June 5, 1991
“Jiang Qing, the widow of Mao and herself a leader of China during some of its most tumultuous years, has committed suicide, the Government announced tonight. She was 77 years old.”
-“Suicide of Jiang Qing, Mao’s Widow, is Reported,” New York Times, June 05, 1991
Her death is not made public until nearly a month after the fact, when the New China News Agency (Xinhua) releases a three-paragraph dispatch.
She hanged herself with a handmade rope made of her own socks and handkerchiefs that she had hoarded over the creeping days of her imprisonment. She had long since been scrubbed out of the public consciousness. Like a hothouse plant suddenly exposed to the winter’s bite, she had withered in obscurity, her continued existence lost in the hum of a modernizing country whose economy was finally beginning to boom under forward-looking, progressive leadership. The new China’s leaders, many of whom had bad blood with Jiang, were eager to scoop her part out from the pages of Party history like a melon’s unwanted seeds.
Born Lǐ Shūméng, she became a moderately successful actress in Shanghai under the name Lan Ping, playing Nora in Ibsen’s The Doll House and starring in a movie called The Statue of Liberty. She joined the Party in 1932, went to prison in ’34, and seduced directors and costars and comrades throughout her years. She was neither beautiful nor unattractive: her large eyes, double eyelids, fair skin and strapping build were alluring to a certain type of man. However, her 32-24-34 was unwieldy by Chinese standards, and her coarse-clothed, cheap, dull blue daily attire did her figure no favors. An acquaintance from her time in Shanghai recalled her as the plainest actress in the entire city. She was so focused on her ambition, she lost her taste for even the most basic of bodily pleasures. “Sex is engaging in the first rounds,” she’d say, but ultimately uninteresting. “What sustains interest in the long run is political power.”
When Mao died in 1976, Jiang donned a black scarf as a necessary gesture of mourning. But, focused on the opportunity that she saw in the Chairman’s passing, she hardly played the dutiful widow. She imagined she might be Mao’s successor; instead, a shrewd politician named Hua Guofeng seized the chairmanship. As Chairman, Hua orchestrated demonstrations of millions in the streets of Beijing, Shanghai and other major cities to accuse Jiang and the “Gang of Four” of attempting to assassinate him. Marchers in Shanghai carried effigies depicting Jiang with a hangman’s noose around her neck. Banners read the name of the woman once known as “the Great Flag-Carrier of the Proletarian Culture” in huge ideographic characters stylized to look like bones. “Ten thousand knives to the body of Jiang Qing!” they shouted.
The Great Leader’s widow was arrested on October 6, 1976, less than a month after the death of her husband of 38 years.
The charge: being a “counterrevolutionary.” Ironic that Jiang’s own Party condemned her as such when, some 36 years earlier, she had been persecuted by the Kuomingtang for being a “Communist revolutionary.” Jiang was vilified in the press. The Party circulated a “history” of the deceased Chairman’s supposed displeasure with his widow and the Four; propaganda posters and other media defamed their “towering crimes,” although the specifics of these allegations never came to light, even in the trials that followed; and Jiang’s enemies vowed to “ruthlessly beat the dog in the water.” In Canton, a poster showing Jiang offering Party and state secrets to a Western figure in exchange for an imperial crown stirred even the illiterate and letterless peasantry to anger.
After Jiang’s arrest, the Chinese public came to perceive her as both scarlet woman and saboteur. Unflattering comparisons to Empress Wu Zetian, who Confucian historians depicted as a hedonistic devourer of young men and corruptor of Buddhist monks, and Dowager Empress Cixi, a minor concubine who rose to run and ruin the Qing Dynasty, blossomed almost instantaneously, like dormant desert seedlings nurtured by the sudden storm of the Great Leader’s death. A propaganda poster produced after her arrest depicted Jiang poring over tomes about Empress Wu with books such as Guide to Hong Kong Beauty Salons and Complete Account of Soviet Political Coups arrayed around her as evidence of her undesirable politics and dissoluteness. Party authorities quoted Mao to favor their position: “Chairman Mao, before he died, in all seriousness told Comrade Hua Guofeng the story of Liu Pang, who, just before his death, perceived that Empress Lü and others in her clan were conspiring to betray the nation and usurp power. Comrade Hua Guofeng kept Chairman Mao’s words in mind and lived up to his earnest expectations.”
How prescient the marchers’ in Shanghai in 1967 were with their noosed effigies. Flash forward fifteen years: a fleeting mention of a once-unbowable woman’s willing flight into death’s release.
Jiang must have found life outside the public eye odd. She was entirely alone. Even her daughter, Li Na, abandoned her cause. Although she visited her mother regularly through the 1980s during Jiang’s imprisonment in Qincheng Prison, Li Na refused to write to the authorities to request her mother’s release.
Her daughter’s reluctance to petition on her behalf infuriated Jiang. At one point, she flung a watermelon to the ground in a pique of rage, crying, “Even you do not care for me. You are heartless.”
Perhaps the memory of that moment passed through Jiang’s mind when she put the crude noose around her neck. Or perhaps she chose to focus on happier days. Floating through the crowds at Mao’s famously lavish receptions like a particularly opulent butterfly, she had deployed her actress’ guile to woo others to her side. Even farther back: living in Yannan in the Communist Party’s early days, in a place where the man to woman ratio was 18 to one, and where the women, wearing Lenin-inspired clothing that rendered them indistinguishable from the men by physical appearance, were treated as comrades rather than the weaker sex.
Jiang had previously attempted suicide in 1977. By that point, she had spent four years in “detention” in Deng Xiaoping’s prison, Qin Cheng. While other prisoners had previously attempted to commit suicide by eating their toothpaste, Jiang chose what appeared at face value to be a simpler method: banging her head against the cell well.
Thud, thud, thud.
She might have been successful. She was certainly determined. But the addition of rubber walls to Jiang’s isolation cell and surveillance via an external peephole foiled her. One might imagine that the constant observation would have worn like sandpaper at Jiang’s already jagged nerves, set on edge by the near-certain knowledge that her past ruthlessness was likely to come back to haunt her.
Jiang learned of her impending trial when officials from the procurator’s office interrupted her daily tai chi exercises to announce a change in her status. As the men — perhaps awed, perhaps frightened by seeing a woman who was by this point more myth than factual entity in the Chinese political consciousness — made their announcement in bumbling bureaucratese, Jiang railed, “I’ve been here for four years while nothing happened. I can tell you, this is not a detention house. This is a goddamned prison. I am not a criminal. I am a political prisoner. I am now not a member of the Politburo. I am merely the wife of Mao Zedong. And I have another role, ‘the accused.’ It means just that and nothing more — ‘accused.’”
The officials gave Jiang papers detailing the charges against her and departed. Lucky for them that they did, as Jiang flew into a rage when she noticed the order in which the Gang of Four had been named: Wang Hongwen first, Zhang Chunqiao second, and herself third. She railed at her prison guards. “Why am I not number one?”
Jiang Qing attended her trial in an austere black Western-style trouser suit. She planted her large feet solidly on the green carpet and faced two clerks sitting before her indictment — a ream of paper so thick one might have been excused for believing it to be a stack of blank note-taking paper, rather than a document detailing the crimes of a single individual. A pair of young soldiers stood on either side of her, their nervous white-gloved hands fluttering like doves disturbed by the scene.
Empress Wu Zetian — whom Jiang had been compared to so unflatteringly in 1967 — was “so well preserved” and well made up at age 68 that those around her “did not realize she was aging.” Jiang, also 68 at the time of her trial, was the same. Although the years had certainly mapped themselves on her features, she remained finely groomed. As always, she carried herself with the flair and style of an actress aware that her every gesture is being observed.
The formal trial commenced on November 26, 1977. The first charge was read. “The accused, Jiang Qing, conspired to prevent Deng Xiaoping’s appointment as vice-premier in the fall of 1974.” Wang Hongwen — the first member of the Gang of Four named in the papers Jiang had received at Qin Cheng — took the stand. He was greatly diminished, his once haughty features collapsed into a spaniel-like expression of sadness, sparse hairs shorn into an ascetic crew cut and shoulders hunched into a permanent slouch.
As the trial wore on, Jiang watched with wide white eyes as a parade of characters from her life as Madame Mao came forward to act in the Party’s grand opera. Zhang Yufeng, Mao’s secretary and favorite girl from the 1970s and mother of at least one child by him, testified to Jiang’s anti-Deng and anti-Zhou activities; the duo of Nancy Tang and Wai Hairong, who had been young courtiers in Mao’s last years, gave evidence of Mao’s twilight anger at Jiang; and Liao Mosha, a friend of Jiang’s in her Shanghai days, and who had been imprisoned for eight years as an “enemy agent” in the Cultural Revolution, accused his former roommate of “countless crimes of all kinds, more numerous than the hairs on a human head.”
She snapped in the fifth session. As Liao Mosha gave his testimony, Jiang punctuated his sentences for him. “Spy!” she shouted. “Revisionist!” The judges, led by Gan Ying, accused her of committing new crimes. Jiang cuffed herself around the head. “Rubbish,” she cried. “You bring these traitors and bad elements here, alleging this, spouting that. I don’t want to listen to them! I have questions to ask!” She squared her body to face Gan Ying head on and spat out the words: “You bitch.” Chief Judge Zeng Hanzhou, his face red as the flag, ordered her removal from the courtroom. Two female bailiffs sprang to action and met Jiang’s open palm — smack-smack. But they prevailed, and Jiang was frog-marched from the court as the public gallery applauded.
The trial dragged on. Jiang was defiant.
Photos of Jiang during her nationally televised trial at the end of 1980 show a stony-faced, defiant, and by then ally-less woman whose in-court demeanor swung wildly from plaintive to taunting. Refusing to repent and renounce her fervent Maoism, she challenged the court to chop off her head in a manner reminiscent of criminal trials of old. Faced with a possible death sentence, this was her only defense: “I was Chairman Mao’s dog. Whomever he told me to bite, I bit.”