In the cast of characters playing out the drama of 20th century China, perhaps no woman stands out as much as Jiang Qing (1914 – 1991). Jiang Qing was a former movie actress who, in 1938, met and married communist guerilla leader (and later Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party and ruler of China) Mao Zedong. At the time, Mao was camped out in the mountains of the Yan’an province. She would be his fourth and final wife, still with him at his death in the mid-1970s.
For reasons Richard Baum does not go into in The Fall and Rise Of China, Jiang Qing was forbidden to interfere in Party politics from a fairly early date. Judging by the stories of her personality which emerged over the decades, I would not be surprised if she was kicked out of politics because she was considered to be a meddling intriguer, but I also suspect gender roles (which even Communists had a hard time erasing) or straight out gender prejudices played a part.
I get the impression that for the next three decades Jiang Qing exercised what power she could indirectly, through her husband. But in the mid-1960s, the roughly 10-year long Cultural Revolution begins in China. This was probably the worst decade in a modern-era Chinese history full of bad decades. It was a brutal time during which “right” opinions were enforced by violence and intimidation. Bands of youth known as “Red Guards” sprang up all over the country. With Chairman Mao’s encouragement, the Red Guards went about enforcing whatever it was they determined to be correct behavior.
In one of history’s strange turns, Jiang Qing emerged during the Cultural Revolution as what Baum calls the “patron saint” of the Red Guards. Baum states that Jiang Qing happily assumed her role, “driven partly by pent-up resentment at the party elders who had barred her from politics for thirty years and partly by personal ambition and an evident intoxication with political power.”
Not surprisingly, the violence of the Red Guards spun more and more out of control, unleashing fear and torrents of blood over the next several years. Eventually (and not exactly shockingly), the different Red Guard units began fighting each other.
Over time, and fighting province by province, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was at last able to beat the Red Guards back into the shadows. And where the PLA dominated militarily, they also assumed substantial political power– more or less by simply stepping into the power vacuum left in the wake of the Red Guard brutalities. By 1969, Baumtells us that the PLA had obtained control of Revolutionary Committees in 23 out of 29 provinces. Simultaneously with their seizure of local control, the leadership of the PLA began to move into positions of power at the national level as well. By the end of the 1960s, “almost half the NEWLY elected Central Committee members were military officers.”
By the early 1970s, the bloody Cultural Revolution was limping into its final years. Mao Zedong was in an erratic decline, and two factions vied for real control of the nation. One faction was led by Jiang Qing and three other members of the Central Cultural Revolution Small Group, a quartet later to receive the sobriquet, “The Gang Of Four.” This fearsome foursome’s power was based upon the forces released during the Cultural Revolution. Therefore, they had no desire to end the Cultural Revolution, nor to rein in what was left of the Red Guards. The other faction rising to power during Mao’s decline was led by Lin Biao, the leader of the People’s Liberation Army.
Lin Biao appeared to be winning the battle for control of a post-Mao China. However, in September 1971, his plane went down in mysterious circumstances in Mongolia. A story emerged that he had been planning a coup against Mao, but that his plans were discovered, and he had been attempting to flee capture when his plane went down. In the haste of his escape, so the story goes, his trip was inadequately planned, and his plane ran out of fuel over the Gobi Desert. However, Baum tells us that Soviet forensic pathologists investigating the crash-site found clear evidence that there had been guns fired aboard the plane before it went down. To this day, what exactly happened remains a mystery.
However, with Lin Biao out of the way, Jiang Qing’s main rival for control was now out of the way. All photographs of Lin Biao were removed from circulation and his writings banned. Lin Biao was to be purged from the Chinese collective memory.
Unfortunately for Jiang Qing, new rivals were not long in coming. In 1973, Deng Xiaoping, exiled from the Party during the Cultural Revolution for “lack of ideological vigor” (one of my favorite phrases), was brought back from the political wilderness by Mao himself. Deng Xiaoping, who possessed a background in army administration, immediately allied himself with the PLA faction, becoming the Army’s Chief Of Staff.
By 1974, Jiang Qing had launched a media campaign against Deng Xiaoping and other leaders of the PLA faction. At the same time, she worked assiduously to get Deng ousted once again from the Chinese Communist Party… but to no avail.
When Mao Zedong died in September 1976, Jiang Qing and the rest of “The Gang Of Four” found themselves politically isolated. Each member of The Gang Of Four was placed under arrest by a coalition of military and political officials, and much of the blame for the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution was heaped upon them.
Jiang Qing was convicted of murder and treason in 1980. Eleven years later, with her rival Deng Xiaoping firmly ensconced at the head of the Chinese government, she hanged herself in her prison cell. Or at least that’s the story (I believe it; the old actress had a flair for the dramatic). She was 77 years old.