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The Rise and Fall of Mao’s Empress

12 minute read

Sex is engaging in the first rounds; what sustains interest in the long run is power.

So, in a unique set of interviews, Chiang Ch’ing summed up her stormy career as both sex symbol and potentate, movie actress and commissar. The slim, pretty actress from Shanghai who became the wife of Mao Tse-tung tried to turn her marriage to a modern-day emperor into supreme power of her own. She almost succeeded, and for a decade she was one of the world’s most powerful women. As the virtual ruler over the culture of 850 million people, she determined what they could see on stage or screen.

Today, at 63, Chiang Ch’ing is no longer a revolutionary heroine; she is constantly attacked as a counterrevolutionary villain. The abrupt transformation came about last October when she was arrested in Peking by the new government of Party Chairman Hua Kuo-feng. She stands charged with being one of the “Gang of Four,” a coterie of top officials whose alleged goal was to seize supreme power for themselves. Together they supposedly forged the deathbed instructions of Mao, incited violence and sabotage throughout the country, and mounted campaigns of slander against anyone who opposed them. Chiang Ch’ing is being described by the press and in countless wall posters as a kind of Chinese Marie Antoinette, selfish, greedy and arrogant.

Before her fall, Chiang Ch’ing had her chance, in a long series of interviews granted in 1972 to American Sinologist Roxane Witke, to tell her story to the world. Excerpts of that story, prepared exclusively by TIME, appear below.

Witke, 39, a professor of history at the State University of New York at Binghamton, had been invited to China in the summer of 1972 to do research on the status of Chinese women. She spent six weeks there, speaking to many women leaders, including Teng Ying-ch’ao, the wife of then Premier Chou Enlai, and K’ang K’o-ch’ing, wife of Marshal Chu Teh, China’s most renowned military leader.

One afternoon in Peking, Witke was whisked to the Great Hall of the People for dinner with Chiang Ch’ing, then at the height of her power. Presumably at that meeting, Chiang Ch’ing decided that Witke would be a suitable person to transmit her story to the outside world. Some two weeks later, while Witke was touring Shanghai, she was told excitedly by one of her guides: “Comrade Chiang Ch’ing has made a secret flight to Canton, where she is reflecting on her life and the revolution.” Witke was flown by special jet to that southern city, where, in a secluded villa surrounded by gardens, she listened for six days running, long into the early morning hours, as Chiang Ch’ing delivered a rambling and often very personal and revealing monologue about herself.

Nakedly Ambitious. It was clear that the entire endeavor had been approved and suggested by Premier Chou. He had described Witke to Chiang Ch’ing as “young and enthusiastic for China.” Nonetheless, for obscure reasons, the Peking leadership soon decided that the interviews had been a mistake. Possibly, Chiang Ch’ing, along with her allies, realized that giving the interviews made her look too nakedly ambitious. After all, the only other Chinese leader who had given an autobiography to a foreigner was Mao himself (to U.S. Journalist Edgar Snow in Red Star Over China, 1937). Months after Witke returned to the U.S., the promised transcripts had failed to appear. Word reached her that the interviews were “too long and complicated” to be issued as an authorized document by Peking. She was offered a generous “financial incentive” to dissuade her from writing her book. She did so anyway, working from the copious notes she had taken during her long talks. The result, Comrade Chiang Ch’ing, to be published by Little, Brown and Co. next month, is the most intimate, detailed and complete English-language biography ever written about anyone in Peking’s secretive, secluded leadership, except perhaps Mao himself.

There are large gaps and omissions; often, Chiang Ch’ing’s story is extremely self-serving. At the same time, her account of turmoil and conflict gives a whole new view to the nature of life at the top in China—ruthless, unpredictable and dangerous.

She is surprisingly generous toward some of those whom analysts in the West have regarded as her principal enemies. She saw Premier Chou En-lai as her champion. Even more surprising is her reference to Chou’s ally, Teng Hsiao-p’ing, who plunged into abject disgrace during the Cultural Revolution. Teng, she admits, had been “unfairly punished.” She predicts in 1972, a year before the fact, that “his work and prestige would be restored.” Even so, a deadly quarrel erupted between Teng, Chou’s choice to succeed him as Premier, and Chiang Ch’ing’s faction in 1975, a quarrel that resulted in Teng’s dismissal from all his posts. (He has since been gradually rehabilitated.) It all suggests that there was a period of relative harmony between the factions that only broke apart after 1972. That is when Chou began to bring a great many disgraced officials back to former positions of authority—and they competed with the younger generation, which had come to power during the Cultural Revolution. That policy probably precipitated the bitter factional struggles that have lasted to the present.

In her account of such struggles, Chiang Ch’ing inadvertently shows a streak of unremitting vindictiveness, particularly as she recounts a three-decade-long battle to take revenge on several cultural-political adversaries from her old acting days in Shanghai. Her quarrel with these men had little to do with high-minded ideological issues, as she always claimed; ideological quarrels have often been a kind of smoke screen hiding personal animosity. Without intending to, she makes today’s Forbidden City, where the Peking leaders still live and work, seem almost the same as the old intrigue-ridden imperial court that the Communists claim to have eradicated forever.

Throughout her long monologues, Chiang Ch’ing carefully cultivates her image as a loyal follower (“a roving sentry”) of her husband, Chairman Mao. Since her fall, Peking’s official press has insisted that the infallible Mao all along knew that his wife was a scoundrel, an ideological renegade, a potential usurper of power. In fact, it seems quite clear that Chiang Ch’ing did reflect Mao’s most radical tendencies, especially his willingness periodically to shake up the bureaucracy in “rectification campaigns” and even to plunge China into near-total chaos for the sake of ideological purity. Thus it is almost certain that the purge of Chiang Ch’ing was indirectly a slap at her husband as well. Accompanied as it was by the triumph of the pragmatists under new Party Chairman Hua Kuo-feng, Chiang Ch’ing’s fall represents the beginnings of a kind of de-Maoification in China, in fact if not in name.

As for Chiang Ch’ing herself, her testimony shows her at times to be isolated, frustrated and unhappy, at the mercy of a power game she never, even at her best moments, mastered completely. She was never really accepted by the masses; many Chinese saw her as a typical emperor’s wife, whose efforts to get power for herself were illegitimate. She was bitterly hated by many veterans of both the party and the army who had been the victims of her intemperate attacks during the Cultural Revolution. Thus, when Chairman Mao died, depriving Chiang Ch’ing of her main source of support, she was left defenseless against her enemies.

Of the world beyond China, she knew little. The only American Presidents she remembered from her history lessons were Washington (“a great man”) and Lincoln. She studied Gone With the Wind to understand the Civil War. She also studied American westerns and did not seem to grasp fully that they were fictional reconstructions and did not portray contemporary reality. To her, the westerns proved that “monopoly capitalist groups” had been responsible for killing off the Indians. “The working people would not act like that.”

Personally, Chiang Ch’ing comes across as a woman of great complexity. She is obviously very intelligent, capable of great charm. She is also arrogant, unpredictable, self-centered. She is tireless, nervous and excitable; at one point in her interviews she became so wound up that she had to take sleeping pills before going to bed, then she overdosed herself and collapsed on the floor. At another point, she suddenly rose and started playing billiards with two aides, squealing with delight when she did well. Such exercise, she explained, was necessary to keep her legs from swelling.

Illness was a constant theme of her story. Throughout her life, she suffered from an extraordinary variety of ailments: cancer, TB, liver disorders, emaciation, unexplained fevers, fainting spells and subcutaneous bleeding, among others. She is a great believer in nature cures, which she urged on Witke, including a potion made of lotus stock (to ease urination), a solution of sea water and bamboo (good for the gums) and dried white lilies (curative powers not specified).

Extraordinary Stamina. Yet her story also shows her extraordinary stamina. In the long, hard years when China’s Communists were holed up in their precarious refuge in remote Yenan, women had to do hard physical labor in the fields and on reclamation projects, but were excused during their menstrual periods. Chiang Ch’ing scornfully refused this concession. Later, when she was daily plodding through the countryside near Wuhan in central China helping with land distribution to poor peasants, she sometimes almost dropped from exhaustion and still bitterly remembered the peasants’ taunts: “Who do you think you are?”

Despite her often spartan life, luxury appealed to her and money used to preoccupy her greatly. Going out with young men in Shanghai, she insisted on paying her own way; when she was broke, she would insist: “This time you pay, but next time I pay.” Once, on the way to a movie, a pickpocket stole her money. Rather than admit this to her escort, she fled and later took out a small loan at a bank; she was “ashamed to report,” notes Witke, that she never repaid it.

In the 1940s a Hong Kong movie company produced a film called The Inside Story of the Ch’ing Court. Its central character was the Empress Dowager Tz’u-Hsi (1835-1908), who tried to maintain imperial luxury in the midst of internal disorder and foreign invasion. After a long struggle, Chiang Ch’ing succeeded in having the film banned. Many Chinese had identified her with the empress—who was portrayed as loving the theater, flowers and the new invention of photography. Pretty close. Apart from her lifelong interest in the theater, Chiang Ch’ing’s hobbies—which she delighted in sharing with Witke—were horticulture and photography. She took pictures constantly, not in the socialist fashion of factories and farms, but of the subjects favored by traditional Chinese painters—flowers sparkling with morning dew or mountains silhouetted against the evening sky. It is as if she saw the camera simply as a technologically advanced way of doing the arts of bygone eras. She inscribed the backs of her photographs in red, as if harking back to the vermilion ink that was once reserved exclusively for use by China’s emperors.

Chiang Ch’ing was, for Communist China, a particularly stylish woman; at one point in her interviews she distributed black midi-length dresses to her several female aides and demanded that they wear them at dinner that night. She had her own collection of “bourgeois” films by such foreign stars as Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin. All this is in marked contrast to the dreary, controlled socialist culture and drab unisexual clothes that she helped to impose on China’s masses. Hardly a surprise that in the current campaign against her, Chiang Ch’ing’s love of luxury is a major charge against her. She did not seem to be aware of the contradiction, seeming confident that as the Chairman’s wife she was simply entitled to certain privileges. “What set her apart,” says Witke, “was the sense of being her own person, of being able to say, speak and act more or less as she wanted.”

As events would prove, Chiang Ch’ing was far less her own person than she believed. In trying to move from the sex of the “first rounds” to the power that “sustains interest in the long run,” she never really won enough power to survive on her own. The very fact that she gave her interviews to Roxane Witke is being used in the current campaign to vilify her past behavior. By talking to an outsider, and showing that outsider intimate details of her private life, Chiang Ch’ing put on the record all the ammunition her enemies would ever need to destroy her. –

On the next eight pages, TIME presents key portions of Chiang Ch’ing’s own story as recounted by Roxane Witke, along with many previously unpublished photographs of Chiang Ch’ing. The excerpts begin with Witke’s description of her first formal session as Chiang Ch’ing’s anointed biographer. She had just arrived in Canton, where she stayed in a government guesthouse and awaited her encounter with Madame Mao.

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