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Seeking the Historical Mao

  • Frederick C. Teiwes


The Private Life of Chairman Mao: The Inside Story of the Man Who Made Modern China.By Li ZHISUI. Written with the editorial assistance of ANNE F. THURSTON. Translated by TAI HUNGCHAO. Foreword by ANDREW J. NATHAN. [London: Chatto Windus, 1994. xxx+ 682 pp. 20.00. ISBN 0–7011–4018–6.]



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1 Perhaps the most extreme example, particularly on the latter point, is Jonathan Mirsky, “Unmasking the monster,” The New York Review of Books,17 November 1994. In contrast, Marilyn B. Young's measured review in The New York Times Book Review,27 November 1994, p. 12, observes, inter alia,that sexual excesses in Mao's Zhongnanhai were “perhaps no steamier than, say, the White House during John F. Kennedy's Presidency,” and avoids sweeping condemnation of the Chairman's political morality.

2 On interviews, see Frederick C. Teiwes, “Interviews on Party history,” CCP Research Newsletter,Nos. 10 and 11 (1992), especially pp. 13–14.

3 Interview with Western scholar, April 1994, where Lin was responding to Li's well–publicized statements which preceded his book. Lin claimed that while he had daily contact with Mao, Li was rarely seen, and his (Lin's) desk was so arranged so that he could see everyone entering and leaving Mao's inner sanctum. Of course, Lin was not around after 1966 to assess Li's access in that period.

4 For example, six months in late 1956 to early 1957 when he studied tropical medicine (pp. 188–190), during the critical pre–Cultural Revolution period in the second half of 1965 while carrying out the Socialist Education Movement in rural Jiangxi, finding a “less accessible” Mao on his return (pp. 422ff, 438–39), and from late June to early November 1970, the period when the Mao–Lin Biao relationship began to unravel, when he was dispatched to a May 7 Cadre School in Heilongjiang (pp. 523, 526).

5 Information provided independently by two individuals who were closely involved with Xie in the early 1970s. In their minds, at least, there was no question about Xie's relationship to Mao.

6 That Li had such unambiguous feelings toward Mao at such an early date can be questioned. One Chinese academic has expressed disbelief that Li could have harboured such feelings for so long without Mao becoming aware of them, and speculated that his attitude hardened significantly after arriving in the United States in 1988 and being exposed to scholarly attitudes hostile towards Mao, and indeed towards the Chinese leadership more generally, especially after the Tiananmen tragedy in 1989. Be that as it may, it might also be that Li's recollections are coloured by his own remorse at having failed to do anything to help his brother who came under attack in the campaign against “right opportunists” following Peng's purge (p. 325). Generally speaking, while Li honestly emphasizes his own lack of courage during his time in Mao's service, it arguably could have salved his conscience to convince himself of his unspoken disgust with the Chairman.

7 Such statements by Nathan and others give pause when one reflects on Stalin who not only literally signed the death warrants of a large section of the Soviet political elite but starved millions of peasants in the Ukraine as a result of conscious policy rather than as a consequence of a half–baked programme as was the case with the Great Leap Forward, and Hitler who both carried out genocide and led his country into a destructive war which resulted in its unconditional surrender.

8 Li Rui, Lushan huiyi shilu (True Record of the Lushan Conference)(Beijing: Chunqiu chubanshe, 1989).

9 It is likely that the book's general factual soundness (although more obscure errors could be cited) was due to the careful work of Li's collaborator, Anne Thurston. Cf. below, n. 10.

10 It might be further argued that Li's interpretation was reinforced by Western analyses which in turn reflect Chinese sources. While I have no evidence concerning whether he read any of the existing Western scholarship, he clearly did engage in significant exchanges with leading specialists. What appears to have happened is that extensive notes of recollections concerning his time with Mao made by Dr Li starting in 1977 became the basis of the English language text (see pp. xvii, xxi), but that various aspects of elite politics appearing in the published volume emerged from extensive consultation with Anne Thurston and others. The subsequent Chinese edition of the memoirs, Mao Zedong siren yisheng huiyilu (The Memoirs of Mao Zedong's Personal Physician)(Taipei: Shibao wenhua, 1994), is purportedly a translation of the English text, although there are some differences between the two.

11 While Mao's reliance on Zhou in the immediate post–Lin Biao period is well known, that he would have envisaged Zhou as his successor (for however brief a period) is new, and both surprising yet credible. The general claim here is not to deny that Li's account has facilitated marginal refinements of the field's understanding, nor that in some cases it includes important information that only detailed research on a particular topic has uncovered independently. A case in point is the relationship between Lin Biao and Wang Dongxing (see below).

12 In some instances it is clear that Li is simply passing on unfounded rumours as in the case of a nurse's claim that Mao and Jiang Qing reached an explicit deal in 1970 that he would support her bid for power in exchange for her silence concerning his infidelities (p. 531). That Li would recount such an unbelievable story that flies in the face of everything we know about Mao's personality and Jiang's total dependence on him does little for the doctor's overall credibility.

13 See above, n. 4.

14 Li claims to have instantly known that Mao would be furious upon hearing the Eighth Congress reports of Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping (p. 183) – which in fact he had approved and edited ahead of time (see below). This and later similar claims are not only hard to credit, but it is interesting to note that Li's account also reports that Wang Dongxing and Luo Ruiqing – leaders in a much better position to know – believed at the time that leadership unity “was solid as a rock" (p. 185). Cf. Wang's 1964 (?) remark to a worried Li that “We aren't the Communist party of the Soviet Union.... The Chinese Communist party is united" (p. 393).

15 Li claims that this view was supported by Lin Ke's analysis (p. 197) after he (Li) returned to Mao's service in spring 1957 (cf. above, n. 4), and by Mao's own remarks (see pp. 182–83). In Mao's case it is unclear when he made the remarks in question although Li implies it was at the time. On the available documentary record, however, Mao spoke out later on these matters, especially in early 1958 and during the Cultural Revolution.

16 See Jianguo yilai Mao Zedong wengao (Mao Zedong's Manuscripts since the Founding of the State)Vol. 3 (January–December 1952) (Beijing: Zhongyang wenxian chubanshe, 1989), p. 563, Vol. 6 (January 1956–December 1957) (1992), pp. 165–69,187–88, 192–94, 199–200, 210–12; and Bo Yibo, Ruogan zhongda juece yu shijian de huigu (Reflections on Certain Major Decisions and Events),Vol. 1 (Beijing: Zhonggong zhongyang dangxiao chubanshe, 1991), p. 556. For detailed analyses of the issues involved, see Frederick C. Teiwes, “Mao texts and the Mao of the 1950s,” The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs,No. 33 (1995), pp. 137ff; and Teiwes with Warren Sun, “The politics of an 'un–Maoist' interlude: the case of opposing rash advance, 1956–57,” in Timothy Cheek and Tony Saich (eds.), New Perspectives on State Socialism in China(Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, forthcoming).

17 Wang Dongxing, “Yi jiujie erzhong quanhui" ("Recollecting the Second Plenum of the Ninth Central Committee"), Dangdai Zhongguoshi yanjiu (Research on Contemporary Chinese History),No. 3 (1994).

18 According to Li (pp. 538–39), “in 1970" – presumably before Lushan – Zhou informed Lin of Mao's health problems despite Mao's explicit instruction that Lin not be informed. One can only assume that Zhou took this as an example of something not to be taken literally (often a necessary step for those dealing with the Chairman) based on the calculation that Lin had the Chairman's trust.

19 On Zhou in May 1971, see Quan Yanchi, Zouxia shengtande Zhou Enlai (Zhou Enlai Down to Earth)(Taipei: Xinrui chubanshe, 1994), pp. 365, 370. On the general pattern of Zhou–Lin relations, see Frederick C. Teiwes and Warren Sun, The Tragedy of Lin Biao: Riding the Tiger during the Cultural Revolution, 1966–1971(London: C. Hurst Co., 1996), pp. 46–^9.

20 See Chen Yi zhuan (Biography of Chen Yi)(Beijing: Dangdai Zhongguo chubanshe, 1991), pp. 617–18.

21 The full case for this interpretation is provided in Teiwes and Sun, The Tragedy of Lin Biao.22. A major case in point not dealt with by Li concerns the election of the Politburo at the – time of the Ninth Congress. Despite Mao's explicit statement that she should not be selected, the responsible personnel group led by Zhou Enlai placed her on the list on the apparent i assumption that Mao really wanted her despite his words. See Zhang Yunsheng, Maojiawan jishi: Lin Biao mishu huiyilu (True Account of Maojiawan: Reminiscences of Lin Biao's \ Secretary)(Chunqiu chubanshe, 1988), pp. 247–255; and Teiwes and Sun, The Tragedy of } Lin Biao,p. 13.

23 As illustrated by the Mao wengaodocuments.

24 According to senior Party historian Liao Gailong (Liao Kai–lung), “Historical experiences and our road of development,” Part II, Issues Studies,November 1981, p. 90, Mao completely ceased attending Politburo meetings in 1958, thus graphically demonstrating his position above the Party.

25 In various instances Li depicts political conflict between Mao in the provinces gathering his resources against opponents at the Centre (e.g. pp. 156–57,419). For an analysis challenging this view with regard to one of the classic examples (albeit one only tangentially noted by Li (p. 111)), the 1955 acceleration of agricultural co–operati vization, see the Editors' Introduction to Frederick C. Teiwes and Warren Sun (eds.), The Politics of Agricultural Cooperativization in China: Mao, Deng Zihui, and the “High Tide" of 1955(Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 1993), especially p. 20. This is not to deny that in specific instances, most notably summer 1971 concerning Lin Biao, Mao sought to mobilize support against an erring colleague, i.e. a perceivedopponent. Cf. the discussion below.

26 See particularly Li's observations concerning Mao's journeys during the Great Leap Forward (chs. 30–38), and Tian Jiaying's complaint that “When the master lets his preference be known, the servants pursue it with a vengeance" (p. 276). Cf. Mao's spring 1959 comment that even "[Liu] Shaoqi doesn't dare to speak to me frankly"; Dangde wenxian (The Party's Documents),No. 1 (1989), p. 96. Another indication of Mao's concern with his inability to obtain a realistic view from official sources was his use of household personnel to carry out investigations, but even this measure could not guarantee that he would hear the truth (see pp. 275, 308–309).

27 The unwritten rule was that Mao's approval was required for any member of the top leadership to have “major surgery." In Zhou's case Mao did approve a simple cauterization after an orchestrated effort to persuade him. Although Li suggests on several occasions that Mao took perverse satisfaction in the physical ills of colleagues (see pp. 413–14, 454), his evidence indicates that Mao genuinely believed cancer was incurable and the Chairman himself repeatedly resisted medical treatment (see e.g. pp. 572–73).

28 Li also claims that Peng, whom he classifies as “the only top leader who consistently dared to confront Mao,” attacked Mao's personal life style excesses at Politburo meetings, asserting that the Chairman behaved like an emperor with a harem of 3,000 concubines (pp. 94,132). Such unsourced assertions must be regarded as unsubstantiated rumour. While Peng was clearly an irascible personality with a history of personal tension with Mao from revolutionary days, the best evidence suggests he did not go out of his way to antagonize the Chairman after 1949. Even the complex developments at Lushan, while involving an element of provocation on Peng's part, were by no means a political challenge. See Frederick C. Tei wes, “Peng Dehuai and Mao Zedong,” The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs,No. 16 (1986), especially pp. 89–91.

29 This by no means denies that other leaders sometimes had different ideas from Mao, or that in pre–Cultural Revolution days in particular tried to convince him of their views, only that even the most dedicated follower of the Chairman was vulnerable to his shifting moods. For an extended analysis of Mao's ambiguity and its political implications, see the introduction to the second edition of Frederick C. Teiwes, Politics and Purges in China: Rectification and the Decline of Party Norms 1950–1965(Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1993).

30 For a discussion of this distinction for the crucial 1960–65 period, see Teiwes, Politics and Purges,pp. xxxvi–xliv.

31 The issue was the rehabilitation of Great Leap critics which, in his discussion, Li claims had been undertaken by Liu Shaoqi without reference to Mao, an erroneous assertion in that Mao sanctioned the process in his speech to the 7,000 cadres conference in January 1962. On the general question of Mao's frequent complaints about receiving inadequate information, see Bo Yibo's observation concerning Mao's 1958 claim of insufficient briefing on economic issues that all major policies were reported but it was impossible to submit everything to him; Huigu,Vol. 2(1993), p. 651.

32 See the analysis in Teiwes, Politics and Purges,pp. xxxix–xliv.

33 The most notable failure concerns Deng Xiaoping who is portrayed without individuality. Li's knowledge of Deng is suspect in that he failed to distinguish, as Mao clearly did, between Deng and Liu Shaoqi, and his apparent ignorance of the fact that of all the top leaders Deng and Lin Biao were the Chairman's favourites.

34 For further discussion of Liu's character and its implications for his relations with Mao, see Frederick C. Teiwes, “Mao and his lieutenants,” The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs,No. 19–20 (1988), pp. 56–63; Teiwes with the assistance of Warren Sun, The Formation of the Maoist Leadership: From the Return of Wang Ming to the Seventh Party Congress(London: Contemporary China Institute Research Notes and Studies, 1994), pp.

34 *0; and n. 32, above.

35 E.g. a finding of Teiwes and Sun, The Tragedy of Lin Biao,is that during the Cultural Revolution when radical statements or personal attacks were required, Zhou outperformed Lin Biao.

36 In his personal remarks to Li the Chairman insisted that the abuse of Liu Shaoqi and others violated his explicit orders to Jiang's Cultural Revolution Group (p.491), and there is independent evidence of Mao's periodic anger with the CRG. The question remains, however, whether like Party leaders before them the CRG was being caught out by a change in Mao's signals, or whether there was a more cynical deception being perpetuated on his part. At the very least, even when making degrading comments about Jiang, the Chairman often did nothing to stop her activities (see p. 493).

37 See the resolution in Beijing Review,No. 27 (1981), especially pp. 19–26.

38 Mao's personal life also degenerated from about 1958 as he became more brazen about his sexual activities, a tendency which worsened with time and contrasted to his earlier efforts to be discreet in order to save face for Jiang Qing (see pp. 144, 281, 439).

39 A case in point concerns the preoccupation with coups d'etatwhich can be traced to late 1965 and clearly originated with Mao himself, not Lin Biao as commonly believed. See Teiwes and Sun, The Tragedy of Lin Biao,pp. 61–62, 213.

Seeking the Historical Mao

  • Frederick C. Teiwes


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