The Private Life of Chairman Mao

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The Private Life of Chairman Mao: The Memoirs of Mao's Personal Physician
AuthorLi Zhisui
CountryUnited States
SubjectMao Zedong
PublisherChatto & Windus
Publication date

The Private Life of Chairman Mao: The Memoirs of Mao's Personal Physician is a memoir by Li Zhisui, one of the physicians to Mao Zedong, former Chairman of the Communist Party of China, which was first published in 1994. Li had emigrated to the United States in the years after Mao's death. The book describes the time during which Li was Mao's physician, beginning with his return to China after training in Australia, through the height of Mao's power to his death in 1976 including the diverse details of Mao's personality, sexual proclivities, party politics and personal habits.

The book was well received by Western media, with reviews praising it for being corroborated by other sources and giving a detailed, fly on the wall perspective on Mao's personal life. The book was controversial and ultimately banned in the People's Republic of China, with other associates of Mao publishing Chinese language rebuttals in which they argued that much of it was fabricated by Li himself and by his English language translators.

Background and publication[edit]

Li Zhisui was Mao Zedong's personal physician for twenty-two years, and Li claimed that during this time he became a close confidant of the Chinese leader. After emigrating to the United States, Li wrote The Private Life of Chairman Mao based on his memories of his time with Mao. The biography was based on his recollection of journals he had kept, which he had burned during the Cultural Revolution.

The original manuscript was written by Li, translated from his native Chinese into English by Professor Tai Hung-chao, then edited by Anne F. Thurston. The foreword to the book was written by Professor Andrew J. Nathan of Columbia University, and the book was published by Random House in 1994. Along with the Random House publication, a Chinese language edition was released by the Chinese Times Publishing Company of Tapei.[1] The book was banned by the government in the People's Republic of China, as have many works criticising Mao on a personal level,[2] and they subsequently also publicly denounced both the book and a BBC documentary that used it as a basis.[3]

After publication, several people criticized the publication process. Tai claimed that the English-language publisher, Random House, wanted more sensationalist elements to the book than that which Li had provided them, in particular requesting more information about Mao's sexual relationships. Despite Li's own protestations, they overruled him, and put such claims in the published text.[4] Li claimed that Thurston cut substantial parts of his original manuscript without his knowledge.[5] Alterations to the Chinese version of the book included the removal of controversial statements about the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who was still alive and in power of the People's Republic at the time of publication.[6]

Li believed that the Chinese language edition of the book was not directly based upon his original Chinese manuscript, but that it was instead a translation based upon the English version.[5] Q.M. DeBorja and Xu L. Dong highlighted what they saw as a variety of discrepancies in the text between the published English and Chinese versions of The Private Life of Mao, for instance, in the English edition, Li is recorded as saying "During our talk in Chengdu…" whereas in the Chinese edition, the literal translation is "Mao stated in his speech at the Chengdu meeting…"; as DeBorja and Dong note, these statements actually have different meanings.[7]


Mao Zedong and Zhang Yufeng in 1964

The book discusses the 22 years for which Dr. Li maintains he was Mao's personal physician. After a brief summary of his family and personal history, Li discusses how he came to treat first the senior Chinese communist officials, then in 1954 Mao himself until Mao's death in 1976. Much of the text discusses the difficulties and frustrations faced by Li attempting to deal with the politics, infighting and personal conflicts of the upper echelons of the Communist Party of China, as well as the difficulties dealing with both Mao as a patient and other high-ranking officials, such as Mao's wife, the hypochondriac Jiang Qing, Mao's daughter Li Na, and the physically (and possibly mentally) unstable Lin Biao.

The book also discusses the political climate and events of China in the same period. These include Mao's role in orchestrating events such as the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and various purges of members of the Communist Party. A significant portion of the narrative involves treatment of Mao's physical and mental health complaints and Li's personal assessments of how Mao handled the personalities and disputes of the party members that surrounded him.

A significant theme in the book is Li's gradual transition from his initial sincere admiration for Mao as a leader of the country to his eventual disgust, contempt and personal dislike of the leader due to Mao's manipulation of people and events, odd sexual habits, abuses of power, substitution of slogans and cult of personality for knowledge of modern science or administrative ability, and above all Mao's indifference to the suffering of the general population due to his failed policies. Throughout the book Li compares Mao to the historical Chinese Emperors in the tactics he used to control people around him, noting Mao's frequent references to and reading of the histories of Imperial China.


Media reaction[edit]

The book was reviewed by The New York Times, which described it as "an extraordinarily intimate portrait" containing many details about Mao's time of rule and associations with other major figures in the government, but one that presented few new revelations about the political or diplomatic history of Maoist China. The review stated that though there may never be absolute corroboration of the book and its many anecdotes, its contents are supported by the numerous pictures of Li with Mao on his many trips, as well as the consistency of the details with the information known by specialists of Chinese history and politics. The book also highlighted the hypocritical, often decadent lifestyle Mao experienced, while enforcing strict political and secular restrictions, as well as harmful ideological changes on the population.[8]

The book was also reviewed by the Council on Foreign Relations magazine Foreign Affairs. Criticized for being based on Li's memory and a recreation of his journals in 1977 (the originals were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution out of fear for their possible impact on Li or his family), the review stated that despite this weakness there is "no obvious reason to doubt that Dr. Li is genuine and that his book represents a reasonable effort to record his experiences" and its credibility was enhanced for being edited and reviewed by scholars of Chinese history. The book was praised for probably being the best, or only source for information about larger Chinese political events, disputes within the Chinese high command, and Mao's private life and character. The review highlighted criticisms of Mao's indifference and lack of awareness of the general suffering within the general population of the country, his sexual excesses and intolerance to criticism or challenge, while cautioning against using the personal details of the book to draw general lessons on the nation and revolution.[9]

Writing for The Christian Science Monitor, reviewer Ann Tyson described Li's role as trapped dealing with a man he learned to despise, sacrificing his family life, professional goals, and personal convictions. Tyson also pointed out the threats made by Chinese authorities to confiscate his house upon learning he was writing a memoir, following through with their threat in 1992.[10]

Reviewing the book for the Daily News of Bowling Green, Kentucky, historian Robert Antony described it as an "intimate, candid account of one of the most powerful men in the modern world" and "a haunting tale of intrigue and debauchery in the court of Mao Zedong, as could only be told by a member of the inner circle" and described Li's journey from an idealized patriot who idolized Mao, to a critic disillusioned by Mao's hypocrisy and philandering.[11]


Several people have questioned the authenticity of the book. A statement protesting that many of the claims made in Li's book were false was issued soon after its publication, signed by 150 people who had personally known or worked with Mao, including Wang Dongxing, Li Yinqiao and Ye Zilong.[12]

Lin, Xu and Wu[edit]

In 1995, a Chinese language book was published in Hong Kong (which at that time was independent from the People's Republic of China), entitled Lishi de Zhenshi: Mao Zedong Shenbian Gongzuo Renyuan de Zhengyan (meaning The Truth of History: Testimony of the personnel who had worked with Mao Zedong). It was written by three people who had known Mao personally: his personal secretary Lin Ke, his personal doctor from 1953 to 1957, Xu Tao and his chief nurse from 1953 to 1974, Wu Xujun. They argued that Li did not only not know Mao very well, but that he presented an inaccurate picture of him in his book.[13] The trio attack Li's claim that he had been Mao's personal physician in 1954, instead presenting copies of a document from Mao's medical record showing that Li only took on the responsibility for caring for Mao on 3 June 1957. Wu goes on to argue that whilst much of Li's memoir is devoted to talking about Mao in the period between 1954 and 1957, Li was not his general practitioner during this period, and therefore would not have had access to the personal information that he claimed.[14] Lin, Xu and Wu also criticise a number of Li's other claims as being impossible. For instance, whilst Li claimed that he was present at exclusive meetings for high-ranking Communist Party members such as the CCP Politburo Standing Committee meetings, Lin et al. argued that it would have been an extreme breach of protocol for him to be allowed into these events, though it is difficult to conclude that this would have been impossible.[15] In one particular case, Li claimed to have witnessed a public argument between Mao and Deng Xiaoping at the CCP Eighth Party Congress in September 1956, with the latter criticising the use of personality cult centred around Mao in China, which Li alleged Mao favoured. Lin et al. argue, however, that Mao himself had publicly criticised the personality cult in April 1956, when he stated that it was a lesson to be learned from the regime of Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union. Lin et al. therefore believe that the debate between Mao and Deng that Li was referring to simply never happened, though not everyone would draw the same conclusion.[16]

They also criticise some of Li's claims regarding Mao's personal life, for instance challenging his assertion that Mao was sterile, in which they are supported by Professor Wu Jieping, who was another of Mao's medical care-givers. They theorise that Li had fabricated this story in order to explain why Mao did not have many illegitimate children with the many women that, Li controversially claimed, he had sexual intercourse with.[17]

Other critics[edit]

Another Chinese critic of Li's work was Qi Benyu, who was formerly a member of the Cultural Revolution radicals in Beijing. Qi had been arrested and imprisoned at Mao's order in 1968, subsequently spending the next eighteen years in prison. Despite his persecution at the hand of Mao however, Qi criticised Li's portrayal of the Chinese leader, claiming that "aside from his account of the support-the-left activities (zhi zuo) in which he [Li] personally participated, most of the Cultural Revolution part of his memoirs consists of stuff gleaned from newspapers, journals and other people's writings. To make Western readers believe that he had access to core secrets, Li fabricated scenarios, resulting in countless errors in his memoirs."[18] Having lived in proximity to Mao for a number of years, Qi remarked that during this time he heard no rumour of Mao ever having extra-marital affairs despite the fact that other senior Party members were known to, and that Mao was always respectful towards "female comrades". Due to this and other reasons, Qi believed Li's claim that Mao had affairs was a lie.[19]

However, Qi was an unrepentant Maoist, and after prison he moved to Shanghai and continued to express support for Maoist doctrine. Ye Yonglie, a writer who befriended Qi, remarked upon Qi's death: "Till his death, Qi Benyu remained a leftist. "He never wavered from insisting on the rightness of Mao Zedong and his ideas."

Frederick Teiwes, an American academic specializing in the study of Maoist China, was also critical of The Private Life of Chairman Mao, arguing in his book The Tragedy of Lin Biao: Riding the Tiger during the Cultural Revolution 1966-1971 (1996) that despite Li's extensive claims regarding the politics behind the Cultural Revolution, he was actually "on the fringe" of the events taking place in the Chinese government. He went on to criticise the book as being overtly and polemically "anti-Mao", being "uncritical" in its outlook and being "dependent on the official sources" to create a picture of the revolution. He characterised Li's book as offering nothing new but "recycling widely available information and interpretations".[20]

The Private Life of Chairman Mao was presented as revealing new information about Mao, but historian Mobo Gao has argued, "For those who are familiar with the literature in Chinese, there was in fact very little that was really new in the book when it hit the Western market. For the significant figures and events described in Li's book, memoirs and biographies published previously in China and Hong Kong have revealed as much, if not more."[1]



  1. ^ a b Gao 2008. p. 99.
  2. ^ Foster, P (2009-05-10). "East is Red is the siren song of China's new generation". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 2010-06-11.
  3. ^ Gao 2008. p. 103.
  4. ^ Tai 2000.
  5. ^ a b Li 1996.
  6. ^ Gao 2008. p. 102.
  7. ^ DeBorga and Dong 1996. p. 48.
  8. ^ Bernstein, R (1994-10-02). "The Tyrant Mao, as Told by His Doctor". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-06-11.
  9. ^ Wills, John E., Jr. (1994). "The Emperor Has No Clothes: Mao's Doctor Reveals the Naked Truth". Foreign Affairs.
  10. ^ Tyson, AS (1994-11-23). "After 22 years, Li finally speaks out". The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 2010-06-11.
  11. ^ Antony, R (1995-01-29). "Li gives haunting view of Mao". Daily News. pp. 10-C. Retrieved 2010-06-11.
  12. ^ DeBorga and Dong 1996. p. 04.
  13. ^ Choi, WK (2009). "Book Reviews - Mao's Last Revolution" (pdf). Science & Society. 73 (2): 261–3. doi:10.1521/siso.2009.73.2.261.
  14. ^ Lin, Xu and Wu 1995. p. 150.
  15. ^ Lin, Xu and Wu 1995.
  16. ^ Lin, Xu and Wu 1995. p. 48
  17. ^ Lin, Xu and Wu 1995. p. 104.
  18. ^ Qi 1996. p. 187.
  19. ^ Qi 1996. p. 195.
  20. ^ Teiwes 1996. p. 179–180.


  • DeBorja, Q.M. and Xu L. Dong (eds) (1996). Manufacturing History: Sex, Lies and Random House's Memoirs of Mao's Physician. New York: China Study Group.CS1 maint: Extra text: authors list (link)
  • Gao, Mobo (2008). The Battle for China's Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution. London: Pluto Press. ISBN 978-0-7453-2780-8.
  • Li Zhisui (1994). The Private Life of Chairman Mao: The Memoirs of Mao's Personal Physician. London: Random House. ISBN 978-0-307-79139-9.
  • Lin Ke, Xu Tao and Wu Xujun (1995). Lishi de Zhenshi: Mao Zedong Shenbian Gongzuo Renyuan de Zhengyan (The Truth of History: Testimony of the personnel who had worked with Mao Zedong). Hong Kong: Liwen Chubanshe.
  • Teiwes, Frederick (1996). The Tragedy of Lin Biao: Riding the Tiger during the Cultural Revolution 1966-1971. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
  • Li Zhisui (1996). "A reply to questions about my memoirs". Kaifang. Quoted in Gao 2008.
  • Qi Benyu (1996). "Interview with Lu Yuan". Manufacturing History: Sex, Lies and Random House's Memoirs of Mao's Physician (Eds: DeBorja, Q.M. and Xu L. Dong), pp.597-612. New York: China Study Group.
  • Tai Hung-chao (22 July 2000). Shijie ribao (World Daily). Missing or empty |title= (help)
  • Thurston, Anne F. (1996). "The Politics of Survival: Li Zhisui and the inner court". China Journal No. 35, pp.97-105.