Mao Zedong, founding father of the People’s Republic of China, is known for holding a very grim record. His tenure as Chairman of the Communist Party of China has the most incidences of excess mortality in human history. Through executions, purges, and forced labor, it’s estimated up to 70 million people died. He’s also known for developing a cult of personality where his image was worshiped, books of his quotations were mass produced, and he was referred to as “the Great Leader Chairman Mao.”
Lesser known is that Mao was also responsible for some very strange policies and downright shocking behavior in his personal life, as you’ll see in this list of 10 horrible facts about Mao.
1. In 1962, Mao started a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old girl. She was a member of the Chinese Air Force’s cultural troupe which performed to entertain Mao and other high-ranking officials. In 1971, the girl told her parents about the relationship which led her father to write an angry letter to Mao. The letter was returned by a postal worker who warned it could earn the father a death sentence.
The relationship between the girl and Mao lasted five years. Before the father learned about the relationship, he had been a Mao supporter and was proud of his daughter for entertaining the Chairman. But once the daughter told him the whole story, he was outraged. His family had unsuccessfully tried to talk him out of sending the letter. Apparently, following the postal worker’s warning, the father decided to swallow his outrage.
In 1997, the girl wanted to turn her story into a book and was seeking a $1 million book deal. A major publishing house was interested in the story but was not willing to pay that price, so the deal fell through.(source)
2. When the Soviet Premier Khrushchev made a state visit to China in 1958, Mao held a meeting in his pool because he knew Khrushchev couldn’t swim. Mao did it because he felt the Soviets disrespected him when he visited Moscow in 1949.
During the visit to Moscow, Mao had expected to be treated as a guest of honor. So he considered it an insult when he was given the same treatment as the many other guests who were there to celebrate Stalin’s 70th birthday. For instance, he was only allowed a short meeting with Stalin.
So when Khrushchev visited China, Mao took his revenge in several ways. They included housing Khrushchev in an old hotel with no air-conditioning, and chain-smoking during their meetings because he knew Khrushchev hated it. When Mao insisted they hold a meeting in his pool, Khrushchev stayed in the shallow end and Mao swam laps. Mao then suggested Khrushchev join him in the deep end, and he was provided with a flotation device. Observers said Khrushchev still struggled to stay afloat.
In Khrushchev’s memoirs, he tried to play down the humiliating event, writing “of course we could not compete with him when it came to long-distance swimming” and that “most of the time we lay around like seals on warm sand or a rug and talked.”
But later, in a speech to a group of artists and writers, Khrushchev was more honest about the incident. “Between us, I basically flop around when I swim. I’m not very good at it. But he swims around, showing off, all the while expounding his political views. It was Mao’s way of putting himself in an advantageous position.”(source)
3. In 1956, Mao launched the Hundred Flowers Campaign, encouraging citizens to freely express criticisms of national policy. But then he used the opportunity to target critics of his regime and send them to prison labor camps.
Mao had said “The policy of letting a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend is designed to promote the flourishing of the arts and the progress of science,” and that “criticism of the bureaucracy is pushing the government towards the better.”
In the spring of 1957, millions of letters were sent to the premier’s office and other authorities. Citizens also shared their criticism through magazine articles, posters, and rallies. Some of the major complaints included the country’s low standards of living, economic corruption in the government, and the unfair privileges enjoyed by Party members.
There is some debate among historians about whether Mao originally planned to punish the critics, or if he only decided later to take advantage of the opportunity. But either way, the end result was the same — citizens were more reluctant to criticize Mao and the government in the future.(source)
4. In 1968, the Pakistani foreign minister presented Mao with some mangoes. At the time, few people in China had ever seen a mango. Mao used the fruit was a propaganda tool, sending them as gifts to institutions such as a university and a factory, causing large celebrations. The gift became a symbol of Mao’s support for workers. The government then produced replica mangoes that became popular attractions.
One of the mangoes was given to a textile factory where it was displayed on a newly-built altar. After the peel began rotting, the mango was boiled in water and a spoonful of mango water was given to each worker in the factory. They also made a wax replica of the mango as a centerpiece in the factory. Later, more replica mangoes were sent on tour around China.
Since mangoes became a symbol for Mao’s support, they were not to be taken lightly. When a dentist in a small village compared a mango to a sweet potato, he was executed for malicious slander.(source)
5. In 1973, Mao purposed exporting Chinese women to the United States. At first, he offered to send “thousands” of women and later upped the offer to 10 million. Mao believed sending the women would lead to bilateral trade between the two countries and would also ease China’s overpopulation problems. He said China was a “very poor country” and “what we have in excess is women.”
Mao made the offer at a meeting with US national security advisor Henry Kissinger. The offer drew laughter from officials at the meeting, and Kissinger joked that the US did not have any quotas or tariffs for imported Chinese women. He later added, “It is such a novel proposition, we will have to study it.”
The assistant Chinese foreign minister warned Mao if the offer ever became public knowledge “it would incur the public wrath.” Mao said he wasn’t worried because he didn’t expect to live much longer anyway, saying “God has sent me an invitation.” Mao died three years later. Mao’s offer only became known to the public in 2008 when the US State Department released documents about the meeting.(source)
6. In 1958, Mao introduced the Four Pests Campaign where he ordered the extermination of rats, flies, mosquitoes, and sparrows. But the killing of sparrows led to an explosion in the population of locusts which contributed to the Great Chinese Famine. According to some accounts, as many as 45 million people died of starvation.
Sparrows were targeted in the campaign because they eat seen grain and fruit. So, it was expected that killing sparrows would improve agricultural output. But the plan overlooked the fact that sparrows also eat insects. So, the extermination of sparrows actually resulted in lower rice yields. Once the mistake was apparent, sparrows were taken off the list and replaced with bedbugs, but the damage had already been done.(source)
7. The three-story-tall portrait of Mao in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square is repainted annually to keep it looking fresh. The repainting of the portrait was meant to be kept top secret. According to art historian Wu Hung, “It is not just a painting. It represents Mao himself,” and “nobody is allowed to ask who did the image. It just magically appears.”
A portrait of Mao was first displayed there in 1949 when the People’s Republic of China was founded. Because the painting is exposed to sunlight and temperature changes, it would fade and crack if not repaired.
There are two identical portraits that are swapped once a year, so, when one is removed for repainting, it can be immediately replaced with the other. Originally, the repainting was done in a temporary tent. Since the 1970s, the repainting has been done in a permanent art studio with no windows. The studio is entirely made of metal to prevent fires. The artists allowed to work on it make a lifelong commitment, as they have been told they are never allowed to paint anything but communist leaders.(1,2)
8. According to Mao’s personal physician, women that caught sexually transmitted diseases from the Chairman were “proud to be infected.”
In 1996, Mao’s former personal physician published a biography entitled The Private Life of Chairman Mao. In the book, Dr. Li Zhisui wrote that Mao infected several women with the STD trichomonas vaginalis, and that “the illness, transmitted by Mao, was a badge of honor, testimony to their close relations with the Chairman.”
When the doctor suggested Mao protect his sexual partners by taking some antibiotics, Mao replied “If it’s not hurting me, then it doesn’t matter. Why are you getting so excited about it?”(source)
9. Mao claimed he needed to sleep with many women to help him live longer.
Another fact revealed in Zhisui’s book is that late in Mao’s life, he became an advocate for Taoist sexual practices because it provided an excuse for pursuing sex. Mao argued that to aid his declining yang (meaning the male essence and source of strength and longevity), he required the waters of yin (meaning vaginal secretions).(source)
10. Mao had terrible personal hygiene. For example, he never brushed his teeth and rarely cleaned his genitals.
Zhisui’s book also says that instead of brushing his teeth, Mao would rinse his mouth out with tea in the morning, and eat the leaves. This was a custom followed by many peasants in southern China. When Zhisui suggested Mao use a toothbrush, he replied: “A tiger never brushes his teeth.”
Regarding the cleaning of his private parts, Mao reportedly said: “I wash myself inside the bodies of my women.” However, he did have attendants who sometimes bathed him, dressed him, and combed his hair.(source)