OBITUARY: Li Zhisui

Li Zhisui, the late Chairman Mao's personal physician, must take an honoured place in the annals of China. Dr Li's book The Private Life of Chairman Mao painted an extraordinary full-length portrait of the tragically flawed revolutionary leader, complete with warts and feet of clay.

Li's book was published last year, almost two decades after the Great Helmsman's death. Over the intervening years, Mao's heroic reputation as a great, modernising revolutionary and a national saviour had become untenable, but it was not until the appearance of Li's scrupulously honest account that the world could view the old tyrant whole.

It was not a pretty picture. The young Zhisui Li, scion of a long line of doctors in China who wanted to be a surgeon, offered his services to the emergent People's Republic and was overcome with joy when allocated to Mao. His account of the next 22 years was a horror story, ending with the relief he felt as Mao breathed his last, a relief tortured by the fear that in the intrigue-ridden atmosphere of palace intrigue, some of those jockeying for power could accuse him of causing Mao's death.

In Mao's service, Li had been affronted by Mao's morals and his personal habits: Mao believed he could gain youthful longevity by bedding as many young women as possible, preferring unsophisticated peasant girls recruited to his entourage. He swam frequently in the swimming pool attached to his Zhongnanhai pavilion but refused to take baths - "I wash myself in the bodies of my women," he said - and infected many of them with venereal disease, for which he refused treatment. He cleaned his teeth by swilling down Chinese tea and chewing up the leaves with his greenish, plaque-covered teeth. He suffered from insomnia during periods of inactivity, but slept well when engaged in plotting the downfall of colleagues.

In his book, Li rarely moralised about his patient, recording how Mao's unrealistic belief that man's "spirit" could overcome all physical and economic impossibilities led to millions of deaths. He did record his own unease at the feasting in the Zhongnanhai during the famine in which millions died in the "bitter years" that followed the collapse of the Great Leap Forward, the creation of the Communes and the massive waste of metal and fuel in the thousands of backyard furnaces which Mao had ordained.

Li stood at Mao's elbow as he voiced neurotic suspicions of any colleague who was less than enthusiastic about his schemes or who hinted that Mao bore some responsibility for their failure. He tended Mao's ills as Mao plotted the downfall of men such as the Defence Minister Peng Dehuai or President Liu Shaoqi, who died on the floor of a miserable cell, the chief victim among millions who suffered during the destructive orgies of Mao's Cultural Revolution.

Li was horrified that China's great moderniser turned out to be as superstitious and scientifically ignorant as the Dowager Empress whose reign had also ensured that China failed to meet the challenges posed by the impact of the West.

Rarely stirring from his huge bed, immersed in novels of ancient court intrigues and biographies of the ruthless emperors in China's history he was determined to emulate, Mao became increasingly isolated from the world. Increasingly Mao saw himself as a genius thwarted by lesser men and traitors and the resulting depressions could be cured only by decisions to take action which, given his lack of reliable information and the distortions of neurosis, plunged China into crisis after crisis.

Nevertheless, and often against his conscience, Li served this monster faithfully, but at some cost. He jettisoned ambition to be a surgeon, ruined his family life and broke his wife's heart. In 1988 he managed to get to the United States where he recalled the events he had once recorded in a stack of diaries that he had been forced to burn. With the help of American scholars, he wrote them out again in a carefully unemotional, scientific style. In doing so, he dissected the heart of his tormentor and enabled posterity to judge the man who had inspired such idealistic patriotism, only to betray it.

Li Zhisui, physician: born 1920: married (two sons); died Chicago 13 February 1995.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Have you been doing a brilliant job in an admi...

Surrey County Council: Senior Project Officer (Fixed Term to Feb 2019)

£26,498 - £31,556: Surrey County Council: We are looking for an outgoing, conf...

Recruitment Genius: Interim Head of HR

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you an innovative, senior H...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources and Payroll Administrator

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client, a very well respect...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot