Jiang Qing (1914-1991) was a Chinese Revolutionary. "The Gang of Four" was the name given to Jiang Qing, wife of Mao Zedong, and her three allies, Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan, and Wang Hongwen, who led the attack on traditional Chinese culture during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in the People's Republic of China; Jiang Qing attempted to succeed her husband as the leader of China.
Wang Hongwen. Name variations: Wang Hungwen. Born in northeastern China's Jilin province in 1934; died of a liver ailment at age 58 in August 1992; son of poor peasants. Little is known of the family life or early history of the other two members of "The Gang": Zhang Chunqiao (Chang Ch'un-ch'iao) was born in 1918; Yao Wenyuan was born in 1934.
Jiang Qing, the leader of The Gang of Four, was born in Tsucheng (Zuzheng) in Shantung (Shandong) province, China, in March of 1914. At the time of her birth, her father Li Te-wen was 60 years old. A poor man who frequently drank, he beat Jiang's mother, a concubine who was almost 30 years younger and deserted the family when Jiang was about six years old; her mother may have been forced into prostitution by poverty during Jiang Qing's youth. The difficulty of her early years taught Jiang Qing to hate the traditional Chinese society in which men wielded absolute power over their wives and families. It also taught her the rules of survival.
The China into which Jiang Qing was born was in turmoil. The Manchu-Qing (Ch'ing) dynasty had fallen in 1912. The Chinese emperor was briefly replaced by a Republican form of government led by Sun Yat-sen, then militarists seized power and China fell into the chaos of the Warlord years.
In Jiang's youth, women were forbidden to engage in public life. The few women in Chinese history who had real political power—such as Empress Lu, wife of the Han emperor Liu Bang (r. 220-195 b.c.), Empress Wu of the great Tang era (a.d. 618-907), and the famed Empress Dowager Cixi ( Tz'u-hsi; 1835-1908)—were condemned as power-hungry opportunists. Though not initially interested in politics, Jiang Qing later studied the careers of these women, encouraging a reevaluation of their place in Chinese history.
But where young Chinese girls were shut out from the political world of men, the lively world of culture was open to them. In Jiang's early years, Chinese culture was in an absolute ferment. Many Chinese believed that their tradition had failed to keep pace with modern history because the culture itself was inadequate. Chinese of the early 20th century measured their country against the Western powers, and against modernizing Japan, in which they saw advances in modern industry, science, and education. But China was then no more than a prize to be fought over, as Western and Japanese colonialism tore at the country's very vitals. Parts of Shantung province where Jiang Qing was born, for example, had been a colonial holding first of Germany, then— following the German defeat in World War I—of Japan. Russia had held parts of north China before the Bolshevik Revolution, England held parts of the Yangtze valley, and France held parts of south China. Great cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou (Canton) were directly controlled by foreigners.
As a young girl, Jiang Qing was tall and thin. Though she suffered from a number of serious ailments, she always had a high level of nervous energy. She entered school briefly in her home town, only to be looked down upon for her poverty and family background. She fought with other students, resisted her teachers, and was soon expelled. At about age ten, she and her mother returned to her maternal grandparents' home, where Jiang Qing once again entered school and was this time more successful, avoiding the temptation to lash out. In 1926 or 1927, she followed her mother to the large port city of Tientsin (Tianjin). Her mother became less important to her, and she was soon living on her own in this new and fascinating city.
One of the few traditional outlets for unsettled youth in China had been the world of the theater. Both rich and poor loved to watch the traditional Chinese operas. The impact of the West had also introduced Western theater, and then film. Touring with a theatrical troupe in Shantung, Jiang Qing matured early and by the age of 14 was frequently taken as much older.
After returning briefly to her grandparents' home in 1929, at 15, she joined the provincial Experimental Arts Academy, where she was exposed to a variety of theatrical genre and a much wider range of roles; she knew that theater would be her life. While at the academy, which was quartered in an old Confucian temple, an event occurred that illustrated both her courage and rebellious nature. In an unused room of the temple, there was a large altar to Confucius, the sage whose thought formed the basis of traditional Chinese culture. The male students dared each other to enter the room at night, climb up on the statue, and take off its ceremonial headdress. But no student dared to seize the headdress until Jiang Qing did so. Ross Terrill, in The White-boned Demon, cites one of the event's witnesses:
After that, she was unforgettable. It amazed us that a girl had done that. We men were really too frightened to do it and it never crossed our minds that one of the girls would do it—it was Confucius himself, after all. But that girl just went and did it. She was a shocker, she made storms, she drew attention to herself.
In 1930, Jiang Qing married a merchant named Fei but found marriage too confining and soon divorced him. She then left for Qingdao (Tsingtao), the very Europeanized city of the province which had long been occupied by Germany. There she took a step that was very natural for a youth in her position and joined the Communist party, formed in 1921. One of the founding members was Jiang Qing's future husband Mao Zedong (Tse-tung).
Chinese who were alarmed by Western encroachments, and discouraged by the state of their own nation and its traditional culture, were attracted by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia which had been a backward, agrarian, monarchical state much like their own traditional society. In China, the members of the demimonde worlds of art, literature, and theater were much attracted by both traditional and revolutionary Russian and Soviet models in those fields.
Jiang Qing fell in love with another member of the radical groups, Yu Qiwei. In those unsettled times, living together was taken as "marriage" by Chinese society, and so Yu is regarded as Jiang Qing's second husband. She was not yet 18. In 1933, Yu was arrested for radical activities and, upon his release, left Qingdao and Jiang Qing.
The same year, Jiang Qing moved to Shanghai, then the center of banking and trade as well as Western cultural influences. She again linked up with radical groups, working with them while playing a series of minor theatrical roles.
Disturbed by the slow development of her career in theater, she traveled briefly to Peking (Beijing), the capital of China, where she was detained as a suspected leftist. Though quickly released, in 1934 she was jailed for a period of three to eight months. Later, concerned about her image as a former actress turned wife of Mao Zedong, she would take care to expunge much of this early history from the record. Basic facts, such as how long she spent in prison, then became controversial. Whereas Jiang Qing claimed eight months to establish her bona fides as a radical activist, others said three, minimizing her contributions and painting her an opportunist who used her beauty and sexuality to rise through a series of liaisons with men like her earlier husbands and Mao himself.
Regardless of her actual time in prison, upon her release Jiang Qing returned to Shanghai. From the standpoint of young people like Jiang, one of the few benefits of Western colonialism was the culture that accompanied it to China. Grasping for clues as to how the West had become so advanced, many Chinese youths eagerly read everything from the West they could find. One of the major influences on the nascent modern culture of China were the works of the writer Henrik Ibsen, and particularly his play "The Doll's House." Nora, the hero of this play, was presented as a modern woman who wished to lead her own life and the role became the most attractive of all the parts in Western plays and films which deluged China to the onset of the Second World War. In Shanghai, Jiang Qing won the coveted role and played Nora for many performances to outstanding reviews. Jiang Qing and others would later deprecate her talent as an actress, describing her as no better than "second-rate," but her Nora was superb. As one critic, cited by Ross Terrill said, "[In the Shanghai theater,] 1935 was the year of -Nora."' The following year, she began acting in films and soon married an influential Shanghai critic, Tang Na (Dang Na).
As an actress, she was, once again, controversial. Not only were her films suspect for their leftist leanings, but her personal life was publicly linked with the volatile lives of other actors and actresses. When she left Tang Na, he publicly threatened to commit suicide. For personal and political reasons, she left Shanghai for the Communist base at Yenan (Yan'an).
In 1937, the struggle with Japan for control over China became a shooting war, bringing together two disparate Chinese political groups—the Communist party and the Nationalist party. The Nationalists, known as the KMT from their Chinese name (Kuo Min Tang), were the actual, if relatively powerless, government of China. In 1927, the KMT had driven the Communists underground, but under the threat from Japan the two groups agreed to cooperate. This cooperation was, in fact, little more than an armed truce, frequently violated. Yenan became the central base of the Communists when survivors of the KMT's attempt to destroy them wound up there in 1935. On this epochal retreat, known as the "Long March," Mao Zedong became the leader of the Party.
Jiang Qing arrived in Yenan in August of 1937. By the summer of 1938, she was living with Mao and carrying his child, a daughter to be named Li Na. Mao, like Jiang Qing, had already been married three times, and he had accumulated at least six children; Jiang Qing would raise some of them as her own. As a mother, she was said to have been busy and uninvolved; certainly, she was never close to her own child, and was later said to have viewed Mao's other children as rivals to her own status and that of Li Na. But in Yenan, Jiang Qing was apparently a model and modest wife. She played the hostess for Mao when visiting with foreign dignitaries, American diplomats, and newspaper reporters, along with writers such as Edgar Snow, whose classic work Red Star over China is the best source on life in Yenan. Because Mao had several love affairs in Yenan and had recently broken with his third wife, Ho Tzu-chen, evidently party leaders had insisted that Mao and Jiang Qing could marry only if she foreswore open political activity.
The unexpectedly quick collapse of the Japanese, following the use of the atomic bombs in August of 1945, was soon followed by renewed civil war in China. Weakened by decades of war and its own corruption, the KMT fell quickly. In October of 1949, Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People's Republic of China, making Jiang Qing the wife of the head of the country.
For some time, Jiang Qing lived quietly as Mao tried to guide the infant communist state forward. After some years of attempting to follow Soviet Russian models, Mao grew impatient with the slow progress of China and, in 1957, launched a series of campaigns known as the "Great Leap Forward," which were intended to promote rapid growth. The Great Leap was disastrous and other Party leaders soon began to reduce Mao's power. Disturbed by this, and by changes which were occurring in Soviet communism, it seemed to Mao that a general phenomenon—which he referred to as "Revisionism"—was occurring in both China and the Soviet Union. Revisionism was said to occur when revolutions ran their courses and later generations of leaders proved cautious, seeking to institutionalize a revolution rather than carry it forward.
Mao's analysis of this phenomenon was complimented by Jiang Qing's interest in Chinese culture. She blamed traditional culture for Revisionism, saying that because people still followed cultural models in opera, theater, music, and film, the traditional Chinese values were reasserting themselves. Whether Mao was following her lead, or whether Jiang Qing was seizing the opportunity to establish independent political power for herself is unclear, and unimportant. The two of them shared a common perspective on the importance of culture.
Beginning in 1962, Mao turned to examine culture in a systematic fashion and Jiang Qing scrutinized the many traditional plays and operas. She decided that they were revisionist and created new ones to provide models for revolutionaries to follow. In Shanghai, she linked up with two local political leaders, Zhang Chunqiao and Yao Wenyuan. Jiang Qing had known Zhang Chunqiao earlier in the leftist world of the 1930s. He had become the head of the Communist party in Shanghai, and like Mao, was very interested in such theoretical issues as Revisionism. Yao, an important writer, was the son of a prominent business family. Jiang drew both of them into her clique. Mao was shut out of the political and intellectual life of Peking, and turned to the Party and cultural apparatus in Shanghai to get his perspective heard. This put Jiang Qing on center stage.
In 1966, Mao and Jiang launched their attack on Chinese culture, upon Mao's political enemies, and, many said, upon Jiang Qing's personal enemies. Called the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution," this attack was an all-encompassing event whose precise causes and parameters are even now only partially understood. When Mao was excluded from Party circles, he recruited the alienated youth of China, known as "Red Guard" to "Smash the Four Olds," and to attack both traditional culture and the party. Jiang Qing staged revolutionary operas, met with Red Guard groups, spoke to the army where she had a strong position, and represented Mao in all phases of the movement.
The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution became violent, and many wrongs were done as noted political and cultural figures were attacked for alleged wrongdoings. Jiang Qing used her new political power to avenge herself upon many who had slighted her in the past, going back to the conflicts of her youthful career as an actress in Shanghai. Some of her victims died in prison. Finally, the violence became so divisive that even Mao knew it had to be stopped. By 1967, the extremist phase was over.
An undercurrent to the Cultural Revolution was fed by widespread awareness that Mao was old and ill. It was apparent that he would soon die, and that somebody would succeed him. Jiang Qing felt that she, who had been at Mao's side for 40 years, was his proper heir. The conservative group which had opposed the Great Proletarian Revolution's excesses was led by Deng Xiaoping ( Teng Hsiaop'ing), who became Jiang Qing's chief adversary.
Working with her allies, Zhang Chunqiao and Yao Wenyuan, in Shanghai, Jiang Qing added another, Wang Hongwen (Hung-wen), a young firebrand who had distinguished himself in the Cultural Revolution. Worried about the fight to succeed him, Mao at one point warned Jiang Qing, "Don't become a Gang of Four," a caution against becoming an isolated group within the government. The group used their control over cultural and propaganda channels to attack their enemies in an increasingly frenzied fashion, as it became apparent that Mao was dying, leaving them little time to establish Jiang as successor.
On September 9, 1976, when Mao died, Jiang Qing and her allies strove to move troops into position and create a documentary record that demonstrated Mao's desire for Jiang Qing to succeed him. But she had angered too many people, and the conventions against women in power were too strong. Deng Xiaoping and his clique came together behind a benign, temporary successor to Mao, Hua Guofeng (Hua Kuo-feng), and Jiang Qing was arrested. By 1980, Deng had established his own power, and she and the others went on trial for crimes committed during the Cultural Revolution. Because Deng and his supporters did not dare attack Mao directly, they blamed the Cultural Revolution on individuals like the "Gang of Four."
At the trial, Zhang Chunqiao stood mute, refusing to dignify the attack against him by speaking. Wang Hongwen, seeking leniency, cooperated eagerly, confessing to crimes which he had not committed. Jiang Qing, typically, took the offensive. Her position held much truth: that Mao had been behind the Cultural Revolution and had not been duped by others. "I was Mao's dog; I bit whom he said to bite."
All of the Gang were given long sentences (Yao Wenyuan was given 20 years; Wang Hongwen was sentenced to life; and Zhang Chunqiao's death sentence was commuted to life in prison). Jiang Qing's was initially a death sentence, commuted for two years to see if she "reformed." Steadfastly refusing to recant, she spent the next decade in prison. In 1991, it was announced that she had committed suicide on May 14.
Like all powerful women in Chinese society, Jiang Qing's life and role is impossible to extricate from the tangled threads which make up that society itself. Women had never had a legitimate political role, and the only way they could achieve power was by means defined as illegitimate: by going outside the system or by manipulating powerful men. Jiang Qing was an ambitious, talented, and resourceful woman who seized every opportunity to rise. In doing so, she caused a great deal of suffering, but her role in life was to smash "with a big hammer" at that culture which attempted to hold her back.
Further Reading on Jiang Qing
Snow, Edgar. Red Star over China. Random House, 1938.
Terrill, Ross. The White-boned Demon. William Morrow, 1984.
Witke, Roxanne. Comrade Chiang Ch'ing. Little Brown, 1977.
Chin, Steven S. K. The Gang of Four. University of Hong Kong, 1977.
Hsin, Chi. The Case of the Gang of Four. Hong Kong: Cosmos Books, 1977.
Lotta, Raymond, ed. And Mao Makes 5. Banner Press, 1978.