Egg Fried Rice and an Air Strike Altered China’s History
A U.S. bombing run wiped out Mao Zedong's dynasty when his son was cooking breakfast
War has brought a premature end to countless promising young lives in absurd and horrifying ways. This is the tale of how the death of one man accorded high honor by North Korea may have changed the fate of China.
Gen. Yang Di thought there was something strange about Gen. Peng Dehuai’s new secretary. The junior officer—in fact, merely a Russian translator—kept on speaking out in the midst of staff meetings and even dared to lecture Gen. Liang Xingchu, commander of the 38th Army Corps, on his tactics.
He did so without being reprimanded by Peng, commander of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army in Korea. When the high-ranking Peng tried cheating at Chinese checkers by taking back bad moves—an infamous habit of his—the translator even had the gall to chew him out for it.
Yang complained to his boss, Gen. Ding Ganru, about the young man’s behavior. Ding told him to drop the matter. Only later—much too late in fact—did Yang realize the truth. The secretary was Mao Anying, Chairman Mao’s son, and the man quite possibly bound to be the future ruler of China.
Mao’s lost Soviet sons
The story of Mao Anying begins with his mother Yang Kaihui, the daughter of a leftist intellectual. Yang’s dad helped Mao Zedong, a fellow native of Hunan province, get a job as an assistant librarian in Beijing early in his career. Mao became quite taken with Kaihui’s looks and political zeal. They married in 1920 and formed a household in Changsha for several years. She was the second of his four wives—the first wife having died young after they were both forcibly married against their will.
Yang gave birth to three sons—Anying, Anqing and Anlong—and remained active in the communist movement even after Mao’s military and romantic activities took him far afield—to the point that Zedong married his third wife, the guerrilla sharpshooter He Zizhen, while still with Kaihui.
In 1930, after a communist defeat in Changsha, nationalist warlord He Jian arrested Kaihui. Refusing to inform on her ex-husband or repudiate his cause, Kaihui was shot in front of her two older sons. Her offspring were spirited away first to a rough life as urchins on the streets of Shanghai, where Anlong died of dysentery and a policeman beat Anqing, possibly leading to his lifelong mental illness.
The communists finally sent the surviving brothers to the Soviet Union in 1936. Educated in the Interdom boarding school with the children of other international communists, Anying acquired the Russian name Sergei Yun Fu and became a fluent Russian speaker. Their stepmother Zizhen joined them there; after being wounded in battle, she was exiled to a Russia asylum for medical treatment to clear the way for Mao to marry his fourth and final wife, Qing Jiang.
After studying at the Frunze military academy in Moscow, Anying petitioned Stalin for permission to fight for the Red Army in World War II. He then served in in an artillery regiment of the First Belorussian Front, which saw action in Poland and the Czech Republic.
In January 1946, Mao Zedong had Anying fly back to Yan’an, China, worried that his son had become more Russian than Chinese. The junior Mao was headstrong and critical of his father’s growing cult of personality. His father put him to work shoveling manure in local agricultural projects and later in a factory. The relatively menial labor didn’t prevent his marriage in 1949 to Liu Songlin, who had also lost a parent in the war with the nationalists.
Death during breakfast
Mao consolidated his control over China in 1949—and turned his eye to the divided Koreas. The United States had supported the nationalists, and Mao was eager to remove what he saw as a potential American springboard for a counterattack in South Korea.
Though he helped sponsor North Korea’s June 1950 invasion of South Korea, brokered with a gift of Soviet tanks and heavy weapons, the scheme backfired badly—the United Nations counter offensive threatened not only to bring an end to North Korea, but seemed like it might roll over the Yalu River into China.
Though this was not the intent of the U.S. Pres. Harry Truman, it was an idea advocated by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, commander of U.S. forces in Korea.
As a result, Mao committed a massive “volunteer” army under Gen. Peng Dehuai to salvage the situation. Chinese troops began staging across the border in North Korea by late October 1950, poised to launch an epic winter assault that would roll back United Nations forces 120 miles from the border with China—at the cost of immense casualties due to the reliance on human wave attacks.
Anying insisted on joining the Volunteer Army, wishing to serve in the infantry. However, Peng did not want to get Mao Zedong’s son killed in action, and appointed Anying as a Russian translator under the nom-de-guerre Secretary Liu, serving at his army’s command post. This post, located in Tongchang County on the northeastern border with China, was located inside a gold mine for protection from air attacks. By that time, U.S. air power was so ubiquitous in the theater that communist troops and supply vehicles could only move safely at night.
However, a twin-engine RF-61C Reporter—a photo-reconnaissance version of the P-61 Black Widow night fighter—spied on the command post on the evening of Nov. 24 for several hours. Aware that their location may have been detected, Peng ordered his staff to remain underground the following day, doing their cooking at night so as to avoid making any visible smoke.
The headquarters staff was supposed to report for duty at 4:00 a.m. that morning. However, Anying slept in. Once he got up at 9:00 a.m., Mao’s son wanted breakfast—and he persuaded two of his friends, staff officers Gao Ruixun and Cheng Pu, to cook egg fried rice on the stove in Peng’s office, which was in a building on the surface. The eggs, a rare delicacy in the war zone, had been sent as a special gift to Peng from the North Koreans.
According to Gen. Yang’s memoir, when he noticed smoke rising from the building, he ran over and warned Anying to put out the fire before it attracted hostile attention. Anying’s party told Yang to get lost and that they would put out the fire as soon as they were done cooking.
At 10:00 a.m., four U.S. Air Force B-26 Invader attack planes pounced on the encampment. Mao’s friend Cheng Pu jumped out the window and fled for the protection of the mine, while the son of the communist leader and his other compatriot hid under a bed or table. However, staying inside the smoking building was not the wisest course of action, especially when targeted by napalm bombs.
Most people are familiar with napalm from its use in the Vietnam War. However, the jellied gasoline was already being dropped by U.S. war planes decades earlier during World War II against German and Japanese targets, and saw extensive use in Korea as well.
One of the bombs scored a direct hit on the office building, setting it ablaze. Yang ran into the conflagration, bumping into Cheng Pu, who had survived the attack. Racing inside, he found Anying’s charred remains, identifiable only by the melted remnants of his Soviet-made watch. His body was buried with other Chinese soldiers in a grave at the PVA Martyr’s Cemetery in North Korea.
Peng avoided reporting the death of Mao’s son for two months before finally sending a telegram in January 1951. When Mao received the news, he apparently spent a day brooding and smoking cigarettes, and some claim he ruminated that his family line “was over.”
However, when Peng later presented his official apology in person, Mao’s reply was stoic. “A regular soldier was killed. Do not make special event of it just because it was my son.” Later he would also say regarding Anying’s passing “Without sacrifice there will be no victory.”
The above account is the story told by Gen. Yang Di in his memoir published by the People’s Liberation Army—one supported up by an interview given by Gen. Ding in 1985, as well as several other Chinese officers present at the command post. However, there are several competing versions of the story.
One variant claims that P-51 Mustangs from the 18th Fighter Bomber Wing of the South African Air Force killed Anying. Supposedly the pilots were two Polish officers, Lipowsky and Theron, flying out of Pyongyang. However, while the SAAF did make frequent use of napalm in Korea, a single-engine P-51 would be difficult to confuse with a larger, twin-engine B-26.
Though the egg fried rice story is well known in China, it is not embraced by everyone. Cheng Pu, the lone survivor from the fateful breakfast maintained in an interview that this detail is false and that there would not have been any eggs available on the battlefront. Another Chinese writer, Cheng Xi, held forth on CCTV that Mao Anying was actually baking an apple peel. Still another historian, Yuan Jiang, claims Anying was actually warming up frozen bread and porridge.
Anying’s death was so random, so absurd that it’s hard to imagine how the government could not have invented a more heroic narrative. The director of a Beijing play staged in 2013 on Anying’s life claims his own research found that Mao’s son died fetching documents from the office. Other renditions suggest Mao had risen from bed late that morning because he had been working long hours the night before, contrary to Yang Di’s description of Anying as a spoiled princeling who disregarded air defense procedures.
Inevitably, there are also rumors that Anying’s death in Korea had been orchestrated within the Chinese camp—perhaps at the behest of Mao’s fourth wife, Qing Jiang. Indeed, Anying’s widow Liu Songlin claimed his death brought Jiang “immense ecstasy.” However, Jiang opposed Anying’s desire to volunteer in Korea, and there doesn’t appear to be any evidence supporting the notion that he was assassinated.
The path not taken
When Anying died, he took with him the possibility of a new Mao dynasty. His brother Anqing was disqualified due to his mental illness, though he did eventually marry and lived on until 2007. Anqing’s son, Mao Xinyu, is today a major general in the People’s Liberation Army but has kept a low profile.
Nor did Mao Zedong groom either of his daughters, Li Na and Li Min, for high political office. Two additional daughters and three sons born to Mao and Zizhen either died during the war or were lost track of.
If Mao had wished to install Mao Anying as a successor, it is possible he might have succeeded. The Chinese Communist Party does not espouse hereditary rule as a principal, but Mao’s cult of personality was so great that when he grew unhappy with the reforms the party undertook in the 1960s, he single-handedly undermined them by launching the Cultural Revolution.
Successful as a revolutionary leader and political organizer, Mao was a disaster when it came time to manage the country. His bungled agricultural polices under the Five Year Plan led to the deaths of tens of millions from starvation during the 1950s.
The Cultural Revolution in the 1960s brought college education to a halt for nearly a decade, stirred up deadly conflicts between rival communist factions, and led to the dismissal, public shaming and torture of thousands of educated professionals and politicians who knew how to keep the country’s institutions functioning.
Mao’s last wife, Jiang Qing, promoted her husband’s personal power as leader of the Gang of Four and saw to the often-violent fate of both his political opponents and her personal rivals. The most loyal of party leaders who dared to express their concerns about the consequences of Mao’s policies faced banishment from the halls of power and exile to remote farms in the countryside.
Victims of the campaign included Gen. Peng Dehuai, who was beaten regularly for years but luckily survived to have his reputation restored. Some claim Mao never forgave the famous general for Anying’s death, though the proximate cause was likely Peng’s private criticism of Mao prior to the 1959 conference at Lushan.
This carnage among the political elite should bring to mind the brutal fate of many high-ranking politicians in North Korea. China during the last two decades of Mao Zedong’s life exhibited the worst aspects of a totalitarian state ruled by a charismatic dictator, with governing bureaucrats and political elites completely subject to his whims and radical policies.
We cannot know what kind of leader Mao Anying might have grown to become had he survived, nor what values he would have espoused. However, if he had sought to inherit his father’s political and ideological mantle, a de facto Mao dynasty in China might have stillborn badly needed reforms and perpetuated bloody internecine intrigues, just as the Kim family in North Korea has led that nation down a path of isolationism and repressive despotism.
One month after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, a coup d’état overthrew Jiang Qing and the rest of the Gang of Four. She committed suicide in 1991 after being released from jail. The cabal of political leaders that took power declared that Mao had been “seven part right and three parts wrong,” and instituted the reform and opening policies that have led to China’s rise as a great power.
China today remains an authoritarian single-party state, and the ruling Communist Party is divided by competing, though largely non-ideological, oligarchic factions. However, its current paramount leader—the General Secretary of the Communist Party Central Committee—is subject to re-election every five years by the National Congress. This complicated and opaque system is meant to prevent any one executive from treating the leader’s chair as a lifelong throne.
Mao Anying remains honored in North Korea to this day. However, though some Chinese commemorate his sacrifice in battle, many are likely grateful he represents the path not followed.