On the trail of Dr Li Zhisui’s illusive Memories – Part 5/5

As you have discovered, while many in the West praised Dr. Li’s memoir of Mao as an accurate portrait of a manipulative egomaniac with little tolerance of dissent and a penchant for young women, the book was also criticized in China by those closest to Mao and by both eastern and western scholars of China.

In addition, many in the West have rejected or ignored what Dr. Li wrote about Mao and the famine during the Great Leap Forward.

According to some of the people that knew Mao best, most notably Dr. Li Zhisui, Mao was not aware that the situation amounted to more than a slight shortage of food.

Li wrote, “But I do not think that when he spoke on July 2, 1959, he knew how bad the disaster had become, and he believed the party was doing everything it could to manage the situation” Source: Answers.com

While many in the West believe most of what Li wrote of Mao in his memoir, those same people do not accept what Li says about the famine because to do so would be to admit Mao wasn’t the butcher of 20, 30, or 40 million people due to famine and starvation during the Great Leap Forward.

This is known as “cherry picking”, which is the act of pointing to individual cases or data that seem to confirm a particular position [opinion], while ignoring a significant portion of related cases or data that may contradict that position.

This is also called “confirmation bias“, which refers to a form of selective thinking that focuses on evidence that supports what believers already believe while ignoring evidence that refutes their beliefs. Confirmation bias plays a stronger role when people base their beliefs upon faith, tradition and prejudice.

An example of this comes from Hong Kong-based historian Frank Dikotter’s book on the great famine where he claims that Mao was responsible for the famine and did nothing to save lives.

The point I want to make is if the West accepts the revised and sensationalized English version of Li’s memoir of Mao as accurate, how can anyone dispute what Li said about Mao not knowing the extent of the Great Leap Forward famine?  By 1959, Dr. Li had been Mao’s physician for almost three years and according to author Troy Parfitt was with him daily and knew intimate details of Mao’s life.

On the other hand, if we accept that Dr. Li’s memory was wrong about Mao and the famine in 1959, how many other claims in his memoir of Mao are inaccurate?

In fact, it was mentioned in Mao’s Alleged Guilt in the Land of Famines that Dikotter sensationalized his book [as Random House did to Dr. Li’s memoir of Mao] by increasing [inflating] the mortality numbers by 50% to allow for possible under-reporting and came up with a claim that 45 million died of starvation during the GLF famine when in fact, the numbers may have been much lower.

Is it possible that Mao’s image in the West has been unwittingly engineered by the media to be worse than it should be?

We know that memory is imperfect. Gore Vidal said, “A memoir is how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked.” — from Palimpsest by Gore Vidal (Penguin, 1996).

In fact, “Memoir writers must manufacture a text, imposing narrative order on a jumble of half-remembered events.” — William Zinsser, “Introduction.” Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir. Mariner, 1998

However, in the case of China and/or Mao, many in the West do not trust what the Chinese claim unless told what they want to hear. Everything else is to be considered a lie.

Return to On the trail of Dr Li Zhisui’s illusive Memories – Part 4 or start with Part 1


Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of The Concubine Saga. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

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2 Responses to On the trail of Dr Li Zhisui’s illusive Memories – Part 5/5

  1. thirdworldliberator says:

    I always wonder about the truth. In the West, Mao is reviled with a vicious media campaign against him. Cold War mindset, anyone? Yet in China he is still widely respected as a national hero. So who is right? I once had a Taiwanese girlfriend ask me to read, “Mao: The Unknown Story.” I couldn’t stomach it; I guess my faith in humanity keeps prevents me from believing such tales. I wish I could live under such controversial men in history, to see if I would be a follower or a traitor.

    • From what I’ve learned about China before and after 1949, the Chinese people have been much better off since 1949 regardless of the drought and famine that took place during Mao’s Great Leap Forward and his Cultural Revolution in addition to the purges against political opposition to his policies.

      Before Mao and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ruled China, about 87% of the people lived in severe poverty with about 5% wealthy enough to live a comfortable life. Most Chinese were illiterate. Rural peasants that did not own land were treated as if they were beasts of burden raised to work from before dawn until after dark on starvation wages. Most of the people did not have any medical care and the average age in China before 1949 was 35.

      Enter Mao and the CCP, and they were the only government in China’s history to actually have a plan with goals to alleviate poverty and starvation in China while providing some sort of health care for everyone and they succeeded.

      Today, the average age of life one may expect to live at birth is about 76—more than twice what it was before 1949, more than 90% are literate and about 13% live in severe poverty—historically, no other reduction in poverty has ever taken place in history. In addition, 90% of global poverty reduction for the last thirty years took place in China.

      Even during the famine deaths that happened during the Great Leap Forward and the insanity of the Cultural Revolution, the average age increased annually along with the population, which doubled under Mao’s twenty-six years as the chairman of the CCP.

      Today, no matter how China’s Western critics and the media outside China spin the facts while ignoring some, the Chinese people have never experienced more freedom. In fact, prior to the Great Leap Forward famine, China experienced droughts and famines annually for more than 2,000 years of recorded history—somewhere in China in one or more provinces there were droughts leading to famines and starvation. Since the failure of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, the Chinese people have enjoyed fifty years without a famine where hundreds of thousands and millions died of starvation.

      To be fair, it is true. Freedom of religion is limited in China as it is in Singapore and other countries. The freedom of political expression in public is against the law and it says so in the Chinese Constitution. I had a critic of China challenge me on this and I copied and pasted the articles in the Constitution that, by law, gives the CCP the right to arrest democracy advocates that speak out in public.

      However, children no longer spy on their parents and in the privacy of the home; the family may citizens or ridicule the government as much as it wants without fear of being arrested (Chinese do this on Blogs too). The practice of children spying on parents came to a close in 1976 when Mao died ending the Cultural Revolution.

      This is why the Chinese decided that what Mao did after he ruled China was 70% good and 30% bad. However, I doubt that you will find any of China’s critics (outside of China) that will agree no matter what facts there are.

      Meanwhile, in the United States, the middle class is shrinking and more people live in poverty while about 40 million live without any health care.

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