Margaret MacMillan
Nixon and Mao

Although he wrote one of his most lovely poems about her and in old age described her as the love of his life, Mao abandoned his first wife and their young sons in the turbulent days of the late 1920s without any apparent regret. Yang Kaihui moved back to Changsha to be near her family, and Mao made no attempt to keep in touch with her. In a series of letters that miraculously survived, she wrote with increasing desperation other continuing love for Mao, her misery at being abandoned, and her fears for herself and her children as the Guomindang tightened its grip. In 1930, in retaliation for Communist attacks on Changsha, the local nationalist general had her executed. She was only twenty-nine.

In 1928, while Yang was still alive, Mao got married again, to a young girl from the countryside. He Zizhen, who agreed, rather reluctantly, to become his 'revolutionary companion.' She was to pay a heavy price, suffering through the Long March and repeated pregnancies and miscarriages until Mao, in turn, abandoned her for a younger, more glamorous woman. His last and final marriage was to the Shanghai actress Jiang Qing. When that marriage, in turn, soured, he preferred to avoid a divorce and simply took mistresses, sometimes several at once. It was easy enough for Mao to get them from among his nurses and assistants or from a special army company of dancers and singers. 'Selecting imperial concubines' was how a senior general described it. Mao preferred young, simple girls who felt deeply honored to be chosen by the great man, even to the point of taking pride in catching a venereal disease from him. When his doctor suggested that the chairman might want to stop his sexual activities while the disease was being treated, Mao refused. 'If it's not hurting me,' he said airily, 'then it doesn't matter.' As far as hygiene was concerned, Mao's solution was more sex: 'I wash myself inside the bodies of my women.'

The long years of struggle and the exercise of supreme power had turned the idealistic young student into someone as indifferent to others as the first great emperor of China himself. (Indeed, Mao liked the comparison.) Khrushchev, who got to know Mao over the years, thought he was like Stalin; 'He treated the people around him like pieces of furniture, useful for the time being but expendable. When, in his opinion, a piece of furniture—or a comrade—became worn out and lost its usefulness, he would just throw it away and replace it.' The mature Mao had perhaps been foreshadowed by the young one. In 1915, he had written in his journal, 'You do not have the capacity for tranquillity. You are fickle and excitable. Like a woman preening herself, you know no shame. Your outside looks strong but your inside is truly empty. Your ambitions for fame and fortune are not suppressed, and your sensual desires grow daily.'

According to Chinese astrology, Mao was born in the Year of the Snake. Those of this sign are said to be charming and seductive, which Mao could certainly be. Snakes are also considered introverted. As Mao once said of himself, 'I have self-confidence but also some doubt.' Snakes, it was also believed, rely on their intuition, and it was always wise to be careful of them because they could suddenly bite. Mao preferred other signs in Chinese astrology, and described himself as two-thirds tiger and one-third monkey, with the tiger as the dominant force. The tiger, in Chinese popular belief, is fearless and always on the attack, while the monkey is clever, playful, unpredictable, and ready to take chances. Tigers are also cruel, and Mao had learned to embrace cruelty.

Like other great dictators—Stalin, for example—Mao could also be sentimental at times. He was saddened by the sight of a dead sparrow, and he wept regularly at his favorite opera, which told the story of an immortal female snake who fell in love with a human, only to be imprisoned for all eternity by a wicked monk. His doctor, however, thought he was incapable of genuine human affection or compassion. Once, during a performance in Shanghai, a child acrobat slipped and was badly hurt; Mao kept laughing and talking. He took pain and death, except for his own, lightly, even cheerfully. When widespread famine came with the failure of the Great Leap, Mao was unconcerned. People ate too much, he declared, adding, 'Best halve the baric ration, so if they're hungry they have to try harder.' When the persecutions during the Cultural Revolution drove many Chinese to despair, Mao was unmoved: 'One should never attempt to save people who try to commit suicide. It's they themselves who want to die, so why try to save them? China has such a large population, it is not as if it cannot do without these people.'

Years before, while he was still a student, he had written, 'The birth of this is necessarily the death of that, and the death of that is necessarily the birth of this, so birth is not birth and death is not destruction.' He believed that out of the destruction a new China would come—or a new universe: 'I very much look forward to its destruction, because from the demise of the old universe will come a new universe, and will it not be better than the old universe?' He mused to the Finnish ambassador in 1955 that even if China or the earth were blown to pieces 'this might be a big thing for the solar system, but it would still be an insignificant matter as far as the universe as a whole is concerned.'

For Mao, destruction was not only necessary, it was exhilarating. In 1927, he went to observe spontaneous and violent peasant revolts in his own province of Hunan. He wrote admiringly, in a passage that was much quoted during the Cultural Revolution, 'A revolution is not the same as inviting people to dinner or writing an essay or painting a picture or embroidering a flower.' The peasants were turning their world upside down. 'A revolution is an uprising,' he said, 'an act of violence whereby one class overthrows the authority of another.' In 1958, as he prepared to start the Great Leap Forward, Mao described how the remnants of the old China were being cleared away like so much garbage. China, he said, was like a piece of blank paper: 'A clean sheet of paper has no blotches, and so the newest and most beautiful words can be written on it, the newest and most beautiful pictures can be painted on it.'

What was written was not beautiful for China; it was hideous. But it was very difficult for his colleagues, even the bravest, to stand up to Mao. Chen Yi, a tough and experienced general who had been with Mao from the very early days, once burst out as Mao made yet another arbitrary decision, 'I don't understand what's going on! Mao does whatever he wants to do.' After 1949, when the People's Republic was established, the atmosphere around Mao became, in some respects, eerily similar to that of the old imperial court. He was increasingly inaccessible to the general public. When he traveled it was on private trains or airplanes. His houses—and there were many—were usually built especially for him, with his beloved swimming pools, his auditoriums for watching operas, and his bomb shelters. Local inhabitants were cleared away, and tight security was imposed.

Within his small circle, his underlings, secretaries, security guards, and the ever-present pretty nurses were utterly dependent on him and vied for his favor. 'I had not worked long for Mao,' said his doctor, 'before realizing that he was the center around which everything else revolved, a precious treasure that had to be protected and coddled and wooed.' His staff watched his every mood and waited for his every command. They listened for the bell from his large bed, where he lay with his books and, frequently, with his women. Mao hated new clothes, so they patched his clothes carefully and made sure that the patches were always the same color. His bodyguards broke in new shoes for him. When he wanted to eat (and he rarely ate at regular mealtimes), they had his favorite foods ready for him. They rubbed him down with hot towels when he wanted to be cleaned. If he was ready to sleep, they massaged his feet and waited for his increasingly strong doses of sleeping pills to take effect. When he got more than thirty hours of sleep per week or when he had a regular bowel movement, they noted it in their logs and rejoiced.

In some respects, Mao remained the peasant he had been so many years ago. He still spoke in a thick Hunanese accent, and his speech was larded with coarse country expressions. True to the customs of his youth, he slept naked at night and preferred rinsing his mouth with green tea to brushing his teeth. He never really got accustomed to indoor lavatories. When he moved into the Zhongnanhai after 1949, an orderly followed him around the grounds with a shovel until Chou En-lai finally arranged for a special toilet by his bedroom where he could squat.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.