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Original Letters in Chinese From Bo Xilai to Li Danyu

Bo Xilai, a disgraced Communist Party leader, wrote a letter and poem to his first wife, Li Danyu, in 1975. Related Article »
Former Wife of Fallen Chinese Leader Tells of a Family's Paranoid Side


An undated family photo of Li Danyu with Bo Xilai, then her husband. They met in 1975, at the end of the Cultural Revolution.

BEIJING — Just months before his fall from power, Bo Xilai asked the brother of his first wife to meet him at a government compound in the southwest metropolis of Chongqing.

Mr. Bo, the city's Communist Party chief, pointed to a stack of papers and said he had forensic reports that proved the existence of a continuing plot to poison his second wife, Gu Kailai. Then he asked the other man to step into the yard and turn off his cellphone. The person suspected of masterminding the scheme, Mr. Bo said, was his son from his first marriage, Li Wangzhi, also known as Brendan Li, a graduate of Columbia University who was working in finance in Beijing.

"Could this be true?" Mr. Bo asked. When the brother-in-law insisted the fears were outlandish, Mr. Bo seemed relieved.

The story, recounted in two recent interviews with Mr. Bo's estranged first wife, Li Danyu, 62, deepens the Shakespearean dimension of a scandal that has gripped this nation and disrupted the party's once-a-decade leadership transition.

The Bo saga has already shown that the rise and fall of a politician in China can hinge as much on family intrigue as on political battles.

In dynastic eras, palace upheavals were often catalyzed by paranoia and jealousies within the imperial family. From Qin Shihuang, the first emperor, to the Empress Dowager Cixi to Mao Zedong, China's rulers have tended to suspect conspiracies against them and their close kin and have looked for assassins in the shadows. The same fears can arise within aristocratic Communist families today, especially among those vying for leadership positions.

Until his downfall, Mr. Bo was considered a contender for a top post during the handover of power that is taking place this autumn. But those hopes were dashed last spring when he was detained.

On Sept. 28, the party announced it was expelling Mr. Bo, 63, and would prosecute him on a range of criminal charges. Ms. Gu, 53, has been convicted of murdering a British business associate, Neil Heywood; in a twist on the earlier suspicions, Ms. Gu confessed to poisoning him last November because she thought he was a threat to her son, according to officials.

In the interviews, the first she has given to a news organization, Ms. Li spoke in detail about her marriage to Mr. Bo, giving a rare glimpse into the early life and thoughts of the son of a revolutionary leader and someone whom Ms. Li described as an idealist enamored of communism.

"We believed we needed to save the rest of the world from the hell of capitalism," she said.

Ms. Li, also a "princeling" child of a party official, said that although there has been a long history of enmity between her and Ms. Gu, her son never conspired to murder Ms. Gu.

Another family member confirmed that Ms. Li's brother had met with Mr. Bo and had been told of the alleged plot. He also insisted the son was innocent. The son and his uncle both declined to comment. Mr. Bo and Ms. Gu are under detention.

Although she has no proof, Ms. Li said she suspected Ms. Gu was the one who first blamed her son for the perceived murder plot, and the so-called forensic evidence might have been provided by Wang Lijun, the former police chief convicted of helping cover up Mr. Heywood's murder. Ms. Li said she feared Ms. Gu wanted to have her first son arrested or harmed.

"She can be that paranoid," Ms. Li said. As for Mr. Bo, she said, he was "good in nature and didn't want to believe this evidence."

Ms. Li spoke with nostalgia of her romance with Mr. Bo, which began when the two met in 1975, at the end of the Cultural Revolution. Ms. Li said she did not stay in contact with Mr. Bo after their bitter breakup in 1981.

The web of entanglements among the families reflects the insular nature of China's "red nobility." Ms. Li's older brother, Li Xiaoxue, is married to Ms. Gu's older sister, the daughter of an army general.

It was this brother who met last October, weeks before Mr. Heywood's death, with Mr. Bo in Chongqing.

Li Xiaolin, a lawyer associated with Ms. Gu and no relation to Mr. Bo's ex-wife, said in a telephone interview that Ms. Gu and her family members believed she had been poisoned years earlier with a heavy metal substance.

He said that he did not know whom she blamed for the poisoning. Mr. Li said that Ms. Gu's shaking hands, evident at the trial in August, were a result of the poisoning. Ms. Gu had even taken up knitting on her doctor's advice to try to regain control of her hand muscles, he said.

Several people close to Mr. Bo's family said they had heard Ms. Gu was poisoned at one time, and that there was extreme paranoia within the household in recent years. But three family friends who spoke on the condition of anonymity said they did not believe Ms. Gu was fabricating evidence about Ms. Li's son. They said Ms. Li had long resented Ms. Gu and waged private attacks against Mr. Bo and Ms. Gu to discredit them.

Ms. Li and Mr. Bo, whose elite families had known each other for years, began their love affair in 1975. Mr. Bo had just endured years of prison during the Cultural Revolution, when his father was purged, and was working in a factory.

Ms. Li, whose family had also suffered, was working as a military doctor. "What he did a lot was he read the selected works of Marx and Lenin," Ms. Li said. "He was a simple and progressive young man."

Living in different cities because of their jobs, they wrote letters to each other every three days. In a poem, Mr. Bo ends with lines that reflect both political fervor and romantic feelings:

Raise the army banner,

And laugh still more, gazing at the red cosmos,

Spare no effort to move forward.

Ms. Li's first name means "red cosmos." They were married in September 1976 and had a son the next year.

Mr. Bo enrolled in Peking University. He tried to read eight pages of English each day from library books, she said. He told her, "Eventually China will open to the world, so we have to learn."

The two moved into Zhongnanhai, the Beijing leadership compound, after Mr. Bo's father became a vice premier. But Mr. Bo did not aspire to join those ranks, Ms. Li said. Mr. Bo switched from studying history to journalism.

The end of the relationship began on their son's fourth birthday, June 20, 1981. Mr. Bo surprised Ms. Li by asking for a divorce. "He felt very sad and cried and hugged us," she said. That night, he told her, "I have no feelings for you anymore."

Ms. Li refused to grant the divorce, though she moved out of Zhongnanhai. The case went to court. The divorce was completed in 1984. Ms. Gu, in a book she wrote, said she met Mr. Bo that year in Dalian. But Ms. Li said Mr. Bo might have been secretly seeing Ms. Gu when the two were at Peking University, while Mr. Bo was still married.

To try to stop the divorce, Ms. Li told officials that Ms. Gu had destroyed the marriage. In the interviews, Ms. Li said Ms. Gu, a lawyer, had threatened legal action if Ms. Li persisted.

Ms. Li said she "finally summoned enough courage to tell my story" after being contacted by this newspaper. Now, she and her son await the party's final verdict on Mr. Bo.

"In those early years it was pure love," she said. "Even though he didn't see me for 30 years, I forget the bad things and remember the good. You don't want to live with hate."

Mia Li, Xu Yan and Amy Qin contributed research.

A version of this article appeared in print on October 7, 2012, on page A17 of the National edition with the headline: Former Wife of Fallen Chinese Leader Tells of a Family's Paranoid Side.

DOCUMENT: Original Letters in Chinese From Bo Xilai to Li Danyu
Related   Excerpts of Bo Xilai's Letter to His First Wife (October 7, 2012)

Excerpts of Bo Xilai's Letter to His First Wife

The following are translated excerpts from a 11-page letter and the complete translation of a poem that Bo Xilai, a fallen Chinese official and son of a Communist leader, wrote to Li Danyu, a military doctor who is the daughter of a senior Communist Party official. The letter is dated July 14, 1975, and is written in the form of an "eight-legged essay," used in imperial exams. The Cultural Revolution was waning in 1975, and the two started a love affair that year. They lived in different cities. Ms. Li said they wrote each other every three days. The two were married in September 1976 and had a son the next year. They separated under bitter circumstances four years later, and Mr. Bo eventually married Gu Kailai, the daughter of an army general. Ms. Gu was given a suspended death sentence on Aug. 20 after being convicted of poisoning a British businessman, Neil Heywood. Last month, the Communist Party announced that Mr. Bo was being expelled from the party and would be prosecuted on criminal charges. In an interview, Ms. Li said: "Bo Xilai was a hard-working young man with a lot of ideals and talent. I feel a lot of sympathy for him because of the way his political career ended. He is an old man now. I only hope he can have a quiet old age."

 From the letter:

"I, your little brother"

First off, I must say something. I write with very large characters not because I'm lazy or feel like I need to fill space. It's because I'm used to writing with big characters, and this is more comfortable for me. When you see how much ink I've spent on this letter, you'll realize how diligent I've been.

I'm writing you so much today because this is a very rare opportunity. I need to fully take advantage of it. Right now it is 11:20. Before writing this, I was reading your letter over and over again. I closely examined a picture of me that I'm going to send you. I was ordered to take the picture on my birthday when my head was shaved bare. I look terrible. Feeling inferior is not good though, so regardless of how bad I look, I'll send it to you. Go ahead and poke fun at me. In the following lines I'm going to discuss my views on a number of questions; we can discuss them together. I've written it in the form of an eight-legged essay.

  — — — — —

"The question of image"

From your letter, I can tell that you are the kind of person who loves carving and refining images of people in your mind. This is very similar to Nasser [纳赛尔]. He frequently places a photograph on his desk and then spends half an hour just gazing at it. I've heard that by doing this one can obtain a basic impression of a person that is very accurate. I don't think this is entirely false, and I find it very interesting. Perhaps you've been influenced by him. Images of people actually objectively exist, and on some levels they reflect the people's innermost worlds, including their thoughts, qualities and personalities.

Though some people's actions do not match their words, I think this can be controlled. These people can hide their feelings. But hypocrites who perform as upright people aren't very convincing. In the end, the fakeness will be peeled off. No wonder Dzerzhinsky [捷尔任斯基] always loved attentively gazing at "images" with his pair of sharp eyes. In interactions with friends, we all care about examining each other's images, and we carefully emphasize the images that we present to our friends. The closer one is with someone, the more we care about this. People never want to feel insignificant in the eyes of someone else, unless we despise this person and want them to quickly forget us.

Concerning your image in my mind, sometimes I can recall you with perfect contentment. I particularly remember the two things you said to me as we parted. I was extremely moved. I can even clearly remember my exact expression and posture at the time. But at other times, your image is more indistinct – does this mean that my love for you is not true enough? Maybe not, because I always wish that I had a clear image of you. Images and emotions are related, but they are not directly proportional. It's true that images are important, but they naturally fade. When one is carefree, images become more comfortable and relaxed.

Though I may not have a lofty image in your mind, and there are some things about me that may even make you uncomfortable, if my image retains its true character, I will be content. I believe that day by day, in a natural manner, we can deepen our understandings of each other. We can establish a true image, one that is no longer subjective. If I conceive of your mind as a theater, perhaps all of the seats are already sold out. Maybe I'm arriving too late, because your mind is already full of medical terms like "coronary heart disease," "arteriosclerosis," "cholesterol," or "electrocardiogram."  But all I need is patience, and I'm confident we will both find seats. Disappointment does not befall one with aspirations.

We don't only depend on "images" to arouse passion and excitement in our lives. More important is to have a rational spirit and help each other move forward. After all, "images" are just a means of getting one's foot in the door.

— — — — —


One should not be inflexible or old-fashioned. Besides studies and work, one should take time to soul-search and think about other things. Life is better with a little romance. Thoughts are better with a bit of vigor. Feelings are better with a bit of depth. Many revolutionary leaps and achievements are accompanied by the colors of romance.

One cannot always walk the conventional path. When we reflect on the masters of revolution, they often allowed rigor and romance to simultaneously be part of their lives.

— — — — —

"Strictness and Tolerance"

This is my policy towards my friends, and I hope you can always be like this. I received my first lesson on this. I used to think that one always had to be strict with one's friends. If they have a weakness, one must point it out immediately. "Say all you know, and say it without reserve." Nothing should be held back. When there is a contradiction, one must settle it while it is still in the bud. One should not blindly accommodate. At the same time, one must encourage one's friends to strive to be their best; one must watch over them to ensure that they put their plans into action. I am far from being a firm and resolute person, and I do not always abide by the rules, so I especially need this kind of "encouragement" from friends. No matter what you request of me, I will always be able to understand.

— — — — —

"Accumulated Materials"

A couple of days ago I was copying the maxims that we had to learn, and I was very excited because I saw that you favored similar maxims. I reflected back on the words of our Chairman: "Smart people often begin with low social status, and they are looked down upon and humiliated by others. Socialist societies are no exception." How insightful!

These days, I have developed a habit — when I read something good, I need to highlight it so that I can remember it. Otherwise, in the future it will be lost. With time, as these things accumulate, they will become precious. A couple of months later, when I return to these things, they feel fresh, as if I'm meeting an old friend. I hope that I can see the things that you highlight in your life.

I am particularly fond of the maxim that you copied down: "If a person is not tenacious, decisive, and always leaping forward toward their ambitions, then their labor will never result in anything." I find the phrase "leaping forward" fabulous.

Excerpts were translated by The New York Times Beijing bureau.

— — — — —

From the poem:

"Moving Forward"

The Five Peaks majestic,

The Three Mountains imposing,

Memories cherished with fond hearts.

Mourning heroes and martyrs driven away,

Their blood a crimson spring.

They placed nation before family,

And brushed away hardship.

The Taihang range's deep green pines,

Rolling river and tough grasses,

Awe-inspiring righteousness, proudly overlooking the central plain.

Reading the historical records, I ask China's children,

Who will take over?

Two hegemons have fought for supremacy,

Rousing the four seas, black winds and violent waves.

Don't waste your youth,

like a fire burning hot;

Bravely shoulder

The people's aspirations.

Intimate friend of common virtue,

Our hearts hot as flame,

As we grow gray, our longing will not fade.

Raise the army banner,

and laugh still more, gazing at the red cosmos,

spare no effort to move forward.

Translator's note: The first name of Li Danyu means "red cosmos."

The poem was translated by The New York Times Beijing bureau and Eric Abrahamsen..

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