In 1997 in Hong Kong one of Mao Zedong’s numerous sexual partners — in this case an underage one — told me her life story. Mao the monster was already notorious: his lunatic policies had caused the world’s worst famine (1959–1961), in which 40 to 50 million Chinese starved to death; he inspired the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), when a few million more died. And before he came to power in 1949, Mao often ordered the murder of those who challenged his ambitions within the Chinese Communist Party.
But a paedophile? Yes indeed. Ms Chen, the young woman with whom Mao began sleeping in 1962, was 14. The Chairman was born in 1893. His consumption of young women, while he was married to Jiang Qing, one of the Gang of Four, was notorious, and became more so after the publication in 1994 of The Private Life of Chairman Mao, by Li Zhisui, Mao’s doctor. For years Dr Li listened to Mao boasting about his sexual practices and prowess; he also treated the Great Helmsman for various venereal diseases. He continued, against Dr Li’s advice, to sleep with his numerous young partners, some of whom were described as his nurses. Although at least one became pregnant, Dr Li knew that Mao was infertile; he never revealed this to his patient.
I was the East Asia editor of the Times, stationed in Hong Kong, when I was introduced to Ms Chen by Jin Zhong, the editor of Kaifang [‘Open’] magazine, a journal devoted to politics across the border. He told me she was worried about what might happen to her when China took over Hong Kong on 1 July 1997. Could I find out from the British or the Americans if they would get her out?
By the time I met Ms Chen, then 57, she was no longer the pretty slip of a girl in the pictures she showed me of her in the Chinese air force singing and dancing troupe which had entertained Mao and his senior colleagues in the Chairman’s enclave in Beijing’s Forbidden City. Now she was a plump woman in her fifties, squeezed into a scarlet qipao, the traditional tight dress slit up one side worn by much younger Chinese women. Ms Chen’s qipao, two sizes too small, was slit well up her thigh, revealing the suspenders at the top of her stocking. Her Nanking accent was hard for me to follow so I invited a Chinese woman friend to accompany us to lunch. There, at the Conrad Hotel, Ms Chen talked about herself, pausing occasionally as she slurped down a dozen or so oysters. While she was helping herself to another plateful, my Chinese friend said, ‘We have names for women like her. Please don’t ask me to meet her again.’
This was Ms Chen’s story: in 1962, age 14, she was already in what Dr Li terms the ‘cultural work troupe of the air force’. She showed me happy-snaps of her with her friends, all in uniform, their caps perched on the backs of their heads. The girls were excited, to put it mildly, at the prospect of entertaining Mao, the Great Helmsman, Teacher and Red Red Sun in Our Hearts. At first their responsibilities included singing and dancing for Mao and his coterie, and then dancing with them. Mao, Ms Chen told me, danced as if on rails, pushing his partner straight ahead across the room and back again. At some point, she discovered, Mao would invite a girl into his bedroom, ‘to make him his tea’. Then there would be sex. She had plenty to say about the Great Helmsman’s virility and stamina.
‘Imagine… what it meant for a young girl,’ wrote Dr Li of those who did their bit for the Chairman, ‘to be called into Mao’s chambers to serve his pleasure… he was happiest and most satisfied with several young women simultaneously sharing his bed… “He is great at everything — simply intoxicating,” one of the young women confessed to me one day, referring to Mao’s sexual prowess.’ [The Private Life of Chairman Mao, pp. 357-58]
Mao was Ms Chen’s only partner in the Forbidden City; another Air Force girl was the favourite of Premier Zhou Enlai who, Ms Chen claimed, sometimes telephoned the girl at the troupe’s residence.
After five years, Jiang Qing insisted that Ms Chen be banished to the north-east, to a lesser job. Mao, she claimed, took her on his knee and wept, but said he could do nothing. After some years in exile, she was summoned back to Beijing for a brief stopover where Mao, again weeping, said he could do nothing for her and was sending her back to Nanking where her marriage had been arranged.
In 1971, now at home, she told her parents about the real Mao. Until then they had been proud that their daughter’s troupe had entertained the Chairman. When her father, a Party member, heard the details, despite the entreaties of his family he wrote Mao an outraged letter and posted it. A kindhearted man at the local post office brought the letter back. It had been opened and Ms Chen’s father was warned that sending such a letter was risking extreme retribution. The Cultural Revolution was now in full swing and insulting Mao could lead to death. Ms Chen had a child, divorced, and fled to Hong Kong.
While she was eating her oysters she begged me to go to the American Consulate-General to find out if they would help her escape before the handover a few months later. The next day the Consul-General, who had met Ms Chen, showed me a thick file on her. He said that the Americans and the British had investigated Ms Chen’s background and her story rang true. The British would allow her into the UK.
Ms Chen knew about Dr Li’s book. That was nothing, she scoffed. He knew a lot about Mao’s girls but his knowledge stopped at the bedroom door. She recalled everything about what happened on that wide bed with books down one side. She expected $1 million for her story, especially if I helped her to write it.
I imagined what a year or two with Ms Chen and her story would be like and declined, but I did telephone the editor at a major US publishing house, who said he would gladly publish such a book, particularly if I helped write it, as Anne F. Thurston had helped Dr Li. He mentioned a substantial advance, but not one with six noughts. I told this to Ms Chen and we parted amicably. She came to Britain and I have never seen her again.
Why tell this story now? Because the editor of Kaifang, who introduced me to Mao’s underage girl in 1997, noticed an account of her in the autobiography of Szeto Wah, a recently deceased champion of democracy in Hong Kong. He thought the story was worth re-telling, and that now, finally, it was safe for Ms Chen to do so. Kaifang’s October headline, next to a picture of the teenage Ms Chen, reads: ‘Top Leaders, Including Zhou and Deng, Enjoyed Sex. Mao’s Sexual Perversions in Senility.’
In the end, the only person who emerges well from this corrupt and corrupting story is Ms Chen’s furious father.