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Marriage à la Mode

The White-Boned Demon: A Biography of Madame Mao Zedong

by Ross Terrill
Morrow, 446 pp., $18.95

Jiang Qing is one of the most controversial women of modern times. During the early 1930s in Shanghai, she was a second-rate film and stage actress who lived a bohemian life, provoked small scandals, and associated with young leftists. When Shanghai started to crumble under Japanese attack in 1937 she went to Yanan, the communist base, and became Mao Zedong’s fourth and last legal wife (it was her fourth marriage as well). After the communist victory, she lived for years in political obscurity, a precondition set by the Party before it approved the marriage. She emerged in the mid-Sixties as a hard-liner in cultural matters, helping Mao to launch the Cultural Revolution and becoming a member of the “Cultural Revolution Group,” the tiny ultra-leftist elite that rose to the top during the years of greatest chaos.

At the height of her power, she was easily the most influential woman in the world, for her whims and allegiances affected the lives of hundreds of millions of Chinese. The “eight model operas” she approved as ideologically fit for consumption were the only works allowed to be performed in China for years, and even today Chinese culture is trying to recover from the sterility she imposed. Her four-word slogan “Attack [with] Words, Defend [with] Weapons” was the signal for the armed violence that caused the deaths of countless members of opposing “revolutionary” factions.

Only a few months after Mao’s death in September 1976, Jiang and her three closest associates were arrested as the criminal “Gang of Four,” in a reversal of political fortunes as dramatic as any in Chinese history. During the trial, to the embarrassment of a party trying to preserve the legitimacy of its “Great Helmsman,” she stridently claimed to have been only carrying out Chairman Mao’s orders. Undoubtedly this was close to the truth, yet today Mao’s body remains on display in Tiananmen Square while Jiang Qing makes cloth dolls in top-security Qin City Prison.

The White-boned Demon,” from which Ross Terrill takes his title, is a legendary evil spirit who masqueraded as a beautiful woman; and it is one of the epithets used to vilify Jiang during her disgrace. In attempting her biography, Terrill set himself a difficult task. To do research on the major post-Liberation Chinese figures is to pursue trails that have been deliberately obscured, since their personal histories have again and again been rewritten to accommodate changes in the political currents. For some periods of Jiang’s life the evidence is ample and consistent, for others one has to find one’s way through a maze of contradictory information. Much early evidence has been destroyed, for Jiang managed to have many documents and letters from her Shanghai days confiscated; people who knew too much about her were persecuted and sometimes murdered. To make everything worse, the current Chinese government has no interest in having the case stirred up once again.

Still, Jiang’s life has been a favorite subject for writers in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan as well as in China, and she arranged to give Roxane Witke a series of interviews in 1972, which form the basis of Witke’s Comrade Chiang Ch’ing.* After Jiang’s arrest, the mainland press bombarded Chinese citizens with venomous tales of her ambitions, sexual liaisons, vendettas, vanities, and conspiracies, while children were trained to bayonet her image in skits acted out in school. Hong Kong magazines such as Zheng ming and The Seventies have followed her career and are among the best sources for anything that goes on within China, although one must take great care in using them since they tend to be written in inflammatory and satirical prose, are often based on rumors and signed with pseudonyms. At least six books on Jiang have been published in Taiwan and Hong Kong, all of them heavily flavored with political bias, propaganda, and sarcasm. As for Jiang’s own statements to Witke, they are, as is to be expected, self-serving and self-vin-dicating, although they are more reliable than much of the other available evidence.

Terrill’s biography draws on such sources and also includes information based on interviews conducted in Hong Kong, San Francisco, and China with people who knew Jiang, including several classmates, a former lover, and people who knew her first three husbands. To a Chinese reader, much of the material seems familiar, even the account of her fur-trimmed portable toilet seat. But Terrill’s book is the first to give much attention to her upbringing and the complexities of her personality—a psychological approach impossible in China, where Party leaders are understandably concerned to discredit the woman responsible for parading them about in duncecaps, for sending them to the countryside, and for driving the relatively moderate Liu Shaoqi, the man who worked out many of the economic policies guiding China today, to his death in prison.

Terrill gives a rather sympathetic account of a woman bent on self-expression in a man’s world. Brought up in hard circumstances in the town of Zhucheng in Shandong Province, Jiang was more or less abandoned by her concubine mother, who, as Jiang put it to Witke, left her to “walk in the dark in search of her.” She became involved with leftists and her striking looks helped her to get work in a small theater in Qingdao. After a second failed marriage, she moved to Shanghai, where she had a modest professional success (most notably as Nora in A Doll’s House), many affairs, and a third marriage which fell apart after her husband’s repeated suicide attempts, well publicized in the Shanghai press.

In Shanghai, as in Qingdao, the theater and art worlds had many connections with the left. Jiang gradually came to identify art with politics and to see “the masses” as an ideal audience—a confusion which stayed with her throughout her later appearances before mass rallies. But Jiang had what she later called a “difficulty getting in touch with the Party,” and this was to haunt her when it became necessary to demonstrate that she had an impeccable political background. She was briefly imprisoned by the Nationalist police and seems to have cooperated with them to earn her release. This episode is probably one reason for her desperate attempts to cover up her Shanghai past and for her continuing nervousness about the people who knew about it. If the story had been proven, she could have been politically destroyed.

In Yanan, Jiang soon met Mao, perhaps by sitting in the front row at one of his lectures, perhaps by writing him earnest letters asking for political instruction. Neither Terrill nor any other writer we know of has been able to provide any precise information about their courtship. We know little more than that Jiang was twenty-four and Mao forty-five, and that they were from different worlds. His appeal to her, we may surmise, was his political power and magnetism; he was a country bumpkin compared to the worldly Shanghai men she had usually chosen as lovers. It was probably her sophistication and her beauty that attracted Mao, as well as her ability to present herself as an ardent revolutionary.

Mao had already packed his third wife off to a Soviet sanitarium when he and Jiang began living together (when Mao’s wife earlier had found out about their affair she is said to have gone after him with a knife). The scandal over the affair between Mao and Jiang led to a protest demonstration held at the local school in Yanan. When they made plans to marry, the Party leaders were vigorously opposed because of what a senior official called her “colorful past, her unclear connections with certain Nationalist circles, and her vague relationship with the Party.” An appeal to Stalin resulted in a compromise: the marriage could take place if Jiang stayed out of politics.

This condition was partially responsible for Jiang’s disappearance from public life after the Liberation. Frequently ill with everything from tonsillitis to cervical cancer, she spent long periods in Moscow hospitals, sometimes, apparently, because Mao had tired of her and wanted her out of the way. But by the early Sixties, Mao’s influence in the Party was declining; he seems to have decided that her interest in promoting “model operas” might help him to regain power from his enemies. As their relationship revived Jiang seems to have flattered Mao by aggressively taking his side in every controversy in which he became involved; she accused half the politicians in China of being “anti-Mao.” As Terrill puts it, “Jiang filled Mao in on the disloyal situation that prevailed in the arts; Mao gave Jiang the political guidelines for her attacks on the cultural status quo.”

Jiang had many enemies of her own, both from Shanghai theatrical days and from Yanan. There was nothing short about her memory, and as the Cultural Revolution got under way she was able to use the power she gained in the Party to attack her opponents in the art world, and her revolutionary artistic line to undermine her opponents in the Party. Many of the prominent victims of the Cultural Revolution were people who had denied her roles in the theater, or had been rivals for them (or for lovers), or had tried to prevent her marriage. Rising swiftly to the post of deputy head of the Cultural Revolution Group, she helped Mao make alliances with Lin Biao and his army, with Shanghai leftists, and with Kang Sheng, who was also born in Shandong Province and became the much-feared head of the secret police. Jiang stimulated the campaign against the “Four Olds,” which resulted in the destruction of countless relics and temples and in night raids of terror on the homes of intellectuals all over China. All films, books, and plays were banned except for the few she chose. She took revenge by ruining careers and caused the deaths of thousands of officials and performing artists. She supported the armed violence of groups of teen-age Red Guards against one another. According to Terrill, she planned to become empress after Mao died.

In this, of course, she failed; the “moderates” quickly staged their comeback and arrested the ultra-leftists who had been closely allied with Mao and his policies. Still, Jiang gave a remarkable final performance in the courtroom, shouting out Mao’s slogan, “It’s right to rebel!”—by then an anachronistic echo of the fanatical rebelliousness that had been central to the spirit of the Cultural Revolution. Most Chinese prisoners have learned it is best to confess as quickly and abjectly as possible, whether guilty or not—Jiang’s disobedience was a belligerent and unconventional ending to a belligerent and unconventional career.

Terrill sees Jiang’s revenge as the triumph of a woman who had been thwarted and humiliated because of male chauvinist resistance to a woman in politics—she was, in his view, sincere in her belief that those she attacked deserved their fates. He concludes that “in part she was a victim of the entrenched antifeminism of Chinese society.” Naive about the subtleties of Party politics, she “was not really guilty of wrong ideas (‘counterrevolution’), but of playing the wrong social role.” This is one of the themes of the biography, and it may create sympathy for Jiang among readers more interested in Western feminism than in Chinese history.

That she was both a woman and a public figure, however, is far from being the only reason Jiang was hated throughout China. (The wives of Zhou Enlai and Zhu De, for example, have had long and consistent, if far less important, records of participation in political life.) Terrill describes some of the grim consequences of her activities:

So many people perished—many driven by despair to suicide—as the wind of self-righteousness and revenge blew to gale proportions, fanned by Jiang Qing more vigorously than by anyone, that in August 1966 the crematoria of Peking could not cope, and one year later, after a long winter of fighting, anguish, and suspicion, August 1967 was known in the city as “a month of death.”

However, even in the short account he gives of the effects of the Cultural Revolution, he implies that Jiang had little choice:

However much it was the system of Chinese despotism, and her own upward struggle as a woman, that forced Jiang into a pattern of personalized, arbitrary politics, the result was appalling.

Terrill also claims that the trial failed to demonstrate “that Jiang did more than was normal among Communist Party leaders to ‘usurp’ power and ‘persecute’ opponents.” That other leaders are as guilty as Jiang does not, of course, exonerate her. She may have acted in good faith, as Terrill argues, but few of history’s villains have believed themselves evil. A more interesting question is, how was it possible for Jiang to rise from near obscurity to a position of such vast power? How did the Cultural Revolution surge out of control? How should responsibility be divided among Mao, Jiang, other ultra-leftists, and the Chinese people themselves? Not to give such central questions prominence can be compared to studying the life of an important Nazi while giving only passing attention to the rise of Hitler and the activities of the concentration camps.

Even more disturbing is Terrill’s final paragraph:

One day, when the political cards have been reshuffled, a new Chinese government may declare with deep conviction that the case against Jiang Qing was, to quote Deng’s deeply convinced words on Jiang’s case against him during the Cultural Revolution, “the biggest unjust charge in Chinese Communist history.”

To most Chinese, such a prospect would be terrifying. Terrill’s bland implication that Deng and Jiang can be morally equated fails to convey the extent to which the Deng regime, for all its repression, is an improvement over almost any other Chinese leadership since the mid-Fifties. It is true that leftist influence is still strong in China today. Some “helicopter cadres,” whose sudden rise depended on the supremacy of the ultraleftists, have hopes for a return to Maoist purity—they are to be the targets of the major party “rectification” just getting under way. Some ordinary people, having been themselves victims, also have secret sympathy for Jiang, who has been turned into a scapegoat for Mao. However, popular judgments on historic figures who have been deemed truly evil have never been overturned in China, and it is difficult to imagine a return to the days of mass insanity that Jiang’s name evokes today.

Terrill’s failure to deal seriously with the results of Jiang’s activities during the Cultural Revolution is particularly unfortunate since this disastrous period is not yet sufficiently understood in the West. A remarkable number of people in other countries continue to see in the Cultural Revolution a solution to many of China’s problems. In fact, the costs in actual human life are yet to be measured. People died in many ways, ranging from execution, suicide, factional warfare, and death by “stray bullet” to illness brought on by life in prison or the countryside; the psychological and economic costs are still being exacted from almost every Chinese who lived through that period. In the cities, the costs may be counted in wasted lives, material scarcities, emotional scars, unhealed enmities, propaganda-ridden educations, and nightmares. In the countryside, the costs can be found in the residues of poverty induced by what was called “never forgotting class struggle” and by the suppression of essential sideline occupations as “capitalist.”

Despite Terrill’s apparent feminism, he writes coarsely about Jiang, describing her as “brassy,” “brazen,” “a fishwife,” “a vixen when roused,” and a “bitch-goddess.” He has much to say about her sex life, which included a night with a soccer player Terrill interviewed in Hong Kong and a longer affair with a ping-pong champion she managed to have appointed minister of sports. “As Wang [Liu Shaoqi’s wife] told agricultural officials what kind of fertilizer she thought best for Hebei’s difficult conditions,” he writes, “Jiang was telling actors how to wear a pistol in such a way as to avoid damage to the penis.” He even recounts scenes from the sex life of Wu Zetian, an empress Jiang admired: “Moments later, on a silken couch in the anteroom, the heir to the throne was burrowing deep between the thighs of his father’s most magnetic concubine.” Perhaps such passages reflect the influence of Hong Kong and Taiwan publications on Terrill, for they are notorious for their trashiness and scandalmongering.

Terrill should have told us more about how he dealt with ambiguous evidence, especially since many of the sources available are unreliable. He writes so assertively of his reconstructions of Jiang’s life that we lose confidence in them, possibly because of his disconcerting habit of evoking Jiang’s innermost thoughts and motivations. For example, he describes an incident in 1971 when Jiang visited the Summer Palace for dinner and then became angry when she saw a large slogan written in the calligraphic style of Lin Biao, then Chairman Mao’s chosen successor:

Jiang Qing returned to her car in an evil mood. She began to realize why Lin was obsessively substituting “thought of Mao Zedong” for the simple “Mao Zedong” when bowing a knee to the fount of truth. The bastard was suggesting to the Chinese people, she thought darkly as her limousine tooted everyone off the road leading back to South and Central Lakes, that Mao’s magic could outlive him and be mediated by a fresh hand. Lin‘s hand! By the time she reached her apartment, Jiang had appalling visions of the entire population of China gazing spellbound at billboards of Mao’s sayings written in the calligraphy of her sly rival. What was wrong with her calligraphy, for God’s sake!

The only references given for this story are Roxane Witke, whose Comrade Chiang Ch’ing supplies the outline of the story, and “a source at the theater-restaurant.” We can imagine that this source, a waitress perhaps, may have described to Terrill what Jiang ordered for dinner. But unless Jiang thought aloud in the presence of her chauffeur and the chauffeur later talked to someone at the restaurant, it is hard to see where Terrill gets his evidence for Jiang’s musings. Jiang’s tales to Witke are already shaky enough. Gossip from a waitress may yield what the Chinese call “small road information,” useful at times but hardly the basis for solid scholarship. By dramatizing such material even further, Terrill is adding yet another layer of confusion.

Although much remains to be known about Jiang’s career, her rise to power took place within specific social and political circumstances, and these Terrill tends to ignore. He has little to say, for example, about how large parts of the Chinese population reacted to her. I dolizing Mao, ignorant of Jiang’s unpopularity with other leaders, they were ready to accept her worshipfully when she appeared on the political scene, bringing “greetings from Mao” and mobilizing millions of young people to wage class struggle. Terrill doesn’t emphasize the important connection between Jiang’s influence in the arts and her ability to dominate the propaganda apparatus in order to present herself as the person who embodied the spirit of the Cultural Revolution.

Nor does Terrill analyze how important it was that Lin Biao gave Jiang her first public job, as the army official in charge of culture. Lin did so because he wanted to succeed Mao and hoped to get close to him through his wife. When Mao later needed military support he made an alliance with Lin, which became, in effect, Jiang’s ticket for entering political life. How Mao, Jiang, and a small number of other ultra-leftists, through the manipulation of factional politics, gained control over the masses, the “media,” and the military forces is central to understanding how the Cultural Revolution occurred and why it continued. Terrill has largely omitted the other participants in this complex historical drama, leaving Jiang Qing to play her part alone. No wonder, then, that the ability of this limited, spiteful woman to change the course of history often seems inexplicable in his book.

Letters

The White-Boned Demon’ May 31, 1984

  1. *

    Published by Little, Brown, 1977.

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