desire for absolute power and for sex--was inextricably linked to the major policy decisions that led China into one catastrophe after another. "Mao's health and the country's politics were often intertwined," Li writes. Under political attack, Mao would retreat to bed. "Mao's neurasthenia was rooted in his continuing fear that other ranking leaders were not loyal to him and that there were few within the party whom he could genuinely trust." When Mao took the political offensive, his health would rebound. As he prepared for the Cultural Revolution, Mao stopped complaining about impotence, a condition which had greatly worried him before.

His sexual prowess, according to Li, was also connected to his political insecurity. "He craved affection and acclaim. As his disgrace within the party grew, so did his hunger for approval. . . . He needed his women more, and he needed more of them, because he had lost so much face."

Despite his Populist pretensions, Mao lived like a traditional emperor with all the material comforts that China could afford. His physical needs were taken care of by attendants recruited from young, uneducated peasants, who bathed and clothed him and combed his hair but who couldn't be his conversational partners. "Devoid of human feeling, incapable of love, friendship, or warmth," Mao lived a lonely life and suffered from insomnia, which drove him to nightly doses of sleeping pills. Expecting "total and indivisible loyalty" rather than principle, and driven by an uncontrollable quest for power, Mao was petty, tricky and suspicious, trying to gather information from members of his entourage by constantly asking, "Any news?" in order to check their loyalty and to play one member of the staff off against another.

Perhaps the most eye-catching accounts in Li's book have to do with Mao's sex life. Despite his infertility, Mao indulged in young women--sometimes more than one at the same time--and engaged in Taoist sexual practice to prolong his life. Mao even had a special bed made for his sexual activity, with the edge of one side raised about four inches higher than the rest of the bed, which he took every place he traveled, even to Moscow. His hygiene was even more eccentric; according to Li, Mao's "genitals were never cleaned." Instead, Mao said, "I wash myself inside the bodies of my women." He never brushed his teeth, either; instead, he simply used tea to rinse out his mouth when he woke, eating the leaves after drinking the water, as many peasants in southern China did.

Outside of these vivid details, the composite picture of Mao and the narrative of Chinese politics offered in the book by and large confirms what has already been known. The author tells his story as if he was an "eyewitness" to many important political events, using innumerable quotations, some of which are from Chinese official documents. His personal memories are interwoven with public knowledge so that the distinction between his own experiences and what became known later is blurred. This manner of presentation strategically makes Li as the bridge between Mao the person and the Chinese political process.

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