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.

Dr. Li would later learn more about Mao's "imperial" attitudes and witness firsthand Mao's voracious appetite for a never-ending stream of eager young women. Dr. Li's brief testimony on this subject in a 1993 television documentary, much milder than the details in the book, produced furious condemnations from Chinese government spokesmen and such harsh pressure on Hong Kong that the program was not broadcast there. The current Chinese leadership, after all, is a product of the same basic political order that produced and sustained Mao. Its senior leaders were part of his high command and saw a great deal of him. If the Chinese people could become any more cynical about their leadership, Dr. Li's revelations might provide a push in that direction. His book is sure to arouse a good deal of controversy, with the powers that be in the People's Republic doing everything they can to impugn its authenticity and accuracy.

To be sure, this work reaches us in a way that leaves something to be desired. Dr. Li says he recorded his experiences regularly, but then destroyed his notes during the Cultural Revolution, fearing dire consequences if they were discovered. In 1977 he rewrote his notes from memory. He says his memories of Mao's words and deeds are extraordinarily vivid because his life depended on them at the time. No doubt having kept a contemporary record strengthened the memories he would later rely on. But the tendency to rewrite history grows stronger over time. There is no mention of the location or accessibility to scholars of Dr. Li's notes or his original manuscript. Still, there is no obvious reason to doubt that Dr. Li is genuine and that his book represents a reasonable effort to record his experiences. Highly reputable scholars of China, Andrew J. Nathan and Anne F. Thurston, helped edit the book; other eminent scholars have had a chance to review the English text before publication. Dr. Li is least surprising, and his information is most likely to be derivative or unreliable, on larger political events and famous struggles within the high command. For details on these, and for much about Mao's character and private life, he probably will remain our only or best source.


It is not surprising that Dr. Li thought Mao's conduct imperial: he lived in isolation, shared his bed with many young women, and traveled around the nation to luxury villas in a great cocoon of guards and private trains. Dr. Li is in general not judgmental about the endless parade of young women in Mao's bed, citing the Daoist practice of using sex for longevity. But he was shocked by Mao's lack of concern about transmitting a vaginal infection from one woman to another. Far more insight into the pathologies of the inner circle is provided by his many accounts of the flattery and servility that surrounded the chairman; his description of these traits in the widely respected Zhou Enlai will upset many in China, if they ever have a chance to read it. Especially horrifying is his picture of the vast Potemkin village of perfectly planted fields full of peasant women dressed in red and green, with village blast furnaces smoking everywhere, as the chairman's train traveled south in the first autumn of the Great Leap Forward. Dr. Li describes a leader who has lost touch with reality and confesses that he himself was caught up in the enthusiasm. As millions died in the famines brought on by the Great Leap policies, Mao acknowledged it by occasionally abstaining from eating meat.

Also of considerable interest in explaining the perverse twists of the Cultural Revolution are Dr. Li's descriptions of Mao's growing paranoia, especially his fear of being poisoned, and of Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, a neurotic hypochondriac who was impossible to deal with, but who strikingly improved in health and attitude as she began to take a leading role in the Cultural Revolution.

Mao can be seen playing cat-and-mouse with his opponents, letting them put out documents he had not approved so that he could attack them later. Dr. Li testifies that Mao, citing the tradition of using distant foreigners against those close at hand, had begun to talk about improving relations with the United States as early as 1969, at the height of the tensions with the Soviet Union.


Mao's reference to Li Shimin in his first interview with Dr. Li was far from accidental. The chairman was obsessed with Chinese history. In 1936 Mao told American journalist Edgar Snow that when he was a boy he loved to hear tales of the heroes of the Three Kingdoms period from the old men of his village. Certainly Mao's penchant for bold action and heroic rhetoric could have been inspired by those great heroes. But many Chinese heroes, including Li Shimin, were admired for their ability to listen to their ministers. In their imperial lives lies another strand of the Chinese heritage: the moral glamour of the selfless, earnest minister, hoping to be given power to do what he knew was right, always ready to remonstrate fearlessly when the emperor was straying from the path of Confucian righteousness.

Mao's tolerance for independent advice, however, was limited. On one occasion the chairman became fascinated with the history of a vigorous reformer, a mid-Ming Dynasty official named Hai Rui, who was dismissed after repeatedly condemning abuses of power at the imperial court. Mao was attracted by Hai Rui's selflessness and the ideal of the honest official, but he himself was unwilling to hear any criticism. Too many people saw a parallel between the Ming emperor's dismissal of Hai Rui and Mao's dismissal of the frankly critical Marshal Peng Dehuai in 1959. So powerful was the parallel that a leading scholar in Ming history, Wu Han, became one of the first targets of the Cultural Revolution because he had written a play about Hai Rui.

The Chinese political tradition is full of warnings that Mao did not want to hear: against ruthless centralization of power, against pushing ahead with a policy when the best advisers oppose it. Since these ideals ran counter to his aim of transforming China by revolution, he ignored them. Although Mao's fascination with China's past predated his revolutionary zeal, it was subordinate to or at least distorted by it. Dr. Li offers fascinating new evidence on this point, recounting Mao's praise for Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty, Empress Wu of the Tang Dynasty (the only woman ever to sit on the Dragon Throne in her own name), the notorious first emperor of Qin, and Zhou, the last king of the Shang Dynasty. Despite the traditional negative judgments of all four, modern students would have some sympathy with Mao's views of at least three of them as important and partly effective builders and wielders of central power, but it is hard to see more in the praise of Zhou than willful reversal of a traditional verdict. The first emperor of Qin, in particular, is credited by many modern nationalists with a key contribution to what they regard as China's natural or essential condition of political unity.

One should, however, beware the tendency to explain Mao's conduct and attitudes by pointing to continuities with the emperors of the old order. Leninism has produced grotesque leader cults in societies with political heritages as diverse as those of Russia, Cuba, Cambodia, Romania, and China. Iraq, Syria, Uganda, and others have had their own share of dictators without much help from Leninism. The cultural sources of glorification and abuse of authority in the modern world are diverse indeed, and some of them are endemic and recurring pathologies of the nation-building process.


Dr. Li's vivid portrait of the corruption and hypocrisies of Mao's inner circle is an important document for every student of Chinese politics. One should be careful, however, not to rely too heavily on this highly personal portrait to explain the immense and wrenching political changes of contemporary China. Western writing on China between the 1940s and 1976 focused on "Mao's China." Few took into account the political realities not under Mao's control. In the book's introduction, Nathan writes that "no other leader in history...inflicted such a catastrophe on his nation." This is probably true if one counts victims, but it is not likely that the proportion of victims to the whole population was as high as that of Pol Pot or the nameless machete-wielders of Rwanda. "Politics in a dictatorship," Nathan continues, "begins in the personality of the dictator." While China was certainly shaped by Mao's personality, an approach that emphasizes the personal over the political seems to trivialize the patriotism, idealism, savagery, careerism, longing for discipline and meaning, and hope for a more comfortable life that shaped the politics of the People's Republic.

Dr. Li was an eyewitness to Mao's famous swims in China's rivers. Despite pleas from the doctor, who worried about the dangerous currents, sewage, and parasites, Mao insisted on them. In doing so, he demonstrated that he was in charge and that there was nothing to fear if one just plunged in. Once in the water his fat helped keep him afloat, while his entourage of guards and worried courtiers simply floated along with the current.

Water is an important symbol in Chinese culture. It associates human wisdom with making use of the tendency of water to flow downhill, cutting channels so that a flood can drain instead of trying to dam it up, diving into the whirlpool below a waterfall and going with the flow to come up safe. Mao's conduct as a swimmer was in this great tradition, but he too often forgot its lessons in his politics, breasting the currents of political resistance and human inclination, acting like the Lord of the River in the Daoist masterpiece Zhuang Zi, who thought himself the master of all splendor and power until the river carried him into the unfathomable vastness of the North Sea.

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  • 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.
  • More By John E. Wills Jr.