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The White-Boned Demon’

In response to:

Marriage à la Mode from the March 15, 1984 issue

To the Editors:

Your review of The White-Boned Demon [NYR, March 15] strikes me as very weak. On small matters the authors are constantly at sea: Jiang Qing was arrested “a few months after Mao’s death”—it was three weeks; she worked “in a small theater in Qingdao”—false; the signs of their lack of sure-footedness are without number.

And on one large issue their review is a devious obfuscation. They tell the story of Jiang Qing’s career by using the new material in my book, with no hint to the reader that this is more than a previously known story; then they proceed to damn the book on the grounds of a contrived political analysis. Thus, as if all this has been common knowledge, they speak of Jiang Qing’s three early marriages, of her mother being a concubine, of her cooperation with Nationalist police in order to obtain her release from prison in 1934, of He Zizhen’s attack on her husband Mao Zedong with a knife after she learned of Mao’s philandering, of the Chinese Communist Party’s appeal to Stalin to adjudicate the dispute over Mao’s marriage arrangements. In no work in English, prior to mine, are these facts and episodes part of Jiang Qing’s story; in no work in Chinese, even, is the Jiang-Tang Na marriage described in one-tenth the detail that I offer (nor are several other most important episodes in Jiang’s life). Might Liang and Shapiro not have pointed this out?

They tell the story the author has told and manage to make it interesting; they never say that it is the author of the book under review who has constructed this story and made it interesting. One may compare the more generous comment of the Los Angeles Times: “Reading The White-Boned Demon takes about a day and a half and, if you fall under its spell, you’ll come out after 30 hours having been in many different worlds…. It’s marvellous to read.”

The statements in the latter part of the review about what The White-Boned Demon has not said or explained are amazing.

  1. I am a “feminist” whose “sympathy” for Jiang Qing and belief that she had “little choice” in the path she followed leads me to “fail” to detail the results of Jiang’s activities in the Cultural Revolution. Nonsense. I call Jiang a “vicious woman who helped dispose of many people” (322). I declare: Due to her “personalized, arbitrary politics…a revolution was betrayed; a great people were taken for granted like a herd of tame sheep; a nation was diverted from economic development to the vain rituals of court politics” (320). And so on.

  2. I fail to analyze the Jiang-Lin Biao tie and its importance, to Jiang, and to Lin’s hope to succeed Mao. Rubbish. I characterize Jiang’s appointment to Lin’s army in 1966 as the most important career step of her life, and I throw new light on their tie, through Lin Biao’s wife Ye Chun and others (255–256, 304–305); I go on at some length about how the tie “helped Lin Biao’s bid to be Mao’s deputy and successor” (256).

  3. I fail to explain how “this limited, spiteful woman” was able to change the course of history. Not so. As the distinguished political scientist Richard Solomon pointed out, The White-Boned Demon is “an important addition to the literature on personality and politics” because it “gives rich documentation that reveals the long-hidden layers of personal associations and feuds at the core of Chinese Communist politics.” Liang & Shapiro show no sign of understanding either the literature or the dynamics of personality and politics.

Let me sum up my explanations for Jiang’s career, which Liang and Shapiro say I don’t give, with some sentences from The White-Boned Demon:

—Official China tries “to suggest that at the top of Chinese politics individual taste, lust, vision, and fear meant nothing. In truth they meant almost everything, and even more in the case of a woman than of a man, because her position was less secure” (319). This is the cultural point of entry into the psycho-political history of Jiang Qing.

—“Power that is not accountable to an electorate not only corrupts, it also makes a spoiled child of the absolute power-holder in allowing an individual personality to become a universe of its own without reference beyond itself, not subject to the sting of criticism, not restrained by the habit of compromise” (319). This is the root in Leninist dictatorial politics of the psycho-political history of Jiang Qing.

—“Cushioned by the environment within a cocoon of power, she had made a series of identifications between her own personality and the Communist cause. Her rebelliousness, born when she saw her father attack her mother, she aligned with the class revolt of the dispossessed against ‘capitalists’ and ‘landlords.’ Her quest for vindication as a woman she now saw as requiring the gathering into her hands of supreme power within the Communist Party of China” (323). This explains the connection between Jiang’s personal drives and the character of her political career.

Finally, Liang & Shapiro tell your readers that I morally equate Deng and Jiang. No, the point of the passage they quote—to the effect that today’s “truth” will yield to yet another revision of the “truth”—is not that the verdict on Jiang was unjustified, but that it was motivated largely by revenge; and that in China after Jiang Qing power struggles go on. This is less a point about Jiang than one about the Chinese political system. The truth changes; the Dengs and Jiangs come in and out as by a revolving door. But the source of truth—the Communist Party—holds its ground unabashed.

I would be just as “terrified” as Liang & Shapiro if the ultraleft came back; that is not the point of my limited defense of Jiang Qing. Joseph Kraft hit the point in his comment on The White-Boned Demon: “It brings life to the politics of China and shows that beneath the surface of economic development there is actually taking place, on a vast scale, a settling of scores.”

Ross Terrill

Boston, Massachusetts

Judith Shapiro and Liang Heng replies:

We made it clear that we were drawing on Mr. Terrill’s account of Jiang Qing’s life in the long sections of our review summarizing The White-Boned Demon. The problem is that his book is often hard to use because Terrill does not distinguish among reliable sources, rumors, and deliberate distortions; he contributes to the confusion by supplying Jiang Qing with dubious inner monologues and puzzling dramatizations of her life. Others have had similar reservations, for example Merle Goldman in The New Republic:

Some information appears unevaluated, such as that based on gossip, movie magazines, and biased political and personal sources…. Terrill is supposedly writing historical fact, not historical fiction. [April 9, p. 32]

Fox Butterfield wrote in The New York Times Book Review:

The White-Boned Demon raises some difficult questions. The most obvious is how careful Mr. Terrill has been about his sources. [March 4, p. 11]

In view of such problems, we felt we were giving Mr. Terrill the benefit of the doubt when, in our summary of his book, we drew on a number of anecdotes we found surprising, such as the strike in the Yanan school in protest against the affair between Mao and Jiang.

Terrill is not the only person to whom Jiang Qing’s former husband, Tang Na, has granted interviews from his exile in Paris, although it is probably true that some of Terrill’s material on the Jiang Qing-Tang Na relationship is new. (The stories about Tang in The White-Boned Demon seemed familiar to one of us.) Of course, it is useful to have a large selection of Chinese-language sources made available in English. Unfortunately, Terrill’s use of these sources often makes it impossible for readers to separate the authentic from the doubtful. This is particularly regrettable since Terrill could only have made the book more interesting by sharing with readers the difficulties he encountered in obtaining and evaluating evidence.

As for Terrill’s other complaints: we searched long and hard in The White-Boned Demon for a sense of the broad consequences of Jiang’s activities during the Cultural Revolution, and came up with little more than the few sentences Terrill quotes in his letter. The second of these, as we noted, is preceded by Terrill’s astonishing justification of Jiang that she was “forced…into a pattern of personalized, arbitrary politics.” In the margin next to this statement we made an incredulous note to ourselves: “Is this the CR?” Terrill apparently felt it appropriate to spend nearly four hundred discursive pages on Jiang’s steamy sex life, on her quest for “self-expression,” and on her struggle for “vindication” as a woman. To us, his sense of priorities seems badly skewed, and we believe the millions of Chinese whose lives have been affected by her would agree with us.

Terrill says he addresses the importance of the Jiang-Lin alliance to their respective careers, and he does; missing in his analysis, however, is its importance to Mao’s success in launching the Cultural Revolution. Terrill does not look beyond his psychohistorical portrait of a woman scorned to see that one nasty woman cannot make a holocaust. Jiang could not possibly have achieved her power and influence without the support Mao had from the army, without the masses’ worship of Mao, without the power struggle between Mao and Liu Shaoqi, without a hundred other factors unique to that time and place in history which are missing from Terrill’s book.

Terrill claims that he is not morally equating Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Qing. The sympathetic and admiring tone he adopts toward Jiang in her captivity could be very misleading, however. It is true that China’s factions come and go, and that all the leaders are Communist party members. But to conclude on this note is to cloud the important differences among their policies, educational backgrounds, and relative popularities. Jiang Qing was hated by the Chinese people after they awakened to the fact that they had been deceived; the day Deng Xiaoping came back to power in 1977 was a day of genuine hope. The trial of the Gang of Four by a kangaroo court was objectionable; but there seems to us a difference between attacks on a woman responsible for the persecution and deaths of many of China’s great intellectuals and artists, as well as countless others, and Jiang Qing’s own revenge against those who had competed with her for stage roles or married her ex-lovers. Jiang Qing will never “be seen in a better light” in China. Were left-leaning officials to succeed in their attempts to obstruct China’s modernization and return to an emphasis on class struggle and collective production, that would be a black day indeed for the Chinese people.

Finally, on our purported inaccuracies: Mao died on September 9, 1976; the Gang of Four was put under surveillance on October 6, four weeks later; public announcement of their fall came on October 22; but the formal arrest papers were not served until a few months after Mao’s death. As to whether or not Jiang worked with a theater group in Qingdao, Terrill writes that while living there,

She threw herself into the Seaside Drama Society, a group typical of the times, which pitted the power of dramatic art against that of Japanese guns, taking to rural communities plays such as Lay Down Your Whip, a patriotic story of Manchurian refugees suffering under Tokyo’s rule. [p. 43]

We should have made it clear that this was a mobile theater.

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