Was Mao a Maoist? His lifestyle wasn't exactly revolutionary.

Supporters of Chairman Mao Zedong have made much of photographs allegedly of his old, patched robe and worn-out shoes. In China under his rule, there was no ostentatious display of wealth. Everyone wore the same uniform — a baggy "Mao suit," usually blue — and, in theory, everyone was supposed to be equal.

But I lived in Mao's China until I was 24 years old and later spent a dozen years researching his life. I can attest that the reality was far from the appearance.

As part of his twisted version of Marxism-Leninism, Mao extolled the hard life and ordered the nation to embrace it. But there was nothing hard about his own life. He loved comfort. He disliked new shoes because he found old ones to be more comfortable; his bodyguards wore in new shoes for him. The patches on his robe were no ordinary ones; the robe had been flown to Shanghai and mended by the best craftsman, costing far more than a new garment. Far from indicating asceticism, these were the quirks of a hedonistic megalomanic. Mao had no taste for opulence, but he never stinted on anything he enjoyed.

Obsessed with turning China into a military superpower, Mao funded a range of factories that made arms, especially nuclear weapons, with money obtained from the export of food. The Great Famine from 1958 to 1961 was a result of this buying spree: Mao knowingly starved to death as many as 40 million people to extract food to sell.

And while, according to the regime's own statistics, the average daily caloric intake in China was little more than 1,500per day, Mao was a gourmet. His favorite foods were flown to Beijing from all over the country, including a special kind of fish from Wuhan, more than 600 miles from the capital, kept alive in a plastic bag filled with water and accompanied by a servant responsible for administering oxygen. For ordinary Chinese, fish was a rarity; at better times, the monthly ration of meat per person in privileged urban areas was about half a pound. Although Mao announced that he would "share weal and woe" during the Great Famine and give up eating meat, he developed a taste for meat-rich European dishes and had a menu designed with seafood, chicken, duck, pork, lamb and beef.

During Mao's reign, virtually no housing was built for the average urban population. Families of three generations were often crammed into one small room. And yet Mao had more than 50 estates, including no less than five in Beijing. These villas monopolized many places of great beauty. Whole mountains and long stretches of lakes were cordoned off for the chairman's exclusive use.

His regime nailed everyone down to a place of residence, making it impossible for most people to move. Tens of millions of married couples posted to different parts of China couldn't live together. Given 12 days a year to visit each other, they were condemned to almost year-round sexual abstinence. While his people endured such constraints, Mao indulged his every sexual caprice. The Communist Party and army procured young girls for him. These girls staffed his villas and served as dancing companions at leaders' exclusive parties when such dancing was banned for ordinary Chinese.

Mao persecuted the vast majority of China's writers. During the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, books were burned across the country. "The more books you read, the more stupid you become," Mao declared. Yet his favorite hobby was reading. His custom-made beds were extra large, with enough space for books to be piled on one side. His favorites were Chinese classics, especially poetry — poetry that he would not allow 1 billion Chinese to read. Only a handful of general-interest books were allowed to be published during the latter stages of the Cultural Revolution, and they featured Mao's quotations in bold. Throughout his 27-year reign, his writing was compulsory reading for the population. In this way, Mao cornered the book market, collecting millions of yuan in royalties.

As an electrician in China, I earned 18 yuan per month. Mao's People's Republic created just one millionaire — Mao himself.


Jung Chang is the author of "Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China" and co-author with Jon Halliday of "Mao: The Unknown Story."