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Mao: Dirty Old Chairman?
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Send questions to Cecil via or write him c/o Chicago Reader, 350 N. Orleans, Chicago 60654.

In a Tom Clancy novel I came across the repeated assertion that Chairman Mao was a pedophile. Clancy seems to care about historical detail, but I wonder about the accuracy of this. Did the founder of Communist China prey on little girls? —Michael

I understand your suspicion. After all, if a Chinese leader once revered as a demigod had a penchant for preying on underage girls, surely it would have been well covered by now in the Chinese press. Oh, wait.

The Clancy book you're talking about is The Bear and the Dragon (2000), in which the U.S. and Russia team up in war against China. At several points characters comment disapprovingly about Mao's sexual proclivities. However, let's get the story straight:

1. Nowhere does the book suggest Mao was a pedophile, pedophilia being understood as the desire for sex with prepubescent children. "We had the data over at Langley," one character says. "Mao liked virgins, the younger the better. Maybe he liked to see the fear in their cute little virginal eyes." Elsewhere Mao's partners are described as "barely nubile," i.e., young but pubescent.

2. Possibly Clancy really did get the dirt on Mao from CIA HQ. But a lot of it likely came from The Private Life of Chairman Mao (1994) by Li Zhisui, for 22 years one of Mao's personal physicians. Li says Mao did in fact have a weakness for young women. How young? The Chinese leader liked to reminisce about an encounter he'd had with a pretty 12-year-old when he was a teenage villager. Elsewhere Li says Mao "followed the tradition of Chinese emperors," one of whom supposedly bedded a thousand young virgins. This may be the basis for Clancy's claim that Mao had a thing for virgins.

3. But Li himself doesn't say that. He apparently means Mao followed Chinese emperors in thinking sex with young women would keep him young and potent. Evidently it worked: "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."

4. According to Li, Mao's women were neither exceptionally young nor unwilling. Typically they came from impoverished backgrounds, owed their lives to the Party, and were proud to have been chosen. Li writes: "They loved him . . . as their great leader. . . They were all very young when they began serving Mao—in their late teens and early twenties—and usually unmarried. When Mao tired of them and the honor was over, they married young, uneducated men with peasant pasts."

5. Some of the women, though, were underage by Western standards. In 1997 journalist Jonathan Mirsky interviewed a middle-aged woman he called Ms. Chen, who said she'd caught the chairman's eye as a dancer and began having sex with him in 1962, when she was 14. (One presumes she was a virgin at the start.) Mirsky calls Mao a pedophile, which isn't strictly true, but no matter: in many U.S. jurisdictions the chairman would have been guilty of statutory rape.

6. The Great Helmsman wasn't a one-night-stand kind of guy. According to Ms. Chen, her relationship with Mao lasted five years, after which she was exiled to the provinces, supposedly at the insistence of Mao's wife, Jiang Qing. "Mao, she claimed, took her on his knee and wept, but said he could do nothing," Mirsky writes.

7. Mao's playmates could get feisty, Dr. Li says. Once the chairman and a young lover got into a shouting match when he wouldn't let her marry and she accused him of being a corrupt bourgeois womanizer. She threatened to go public but was talked into apologizing.

In short, the impression Clancy gives of little girls tearfully awaiting deflowering seems exaggerated. Nonetheless, was Mao a dirty old man? You bet. More from Dr. Li:

• Mao "was happiest and most satisfied with several young women simultaneously sharing his bed," Li writes. "He encouraged his sexual partners to introduce him to others for shared orgies, allegedly in the interest of his longevity and strength."

• Mao chose handsome young men as personal attendants, who among other duties were expected to massage his groin nightly to help him fall asleep. "For a while I took such behavior as evidence of a homosexual strain," Li says, "but later I concluded that it was simply an insatiable appetite for any form of sex."

• Mao was a carrier of a parasitic STD but refused treatment, spreading the disease among his partners. He further refused to bathe or clean his genitals, receiving only nightly rubdowns with hot towels. "I wash myself inside the bodies of my women," he told Li. For what it's worth, he apparently also never brushed his teeth. This may not sound like a kink to you, but you didn't have to kiss him.

So, was the great leader a sexual predator? Yeah. Pedophile? No. Virgin deflowerer? Probably on occasion, but there's little evidence it was a regular thing. These may be fine points, but that's what we do.