Jiang Qing (1914–1991)

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Jiang Qing (1914–1991)

One of the most powerful women in China's 4,000-year history, who was, at one point, the most powerful woman in the world. Name variations: Shumeng (1914–c. 1925); Li Yunhe or Li Yun-ho (c. 1925–1934); Lan Ping or P'ing (1934–c. 1940); Jiang Qing (Chiang Ch'ing, c. 1940–1991); Madame Mao. Pronunciation: JEE-yahng CHING (rhymes with ping). Born in March 1914 in Shantung province, China; committed suicide in Beijing on May 14, 1991; daughter of Li Tewen; married a merchant named Fei, in 1930 (divorced 1931); common-law marriage, Yu Qiwei (Yü ch'i-wei, a revolutionary propagandist), in 1931; common-law marriage, Dang Na (also called Tang Na; an arts critic), in 1936 (divorced 1937); common-law marriage, Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung), in 1938 (died September 9, 1976); children: (with Mao) daughter Li Na.

On November 20, 1980, a 66-year-old woman in a black trouser suit—her face ivory, her hair black and neatly combed—was escorted into a room by two young soldiers and brought before two clerks who sat at a wooden table. Slim and small-boned, with sloping shoulders, the woman stood calmly, feet planted on a green carpet. Then, she bent over the table, removed her glasses, and signed a paper.

The woman was Jiang Qing, widow of Mao Zedong. The place was the office of the special prosecutor in Beijing, China. The thick document was an indictment for counterrevolution. Six days later, the trial was underway. When the court refused Jiang's conditions for legal representation, she decided to defend herself before 35 judges and 600 guests. The exchanges were stormy. Jiang not only refused to acknowledge any guilt but continually snapped back at her prosecutors. Indeed, she often appeared to be the true master of the situation and several times was removed from the courtroom. Knowing that the tribunal could not well attack the memory of the dead Mao, she boasted of being his willing instrument: "Everything I did, Mao told me to do. I was his dog; what he said to bite, I bit." At one point, a judge felt forced to yell, "Shut up, Jiang Qing." At trial's end, Jiang received the death penalty. The sentence could be altered to life imprisonment, however, if she "repented."

Jiang Qing was born Shumeng ("Pure and Simple") in March 1914 in Zhucheng, a country town of 30,000 on the south bank of the Wei River in northern China. Her father Li Tewen was a carpenter who started a wheel-repair shop, bought a small inn, and later owned farmland. He was also a 60-year-old drunkard. "Because we were poor and had little to eat," Jiang later recalled, "my father was always beating or cursing my mother." Her mother, whose name is unknown, was 30 years younger than Li and his concubine.

When Jiang was about five, her father broke her tooth and her mother's finger while in a rage. Immediately, her mother strapped Jiang to her back and left the house for good. To support herself and her daughter, she took various jobs in the rural areas, working as a transient domestic servant in situations that probably bordered on prostitution. Jiang was often left to fend for herself. At one time, while looking for her mother, Jiang was severely bitten by ravenous dogs.

As a child Jiang's feet were bound, as was customary then, and she wore pigtails. She lived in hand-me-down clothes, often castoffs from her half-brothers. Enrolled in school, she often fought with her fellow students and was expelled after one semester. "I vowed never again to let anyone bully me," she once said.

When Jiang was about ten, her father died of typhus, and her mother took her to her own parents' house in Jinan, a provincial seat. At school, a teacher gave the tall slender girl the name Yunhe ("Crane in the Clouds"). Here again, she fought with classmates and made it clear she abhorred discipline. In 1926 or 1927, she and her mother went north to Tianjin (Tientsin), a major port city, there to live with her half-sister. When Jiang was about 14, her mother abandoned her, possibly to remarry, and she was virtually an orphan.

In 1928, Jiang joined a theatrical troupe in Licheng, a suburb of Jinan, where she played minor roles and did manual labor. "All I knew is that I wanted to feed myself and that I adored drama," she later said. Her grandfather, both furious and humiliated by her behavior, paid an exorbitant sum to the troupe's boss to bring her home. Within a year, however, she joined the Shantung Provincial Experimental Arts Academy, located in Tsinan and housed in an old Confucian temple. The 15-year-old shocked her classmates by entering the innermost chamber of the building, removing the ceremonial headdress of a statue of Confucius, and exhibiting it triumphantly to her classmates.

Late in 1930, a warlord entered the city, and the school closed down. Jiang briefly became an actress in Beijing (Peking) though she was so poor she lacked underclothes. Unsuccessful because of her rustic bearing and speech, she returned to Jinan, where, at age 16, she married a man named Fei, the conventional son of a local merchant. The marriage was stormy, lasting only a few months.

Jiang took the initiative in seeking (and receiving) a divorce, then moved to Qingdao, a major port on the Yellow Sea. There she clerked in the university library, audited classes, and wrote stories, poems, and even a play, "Whose Crime?," about a young leftist. She fell in love with Yu Qiwei, a brilliant upper-class biology student who was secretly chief of propaganda in the university's Communist group. The couple lived together, something accepted within Chinese society as a common-law marriage. Under Yu's tutelage, she joined several Communist societies, including the League of Left-Wing Theater People and the League of Left-Wing Writers in 1931 and the Anti-Imperialist League in 1932. She later told biographer Roxane Witke that her political activism was triggered by the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in September

1931 and the siege of Shanghai in January 1932. At first, she was so politically naive that she did not know the difference between Nationalists and Communists. Thanks to Yu, however, in 1933 she joined the Communist Party.

That year Yu was imprisoned for political activities, and Jiang sought a fresh start in the Westernized city of Shanghai. She remained involved in radical theater, performing with the city's Work Study Troupe. She also taught at a workers' night school supported in part by the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA). Because of her underground activities with the Communist Youth League, she was imprisoned. Accounts of prison time vary from three to eight months. Once out of jail, she assumed the name Lan Ping (Blue Apple).

At age 20, Jiang first made her mark as an actress by playing Nora, the protagonist in Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, a production sponsored by the League of Left-Wing Educators. Though Jiang and others would later downplay her talent, her Nora was acclaimed by critics.

Jiang had many lovers, but it was only when she met Dang Na (Tang Na), a radical and sophisticated art critic, that she felt real attachment. Although the couple lived together, again in a common-law marriage, both Jiang and Dang possessed volatile personalities. Their relationship consisted of abundant tears and many slammed doors interspersed with bursts of romantic passion.

Early in 1937, while still married, Jiang moved in with Zhang Min, a married man who led a theatrical troupe. Dang Na was so distraught that he tried to overdose on sleeping pills; on another occasion, he tossed himself into the Whangpu River. By this time, Jiang was becoming a movie star, playing leading parts in two films: Blood on Wolf Mountain, an anti-Japanese allegory, and Old Bachelor Wang, the story of a determined young woman married to a much older man.

In the summer of 1937, the Japanese attacked Shanghai, disrupting the city's film industry. Moreover, Jiang was personally unpopular with her fellow actors for trading on her liaison with Zhang Min. Her political radicalism also made her sojourn in the city precarious. Hence, that July, Jiang left the city, bound for Communist headquarters in Yanan, a frontier outpost in northwestern China. Arriving in August, she hoped to resume her acting career amid friendly political circumstances. Conditions in Yanan were indeed primitive, reflecting conditions not seen in parts of Europe for 500 years. Her biographer Ross Terrill portrays her as an untutored ideologue:

[Jiang] stood out for willpower but not for political sophistication. Her knowledge of Marxism consisted of phrases, wispy ideas, and militant opinions. When she talked about the issues involved in the revolution and the war, it sounded like a tale of heroes and villains in a Peking opera. "We are right and they are wrong" was all she knew. She felt the passion of it all and the sense of struggle, but history was a closed book for her. Her mind was the wrong shape for social analysis. It was a mind geared for maneuver.

By the summer of 1938, the 22-year-old Jiang had taken two lovers (a propagandist and a film director), enrolled in the prestigious Party School, received military training, and acted and taught at the Lu Xun School of Literature and the Arts. In August 1938, she became secretary of the archives of the party's Military Commission, a post that had the advantage of placing her in close proximity to Mao Zedong. Age 44 and already the unquestioned leader of the Chinese Communist movement, Mao was in the midst of dissolving his marriage to his third wife, He Zizhen , comrade on the Long March and mother of five of his six children. By late 1938, Jiang had become Mao's mistress. When she was eight months pregnant, she entered a high party meeting uninvited and proclaimed "Chairman Mao and I have started living together." Later that night, Mao told the gathering that without her love, "I cannot go on with the revolution."

Top party officials opposed the union, including Zhu De (Chu Te, commander-in-chief of the Red Army and the leading general of the Long March), Zhou Enlai (liaison officer to the Nationalist government), and Liu Shaoqi (party theorist). First, Mao had not yet divorced He Zizhen, whom all greatly admired. Second, Jiang's past was a bit too colorful for a movement devoted to proletarian revolution. Party leaders finally concurred on the marriage provided that Jiang promise to abstain from political activity for 30 years.

Once Jiang married Mao, whom she later claimed to have "worshiped," she took on the name Jiang Qing (River Green). More important, she dropped any theatrical ambitions and played a subservient role. A visiting Russian officer concluded, "Jiang Qing looks after [Mao's] health, daily work, clothes, and food." The couple lived in a three-room cave that lacked electricity and running water. At one point in January 1939, acting under Mao's orders, she joined a labor battalion in Nanniwan, a wasteland 35 miles southeast of Yanan that was supposed to serve as a pilot reclamation project. As she had contracted tuberculosis, the nervous team captain let her fulfill her obligations by knitting ten sweaters.

Yet, beneath the surface, Jiang remained rebellious. Once, in 1942, Li Liuru, Mao's chief of staff, attacked her for making arbitrary judgments, exerting undue influence, and embracing bourgeois habits. (She enjoyed social dancing, horseback riding, and makeshift opera.) Mao rebuked her on the spot. At times, the couple quarreled publicly.

In 1945, when World War II ended, the incipient civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists could no longer be controlled. Jiang left household routines to serve as "political assistant" to Red forces, but the post lacked any concrete tasks and basically served as an excuse for her to travel with Mao. Soon she was on the road, journeying on horse and staying in farmers' caves. Often ill with gastrointestinal ailments, she would eat only string beans. Once, at Wang-Chia-Wang, when their cave was taken over by conferring party officials, she was relegated to a donkey shed infested with lice and flies.

When, in October 1949, Mao proclaimed the People's Republic of China, Jiang had yet to find her own role. That year, she experienced illness and depression. She traveled to Moscow to have her tonsils removed, then recovered for a month at Yalta. Upon return, she realized that her marriage had turned stale, but she refused to be discarded like He Zizhen. Once she commented, "We live together, but he is the silent type; he does not talk much." Later she was more candid: "Sex is engaging in the first rounds, but what sustains interest in the long run is power." Unqualified to do high-level political work, Jiang found low-level activity beneath her and had a short attention span. As Terrill writes, "The impulses of work on the stage were not easy to transfer to the work of bureaucratic bricklaying."

Despite his wife's ambitions, Mao did little to encourage her; to carve out her own place, she engaged in sheer manipulation. From 1949 to 1951, she served on a Film Guidance Committee of the Ministry of Culture, where she engaged in heavy-handed censorship. At the end of 1951, she pushed a land-reform project near Wuhan. It was a curious scene: the wife of the ruler of China, clad in furs while supposedly incognito, exhorting ragged peasants. The incongruity was not lost on party leaders, and the project was soon abandoned. For several weeks in the winter of 1951–52, she headed the secretariat of the General Office of the Party's Central Committee, a strategic slot, but was quickly eased out. In 1954, she attempted to lead a crusade against China's greatest novel, the 18th-century Dream of the Red Chamber, though she could not get it purged from China's literary canon.

Frequently ill, Jiang returned to Russia in 1952 and twice in 1955, the latter two times to receive treatment for cervical cancer. By the late '50s, she was spending much of her time outside Beijing, surrounded by nurses and helpers and isolated even from Mao and their daughter Li Na . Unsympathetically Mao said of persons unknown but with an obvious reference to his wife, "I have never heard of so much high blood pressure and liver infection. If a person doesn't exercise but only eats well, dresses well, lives comfortably, and drives wherever he goes, he will be beset by a lot of illnesses."

He Zizhen (fl. 1930s)

Chinese Communist and third wife of Mao Zedong. Name variations: Ho Tzu-chen. Flourished in the 1930s; married Mao Zedong (1893–1976, founder of the People's Republic of China), around 1931 (divorced 1937); children: five.

Mao's first wife, whose name is unknown, was chosen by his family when he was 14, but the marriage was not consummated; he married his second wife, Yang Kaihui (Yang K'ai-hui), in 1920; they were divorced in 1930. His third wife, He Zizhen, was with him on the "Long March," the formative event of the Chinese Communist Revolution, which lasted from 1934 to 1935 and covered more than 6,000 miles. The Communists fought constant battles and skirmishes and suffered incredible deprivations and hardships. He Zizhen is said to have suffered 20 shrapnel wounds but survived, though countless numbers died.

In the 1960s, however, Mao ceased ignoring Jiang. Indeed, he turned her into a veritable political partner. In 1962, she was given the responsibility for revolutionizing plays and films. In 1964, she was "elected" to the National People's Congress, that is the parliament, representing her native province of Shantung. Mao's Great Leap Forward of 1958, an effort to industrialize his nation with extreme rapidity, had turned sour, causing the death by starvation of 20 million Chinese in the process. After such a costly fiasco, he had to share power with others, including Liu Shaoqi, chair of the People's Republic, and Deng Xiaoping, head of the party secretariat. Furthermore, Mao was suffering from Parkinson's disease. Though his relationship to Jiang had long been shaky at best, he realized that she combined vaulting ambition, native shrewdness, a genius at polarizing situations, and the intensity of one possessed. Hence, she quickly became a significant ally when Mao sorely needed such allies. "Mao knew Jiang's limitations," notes Terrill:

She was good at lighting fires but not at managing a conflagration or putting one out. She could fire shots from a parapet, but she did not know how to handle troops on a battlefield. It didn't matter; the Cultural Revolution was to be mainly lighting fires and firing shots.

The Great Cultural Revolution, as it was called, lasted from late 1965 to April 1969. It involved a full-scale attack on the party and the bureaucracy, two elements Mao saw as curbing his power. Rallying organized legions of Chinese youth who took the name "Red Guards," Mao's revolution was really a nihilistic upheaval. Among its consequences were the closing of schools and factories, fragmentation of the army, the beating and imprisonment of scholars, and the destruction of priceless art treasures. Under attack were the Four Olds: old ideas, old culture, old customs, old habits. Historian John King Fairbank finds the consequences severe: 400,000 people dead from malnutrition, 60% of the party purged. By mid-1968, the Chinese government itself had disintegrated, although the Red Guards themselves were unable to control the country. At the same time, the Cultural Revolution lacked a political program, much less a coherent ideology.

Tiananmen Square, 1976">

To be empress is your ambition.

—Anonymous poem, addressing Jiang Qing, seen in Tiananmen Square, 1976

In all this upheaval, Jiang was at the forefront. In fact, biographer Terrill suspects that without her there might not have been a Cultural Revolution at all. She once said, "I am fond of firing cannon shots." She encouraged the smashing of temples, the destruction of ancient books, and the branding as "bourgeois" a host of items, including blue jeans, Beethoven, and sunglasses. Known particularly for her inflammatory speeches to young rebels, she felt that the Red Guards were in some sense personally hers. More directly under her control were thousands of cultural officials and performing artists, who soon felt her wrath if they did not share her vision of "socialist realism." Speaking in general of the Revolution, she remarked with pride, "We dragged them out and hung them up." She used it to settle scores that went back to the 1930s. Some of her victims died in prison.

Acting first as informal cultural commissar, she wrote and promoted an opera, Spark Among the Reeds (later called Shajiabang), centering on the exploits of the New Fourth Army in the fight against Japan. Then came her fostering of two ballets, White-Haired Girl, dealing with an innocent maiden persecuted by an evil landlord, and The Red Detachment of Women, a military saga taking place on Hainan Island. By the winter of 1965, she was brazen enough to tell the Central Philharmonic Society, "The capitalist symphony is dead." In 1966, Lin Biao (Lin Piao), party vice-chair and Mao's heir apparent, appointed her chief adviser to the army on cultural matters, a post that put her squarely in the mainstream of political power.

In September 1967, Jiang, like Mao, found the chaos intolerable. She denounced "ultra-left tendencies" and praised the army and the official government. Yet that very year she backed the Campaign to Purify Class Ranks, a new purge effort.

Jiang's ideology was warmed-over Maoism of the most primitive sort. The world was in constant flux. By continual struggle, light would overcome darkness. China sought only "poor, black, and small friends." The nation must be "Red in quality as well as in name." "Hurricanes of revolution" were imminent everywhere. Unlike many Communists, however, she was extremely xenophobic, seeing foreigners as an unavoidable evil, people simply to be manipulated. Yet, despite her quest for power, she had no real interest in military and economic affairs, much less bureaucratic administration. She was skilled in palace intrigue but did not know how to build a national organization.

In April 1969, Jiang became the first woman ever elected to the 21-member Politbureau. Here she fought incessantly with Lin Biao until 1971, when he was reportedly killed in a plane crash over Outer Mongolia. She started becoming an avid student of the life of Empress Wu Zetian , a 7th-century ruler who was living proof that a female could reach the pinnacle of power in a male-dominated society. In the 1970s, Jiang again took on lovers, including a pianist, a minister, and a ping-pong champion who was appointed Minister of Sports. At the same time, she became so paranoid over the possibility of assassination that she once lunged at a nurse with scissors.

In her activities, Jiang found close allies in the Shanghai Faction of the Cultural Revolution Group, better known as the Gang of Four: Zhang Chunqiao (Chang Ch'un-ch'iao), chair of the Shanghai Revolution Committee; Yao Wenyuan, a radical polemicist whose article of November 1965 triggered the Cultural Revolution itself; and Wang Hongwen (Wang Hung-wen), a young fire-brand who had been a textile worker.

To the degree that the group had a program, it centered on self-sustaining revolutionary development, retention of tight control over all culture, and continuing the communes consolidated in the Great Leap Forward. Working-class youth should be admitted to college without formal examination whereas educated youth must work in the countryside. The "barefoot doctor" system of paramedics must be encouraged. Mao had warned the group in 1974, "You'd better be careful; don't let yourselves become a small faction of four." Be that as it may, Mao kept the faction in power until he died.

As Mao grew progressively weaker, his dependence on Jiang increased. In some ways, he was irritated by her new independent power, saying in private that she harbored "wild ambitions"—including the ultimate post, as party chair. She was "poking her nose into everything" yet "represents only herself." At the same time, Mao did nothing to curb her ambition. When he was away from Beijing for eight months, Jiang appeared to be the very linchpin of the state. She gave out "instructions" that had the power of edicts. As "natural leader," she received in Mao's name such foreign dignitaries as the Philippines' Imelda Marcos . As Mao grew closer to death, his private remarks on Jiang became more acerbic. "Few people suit her taste. Only one—she herself." He continued, "Come the future, she'll have disputes with everyone.… [A]fter I die, she'll make trouble."

When, in January 1976, Premier Zhou Enlai died, a major barrier to Jiang's power was removed. However, at a memorial festival given in Tiananmen Square in Zhou's honor, a poem was hung.

Lady X, indeed you are insane
To be empress is your ambition
Take this mirror
And see what you are like …
You deceive your superiors
And delude your subordinates
Yet, for types like you,
Good times won't last long.

Jiang ordered all tributes to Zhou removed, causing a riot on April 5 that lasted 14 hours and involved at least 100,000 people. She blamed Deng Xiaoping, the vice premier already in semi-disgrace, for the bitter criticism of her. A panicked Politbureau immediately removed Deng from all posts. Not content with Deng's humiliation, Jiang said publicly, "Deng Xiaoping wants to consign me to hell! He's far worse than even [Nikita] Khrushchev ever was! The man wants to get crowned, to declare himself emperor." She also sought to reinterpret Marxism in light of female power:

In the sphere of production women are fundamental. For labor is the basic force of production, and all labor is born of woman. Man's contribution to history is nothing more than a drop of sperm. Men should move over and in the future let women take over the management of things.

When Mao died on September 5, 1976, the Gang of Four set out to gain formal control of China. They were backed by 40% of the Politbureau, the city of Shanghai, much of Manchuria, and at least five of China's eleven military regions. Jiang's circle also came up with a document they claimed was Mao's "true will," which—not surprisingly—transferred all power to Jiang.

Marshal Ye Jianying and Hua Guofeng, a Mao protégé who was acting premier, moved quickly. They deployed military units at various stations outside Beijing. The military commander at Canton was on alert in case reinforcements were needed. At a meeting of the Politbureau on October 5, the Gang of Four showed its hand. It proposed Jiang as party chair, Zhang Chunqiao as premier, and Wang Hongwen as head of the National People's Congress. The body adjourned without taking action, agreeing to meet the next day.

When the Politbureau gathered the following evening, Wang, Zhang, and Yao were knocked to the floor by security guards, then arrested. A colonel and two captains drove to Guanyuan Villa, flicked on the light switches of the master bedroom, and unceremoniously told Jiang, "Don't move! You are under arrest." She retorted, "The chairman's body is hardly cold, and yet you have the gall to mount a coup!" Soon the state-controlled press was labeling her the White-Boned Demon. In an effigy of her carried by marchers in Shanghai, a hangman's noose was shown around her neck and calligraphic characters of her name were made to look like bones.

While in prison, Jiang fell into depression. At the end of 1977, she tried to commit suicide by banging her head against the cell wall. Yet by 1980 she was again feisty. "Do you dare release me?" she asked Hua Guofeng. "Just release me and in half a year I'll eliminate the lot of you." Hua replied, "If you were released, people would assail you, and in half an hour you'd be shredded meat."

Ironically, the trial of the Gang of Four was itself a kangaroo court, doing little to reassure foreigners that the rule of law was coming to China. In the words of China historian Jonathan Spence, the Gang was "accused of almost every crime in the political book," ranging from organizing their own military forces to hindering earthquake relief.

After the trial, Jiang and Zhang Chunqiao received a suspended death sentence. Two years later, when Wang Hongwen publicly engaged in massive self-criticism, Jiang wrote on the wall of her cell, "I'm not afraid of having my head chopped off." Four years after her sentence, Deng Xiaoping, by then the controlling force in China, was unrepentant concerning her treatment. Jiang Qing "is a very, very evil woman," he said. "She is so evil that any evil thing you say about her isn't evil enough, and if you ask me to judge her with the grades as we do in China, I answer that this is impossible, there are no grades for Jiang Qing, that Jiang Qing is a thousand times a thousand below zero."

In 1988, Jiang was placed under house arrest, but a year later she was briefly interned again for accusing Deng of being a murderer. Commenting on the events in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, she claimed that neither she nor Mao would have ever massacred crowds. On May 14, 1991, she hanged herself at Beijing's Public Security Hospital. In a four-sentence press release concerning her death, the Chinese government made no mention of the power that she once wielded, or even that she was the widow of Mao Zedong.


Terrill, Ross. Madame Mao, The White-Boned Demon: A Biography of Madame Mao Zedong. Updated ed. NY: Touchstone, 1992.

Witke, Roxane. Comrade Chiang Ch'ing. Boston, MA; Little, Brown, 1977.

suggested reading:

Chi Hsin. The Case of the Gang of Four. Hong Kong: Cosmos Books, 1977.

Chin, Steven K. The Gang of Four. University of Hong Kong, 1977.

Fairbank, John King. The Great Chinese Revolution, 1800–1985. NY: Harper and Row, 1986.

Lotta, Raymond, ed. And Mao Makes Five. Chicago, IL: Banner Press, 1978.

Spence, Jonathan D. The Search for Modern China. NY: W.W. Norton, 1990.

Zhisue, Li. The Private Life of Chairman Mao. NY: Random House, 1994.

Justus D. Doenecke , Professor of History, New College of the University of South Florida, Sarasota, Florida