Mao’s Widow Jiang Qing, Radical Leader, Dead at 77


Jiang Qing, widow of Mao Tse-tung and fiery leader of radical leftists during China’s chaotic Cultural Revolution, committed suicide at home last month, the government announced Tuesday.

Jiang, 77, nearly achieved supreme power in 1976 while Chairman Mao lay on his deathbed. But she was arrested by political rivals just one month after his death and never regained real freedom.

In recent years, according to Western press reports, Jiang lived under house arrest at the suburban Beijing villa of Li Na, 51, her daughter by Mao. Until her death, Chinese officials always denied that she had been released from prison. In its terse announcement of her suicide, the official New China News Agency said Tuesday that she “had remained out of custody and obtained medical treatment” since 1984.


The Chinese news agency gave no motive or details on her suicide. But Jiang was widely believed to have suffered from throat cancer for several years. Time magazine, in a Monday report based on unidentified sources, said Jiang hanged herself and that a desire to avoid further suffering from her cancer may have been the motive.

Jiang died May 14, the New China News Agency said. The government may have wished to avoid announcing her death during the tense period preceding the June 3-4 second anniversary of the bloody crackdown on the Tian An Men Square pro-democracy demonstrations of 1989. Release of the news Tuesday evening appeared timed primarily to respond to the Time magazine report.

Jiang Qing (pronounced Jeeahng Ching) was last seen in public Jan. 25, 1981, when a show trial ended and she was removed screaming from a Beijing courtroom, shouting revolutionary slogans and cursing her judges and China’s current leaders as “fascists, renegades, traitors.”

At her trial, Jiang and nine others were charged with framing and persecuting 729,511 people during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, including 34,800 who died. She was accused of involvement in an attempted military coup in 1971 and of plotting an armed rebellion in 1976. She was given a suspended death sentence, later commuted to life imprisonment.

The most famous of Jiang’s co-defendants were Zhang Chunqiao, whom she had hoped to make premier; Yao Wenyuan, a Communist Party polemicist, and Wang Hongwen, a former Shanghai textile-mill worker who was elevated to party vice chairman. Together, they made up the infamous “Gang of Four.” China’s present leaders, unwilling to undermine their own legitimacy by attacking Mao’s legacy too severely, have sought to blame these four radical leaders for most of the violence of the Cultural Revolution.

At her trial, however, a defiant and unrepentant Jiang pinned all the blame--or credit--for the Cultural Revolution squarely on Mao.

“I was Chairman Mao’s dog,” she told the court. “Whoever he told me to bite, I bit.”

The Cultural Revolution was in fact launched by Mao himself, as part of a struggle for power with party rivals including China’s senior leader today, Deng Xiaoping, 86, whom Jiang once vilified as an “international capitalist agent.” But Jiang also played a key role.

Mao gave her little direct support when she began her drive for power in the early 1960s. Her first ally was Lin Piao, the defense minister, who made her the army’s cultural commissar. She began promoting “revolutionary operas” intended to glorify and educate workers and peasants, rather than simply entertain.

It was only several years later, as Mao struggled with other leaders over the country’s future course, that he seized upon Jiang’s radical cultural policies as a weapon against his rivals. Soon Jiang exercised immense influence over millions of youthful Red Guards, who roamed the country attacking Mao’s real and supposed enemies.

“The Cultural Revolution was always really more about power than about culture or even ideology,” a writer who was one of the first purge victims said shortly before Jiang’s 1980 show trial. “That moved Jiang Qing from literature and the arts, where she was wrong but had experience, into the center of an intense power struggle where she could wield words like big clubs and clobber everyone who she felt opposed her. For a paranoid like Jiang Qing, this was a dream of vengeance come true.”

Virtually all of China’s most respected writers, composers, actors and artists were purged. Many were sent to the countryside to work with peasants.

Cultural Revolution victims of Mao and Jiang included not only political opponents and China’s intellectual and artistic elite but also those Jiang felt had hindered her acting career in Shanghai 30 years before and those who had opposed her marriage to Mao.

Jiang, then known by her stage name, Lan Ping, or Blue Apple, first met Mao, 20 years her senior, in 1937 at the remote Communist headquarters in the rural town of Yanan. She had a seamy reputation from her days as a Shanghai movie actress, and Mao was still married to his third wife, He Zizhen. In the rigidly controlled society of Yanan, even Mao faced problems winning approval to divorce his wife and marry the pretty young actress.

“Without Blue Apple,” Mao threatened, “I cannot go on with the revolution.”

Jiang was already visibly pregnant with Li, Mao’s only child by her, before other top Communist leaders accepted the reality of their marriage, which was still only common-law at that time. The party approved only on condition that Jiang never involve herself in politics. This was one reason she remained in the background until the 1960s. It was a slight for which Jiang never forgave the party veterans, many of whom she was able to attack through the Red Guards after they became Mao’s rivals in the mid-1960s.

The power she acquired in the Cultural Revolution enabled Jiang to settle a variety of old scores: Zhao Dan, a leading actor, had declined to play opposite her in a 1930s Shanghai production of “Romeo and Juliet.” Xia Yan, a top film scenarist, had refused to write a script for Jiang to play the heroine. Ding Ling, China’s most famous woman writer, was close to Mao before Jiang knew him. All suffered for having crossed her.

Jiang waged a personal vendetta against Wang Guangmei, the wife of Liu Shao-chi, who was ousted as chief of state during the Cultural Revolution. On Jiang’s orders, Wang was held by Red Guards and subjected to repeated “struggle” sessions during which she was accused of crimes and moral turpitude.

“I have avenged myself on those who deserve it,” Jiang said later.

Jiang was born in March, 1914, to the concubine of a hard-drinking landowner who beat mother and daughter until they fled. At age 14, she joined a theater troupe. Here she tasted the potency of fantasy in coping with life’s frustrations. The next spring, she was accepted as a student at the newly formed Experimental Arts Academy in her native Shandong province.

She arrived in Shanghai at the age of 19, an aspiring actress who had already been through a brief, unsuccessful marriage to a merchant’s son and an affair with a leader of the Communist underground, Yu Qiwei.

In Shanghai--the Hollywood of China in those days--Jiang acted in left-wing films, became known as a party girl and was briefly jailed for her political views. Her smile, figure and fondness for Western dancing made her a favorite. She starred in several stage productions and movies. Her performances and love affairs were written up in entertainment magazines, and she married again, this time to a young drama critic, Tang Na, whom she soon divorced.

Aware that Shanghai was no longer politically safe for leftists, Jiang left the city in 1937 for Yanan, where her work teaching at an arts and literature academy set up by the Communists brought her an opportunity to meet Mao. When he came to speak at the academy, she attracted his notice with enthusiastic applause and a few questions, and thus began her long climb to power.

In 1972, when she granted a series of lengthy interviews to American Sinologist Roxane Witke, Jiang was confident enough of her status to comment that “sex is engaging in the first rounds, but what sustains interest in the long run is power.”

“That candid judgment epitomized the formula of her extraordinary life,” Witke wrote in a 1977 biography.

As Mao neared death, Jiang began comparing herself to the famous 7th-Century empress Wu Zetian, one of the most powerful women in Chinese history.

But Mao, distrustful of Jiang and the other radicals with whom he had launched the Cultural Revolution, refused to back her attempt to make Zhang premier on the death of Chou En-lai in January, 1976. Instead, a little-known leader named Hua Guofeng got the job.

Jiang and her radical allies were allegedly plotting a grab for power when Mao died in September of that year. A month later, a coalition of moderates, factional rivals and old generals that included Hua struck preemptively, arresting Jiang and other members of the “Gang of Four.”

“You people have started to persecute me even before the body of the chairman is cold,” Jiang said after her arrest.

The arrest of Jiang and her allies paved the way for Deng’s rise to power two years later.

Jiang seemed to have realized, even before her rivals struck against her, that a crisis was coming. As Mao was dying, she had circulated a purported last message from him, which she apparently believed might help protect her.

“Human life is limited, but revolution knows no bounds,” Mao allegedly wrote. “In the struggle of the past 10 years, I have tried to reach the peak of revolution, but I was not successful. You, though, could reach the top. If you fail, you will plunge into a fathomless abyss. Your body will shatter, and your bones will break.”