Just read……thoughts of Dr. Li

Reading a memoir such as this is revealing about what matters to the author as these thoughts of Li recalls his time when the served as personal physician to the Chinese leader, Mao Zedong.

Li claimed that as he served as Mao’s personal physician for the last 22 years of the chairman’s life, that during this time he became a close confidant, although there is a dispute about when he was his personal physician and what kind of access that gave him. His book The Private Life Of Chairman Mao was published in 1994, almost twenty years after Mao died. Its reception into the arsenal of ideological denegation of the Chinese revolutionary experience, typified by the headline impression from the New York Times review, ‘The Tyrant Mao, as Told by His Doctor”, was  characteristic of the tone and stance of the majority of press reviews given to the book.

The book was controversial, in part because of just how salacious it is. Dr Li describes an opulent elite lifestyle, diverse details of Mao’s personality, sexual proclivities, party politics and personal habits were included in an account, which according to him, Mao’s private life saw him spend his time  conspiring, reading and being sexually promiscuous .

Based on his recollection of journals he had kept, then he had burned during the Cultural Revolution, and a decade later Li began in 1977 to write intermittingly, reconstructed his notes from memory, producing more than 20 volumes of notes.  These new notebooks help him write his memoir. Dr Li, who lived in the USA from 1988, had his manuscript made into a book for Random House. Along with the Random House publication, a Chinese language edition was released by the Chinese Times Publishing Company of Taipei.

Hong Yung Lee ‘s critical reading of  Dr Li’s book expressed some of the concerns that comes with any critical reading of an account that claims to be privy to Mao at his most unguarded moments. [i]

Li Zhisui claimed he still remembers verbatim conversations with Mao almost 20 years later “(b)ecause Mao’s language was so colorful and vivid and deeply etched in my brain” and, “My survival and that of my family had always depended on Mao’s words; I could not forget them.” [ii]

Hong joins others doubtful of such recollection perfectly-recreated dialogue particularly as he relied on his seventy-something year-old memory for events that happened 20-30 years previously. It just defies belief: what conversations were you having in 1999?

“Li’s source materials, his diaries, were burned in 1966, yet he asks the reader to accept verbatim dialogues as well as minutely observed details of events he could not have personally witnessed.”  Hong Yung Lee advises, “Nor can Li qualify as an unbiased observer when it is obvious that he allowed few standards, political or ethical, to interfere with his role as Mao’s physician, confidante, and servant.”

The New York Times reviewer Richard Bernstein judged it presented few new revelations about the political or diplomatic history of Maoist China and observed there may never be absolute corroboration of the book’s intimate, candid account and its many anecdotes.

Evidently China specialists like Professor Andrew J. Nathan (author of the controversial  The Tiananmen Papers, and other works) and Anne Thurston, who is a very well-known China academic, had no issue with relying on Dr Li’s book obviously believes that the sources are good and questioned validity misplaced enquiries. Still reliance, particularly when it comes to quoting Mao, is problematic as suggested in a generally positive review when the American Foreign Affairs Magazine[iii], it cautions against using the personal details of the book to draw general lessons on the nation and revolution.

The readability of the story is said to owe much to the editing process overseen by Dr Thurston, yet this story-telling with unsourced quotes and a style and tone that seemed clouded and determined by a growing dislike of the subject in the book’s repetitive emphasis on Mao’s personal habits .The general tenor of an unflattering picture of the Chinese leader, as well as the infighting and internal politics of the CCP, are seen as strengthens in other reviews. Whereas critical engagement may see a diminishing compelling reading as the narrative progresses.

Although according to the Christian Science Monitor contributor and there is no hidden agenda here,

“As Mao Zedong’s personal physician, Dr. Li Zhisui had a uniquely privileged view of the chairman and his often cruel and barbarous government. Dr. Zhisui exposes Mao’s personal flaws and oddities, as well as the true dynamics of his Communist party, which was often divided.”

This reader’s impression is that one learns more about the author than the subject. Individual dairies are the recorded subjective perceptions that provide an angle on events that tells us more about the author then really alters the record of history. Memoirs can be useful in conjunction with other culminated evidence but that requires a far more rigorous approach than employed in the production of Li’s account. He had set out to “rewrite his life story” when he embarked upon and favourable western reviewers thought his book represents a reasonable effort to record his experiences. Given the nature of the book is memoir rather than history, it should be addressed as partial and contested. Clearly that required objectivity to allow some reliability in the account is lacking.

How trustworthy is the colour and details he provides when much of the commentary is not with Mao’s “private life” at all, but rather deals with the situation in China as a whole and its effect on Dr. Li. In offering a portray of life in the elite atmosphere of Group One and Mao’s household, Li ‘s insider view is partial and tempered by his actual role.

Dr Li needed to be reminded of the Hippocratic Oath. His ‘‘back office’ account filled with far from exemplary examples of his own behaviour.  The oath is the earliest expression of medical ethics in the Western world, establishing several principles of medical ethics which remain of paramount significance today. In writing his book, he failed to apply the injunction that “I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know.”

 Li made for a poor communist. His own account conforms to the evidence of policy differences evolving into two-line struggle within the Party and his responses reliably marks him out as ‘a capitalist roader’ that Mao had warned against, seeing socialism as a means to a limited end: making China rich and powerful (p377). Nor was Li an honest communist, by his own account disillusioned from 1960 onwards, he poses as a confidant of Mao, and amid the political struggles Li’s guiding light seems to have been: “I had to survive, and self-interest required me to remain silent.” (p405) [iv]

With excuse, excuse, justification, excuse, rationalization and half-hearted self-criticism. The overwhelming takeaway is a sense of Dr. Li’s timidity and conventionality:

“”I never said anything roughly or straightforwardly,” Dr. Li continued. ”In other words, if you worked for Mao, you had to disobey your own conscience. You can never say anything as you think it. You have, first of all, to think what Mao will say.”

More than once, the author states,

I had tried to escape from Mao’s circle so many times, and always Mao had pulled me back. Now I was trapped, with no hope of leaving. 

However the reality was that staff turn-over over the twenty two years of his service saw others go on to other prestigious posts elsewhere. The reader realises that “so many” escape attempts were really just him asking a superior to transfer him to another post.

His account contains a portrayal of intimacy and engagement that attempts to build the story of someone who, as they say, was inside the room. The narrative of events in Chinese politics offered in the book by and large confirms what has already been known. The author tells his story as if he was an “eyewitness” to many important political events as his personal memories are interwoven with public knowledge.

Frederick Teiwes, an American academic wrote 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”. [v]

His court history with rival secretaries and officials vying for influence is reminiscent of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius & Claudius the God, an entertainment using a historical backstory. The unfortunate back-cover endorsements are of Li as “Mao’s Boswell”[vi] from The Irish Times, and “as the Tacitus of Modern China”[vii] in the judgement of the eminent historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, aka Lord Dacre, who initially authenticated the faked volumes of The Hitler Dairies for the Sunday Times.[viii]

There is no scholarly foundation or structure for Li’s account. He writes without acknowledgement to source when apparently using official published documents in his account. Dr. Li’s credibility is damaged by the way he narrates certain events, when he is relaying second hand conversation where he was not present. Unsourced use of innumerable quotations, some of which are from Chinese official documents means the distinction is blurred between his own experiences and what became known later or modified in the editorial process, but serves to enhance his political acumen. The notes provided by China scholar, Anne F. Thurston, supplement, rather than substantiate assertions made in the text. There is no bibliography of material that may have been consulted in the reconstruction of the memoirs of the physician.

The narrative provides Li’s political analysis with accompanying insight to personal motivation and Olympian character judgements on those around him. Schizophrenia crops up as a diagnosis for people he does not like among the many rocky relationships he reports upon. Yet how reliable  can Li’s personal assessments of how Mao handled the personalities and disputes of the party members that surrounded him and Li relationships with those he easily describes as the hypochondriac Jiang Qing,  and the physically (and possibly mentally) unstable Lin Biao?

If Mao repeatedly tells you to read an article and pay attention to important national issues it is hardly an endorsement of your political acumen and far from being an endorsement of being a trusted confident, especially when Li states more than once that, “Mao never really trusted me again.” After Mao discovered he was being secretly recorded in his household, and was hence wary of the loyalty of his personal staff according to Li. However that staff were not replaced enmasse. Would Mao really repeatedly ask his doctor to take on the responsibilities of political secretary? I don’t know, but why would he trust Li’s political nonce? There are incidents recalled by Li that suggests his own unwitting agency in China’s national politics such as the recommendation of a Peking Opera to Mao that inadvertently sparks the involvement of Jiang Qing in cultural politics (p402). The narrative is peppered with such self-aggrandisements

A view from his literary collaborator is that, 

“Dr Li was not an easy subject. In my experience, older Chinese men rarely are. Their sense of status gets in the way, and the quality of self-reflection somehow shuts off. He was not a storyteller. He was discursive, rambling, self-pitying, often refusing, whether deliberately or stubbornly, to understand the thrust of my questions. He was not greatly concerned with accuracy, insisting that this was his book, based on his memories. Leave it to the historians to correct, he said. He was contemptuous of American China scholars, whom he claimed never to have read. They do not understand China, he said. Nor, he alleged, did most Chinese. The monopoly on truth was Li’s. “ (Thurston) Hong Yung Lee observed, ”His accounts are conspicuous for their absence of meaningful self-criticism. Sure he occasionally says he should have done something differently, but he doesn’t ever seem sincere.  “

Li Zhisui’s memoirs are an act of revenge. He despises the others in Mao’s personal staff, code named Group One, ‘uneducated peasants’ who had served Mao so well, and he is determined to expose their guilt. Yet Li served Mao no less well and was often guilty of the same offences of which he accused them, the gifts, the specially arranged shopping sprees in the midst of a nationwide depression, the elaborate banquets in the midst of famine commented Dr.Thurston. While attributing motive and positions to people, there is no discussion of the clash of ideals, the policy differences and the disagreements over national priorities that are often assumed to have shaped the contours of Chinese politics. Instead there is the lazy meme of the Imperial Court, Mao reduced to the figure of emperor surrounded by nothing more than selfish personal ambitions and lust for political power. Li’s place of boundless decadence, licentiousness, selfishness, relentless toadying and cutthroat political intrigue is familiar in classical and imperial literature. Subsumed in that general picture are the good deeds done without fanfare, that other accounts may highlight: aspects of Mao’s private life that includes use of his own wealth to build a swimming pool, financial gifts to other people’, refusal of family privileges,  a sceptical reception of official reports, embarking upon study and fact-finding tours, all these pepper the text.

Others who worked with Mao and numerous academics have contradicted these mostly negative depictions of Mao. Many consider Mao was a more complicated persona and the book as lacking context, picking and choosing quotes, disregarding contrary evidence, and being otherwise incessantly biased towards depicting Mao in a bad light.

Mao-and-Zhang-Yufeng

Those who for the most part wanted to believe the worst about Mao’s private life, may uncritically accept this depiction of Mao although numerous people who also worked in proximity to Mao have written challenging Li’s story stating that the book was anything from an exaggeration to simply being false, rebuttals in which they believe that much of it was fabricated by Li himself and by his English language translators.

The original manuscript was written by Li, translated from his native Chinese into English by Professor Tai Hung-chao, and then edited by China scholar Dr Anne F. Thurston. She was well suited [ix]to the collaboration and wrote of her engagement with the project focusing, not uncritically, on Li as “a retainer in Mao’s court”. [x]

The disputes and criticism of the publication process, the alterations to the Chinese version of the book, are covered by Q.M. DeBorja and Xu L. Dong rebuttal to Random House’s 1994 biography of Chairman Mao. On the matter of translating, one 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…” obviously these statements actually have different meanings.

Publication of his account provoked indignation in Chinese language responses that did not circulate as widely in the English speaking world. It did not produce the academic attention of the 2005 biography Mao: The Unknown Story written by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday [xi]. There was Manufacturing History – Sex, Lies and Random House’s Memoirs of Mao’s Physician by Q.M. DeBorja and Xu L. Dong [xii]. This shreds Li’s account, challenged on many of the allusions and details he produces. It raises criticism of the discrepancies between the different languages editions produced (with some episodes excluded from the Chinese language edition published in Taiwan excused on the grounds of cultural and political sensitivities).

Also challenging Li’s account, a Chinese language book published in Hong Kong, Lishi de Zhenshi: Mao Zedong Shenbian Gongzuo Renyuan de Zhengyan (The Truth of History: Testimony of the personnel who had worked with Mao Zedong), were 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. As set out in detail on Wikepedia, they argued that Li did not only not know Mao very well, but that he presented an inaccurate picture of him in his book. 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. They were not as easily believed as Dr. Li.

Overall, repetitive in salacious detail, it becomes something of a slog to finish Li’s tale. Now read once, returned to the bookshelves to remain untouched.


[i] The Los Angeles Times (February 19, 1995

[ii] The Private Life of Chairman Mao. Arrow Books 1986 p.xvii

[iii] Published By: Council on Foreign Relations. Vol. 73, No. 6 (Nov. – Dec., 1994), pp. 150-154

[iv] Even his literary collaborator Anne F. Thurston entitled an article on the subject “The Politics of Survival: Li Zhisui and the Inner Court “. The China Journal, No. 35 (Jan., 1996), pp. 97-105

[v] The Tragedy of Lin Biao: Riding the Tiger during the Cultural Revolution 1966-1971 (1996) 179-180 cited on Wikepedia.

[vi] Referencing  James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson

[vii] Referencing the classical study Histories by the barrister-historian Tacitus, writing some thirty years after the events he describes.

[viii] He had second thoughts before publication, the concerns of eminent historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, aka Lord Dacre, about the diaries’ authenticity were over-ridden by newspaper owner Rupert Murdoch with the immortal words: “Fuck Dacre. Publish”. Trevor-Roper did not keep quiet about his doubts. “I regret that the normal method of historical verification has been sacrificed to the perhaps necessary requirements of a journalistic scoop,” he said. When the forgery was exposed, proprietor Rupert Murdoch is supposed to have shrugged, “We’re in the entertainment business”.  The Sunday Times retained 20,000 of the 60,000 new readers it acquired when it published its “scoop”.

See https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/diary-of-the-hitler-diary-hoax

[ix] Focused on political reform in China, Dr Thurston was the author of “a study of the Cultural Revolution based on interviews with people who had been its victims. The book that resulted—Enemies of the People: The Ordeal of China’s Intellectuals during the Great Cultural Revolution—is still my favorite.”

Other works include

  • A Chinese Odyssey: The Life and Times of a Chinese Dissident (1991)
  • Don’t Force Us to Lie: The Struggle of Chinese Journalists in the Reform Era
  • China Bound, Revised: A Guide to Academic Life and Work in the PRC
  • Enemies of the People: The Ordeal of the Intellectuals in China’s Great Cultural Revolution, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987
  • with Gyalo Thondup, The Noodle Maker of Kalimpong: The Untold Story of My Struggle for Tibet (2015)

I often describe myself as the China counterpart to the narrator in Iris Murdoch’s novel, The Philosopher’s Pupil, who says “my role in life is listening to people’s stories.” My role in life is to listen to Chinese people tell their stories—and then to relate those stories here in the West in a way that makes sense to both us and the storytellers themselves.

  • From her 2005 CV while Associate Professor on the China Studies Program, The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies

[x] The Politics of Survival: Li Zhisui and the Inner Court, The China Journal Volume 35 Jan.1996

[xi]  Was Mao Really a Monster: The Academic Response to Chang and Halliday’s “Mao: The Unknown Story” (London: Routledge 2010) 

[xii] Published by China Study group in New York in 1996 and available  from https://archive.org/details/manufacturing-history-xulin-dong

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