Saturday, February 06, 2010

A Dip in the River

At the moment I am reading 'The Private Life of Chairman Mao' by Zhisui Li.

Dr Li was Mao's personal physician, a position which made him responsible for the Chairman's well-being until the dictator died. Although Li experienced a certain amount of pride and jubilation in taking the role, he also makes it clear that he really had no choice in the matter. If he refused Mao his life in China and that of his family would be made unbearable, and like everyone else in Mao's entourage he was in constant fear of falling out of favour, because this would mean banishment and impoverishment.

It makes fascinating reading: in the extract that follows, Mao has insisted on swimming in the Pearl river even though his bodyguards have deemed it unsafe, which inevitably means that his entourage, including the doctor, has to swim in the water too:
'The river was more than a hundred yards wide, and the current was slow. The water, just as I had feared, was filthy. I saw occasional globs of human waste float by. The pollution did not bother Mao. He floated on his back, his big belly sticking up like a round ballooon, legs relaxed as if he were resting on a sofa. The water carried him downstream, and only rarely did he use his arms or legs to propel himself forward.'

The reason that Mao was making the dip (and equally foolhardy excursions into the rivers Xiang and Yangtze) in 1957 was a metaphorical one. Mao was under pressure from the central leadership in Beijing to reign back his agricultural and industrial reforms, and he wanted to test the loyalty of Liu Shaoqi (his heir apparent) and Deng Xiaoping. Furthermore, since Khrushchev's denouncement of Stalin, he had felt insecure, this was because he considered himself to be China's Stalin, and thought that he too might be denounced with a Chinese Khrushchev. So he let it be known that he intended to resign as party chairman, and having lit this touchpaper, retired to the provinces to observe the consequent political intrigue in Beijing from afar.

After the dip all the people who had said it would be too unsafe to bathe fawned after him, admiring his strength and power, and generally chastising themselves for being wrong. However, everyone knew that it was more than Mao's aquatic abilities that were under scrutiny here, and his reply praising the provincial authorities for their support was an indication of where he would shortly be turning for help in his struggle for political survival.

When he returned to Beijing, Mao would hear all his suspicions confirmed in the speech Lui made to the Eight Party Congress: he denounced the 'cult of personality' and praised the 'collective leadership'. It was no doubt a decisive and dramatic moment - and one that immediately shortened Lui's life expectancy.


Blogger jem said...

A long time ago an Asian friend of mine had this photo of Mao on a postcard. It was so informal looking and I wasn't really sure what Mao looked like, and I truly believed it was a photo of her boyfriend. She put me straight, but for a long time after her boyfriend was nicknamed 'Chairman Mao'. Not in the least related to you post, but thanks for reminding me.

Sun Feb 07, 01:14:00 pm  
Blogger Mary said...

The story of Mao's dip in the river reminds me of the Emperor's new clothes, although at least his entourage had the courage to point out that the river was filthy.

Sun Feb 07, 06:07:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Heh, Jem, I knew nothing about Mao either before reading this biography. It was hugely revealing and interesting, but I still have questions - mainly how did he get into such a position of power?

Yes, there's a lot of the Emperor's New Clothes in this biography, part of the politics - a sort of 'double-speak'.

Tue Feb 09, 11:21:00 am  

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