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The Emperor Has No Clothes: Mao's Doctor Reveals the Naked Truth
John E. Wills, Jr., a Professor of History at the University of Southern California, has written widely on the history of Chinese foreign relations. His most recent book is Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History.See more by this author
Dr. Li Zhisui met Mao Zedong for the first time on April 25, 1955, late in the afternoon. The doctor had finished a busy day in his clinic, but Mao was just starting his day's work. On a wooden bed beside his indoor swimming pool, the chairman lounged "naked beneath an open terry-cloth robe . . . his lower body loosely covered by a towel." Dr. Li was impressed by Mao's healthy appearance: broad shoulders, a big belly, thick black hair, "skin like butter, delicate, and hairless." Dr. Li, summoned by the awesome and remote Great Leader, was nervous, but Mao soon put him at ease, while at the same time impressing him with his wisdom. Mao made it clear that Dr. Li's education in missionary schools would be no bar to his holding a position of the greatest trust under the chairman. He reminded the doctor that the great second emperor of the Tang Dynasty, Li Shimin, had made a general with a questionable background one of his closest and most trusted aides.
Li became Mao's personal physician, and there were only a few periods between that first interview and Mao's death on September 9, 1976, when he was not immediately responsible for his medical care. There were many times when Dr. Li wanted out, but escape would have labeled him a counterrevolutionary, dooming him and his family. Dr. Li has turned his 21 years of thralldom and anxiety into a book that will absorb anyone interested in China or in the total corruption of total power.
Some of the characteristics of Mao's inner circle, which Dr. Li recounts in great detail, were foreshadowed in that first interview. Mao was frequently charming when meeting someone for the first time; his willfulness and urge for total control became apparent only after the individual was irretrievably enmeshed in the inner circle. He had no use for the proprieties of dress, work hours, and leisure time observed by others. People came to Mao when he was ready to talk or work, at any hour of the day or night. These peculiarities, Mao's reference to Li Shimin, and his indoor swimming pool - an amazing luxury in 1950s China - were Dr. Li's first indications that he was dealing with someone who cast himself as a revolutionary leader but whose conduct and attitudes reminded one of China's emperors.