Earlier this week the U.S. State Department released a new volume about U.S. foreign relations with China. It included a transcript of a February 1973 conversation between Chairman Mao and Henry Kissinger. Several media outlets (BBC, Bloomberg, and yes, Time.com, via AP) jumped on what seemed to be the most newsworthy aspect of the discussion. Mao offered to send 10 million Chinese women to the U.S. “Let them go to your place,” Mao told the U.S. National Security Advisor. “They will create disasters. That way you can lessen our burdens.”
There are a couple amazing things about this coverage. First off, the conversation is hardly news. The story appeared, though not the exact 10 million figure, in Kissinger’s 1982 memoir “Years of Upheaval,” and in an excerpt TIME ran upon the book’s release. It appeared again later, this time with the verbatim 10 million figure, in the 1999 book “The Kissinger Transcripts.” (An excerpt with the relevant part is here, behind the South China Morning Post’s paywall.)
The odder part about all this is how the story was treated in some coverage, as if this was a potentially legitimate offer from a wild and crazy Mao. It was of course a joke. Mao himself acknowledges, “Today I have been uttering some nonsense for which I will have to beg the pardon of the women of China.” A bad and sexist joke, of course, but there was a point to it. In a memo to President Nixon upon his return Kissinger wrote, “Mao constantly referred to the difficulties posed by women in China, undoubtedly a reference to his wife who represents the challenge from the left.”
The Mao-Kissinger conversation also includes an utterance of one of the Chairman’s favorite phrases from that era, “God has sent me an invitation.” The meaning was that he was near death. He said the same thing three years later to Gerald Ford, who missed the point. “I hope you get your invitation soon!” Ford replied. I failed confirmation class, so my knowledge of God’s invitation process is a little hazy. But I at least passed my modern Chinese history classes. Given the carnage of Mao’s reign, I’m guessing the Great Helmsman might have had a different host calling from the afterlife.