The Private Life Of Chairman Mao

Here are some highlights from this 1996 book:

* He sought to triumph over death through Daoist methods of sex. He followed no schedule except on May Day and National Day and on the rare occasions when he received foreign visitors. Then he had to dress, taking barbiturates to control his anxiety.
Women were served to order like food. While puritanism was promoted in his name, Mao’s sex life was a central project of his court. A special room was set aside in the Great Hall of the People for his refreshment during high-level party meetings. Party and army political departments, guardians of the nation’s morality, recruited young women of sterling proletarian background and excellent physical appearance, supposedly to engage in ballroom dancing with the leader, actually for possible service in his bed. Honored by the opportunity, some of those chosen introduced their sisters.

* As he grew older, his sexual adventures became all the more scandalous and wide-ranging. He had no other recreational activity except for these adventures, which involved an uncountable number of young women. As Wang Dongxing observed, “Is it because he feels he is going to die soon that he has to grab as many girls as he can? Otherwise, why is he this interested in [sex] and why is he this energetic?” And Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, said of him, “In the matter of political struggle, none of the Chinese and Soviet leaders can beat him. In the matter of his personal conduct, nobody can keep him in check either.”

* Mao had turned sixty in December 1953, and when I came to work for him in 1955, he feared the end of his sexual activity was approaching. He had begun to experience bouts of impotency and linked sexual desire to health. So long as he wanted sex, he was healthy. My predecessors had given him frequent injections of an extract of ground deer antlers, an aphrodisiac according to traditional Chinese medicine, but his impotency persisted and he worried greatly. He was determined to stay alive, healthy, and sexually active until eighty, and one of my jobs was to help him do that.

* In time I could see that Mao’s problem with impotence was most pronounced when he was embroiled in a political struggle whose outcome was uncertain. By the early 1960s, as his power rose to new heights, he rarely complained about impotence. At the height of the Cultural Revolution, in the late 1960s, he and Jiang Qing were sexually estranged, but Mao had no problems with the young women he brought to his bed—their numbers increasing and their average ages declining as Mao attempted to add years to his life according to the imperial formula.

* I had already been surprised by how casually Mao discussed sex. Mao did not understand the human reproductive system, but I quickly learned that he was remarkably preoccupied with sex. He was extremely curious, for instance, about the sex life of Gao Gang, the onetime head of Manchuria, who had taken his own life after having been accused in 1954 of an “anti-party alliance.” Gao Gang was said to have amassed so much power that his good friend Stalin had called him the king of Manchuria. Wang Dongxing had told me that Gao and his alleged co-conspirator, Rao Shushi, were purged because they had pretensions of usurping the leadership of Liu Shaoqi.
In his conversations with me, Mao spoke little of Gao Gang’s political mistakes. Instead, he marveled at the allegations that Gao had engaged in sex with more than one hundred different women, and was fascinated with the means Gao had used to snare so many partners, including the dance parties Gao hosted. “He had had sex twice on the very night he committed suicide,” Mao told me. “Can you imagine such lust?
“Gao’s sexual adventures were really a trivial matter,” Mao continued. “If he hadn’t made serious political mistakes, they wouldn’t be worth our concern. Even with his political mistakes, we could still have made use of him if he had thoroughly confessed his faults.”

* The young women stood in the same awe of Mao’s sexual prowess as they did of his political leadership. At sixty-seven, Mao was past his original projection for the age at which sexual activity stops but, curiously, only then did his complaints of impotence cease altogether. It was then that he became an adherent of Daoist sexual practices,* which gave him an excuse to pursue sex not only for pleasure but to extend his life. He was happiest and most satisfied with several young women simultaneously sharing his bed. He encouraged his sexual partners to introduce him to others for shared orgies, allegedly in the interest of his longevity and strength.
Mao’s claim that Daoist sexual practices were a means of keeping him healthy were nothing more than an excuse for his own sexual appetite, but I could not avoid knowing of them. His paramours, ever ready for a call from the imperial chambers, were so proud to serve the Chairman that some were uninhibited in talking about those experiences with me. They never did anything to hide their relationship. Young but uneducated, they turned to me as a doctor and senior member of Mao’s staff. Mao often gave them the Daoist sex manual, Classic of the Plain Girl’s Secret Way, and asked them to read it in preparation for their trysts. The text, written in classical Chinese, was difficult to read and there were many ideographs the young women did not understand. They would question me about the meaning, and over the years, I learned the Daoist text well. The young women appreciated what they learned and what the Chairman taught. “He is great at everything—simply intoxicating,” one of the young women confessed to me one day, referring to Mao’s sexual prowess.
Mao’s sexual activity was not confined to women. The young males who served as his attendants were invariably handsome and strong, and one of their responsibilities was to administer a nightly massage as an additional aid to sleep. Mao insisted that his groin be massaged, too, a practice I became aware of only in 1960, when one of the guards refused to oblige him. “This is a job for a woman, not me,” he told me just before he left. Later, in 1964, I witnessed a similar incident on Mao’s train. As his guard was preparing him for sleep, Mao grabbed the young man and began fondling him, trying to pull the man into bed with him. For a while I took such behavior as evidence of a homosexual strain, but later I concluded that it was simply an insatiable appetite for any form of sex. In traditional times young men, often effeminate and pretty, played the female roles in Chinese operas, and many were brought into the sexual service of wealthy merchants and officials. Both The Dream of the Red Chamber and The Golden Lotus, China’s classic pornographic novel and another of Mao’s favorites, contain stories of such liaisons. Catamites are part of Chinese tradition.
Mao’s bodyguards, though, were neither homosexual nor actors, and the presence of so many attractive young women often caused problems for them.

* The new object of Mao’s affection would spend the whole night in his bedroom and would often move in with Mao when Jiang Qing was out of town, sleeping with him when he slept and waiting on him when he was awake—serving him meals and tea, sponging him down with hot washcloths. Mao began taking her with him on trips, and the two stayed together, their relationship obvious to the local security forces and hotel attendants who ought not to have known. The young woman was delighted. “What kind of life is it anyway, half in the dark and half in the open?” she asked me.
She became proud to the point of arrogance of the honor Mao conferred upon her, convinced that to be chosen as Mao’s woman made her better and more privileged than anyone else. She lost all sense of Mao’s need for privacy, doing everything she could to flaunt her special relationship.
But Wang Dongxing’s job was to protect Mao from his own indiscretions. He had to prevent Mao’s private life from becoming public. His staff and the confidential secretaries were expected to be discreet. But no one outside Group One could be expected to stay silent. Wang did not want to risk the Chairman’s reputation. He wanted the woman to stay in a separate room when they traveled.
But he could not say so to Mao for fear of irritating the Chairman. He used an unsophisticated nineteen-year-old bodyguard as his sacrificial lamb, instructing him to make the suggestion to Mao. The guard did and Mao, remarkably, agreed, sending his female companion pouting off to a nearby chamber. But Mao was so perturbed with the young guard that he had him fired and transferred out of Zhongnanhai.
The young woman introduced Mao to other women. Her relationship with the Chairman became a family affair, for she arranged for him to indulge himself with some of her female relatives. He was disappointed with one, a member of an opera troupe who was no longer so young or pretty, but his dalliance with the woman’s sister was more successful.
oman, her sister, and her sister’s husband, a military officer, for a banquet in the villa where we were staying in Wuxi. As we ate the delectable meal, there was not a hint of what would follow. The scene was idyllic, the air fragrant with the scent of plum trees. It had just snowed, and was still misty. The place was famous for its delicious fish, and the whole area is renowned for its teas and silks. Broad-leaved mulberry trees that feed the silkworms grow in abundance there, too.
It did not matter to Mao that the woman’s sister was married. Nor did the cuckolded husband feel disgraced. Indeed, he considered it an honor to offer his wife to the Chairman—and a stepping-stone to military promotions. At the end of the dinner, Mao sent the husband home and spent the next three days with the woman and her sister, interrupting his activities only long enough to meet with Shanghai mayor Ke Qingshi and Anhui’s Zeng Xisheng.
Even Wang Dongxing was outraged at the affair. “If [the girls’] mother were still alive, the Chairman would have her, too,” Wang snapped. His greatest opprobrium was reserved not for Mao but for the military officer and cuckolded husband. “He sold his own wife,” Wang said.
Wang saw Mao’s sexual adventures as a fight against death. The Chairman is getting on in age, he said to me one day. He wondered whether a fear of death was leading Mao to grab as many young women as he could.
Most of Mao’s women had been innocent young girls when they first came to him. Over the years, I saw the same phenomenon repeated. After being brought to Mao’s bed, they would become corrupted. Mao’s sexual demands and his own character were one source of the corruption. His power was another. Rather than being humbled by Mao, the women became arrogant. Uneducated, unskilled, with no great futures, their association with Mao was their sole distinction. And what a claim it was! They became demanding, supercilious, using their association with Mao to assert their superiority over others. In time, when the Cultural Revolution began, some of the young women Mao had cast aside even used their special relationship with the Chairman to grab power for themselves.
Watching so many innocent young women become corrupted through association with Mao, I began to sense that Jiang Qing’s life had followed a similar path. Maybe she really had been kind in Yanan when she first married Mao. Maybe he had corrupted her as well.

* With so much sexual activity, venereal disease was practically inevitable. One young woman contracted trichomonas vaginalis, thus starting a chain. The young dancers in her cultural troupe often shared each others’ clothes, and I suspect that the woman contracted the disease from wearing another dancer’s underwear. Trichomonas vaginalis is not, strictly speaking, a venereal disease, but an infected woman transmits the disease through intercourse to her male partners. They in turn can pass the disease on to other females. The disease usually produces considerable distress to the woman but is ordinarily asymptomatic in the male, who thus becomes a carrier without knowing it. Once one of Mao’s partners became infected, he quickly contracted the disease as well, and soon it had spread. He sent the infected women to me for treatment.
The young women were proud to be infected. The illness, transmitted by Mao, was a badge of honor, testimony to their close relations with the Chairman. They were proud, too, to receive treatment from me. As the Chairman’s doctor, I had access to the best and most modern medicines, imported from the West, and they considered it a privilege to be treated with the Flagyl I prescribed.
But treating Mao’s women did not solve the problem. Because Mao was the carrier, the epidemic could be stopped only if he received treatment himself. I wanted him to halt his sexual activities until the drugs had done their work.
The Chairman scoffed at my suggestion, saying that doctors always exaggerate things. I explained that he was a carrier of disease, passing it on to others even though he himself was experiencing no ill effects. “If it’s not hurting me,” he said, “then it doesn’t matter. Why are you getting so excited about it?”
I insisted, wondering what would happen if Jiang Qing were to become infected.
Mao found my question amusing. “That’ll never happen,” he said. Mao’s sexual relations with his wife had long since ceased. “I told her a long time ago that I’m too old—can’t do it anymore,” he said with a wave of the hand and a smile on his face.
I suggested that he should at least allow himself to be washed and cleaned. Mao still received only nightly rubdowns with hot towels. He never actually bathed. His genitals were never cleaned. But Mao refused to bathe. “I wash myself inside the bodies of my women,” he retorted.
I was nauseated. Mao’s sexual indulgences, his Daoist delusions, his sullying of so many naive and innocent young women, were almost more than I could bear.
But I had to find a way to prevent the disease from spreading further. At a minimum, I could make certain that the bedding and towels in the guesthouses where Mao stayed were sterilized. But the staff at the guesthouses considered it an insult to the Chairman to sterilize his bedding, and I could not explain the problem to them without revealing Mao’s secret.
I spoke privately to the staff in Group One, who were already aware of the problem, and urged them to use their own towels. And I instructed them how to sterilize Mao’s bedding and towels without the Chairman’s knowledge.
But Mao remained a carrier the rest of his life.

* In 1962, in Shanghai, I saw him in a similar mood when he brought the woman with whom he had had his first sexual experience as a teenager to visit. Some fifty years had passed, and the woman was old and gray. Mao gave her two thousand yuan and sent her home. “How she has changed,” he said.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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