Jiang Qing: Wife of Mao Zedong, Cruel Manipulator, Feminist
Jiang Qing was born in 1914 in an unremarkable corner of China. After a series of family hardships and an early disappointment in love, Jiang ended up at Qingdao University. There she underwent a conversion to radical left-wing politics and became a party activist. Attracting the attention of the media, Jiang made the cover of several magazines and became known nationwide as the face of the youthful left.
Jiang tried hitching her wagon to several rising stars, but none of them went high enough fast enough for her. Movie directors, actors, student radicals – no one was ambitious enough to suit Jiang's tastes.
This changed when she went to the political backwater of Yan'an in 1937 and there met Mao Zedong. Having found work as a drama teacher at the Lu Xun Academy of Arts in 1938, Jiang was thrilled when Mao came to her school to give a lecture. She finagled an invitation to his cave for "further study."
Mao had many women, including his wife (by whom he had many children), but Jiang did not seem to mind. Guided by dark forces, and in particular the Chinese secret service kingpin Kang Sheng, Jiang maneuvered her way past all others. It was not long before she was pregnant with Mao's child, and not long after that that she had cleared the field and established herself as Mao's photogenic wife.
A professional actress, Jiang Qing was setting the stage for her and Mao's debut in national politics.
After more than a decade of biding her time with Mao in the provinces, perfecting her skill at political intrigue all the while, Jiang's big moment finally came. In 1949, Mao entered the political capital, Beijing, in triumph. Jiang Qing became the de facto empress of China.
A cult of personality ensued. In the eyes of the state-run media, Mao could do no wrong. Never able to control himself when it came to women, Mao had his bodyguard cultivate for him a veritable harem. Nearly every night, Mao went through one, two, sometimes even more girls. His personal bodyguards brought them in, where they were mesmerized by Mao's magnetic personality and easy mannerisms. When he was through with them, they were ushered out the back door, usually to the same obscurity from which they had been plucked.
A hundred flowers bloomed, and a hundred schools of thought contended. But as criticism of Mao and Jiang, and talk of their misdealings, began to circulate, more and more people began to turn up dead. Wildly popular with young people, Mao turned whole armies of disaffected youths out into the streets to attack the fundaments of Chinese civilization. Nothing that had been held sacred before was safe from destruction. In the background, Jiang rode the wave of Mao's success, becoming a member of some of the most powerful political committees in the entire country.
Jiang Qing, never as popular as Mao and devoid of his undeniable charm, nevertheless cultivated her image as a patroness of the arts. She lavished attention and funds on theater troupes, whose affection for her may well have been at least partly sincere. Being actors, it was hard to tell. Being an actress herself, Jiang knew this only too well. Somehow the applause could never be quite enthusiastic enough.
For all of Mao's popularity and her own political power, Jiang was increasingly paranoid. She carried on a brutal rivalry with anyone who competed with her for the right to stand in Mao's shadow. No one suffered as much as her fellow revolutionary partisans. She cruelly forced Zhou Enlai to sign the arrest warrant for his own son. She led the chorus denouncing Deng Xiaoping and Lin Biao. Paid due deference in the media as Mao's wife, she was hated – loathed – by many behind the scenes. The longer she remained in power, the more she had to cut deals to stay there, and the more enemies she made.
In 1973, Mao left her. This was the beginning of the end for Jiang. Plagued by chronic and unexplained medical maladies, Jiang tried to make a play for self-preservation, but it was too late. When Mao died, she was utterly alone. The great feminist warrior was as nothing without the protection of her man. She continued to use her husband's name to provide political cover, but this strategy faltered, and her grip on power slipped.
Sensing that the time was ripe, Jiang's enemies struck. She was arraigned, indicted, and found guilty of crimes against the state, including sending her underlings out to destroy potentially damaging information. Those who had been loyal now rushed to distance themselves from her.
At her trial, Jiang was defiant. She exuded contempt for the proceedings, made grand speeches, lectured the judges, and dismissed evidence on the grounds that her crimes had been necessary for the sake of the revolution. What difference did it make? Many in the courtroom laughed at her. Those whose family members died because of her sat silent, glaring.
Seeing that the court was unconvinced by her testimony, Jiang Qing eventually blamed all of it on Mao. She went to prison, was released for medical treatment some ten years later, and killed herself shortly thereafter. In her suicide note, she took it all back, deciding that she really was the true heir of her husband's name after all.