First, I’d like to apologize for the lengthy gap between this post and the previous one. It’s been a busy holiday season, but I’m excited to return to discussing history!
This month marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Gang of Four trials, arguably the end to one of the most tumultuous eras in modern Chinese history. With the Gang’s downfall came the de facto conclusion of the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao Tse-tung’s plan for the systematic disenfranchisement of Chinese citizens and politicians who had allegedly become “too elite.” The program resulted in the persecution, imprisonment, and execution of thousands of Chinese in what was essentially Mao’s effort to topple his political opponents from power.
Taking center stage in the upheaval was the Gang of Four, one of China’s most infamous political factions, which usurped increasing amounts of power and regulated Chinese culture for nearly ten years. Its four principal members were Jiang Qing, Zhang Chunqiao, Wang Hongwen, and Yao Wenyuan, all influential politicians and cultural figures. Jiang Qing was Mao Tse-tung’s last wife and a former opera actress, while Zhang Chunqiao and Yao Wenyuan were Politburo members and former writers.
The Gang’s major opponent was Premier Zhou Enlai, the leader of the faction originally targeted by the Cultural Revolution. Arguably too moderate and democratic for Mao’s taste, Zhou and his supporters provoked the belligerence of the radically communist Gang. The two sides would spend nearly a decade fighting for control over China’s societal and cultural values.
For the Gang and its faction, the conflict was both ideological and physical. Communist Party members sympathetic to the Gang actively worked to increase Party membership among citizens who shared their stance, both through political jockeying and physical impositions. In a tremendous power grab, the leaders of the Gang established their headquarters in Shanghai (instead of Peking, the capital) and created their own private militia force, refusing to relinquish its control to the government. Militia fighters were mobilized alongside political supporters to brutalize and repress the Gang’s opponents.
The ideological policy of the Gang involved repeated oppression and manipulation of culture. As a retired actress, Jiang Qing seized control of the Peking Opera, one of China’s premier theatres, and appropriated credit for many of the productions in order to reinforce her own cultural legitimacy. She was also instrumental in the repression of The East is Red, an opera famous for its reverential portrayal of her husband. While it’s unclear why she did so, it’s possible that it may have been a move to diminish Mao’s power in favor of her own.
The Gang also attempted to diminish the power of Zhou Enlai through its stance on the visual arts. Zhou’s moderate faction supported a more liberal approach to the arts and opposed censorship, ideas that seemed counterproductive to the Gang’s revolutionary ambitions. In response, the Gang seized hundreds of paintings favored by the moderates, exhibited them in Peking, and denounced their qualities, labeling the artwork and its supporters as hostile to socialism.
Perhaps the most brutal repression was directed at Chinese writers. In policies resembling fascist Germany’s, the Cultural Revolution required intellectuals and writers to comply with the Party’s ideological stance. Those who didn’t were arrested and sent to forced labor camps, effectively silencing artists who opposed the Gang’s policies.
The Gang’s power collapsed in late 1976, after Mao Tse-tung’s death. The power vacuum caused by the Chairman’s passing could have enabled the Gang to seize uncontested governmental control; however, Zhou Enlai’s faction quickly moved to make sure that didn’t happen, securing the four ringleaders’ arrests in October. They languished in prison for four years, finally facing official charges in December 1980. By the end of January, Jiang Qing and Zhang Chunqiao received the death sentence, Wang Hongwen received life imprisonment, and Yao Wenyuan received a twenty-year penal sentence. In 1983, the two death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment.
With the Gang’s downfall, the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution finally began to vanish. The arts experienced a strong revitalization and rapidly turned against the fallen dictators, mocking and satirizing members of the Gang’s faction. In 1979, the Fourth Congress of Writers and Artists reaffirmed their loyalty to the Communist Party but also requested a more progressive set of rights in which to practice their arts. Although restrictions remained, the removal of the Gang from power signaled a new era for Chinese culture after a decade of suffering.
A short clip of Jiang Qing on trial can be found here. (Advisory: it also briefly shows a somewhat graphic photograph of a lynched victim during the Cultural Revolution.) BBC has archived televised coverage of the trial here. Further examples of anti-Gang propaganda can be found here. (Advisory: some of the propaganda is politically charged and, despite being created by Chinese artists, includes Chinese racial stereotypes.)
- G. Barme. “Flowers or More Weeds?–Culture in China Since the Fall of the Gang of Four.” Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs, no. 1 (January 1979): 125-33.
- David Bonavia. Verdict in Peking. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1984.
- Sylvia Chan. “The Blooming of a ‘Hundred Flowers’ and the Literature of the ‘Wounded Generation’.” China Since the Gang of Four, edited by Bill Brugger. St. Martin’s Press, 1980.
- Ralph Croizier. “The Crimes of the Gang of Four: A Chinese Artist’s Version: Notes and Comments.” Pacific Affairs 54, no. 2 (Summer 1981): 311-22.
- Richard King. “‘Wounds’ and ‘Exposure’: Chinese Literature after the Gang of Four.” Pacific Affairs 54, no. 1 (Spring 1981): 82-99.