Mao in History

Mao in History

Mini Teaser: During the first decades of Mao's China, a time of American self-confidence and strong sense of purpose spurred by the World War II victory, U.S. Sinology for the most part took on an "idealist" rather than a "realist" orientation: hopeful about s

by Author(s): Ross Terrill

Mental problems were not unique to Mao. The fear and tension of the
communists' pre-1949 military and political struggle, and later of
the pressure-cooker life within the Mao court, brought on similar
mental conditions in scores of people around him. The cause of the
anxiety differed as between Mao himself and his underlings. Mao felt
a gnawing anxiety that people around him might be secretly disloyal.
The underlings were simply afraid of dismissal, banishment, or death.
Dr. Li goes so far as to say, "In time, I came to regard neurasthenia
as a peculiarly Communist disease."

Here are Mao's words to Dr. Li just after his encounter with
Khrushchev in 1958 on the problems of the Taiwan Strait and dealing
with the United States:

"Khrushchev just doesn't know what he's talking about. He wants to
improve relations with the U.S. Good, we'll congratulate him with our
guns. Our cannon shells have been in storage for so long they're
becoming useless. So why don't we just use them for a celebration?
Let's get the U.S. involved, too. Maybe we can get the U.S. to drop
an atom bomb on Fujian. Maybe ten or twenty million people will be
killed. Chiang Kai-shek wants the U.S. to use the bomb against us.
Let them use it. Let's see what Khrushchev says then."

Indeed, these words, if seriously meant as Dr. Li took them to be,
are those of a borderline personality.

A second example shows the problem of the influence of drugs that
Mao's doctor saw as early as 1958:

"Even as he spoke about sending me to inspect the people's communes
[crown jewel of the Great Leap Forward], Mao was falling asleep and
his speech was slurred, his voice nearly inaudible. He had taken his
sleeping pills just before we started eating and had brought up the
idea of the investigation in the midst of that half-awake,
half-asleep euphoria he entered as the drug began to take effect. I
was not sure whether his suggestion was real or part of a
drug-induced dream."

There were an increasing number of pivotal moments after 1958 when
Mao may well have been mentally or physically unfit to make the
decisions he did. One of them, documented by eye-witnesses still
living in Beijing, was crucial to relations between China and the
United States.

It was 1971 and, after much discussion, a decision had just been made
in Beijing not to invite the American ping-pong team to visit China.
Premier Zhou Enlai had sent a message to Japan, where the American
team was traveling, regretting China's inability to receive the
Americans. But one night a heavily drugged Mao had second thoughts.
At midnight on April 6, he looked again at the document containing
the foreign ministry's recommendation not to invite the American
sportsmen--already approved both by Zhou and himself. In "drowsy,
slurred speech" he asked his nurse to phone Wang Hairong, the trusted
aide at the foreign ministry, to reverse the decision. The nurse,
without either a tape recorder or anyone to advise her, was in a
quandary. Possessed of doubts, she nevertheless decided to phone Wang
Hairong. The American ping-pong players were invited; Kissinger and
Nixon soon followed. History made a turn.

Everyone who came in close contact with Mao was shocked at the
anarchy of his personal ways. He ate idiosyncratically. He refused to
brush his teeth, offering as his excuse that tigers with excellent
teeth did not brush theirs. He became increasingly sexually
promiscuous as he aged. He would stay up much of the night and sleep
during much of the day; at times he would postpone sleep, remaining
awake for thirty-six hours or more, until tension and exhaustion
overcame him. He was the consummate outlaw, "without law and without
God." Said Dr. Li to me when I showed him around the Harvard campus
in 1994: "Three words did not exist in Mao's dictionary: regret,
love, mercy."

Yet many people who met Mao came away deeply impressed by his
intellectual reach, originality, style of power-within-simplicity,
kindness toward low-level staff members, and the aura of respect that
surrounded him at the top of Chinese politics. It would seem
difficult to reconcile these two disparate views of Mao. But in a
fundamental sense there was no brick wall between the personal and
the public Mao.

Early in Mao's career of cavorting with girls--despite the proximity
of his longtime wife Jiang Qing--some provincial leaders made the
mistake of supplying him with sophisticated beauties of mature years
and artistic accomplishment. Mao turned them all down; for his
private moments he did not want famous actresses and singers, but
inexperienced peasant maidens one third his own age.

One pretty young woman, Cui Ying, who worked in the office of
secretaries in Zhongnanhai in the late 1950s, caught Mao's eye. While
dancing with him, we learn in a memoir published in Beijing, she took
the opportunity to complain about the unjust labeling of good people
as "rightists" in the leftist campaign of 1957. A strict boundary had
been crossed. Cui Ying's body was needed, but not her mind. For
heaven's sake, she might quote Mao outside Zhongnanhai. Suddenly, one
afternoon before an upcoming dance party at which she was to see Mao
again, she found herself terminated as a staff member.

Mao's turn to young women was connected with the decline of trust in
the men around him. Sex became an avenue to a oneness that no longer
existed in the councils of party and state. The limitation was that
Mao could achieve oneness (whether sexual or philosophic) only with
innocent young men and women who adored him, or with staff members
and junior colleagues who accorded him total loyalty. "What Mao
thought, I thought", said his doctor. "It was not that I had contrary
opinions that I had to suppress or keep to myself. Mao's opinions
were mine. The possibility of differing with the Chairman never
crossed my mind." It need hardly be said that any attempt to
translate such oneness to the institutional and public life of a
nation of six hundred million people--a da tong ("great unity") based
on personal feelings--was an impossibility, and to essay it was to
court disaster.

The real shock in the "personal" revelations of The Private Life of
Chairman Mao was less moral than political: Mao did not believe a lot
of what he proclaimed in public. We find it in small matters and in
large. He sang the praises of Chinese traditional medicine, but when
it came to his own health he used Western medicine. The Soviet Union
disgusted him even as he lauded it for public consumption; he said
good things about America while telling the Chinese people that
America was the embodiment of evil.

Perhaps Mao did not "mean" some of the things he said in private.
Perhaps he was like Richard Nixon, who ranted about Ivy League types
and Jews, yet never took action against these sub-groups and went on
hiring them in substantial numbers for the White House staff. Yet the
two cases are not the same. In the cold light of day, after an
evening of uttering stress-reducing threats, Nixon could not easily
take action to reduce the influence of Ivy League types and Jews; he
was President of a country with laws, a vigorous Congress, and a free
press. But when old Mao murmured a judgment for or against a person
or a policy, the staff member who heard it set in motion steps of
implementation. In a democracy, the individual psyche of the top
leader is simply not reflected in public policy as it is in a
communist dictatorship.

Thus, the wife of Liu Shaoqi was about to be executed in 1969 when
Mao, giving final review to the papers on her case, scrawled, "Spare
her the knife." She lives on to this day. One day a male guard
touched one of Mao's girlfriends on the buttocks; Mao had the man
sent to prison and no one at Mao's court ever heard of him again. So
it went; Mao's whim was the law of the land.

The "late Mao" was different from the early and middle Mao. He had
not always been vain, insincere, vindictive, arrogant, or
duplicitous. In middle age, to take examples from the testimony of
his most impressive secretary, Tian Jiaying, Mao was not immodest.
When commended for his opening speech at the Eighth Party Congress in
1956, he said, "Do you know who wrote my speech? A young
scholar--Tian Jiaying." The Mao of 1949-50 read all of the many
letters that reached him from the general public. By 1966 he did not
even deign to address the general public; at Tiananmen Square as the
Red Guards gathered before him, he merely raised an arm and gave a
glassy smile. The Mao of 1950 could cry over the suffering of
individuals from the grassroots, but the Mao of the Cultural
Revolution did not. Tian Jiaying could testify that Mao changed, for
the change wrecked Tian's career and ultimately led him to kill

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