Former Chinese first lady Wang Guangmei (1921–2006) lived through many of the most turbulent events of twentieth-century Chinese history.
Born into Well-Off Family
Wang Guangmei (in Chinese names, the family name is given first) was born in Beijing on September 26, 1921. Her family was old and distinguished, and her father, Wang Huaiquing, was a business executive who served as a senior official in the government of the Republic of China. Her mother was a teacher. Wang became a fluent speaker of English, French, and Russian. After studies at an American missionary school, she attended Fu Jen Catholic University in Beijing, gaining a master's degree in physics by 1945. She was one of the first people in China to do advanced study in the field of atomic physics. After the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, Wang's brother, Guangying, returned to the business world as an executive at Hong Kong's Everbright electronics firm.
As an educated and idealistic young person in the 1940s, Wang supported the revolutionary Communist forces of future Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung, which waged guerrilla warfare against the Chinese government. Wang accompanied Mao to the Communist Party headquarters in remote Yan'an, where she served as an interpreter in unsuccessful peace talks, mediated by U.S. Gen. George Marshall, between Mao and Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek. While there she met Liu Shaoqi, a close associate of Mao who had been with the Red Army on its Long March retreat of 1934 and 1935. Liu was nearly twice Wang's age and had already been married four (or five) times. He asked her to come and talk to him at his hideout in a cave, suggesting that she become his secretary. Soon after that the two were married in a ceremony that consisted of the sharing of a wedding cake among Liu, Wang, Mao, and future Chinese premier Zhou En-lai.
In 1949 the Communists seized power from Chiang Kai-shek's government. Mao, as chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, was supreme leader, and the right-hand men from his long military campaign were installed in top positions in the government, with Liu becoming president in 1959 and frequently undertaking diplomatic missions to foreign governments. Wang, often described as sophisticated and glamorous, took naturally to her new role as first lady. She accompanied Liu on trips to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Burma, and Indonesia.
The last of these trips caused controversy in China, instigated partly by Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, who was said to be jealous of Wang's sophisticated ways. Wang resisted the drab military-style clothing favored in Communist China, and sometimes wore strings of pearls despite a specific request not to do so from Jiang Qing. On her trip to Indonesia she wore a tight-fitting dress to a banquet hosted by the Indonesian leader Sukarno, well-known as a womanizer, and on Sukarno's return visit to Beijing she was seen lighting his cigarette.
Embroiled in Power Struggle
The implications of incidents such as these went far beyond mere celebrity gossip, for China in the early 1960s was turning into a power struggle between Liu's moderate faction and the radicals, led by Mao but temporarily suffering in prestige due to the catastrophic failure of Mao's Great Leap Forward program of collectivization and the famine that resulted, killing some 28 million Chinese. At Liu's urging, Wang became involved in political activities. She was part of a work team that investigated corruption in the Chinese countryside, and in the early days of the Cultural Revolution of 1966, when Mao left the reins of government in Liu's hands during an absence from Beijing, Liu deputized Wang to head a team attempting to restore order at Quinghua University.
The move was disastrous, for it soon transpired that Mao was using the Cultural Revolution movement to eliminate his political rivals. When Mao returned to Beijing, he let it be known that student gangs would face no punishment if they attacked Wang's team. Wang was denounced as a counterrevolutionary, and there were also accusations that she was an American spy. At a rally in June of 1966, 300,000 students gathered in the university's main square for a "struggle session" aimed at Wang. She was seized and draped with a necklace of table-tennis balls that mocked her fondness for pearls. Wang kept her dignity, telling her persecutors that it was the wrong time of year for summer clothes. The event was remembered as one of the defining visual images of the Cultural Revolution.
At that point Wang was seen as a surrogate for her husband, who was still untouchable to the students. But soon Liu was removed from the Chinese presidency and denounced as the "No. 1 Capitalist Roader" and as a "lackey of imperialism." Wang was placed under house arrest in the Forbidden City. In 1967 both Liu and Wang were arrested, becoming among the first victims of the repeated purges of professionals that marked the Cultural Revolution years. They were paraded before crowds in Tiananmen Square, forced into humiliating, submissive positions, and beaten in front of their four young children. Taken to separate interrogation rooms and then to separate prisons, they never saw each other again. Liu died, probably from untreated pneumonia, in an unheated prison cell in 1969.
In 1971 Wang's children (who had themselves been imprisoned) asked Mao directly whether they could see their parents. They were told that their father was dead, but that they could see their mother. They found her in a weakened state, barely able to stand, wearing an old army jacket and staring blankly in front of her. It was only then that she learned of her husband's death. Reportedly Wang herself had been marked for execution but was spared by Chou En-lai, who had shared her wedding cake 30 years before. After Mao's death in 1976, Jiang Qing and her radical "Gang of Four" were deposed, but it was not until 1978 that Wang was released and allowed to retrieve her husband's ashes and bury them. At his request, she scattered them at sea—like those, he had said, of Friedrich Engels, one of the founders of Communist thought.
Received Compensation from Chinese Government
In 1980, although deceased, Liu was officially rehabilitated by the Chinese government, and Wang received monetary compensation for her years of imprisonment. She witnessed the trials of Jiang Qing and the rest of the Gang of Four, attributing her problems, at least in interviews, to Jian Qing rather than to Mao himself. Meeting Mao's daughters later in life, she was gracious to them. Wang returned to China's newly revived academic sector, becoming the director of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. She also reentered political life as a member of the Standing Committee of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, or Politburo.
Much of the last part of Wang's life was devoted to charitable good works. In 1996 she sold off a collection of antiques that had belonged to her own mother in order to help poverty-stricken mothers in China. The collection had been seized from Wang during her imprisonment but was never destroyed and had been returned to her after she was freed. Some of the antiques were rare historical specimens; one ivory brush-holder dated back to the Song Dynasty (960–1279). "I would be reluctant to part with what my mother left me without a reason," Wang explained, according to the International Herald Tribune, but "my heart aches even more when I see impoverished mothers. It shouldn't be like this. The country led by our Communist Party cannot let families be this destitute."
The auction resulted in a new children's charity called Project Happiness, founded by Wang with proceeds from the auction of more than 500,000 Chinese yuan (about $62,500). By 2006 the charity had disbursed about $387,500 on a total of 389 projects that involved 154,000 families. As chairperson of the charity's executive board, Wang remained immersed in her work until the end of her life. She also made contributions as an artist, donating a calligraphic scroll called "Present Love by Spreading Morals and Conducting Good Deeds" that sold for $25,000 at auction. In 2006, a month before her death, she was nominated for a China Poverty Eradication Award.
Wang died in Beijing on October 13, 2006, at the age of 85. Her funeral was attended by Jia Qinglin, the fourth most important figure in the Chinese Communist hierarchy, but the excesses of the Cultural Revolution were still a sensitive topic in China, and her death was not widely publicized by the government. Wang's son, Liu Yuan, had by that time become political commissar of China's Academy of Military Sciences, a post roughly corresponding to a cabinet ministry in the United States. Her daughter, Ting Liu, attended the Harvard Business School and became president of the corporate finance consultant Asia Link Group.
Salisbury, Harrison, The New Emperors: China in the Era of Mao and Deng, Little, Brown, 1992.
Guardian (London, England), October 20, 2006.
International Herald Tribune, October 16, 2006.
New York Times, October 17, 2006.
Seattle Times, October 22, 2006.
Times (London, England), October 17, 2006.
Washington Post, October 18, 2006.
Xinhua News Agency, July 5, 2006.