The Virginian-Pilot
                             THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT 
              Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Sunday, March 19, 1995                 TAG: 9503140268
TYPE: Book Review 
                                             LENGTH: Medium:   91 lines



DR. LI ZHISUI, translated by Tai Hung-Chao

Random House. 680 pp. $30.

A TEAM OF doctors, nurses and Chinese Politburo members stood vigil at the bedside of Mao Zedong in September 1976. The Chairman, weakened from congestive heart failure, deteriorated lungs and Lou Gehrig's disease, had been dying for years. A genial-looking doctor bent over Mao. ``It's all right,'' Li Zhisui said, ``we'll be able to help you.'' Mao's eyes showed contentment. He exhaled deeply and died.

The doctor's next thought?

``I fully expected to be charged with Mao's murder,'' Li writes in his fascinating yet sobering memoir, The Private Life of Chairman Mao.

Some in the Communist leadership, led by Mao's widow, Jiang Qing, would seek a scapegoat, deaf to explanations of the Chairman's failed health. For 21 years, Li had seen leaders and followers rise and fall at Mao's hand. Millions had died in famine and war caused by infighting for party control. Would the struggle for Mao's successor cost the nation millions more?

Li began a journal 40 years ago when he was appointed to treat Mao. Afraid it would be seized in the home searches of the Cultural Revolution, he burned 40 volumes in 1966, but began to rewrite in 1977 after Deng Xiaoping had consolidated power. Li, 75, completed the book last year, in a tribute to his late wife and as ``a reminder of the terrible human consequences of Mao's dictatorship.''

His effort is honest and forceful. The focus is human, not political. It's a long book, and readers may well need to use the appended glossary and chronology to keep a grip on the flow of people and years.

In the translation, Li's style is lucid and readable. If his story verges on being dense, it is because Mao's times were themselves complex. The doctor tries to tell the Chairman's whole story, which is to say China's. The accumulation of detail is powerful, and saddening.

Li came from a wealthy Beijing Christian family in which all of the men for generations were doctors. He received a surgeon's training at Western-funded universities and married an English-speaking Chinese woman who worked for the British government.

Li was working as a ship's surgeon in Australia when news of the fall of Beijing and the Communists' victory in the civil war came in 1949. At a party doctor's suggestion, he returned. In 1952 he joined the party, but instead of doing surgery, he became director of a clay-floored clinic where he tended the colds of the party elite.

After a doctor in Mao's compound misdiagnosed a fatal case of encephalitis as the flu, the chief of the Central Bureau of Guards asked Li to become the Chairman's personal physician. Li met Mao in April 1955 at the indoor pool that the Chairman had turned into an office. (Mao would meet Richard Nixon poolside 17 years later.) Li complimented Mao on two essays; Mao replied that Li could tutor him in English. He got the job.

The Chairman was a robust man of 62 when Li started his work. He never brushed his teeth, rinsing his mouth with tea instead. He didn't bathe, substituting a rubbing with hot towels. He slept on a spartan wooden bed and used a bedpan.

Mao also had an undescended testicle and was infertile. He had a venereal disease from the late 1950s on and contracted herpes in 1967. He stayed awake 24 to 48 hours at a time, before sleeping with the aid of barbiturates, to which he built up a huge tolerance.

Li stayed in quarters near Mao's and traveled with him on his frequent trips. Often he didn't see his family for months, more than a year in one instance. The doctor was counseled to use traditional Chinese medicine, such as the shots of dissolved deer antlers that Mao received as an aphrodisiac. Mao neither trusted nor understood Western remedies.

Mao sought to involve Li politically, offering him internal party memos and sending him to labor in peasant communes and to inspect hospitals and factories. Li tried to avoid involvement, but had to chart the currents of his sponsors to stay afloat himself. In fact, his grasp of politics is shrewd, if reluctant.

Keeping Mao strong enough to engineer detente with the United States became the top priority in Mao's last years. After Henry Kissinger met with Zhou Enlai in July 1971, seven months before Nixon's visit, Kissinger sent a respirator unit to Mao's doctors. The equipment was in a trunk behind potted plants in the room where Mao and Nixon met in 1972. After that meeting, Mao weakened quickly, and Li could do little but hope he wouldn't be destroyed after his patient was gone.

What emerges from Li's writing is deep disappointment for his nation's fate. The doctor's narrative gains power from its simplicity and lack of rancor. From a man of healing whose aim is to preserve life, here is a chronicle of life's loss and corruption, on a huge scale. MEMO: Dave Paton is a staff editor. by CNB