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…

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