J is for Jiang Qing

This is my contribution to Round Twelve of ABC Wednesday and again I am focusing on people, some famous, some infamous and some half-forgotten.
Li-Jinhai aka Jiang Qing

Li-Jinhai aka Jiang Qing

Jiang Qing was just one of the eight names borne during her lifetime of the woman you might know better as Madame Mao, poster girl of the Chinese cultural revolution and one of the infamous Gang of Four.

Born Li-Jinhai in 1914 in the Shandong province of eastern China, Jiang Qing endured a childhood of poverty and neglect. Her mother was a concubine with little time for her daughter, while her father was an abusive alcoholic.

At the age of fourteen she was expelled from school for spitting at a teacher and she ran away from home, making her way to Beijing where she became an actress.

Not much is known about these early years, mainly because she later suppressed any details when she came to power, but it seems that she married and separated twice, became a communist and was arrested for terrorism. (Her enemies alleged that she escaped captivity by sleeping with her captors.)

Jiang Qing on the cover of a film magazine

Jiang Qing on the cover of a film magazine

We do know that she used the stage name Lan Ping, meaning ‘Blue Apple’, and that she was talented enough to land a number of major roles, including Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Jiang also developed a love for Hollywood films and copied Great Garbo in her dress and wore make-up and high heels.

But even then Jiang was nurturing a spiteful nature and a long memory for perceived slights. She was beaten to a role by a girl called Wang Ying who went on to become a famous actress. Decades later, Jiang had her arrested and imprisoned, ensuring that her former rival died in prison.

Jiang forsook the stage in 1937 to become a revolutionary based in the Yunnan caves in central China. It was there that she set her sights on Mao Zedong who used to lecture the budding insurgents.

Mao was in the audience to see Jiang perform in an opera organised for the troops and visited her backstage after the show. He draped his coat over her shoulders and she returned it the next day and ended up staying the night.

Jiang and Mao

Jiang and Mao

The Communist high command disapproved of Mao’s relationship with Jiang. He was still technically married to a senior party official and Jiang’s past was a heady mix of sex, deceit and Western debauchery which hardly fitted the party’s idea of revolutionary behaviour.

Matters got worse when a rumour started that one of Jiang’s former lovers had tried to commit suicide by swallowing a bottle of surgical spirits and crushed match-heads.

But Mao was the Great Leader and he cut a deal with the party where he got to keep Jiang on condition that she would not be publicly acknowledged as his wife, nor hold any political office for twenty years.

Jiang's PropagandaThe secret marriage was not a happy one. Mao lost interest in Jiang sexually – at twenty-three she was already a little old for his tastes – but he also saw that her fanatical loyalty and ruthlessness would be useful to him. As she said herself: ‘Whoever Chairman Mao asked me to bite, I bit.’

So it was that when the twenty year ‘ban’ expired in 1963, Mao chose Jiang to be head of the Ministry of Culture.

These were the years of her greatest influence as the Great Flag-carrier of the Proletarian Culture. Jiang oversaw the Cultural Revolution, suppressing all traditional cultural activities and organising mass rallies in which her enemies were humiliated and physically abused by the infamous Red Guard.

Jiang drew up the ‘Kill Culture’ manifesto that outlawed books, paintings and films deemed unsuitable and Jiang herself had a hand in producing propaganda films. Her Revolution Small Group even banned the piano, denouncing it as the most dangerous of Western instruments.

Jiang QingShe was dubbed Madame Mao in the west and her paranoia and excesses grew. Jiang made sure that anyone who knew about her past were imprisoned or killed and she ordered warships to cruise up and down rivers so she could indulge her passion for photography and roads were specially built for her to visit beauty spots.

And while the rest of the population were force fed Maoist propaganda, Jiang imported Western films – The Sound of Music was her particular favourite.

She had an intense fear of strangers and of unexpected noises, and lived in constant terror of assassination. And Jiang was as demanding as a diva, insisting that her rooms be kept at 21.5 °C in winter and 26 °C in summer.

Jiang took three lots of sleeping tablets each night because she was so nervous and her servants were ordered to remove all birds and cicadas from around the house so that she wouldn’t be disturbed. Those same servants were made to walk with their arms in the air and legs apart in case she heard their clothes rustling.

She even went down the route of believing that she could restore her youth and vigour through blood transfusions from healthy young men. She had gone as far as selecting her donors before Mao put a stop to her madness.

Jiang (right) at her trial

Jiang (right) at her trial

Mao used Jiang’s psychotic personality to create a climate of fear and it was almost inevitable that a backlash would come. Within weeks of Mao’s death in 1976, Jiang was arrested with the rest of the Gang of Four in a bloodless coup.

Her trial in 1980 was televised daily and was watched by a no doubt relieved audience (see the video below). She was convicted of counter revolutionary crime and sentenced to death, later commuted to life imprisonment.

Jiang hanged herself in a hospital bathroom in 1991.

With acknowledgment to the QI Book of the Dead

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

9 comments… Add yours
  • Roger Green 20th March 2013

    I was certainly familiar with her, but learned a lot more here. Strange how supposed anti-capitalists, also including the North Korean leader, are so taken by western entertainment.

    Reply
  • Leslie 20th March 2013

    Whew! Fascinating life history. I did know of her but not so many details of her life.

    Leslie
    abcw team

    Reply
  • rhymeswithplague 20th March 2013

    So then there is such a thing as evil in the world.

    Jiang Qing did not make her way to Beijing at 14, she made her way to Peking or Peiping or whatever it was called in the West in those days. Likewise, she didn’t set her sights on Mao Zedong but on Mao Tse-tung as he was then known.

    I like the older transliteration style better; it seems more Chinese to me. Isn’t that crazy?

    Great post, Ian, in spite of (or maybe because of) it’s detestable subject matter.

    Reply
    • Mr Parrot 20th March 2013

      I did struggle with whether to use the Romanised Peking and Tse-tung instead of Beijing and Zedong. Like you, I prefer the names that I learned in my youth and can’t quite understand why we have changed – we still say Florence instead of Firenze and Finland rather than Suomi. In the end I plumped for political correctness!

      Reply
  • londonlulu 20th March 2013

    What a rich narrative! I knew of her (and sad to say, members of my extended family have had unfortunate brushes with China’s Communist Party’s) but did not delve into the details. What a J choice, thanks for the history lesson today.

    Reply
  • John g 20th March 2013

    A new story on me
    And I must say an intensely interesting one
    Thank you for that

    Reply
  • National Health Pudding 21st March 2013

    The piano – the most dangerous of Western instruments? It certainly is when dropped from a block of council flats. Pity nobody dropped one on that horrible woman’s head! I heard she worked in a chinky in Oldham in the early sixties.

    Reply
    • Mr Parrot 21st March 2013

      Not to mention when delivering one up a flight of steps – just ask Laurel and Hardy.

      Reply
  • Richie 24th March 2013

    Great story of a very interesting albeit quite scary person. I enjoy the podcast, Stuff You Missed in History Class, and I suggested this story to them as a podcast topic.
    An Arkies Musings

    Reply

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