When a ‘Chinese God’ Died – Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution (Part 1a)

“Oh, my darling! Look at you! What in the name of heavens has happened to you?!” Jiang Qing (江青, Jiāng Qīng) exclaimed as she rushed into Building 202 of Zhongnanhai (中南海, Zhōngnánhǎi), the official residence of the great Chairman of the People’s Republic of China. In an instant, her arms were swung around the great Chairman and her husband, dropping as much tears as she could on the deplorable mass that was his body. Indeed, the once strong body that commanded an entire army against the mighty Nationalist forces of General Chiang Kai-shek (蒋介石, Jiǎng Jièshí) now laid in such a piteous state on the bed in the middle of the room.

General Chiang Kai-shek (蒋介石) (left) and the "Great Chairman" (right)

The afternoon sun of September 5 1976 shone through the windows of the room as the First Lady looked at the feeble form of the fearsome man that held the most populous nation in the world under his very hands. She just could not believe her eyes anymore. In every corner of the Middle Kingdom (which, of course, is no longer a kingdom), people were worshipping the great Chairman, singing hymns of praises to him and praying to him for health and safety. And there lies that very same man on the bed, whose gospel-like sayings and writings are treated with much reverence and even quoted in the people’s everyday lives! Oh, if people pray to you for health, then why do you lie in such a deplorably frail state right before my eyes, she thought to herself.

“I rushed back right away from my trip when that, erm, what was that fellow’s name again, erm, oh yeah! when that Hua Guofeng (华国锋, Huá Guófēng) called me and told me about your state this morning.” She tried her best to hide her contempt for the young and unpopular leader, not wanting her personal emotions to hurt the great Chairman’s sentiments and possibly aggravate his already pitiable condition.

 Hua Guofeng (华国锋) waving to the masses

Upon uttering the name, her attention drifted momentarily elsewhere, as she stared blankly at the side of the bed. No doubt, her husband may have greatly favoured the young and seemingly unknown leader to succeed his helm of power when the time came for the great Chairman to say the inevitable goodbye. Nonetheless, although she respected the fact that her god-like husband had made many perfect god-like decisions for the betterment of the nation, she strongly felt that this time, he had clearly made a grave mistake. How can such an incapable, inexperienced and unknown leader like Hua Guofeng be entrusted with the fate of a socialist nation that her husband had tried so hard to develop in the entire course of his life? “And moreover, who on earth is this pesky, puny little Hua Guofeng to lord his power over the likes of ME?!” a voice rang throughout her mind.

Then her mind drifted off to a particular note that the great Chairman had apparently written to Hua Guofeng just a few months ago, on April 30. She vividly recalled the short note that was scrawled by the Chairman himself in his almost illegible writing, which was then passed to his assistants to be handed over to Hua. Indeed, since the doctors told her that her husband was suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease (a disease that causes the degeneration of motor neurons, muscle weakness and subsequently loss of control over voluntary movement), his writing and speech had never been the same. Hardly anyone could understand his progressively slurring speech and worsening handwriting, save for his personal nurse Zhang Yufeng.

Nonetheless, the memory of that particular note, which clearly stirred the anger of the beast within her heart, could never fade from her mind’s eye. She could undoubtedly recall the short but meaningful message that was scrawled upon it by the great Chairman:

“With you in charge, I am at ease.”

In charge of what? China’s future? The government conference that was held the following week after the note was written? The meeting with the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Robert Muldoon? (Prime Minister Robert Muldoon was in China on a state visit around the time the note was written.) Or crushing the great Chairman’s political rival, Deng Xiaoping (邓小平, Dèng Xiǎopíng)? In any way, why would the great Chairman entrust ANYTHING at all to that USELESS Hua Guofeng?

 The great Chairman's almost illegible scrawl saying "With you in charge, I am at ease." (你办事,我放心。)

“I feel so lonely and weak now.” The great Chairman’s feeble voice broke the gloomy silence of the room and brought Jiang Qing back to reality. “This year has been the loneliest for me in my entire lifetime. Most of the visitors I get nowadays are those scary doctors and nurses that keep on staring at me with gloomy faces that seem to tell me as if I don’t have much time left. Even this year’s New Year (Chinese/Lunar New Year) I had to spend in the lonely company of Miss Zhang. And I really miss all the wonderful food that I used to enjoy before. Nowadays, all I can eat is mashed food that Miss Zhang has to spoon-feed me like a child. When one is sick one is simply deprived of everything in life.” He sighed.

Jiang Qing looked straight into the eyes of her husband, which were almost blinded by the severe cataract that had developed over the years. She simply could not believe and accept the reality that lay before her very own eyes at that moment. Everything about him just seemed so sickly and pitiful. His legs were so skinny and frail that he could hardly stand even with assistance, let alone walk. Over the past few months, he had also been losing a tremendous amount of weight and was not as puffy as he looked before. His disease had also progressed to such a severe state that his right side was paralyzed and he could no longer fully close his mouth. As a result, his nurse had to frequently wipe the drool off his cheeks. His lifetime of smoking had also manifested itself in the form of multiple problems in his lungs, so much so that he even needed a supply of oxygen in his limousine whenever he was to travel anywhere for state or public meetings. If he was not obliged to attend any events outside his official residence of Zhongnanhai, he would just lay uselessly upon the bed the whole day, occasionally getting up to sit on the sofa with much difficulty, even with assistance.

Jiang Qing (江青), First Lady of the People's Republic of China during the rule of the "Great Chairman"

As Jiang Qing caressed the great Chairman’s head gently, she gave a soft kiss on his cheek before promising to return soon. Upon stepping out of Building 202, she bumped into the great Chairman’s personal physician, Dr Li Zhisui (李志绥, Lĭ Zhìsuī), who had been faithfully attending to the Chairman’s every ailing need. “May I have a word with you for a while?” he asked of her.

“Why, of course. Is this something to do with him?” she said, pointing into the room that she just departed from.

“Well actually, yes. Perhaps I should just go straight to the point and not waste any of your precious time. You are aware of the fact that our great Chairman suffered a heart attack three days ago, right?”

“Well, yes. That was what Hua told me when he called me back from my trip.”

“Quite so. This heart attack is no doubt worse than his last one a few months ago, and it has affected a larger area of his heart. After much persuasion, we also conducted an X-ray for him, from which we found out that his lung infection had become more severe over the last few days. Besides, his urine output had dipped down to less than 300 cc per day in these past few days,” the doctor explained.

“And is there anything I can do to help?” asked the First Lady earnestly.

“There is one thing that we may require your assistance with. We need to monitor his complications, but it may be quite difficult for us to do so if we cannot take blood samples from him. He has adamantly resisted any efforts on our part to persuade him for blood tests. If you may just see what you can do to persuade him…”

“I understand, Dr Li. But I can’t promise you anything, since I can see that somewhere deep inside him, he harbours some resentment for me, judging from how he spoke to me the other day,” replied the First Lady. “Anyway, if there’s anything else that you would need me to do, do look me up in my chambers.”

“Of course he resents you; it’s just that he doesn’t show it too much. Seeing how you always make use of his position and influence to build your own, and seeing how little you actually care for him inside your heart…well, the Chairman is not altogether blind, you know. We can see that the only reason you care for him is because his death would put your own political position in jeopardy, and that’s probably why you resent Hua that much as well,” the doctor thought to himself as the First Lady walked back to the Spring Lotus Chamber.

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