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Books - China Trio 4: Perkowski, Smedley, Li

Updated on October 24, 2020

In this case, a very odd trio

Here we have an American businessman who jumped a few years ago with both feet into the new communist swimming pool that is capitalist China today.

And a revolutionary woman, so revolutionary that despite being a foreigner she joined up with Mao's army when it was sequestered in the mountains. While there she got to know the incredible story of Mao's leading general, a man who rose from the utmost poverty to become a major figure in world history.

And a Chinese doctor who had a patient so famous, or infamous, that the doctor wanted to tell all.

Don't be put off by the oddness of this combination, though, because all three of the books are very interesting reads. They also tell us a lot about the world's largest country, the world's oldest country (in terms of continuous civilization), and perhaps the world's most mysterious country. Each book has many delicious things in it, so whether you consume them one right after the other or on separate occasions, you will enjoy the experience.

This is part of an unending series introducing books about China, of which there are no end.

Jack Perkowski: "Managing the Dragon"

A main part of the attraction of this book is not so much China as the personal, life-changing decision the author made which enabled him to write it.

After twenty years becoming successful as an investment banker in NYC, he decided to move to China and try building something there, factories of Asimco, a manufacturer of auto parts.

That sort of book almost always has something of interest, but in this particular case, interest is heightened by the fact that the author's former colleague, in his book "Mr. China," has already described how Asimco's Chinese partners cheated it out of millions of bucks.

What Perkowski adds to that is a lot of good sense, a lot of detail, and more practical advice for those who themselves wish to do business in China than perhaps any other book. The Economist magazine praised the book in these terms: "But Mr Perkowski hung on, and his wise and ultimately optimistic account should be required reading for anyone starting a business in China. Mr Perkowski is sensible on every issue -- from the need to nurture (and listen to) local managers to the relative importance of local over central government relations.

One lesson of the book pointed out by some reviewers rings especially true -- "Forget your notions about the Chinese economy being rigidly controlled by Beijing -- it is, in fact, highly decentralized and locally driven. As the Chinese say, 'The mountains are high and the emperor is far away'."

Agnes Smedley: "The Great Road: The Life and Times of Chu Teh"

Chu Teh is now known as Zhu De. This book is the result of Agnes Smedley's persistence in getting Mao's top general, the man who can be said to have made Mao by delivering a real army to him, to talk about his life. They had time on their hands, holed up in the caves of Yanan after The Long March, and she put it to good use.

Smedley is herself a fascinating person of deeply communist persuasion (she also advocated women's rights, birth control, and freedom for India). She spied for Stalin in Japan (her lover was Richard Sorge, possibly the most effective spy in history -- he told Stalin the Germans would invade, but Stalin did not listen) and joined the Maoist army in China. But she was a journalist by nature and a very good writer, and here she tells Zhu De's story with great skill. She is also, with Edgar Snow, one of the main sources of information about Mao and the other Chinese leaders in the days of the civil war. In some ways it is a choice between Snow's much better known "Red Star Over China" and her book about Zhu De. But hers is the better book.

The book's highpoint is early on, the tale of a very, very poor young boy and how he -- almost unbelievably -- overcame, through sacrifices made by his family, the eternal cycle of poverty to which peasants were condemned. She tells how he was able to obtain enough education to be able to attend a military academy. Mao's family was relatively well-off compared to Zhu De's, and in any game of "more peasant than thou" Zhu De would win, hands down. The value of education has never been made plainer in any book, anywhere, anytime.

Barely second to this is the tale of the ending of thousands of years of imperial rule and the frustrations of trying to build a republic. Zhu De's mentor at the military academy was Cai E (Tsai Ao in the book), a very important figure in the founding of modern China, but one neglected because his health did him in at an early age. Yet while he was alive he was critical. When Yuan Shikai tore off his republican mask and at last proclaimed himself the Emperor of a new Empire of China in 1915, Cai and Tang Jiyao, in Yunnan Province, launched the Republic-Protection Campaign to fight against him. They had only 20,000 soldiers against Yuan`s army of 80,000 in Sichuan Province, but they defeated him, and with several other provinces behind them, their group successfully forced Yuan to abandon monarchism. Zhu De, as one of Cai E's star pupils was involved in this, but many more frustrations lay ahead, as warlordism so often trumped democracy -- so many frustrations that he eventually fled to Germany. He returned some years later and took up command of his own force which he eventually delivered into the hands of a young political leader, with whose views he agreed. This early delivery of force was absolutely key to Mao's ultimate victory within his own party and ultimately within his own country.

Smedley died in May of 1950, only a few months after the Maoist victory in China, so her book on Zhu De ends well before the ineluctable distinction between the revolutionary-struggling-for-power and the revolutionary-in-power has had a chance to play its second act. Yet this only adds to the story's appeal.


She's on the right. Zhu De in the center. Mao, eternally, on the left.

Li Zhisui: "The Private Life of Chairman Mao"

From the book:

"China was struck by a mass hysteria fed by Mao, who then fell victim himself. . . . Mao began believing the slogans, casting caution to the winds. Mini-steel mills were being set up even in Zhongnanhai [the specially secured residential area at the Forbidden City], and at night the compound was a sea of red light. . . . soon everyone was stoking the fires -- cadres, clerks, secretaries, doctors, nurses, and me."

When, six years after the communists had taken control of China, Dr. Li first met Mao, at the Chairman's indoor swimming pool in the Forbidden City, Mao assured Li that the fact that he'd been educated by western missionaries and had learned English would not be held against him. Ever expert in China's history, Mao reminded the good doctor that Li Shimin, the second Tang emperor, had made a high military officer with a questionable background one of his closest aides.

After Mao's captured American tanks rolled up to the gates of the Forbidden City, Dr. Li had been given a job at a special clinic set up to treat the top leaders. He lived with his wife and their two sons in Zhongnanhai. Li became Mao's personal physician, and he started accompanying the Great Helmsman on trips around the country, responding on numerous occasions to Mao's pre-dawn summonses.

Dr. Li kept a diary, but then destroyed his notes during the Cultural Revolution, fearing the consequences if they were discovered -- a highly believable scenario. He says he rewrote his notes from memory in 1977, a year after Mao died (he moved to the US in 1988). He claims that his memory of what Mao said and what Mao did are vivid because his own life depended on these words and actions -- that, too, is highly credible. China scholars, Andrew J. Nathan and Anne F. Thurston, helped edit the book, and still others reviewed the English text before the book's publication. This is an important work, however vehemently Mao's supporters in Beijing have attacked it, if only for its uniqueness as an account by someone who dealt with Mao on a day-to-day basis.

Li paints Mao as the last emperor after the last emperor. Mao's own conduct was imperial, despite his lack of concern about his personal appearance or habits -- an emperor can do what he wants in this regard, after all. He rose late or not at all, wore his bathrobe for weeks at a time, simply rinsed his teeth with tea ("A tiger never brushes"), and found it convenient to follow a Daoist prescription of intimate relations with young women as a means of living longer. That he infected them with vd was of no concern to him, but it naturally appalled the good doctor.

But the true imperium resided not so much in the Chairman's own conduct as in the conduct of the toadies surrounding him, ever eager to present the Chairman with proof that his great words were constantly being translated into great results. Even during the famine that killed many during the attempt at a Great Leap Forward, these disgusting ass-kissers were competing with one another to show him perfectly planted fields peopled with peasant women dressed in red and green and village blast furnaces smoking industrially, as Mao's train traveled south. Others presented him with just the statistics he wanted to see. That is the best evidence that Mao was indeed the last emperor.

Zhou Enlai, as sophisticated as Mao was unsophisticated, and often seen in the West as the better half of an odd couple, was, according to Li, just another slave in the palace.

And then there is Madame Mao. What a piece of work she was! Li knew her as a hypochondriac of histrionic proportion, one who required sedatives day and night. Her beauty as a Shanghai starlet had vanished decades ago, and she clearly suffered from menopausal sensitivity to temperature, something which she ensured made those around her miserable as well. But the doctor observed that her symptoms diminished as her power increased during the Cultural Revolution. This perhaps says something not only about Madame Mao, but about the ability of the mind to affect the body.

Mao's famous "swims" are here, also. Bobbing up and down in the sewage-laden water (much worse today, no doubt), Mao's increasing corpulence helped keep him afloat. Still, maybe there was something to the old Daoist prescription, for Mao died in his 83rd year, whereas Dr. Li died at age 75.

Li also has interesting things to say about Lin Biao, second in command to Mao, and one of his leading generals. Lin's sudden death -- in a plane crash, fleeing after an attempted coup was exposed, according to official accounts -- remains a mystery. Or does it?

Part of a series

Series within series, actually. Food & Cooking, for example, then -- within that -- series on vegetables, fruits, seafood, meat, etc. Books, too. Ideas, too. Travel, too. Key virtues:. pictures, clear step-by-step text. Delicious -- whether foods or ideas! All of the series, and all of the items in each series, can be found at this link: Lee White's Department Store

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