6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 1 December 2012
This book is a major historical testament, giving a lively eye-witness view of the grimly mesmerising court of Chairman Mao, told by his personal physician. Equally, Dr Li's book is an account of how he managed to survive in the terrifying cauldron of Mao's inner circle for 22 years, remaining sane and reasonably balanced while using all his considerable intelligence to avoid countless political pitfalls - but not all of them.
For the non-specialist, the book could be shorter, cutting out much detail about the bureaucracy and medical twists and turns. Dr Li's memoirs are not a work of historical analysis, though he does cover all of the main events. It's value is as the personal testimony of an acute observer, whose direct involvement and frequent (often daily) personal contact with Mao over more than two decades gives his account the ring of authenticity.
Chairman Mao emerges as a ruthless and far-sighted manipulator of people and ultimately his entire nation, using fear and strategic shifts (including the turn to the USA in 1972) to imbalance everyone, not least the Communist Party - which was the chief target for the dreadful Cultural Revolution of the 1960s - and the USSR, whose patronising attitude he resented greatly. Mao's youthful idealism appears to have withered very early, pushed aside by his drive to yield uncontested power, brooking no criticism or other source of authority.
According to Li, the sensual Mao was utterly cold, with no personal friends amongst his entourage, his fellow leaders or his women. However, Mao had a pronounced sense of humour and an ability to put people at their ease, though often this was to allow him more easily to observe their character and to probe their weaknesses. Allied to his immense ego was a truly independent mind and a cunning sense of the likely movement in public opinion and of how strategically to turn this to his advantage. Perhaps surprisingly, Dr Li says that Mao privately venerated the USA, both for its technical progress and for the help which America afforded the Communists during World war Two (unlike the USSR). The denunciation of Stalin by Khrushchev in his 'Secret Speech' in 1956 had a galvanising effect on 'Chairman' (as he was called), who saw that his chief enemies would come from within the ranks of the party which he had brought to power.
Dr Li describes in astonishing detail the machinations of those in Mao's personal entourage as well as the unfolding of Mao's major (and always deadly) initiatives - such as the calamitous 'Great Leap Forward' of 1958-1961, which plunged the entire country into famine. 18-45 million died in this profoundly ignorant attempt to overtake Great Britain in 15 years simply by producing more steel and industrial commodities, neglecting agricultural production. Though he pretended to ignore the terrible starvation which this terrible policy led to, Mao was insecure for ever after this, sensing that he had lost the true adulation of the masses and the party hierarchy, despite the fact that outwardly the cult of Mao became more vociferous. This led directly to the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1971, which was ultimately directed against the party 'intellectuals' and the other leaders whom the paranoiac Mao saw as the main threats against him, notably Liu Shaoqui and Deng Xiaoping.
Time and again Li details Mao's tactics for keeping everyone in a state of fear. He would first of all stir up a storm of criticism inside his court or amongst the press about some apparently minor issue, which threatened one or other group of mid-level cadres. Often he would use poetic language to imply what he wanted, but never with real clarity, since it was important to conceal his ultimate purpose, which was always to consolidate his own power. Because of the intensely subservient and strong group loyalty of the Chinese people (as portrayed by Li), the threat would ultimately creep up the hierarchy towards one or several of the main leaders of the country. Mao would then retreat from Beijing 'to allow the snakes [his enemies] to come out of their holes'. The witch hunt would gather pace, with people denouncing others as 'anti-party' for fear of themselves being denounced. Mao would then reappear to restore order and be hailed as the saviour, while rounding on suitable scapegoats who would be exiled to hard labour in the provinces or driven to suicide.
Mao seems to have trusted Dr Li enormously, since he engaged in private conversations with Li on a weekly basis, ostensibly to learn English (which Li knew well, having worked at one point in Australia). For a period in the early 1950s, Li exercised considerable power himself due to his access to Mao, though he was careful not to use his power in the political arena, despite the urgings of many including Mao. This trust diminished considerably in the Cultural Revolution, since Li failed to denounce colleagues and was insufficiently passionate about the aims of the 'revolution', partly because (like everyone else) he was unclear what it was all about and partly because of native caution. The fall from power of Li's main sponsor and protector, the man who was head of Mao's personal security, led to a period of great vulnerability for Dr Li. Nevertheless, Li survived because of his medical skills and his non-political stance. Towards the end, there are some riveting descriptions of Politburo meetings debating Mao's physical condition - astonishing in itself - where medical knowledge is irrelevant and battles about different treatments are determined simply on the basis of factional interest (Li being identified with party interests and therefore different medical opinion was chosen by the 'Mao above the party' faction).
Indeed, an equal interest in this narrative is how Li comes to terms with the compromises which he had to make in order to survive, without wholly becoming Mao's creature - at least, according to his own account. He had to ignore many awful things and to tread a very delicate tightrope. For example, he had to humour the intelligent but powerless and petty wife of Mao, Jiang Qing, in treating her frequent medical false alarms. While not offending her, he also had to guard against being drawn too deeply into her schemes. Jiang was transformed by the Cultural Revolution, when Mao gave her real power, using her as a proxy power base against his perceived enemies. Chapters 66-67 and others contain electric stories from Li's personal involvement in the shameful and bitter infighting which permeated and corrupted the whole country at this time. Even Dr Li is engulfed, accused by Jiang of being a counter-revolutionary who tried to poison her.
The picture emerges not so much of Mao as a mighty emperor (which he was), as a masterful schoolboy, who plots and manoeuvres with great cunning against his fellow play-mates with absolutely no scruple - leading to the dismissal, torture and/or death of many. It takes Dr Li a decade to see that his revered Chairman is interested only in preserving his own power, and that one key element of this is its disguise. The highly intelligent Zhou Enlai appears to have been extremely competent but ultimately completely subservient. Only Deng Xiaoping was able somehow to maintain some independent power, though he too was purged during the Cultural Revolution.
A particularly unsavory aspect of Mao is that he fulfilled his sexual appetite by sleeping with thousands of young, worshipful but ignorant Chinese peasant girls during his decades in power. He was a carrier of genital disease, from which he himself did not suffer. When Dr Li once raised this with him, asking him to take a full bath (he never bathed except when he swam) and to undergo a course of treatment, Mao refused, commenting that 'I wash myself in my women' and that this was sufficient. Until incapacitated by lung infections, Mao continued to demand the sexual service of fresh young girls on a daily basis, graduating to full orgies with four or five women at the same time.
Ultimately, the story is about the survival of Dr Li, not least during the internal battle for power before and after Mao's death in 1976. The pervading fear of the years of the Cultural Revolution is faintly reminiscent of Primo Levi's seminal stories of life in the German death camps: both men were forced to use all their cunning to survive in an intensely hostile and closed world in which the potential penalty for getting it wrong is death (although Levi's experience was of course far more traumatic). At the end of the book Li regrets the loss of his professional career due to his service to Mao, passing over the tens of millions whose lives were twisted or snuffed out while Li ministered to the charmingly poisonous Chairman Mao. Li emerges as perceptive and gentle though vain and lightly self-pitying - but then, how would any of us fare in this scenario? Li's wife, Lillian, always suspect in Red China because of her landlord father, must have been a remarkable woman, keeping her medical-courtier husband in touch with reality and sustaining a family life despite enormous pressure to negate all personal relationships.
It is massively fortunate that Deng Xiaoping emerged wise and relatively humane from this insane and calamitous period of China's long history, to lead the country from the callous chaos of Mao's reign to internal peace and prosperity. However, the dark shadow of Maoist brutality and nationalism still hangs over that benighted country - and thus over all of Asia.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 19 September 2011
This book grips from the beginning as it launches with a dramatic recounting of Mao's death and the tumultuous events that followed. However Dr. Li's text is no less fascinating or gripping as it covers less dramatic moments, the accounts of Mao's political maneuvering and their many personal discussions provide a wealth of intrigue. It is quite a remarkable achievement that Dr. Li is able to provide such a detailed account of events given that the author destroyed his initial notes in China for fear they would be discovered.
While immersed in this book I felt that I was privy to the inner-most workings of government in China during the rule of Mao. Of course Dr. Li is only one source and the validity of his views can be questioned along with any other source - but the unique insight offered from a man who was so close to Mao for as long as Dr. Li was while not holding any particular political allegiance or agenda other than the protecting the common good of China and its people is electrifying. Dr. Li's writing style is engaging and charismatic as he beautifully inter-weaves political and personal histories with the events in his own life alongside his own private thoughts, reflections and hardships.
The focus is of course Mao but this is Dr. Li's life story - it is one of patriotism, pride, fear, disillusionment, hope and sadness. One feels as if you are Dr. Li's confidant, listening to him pouring out a story that is in such contrast to that which was projected to the rest of China and the world. Mao comes alive in the pages of this book through his brutally charismatic, calculating, ruthless and often inhumanly expedient personality and although he dominates this text this book is a tale of two characters and the quiet, noble goodness of Dr. Li also shines throug.
Exciting, heart-breaking and hugely sad this is a truly valuable book recommended for anyone trying to learn more about Mao, China and how such tragic events as the Great Leap Forward, The Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution came to fruition. Dr. Li is the quietly heroic narrator of this tragic and fascinating story.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 19 December 2009
It is difficult to imagine anyone having as close contact to Chairman Mao as Dr Li. When Mao died it was Dr Li who was holding his hand to check his pulse. Over the previous 22 years, Li had almost daily meetings with Mao, during which Mao would expound his philosophy and thinking during supposed English lessons. Although during the latter half of this period Li's contact with Mao was less frequent he still had considerably more contact than many others, including many of the party leadership. During these 22 years the whole regime lurched from revisionist to leftist tendencies and back, and few people flourished for very long. Li survived only by keeping himself apart, as much as was possible, from the political machinations that consumed the regime over which Mao ruled. The result is a phenomenal and unique prolonged insight into the life of a modern dictator and his immediate entourage: `group One' as it was known. Because Dr Li only started to work for Mao in 1954, when Mao was already over 60, the book focuses entirely on the last quarter of Mao's life. However, this was arguably the most important period of Mao's career and the book provides many exclusive insights into the way Mao thought, and some of the reasons that underpinned the disastrous policies of the great leap forwards and the cultural revolution. It also paints a detailed picture of the difficulties and stresses of surviving in a politically charged environment where an indiscreet word or being pictured socially with the wrong person might many years later come back to haunt you. These are married together with exclusive descriptions of Mao's personal habits (he spent most of his life in bed and never brushed his teeth) and his sex life (he had lots). It is an important book with a distinctive perspective that is well worth reading.