Gang of Four now a Gang of One

Only one left.

China has announced the death of one of the members of the Gang of Four who led the Cultural Revolution that convulsed the country in the 1960s and 1970s. Zhang Chunqiao died of cancer last month at the age of 88.


During the years of violence and destruction unleashed with Mao’s tacit connivance in the 1960s and 70s, Zhang Chunqiao – a Shanghai propaganda official and ex-journalist – played a key role.

Jailed for life in a show trial in 1981, he was released on medical parole after serving long years in prison. Jiang Qing and fellow gang member Wang Hongwen have long since died.

Zhang Chunqiao’s death leaves a sole survivor – Yao Wenyuan, who was released nearly a decade ago into quiet oblivion.


Zhang himself actually died on 21 April, but his death has only just been officially reported. The delay is perhaps a measure of the extreme sensitivity that still surrounds the Cultural Revolution.

Many feel the Communist Party has never allowed the suffering that China’s urban intellectuals and others went through to be properly dealt with. To do so could gravely threaten the party’s legitimacy and re-open the wounds of a group of people whose lives were so badly disrupted that they think of themselves as a lost generation.

Harmony ueber alles. Sweep them under the table, and maybe the lost generation will just go away. The last thing you do is acknowledge the scope of the crime and deal with the victims. (Hmmm, that seems to be what the Chinese are accusing the Japanese of doing re. WWII victims.)

The Discussion: 23 Comments

Living in Beijing in 1979, this was one of the main impressions I carried away – so many people with whom I dealt had experienced dreadful, traumatic things during the CCR. I heard some horrible stories. I guess that’s why I’m still optimistic about China – the emotional atmosphere back then was so depressed and oppressed. It was really a hard place to be for any length of time.

I think I’ve mentioned this here – I have at home the English translation of a book by two Chinese historians about the CR – I think the title is “Turbulant Decade.” This was as I understand an officially approved work, but it was so damning, even operating under certain constraints, that the work was quickly banned.

I’m pretty Harrison Salisbury mined this book heavily for his more pop history account, “China’s New Emperors.”

May 10, 2005 @ 4:59 pm | Comment

Lisa, when I was in Yunnan in March I read Salisbury’s book — it is great! I have to say, my respect for Deng Xiaopeng grew after I read it, though it also drove home his ruthlessness. But without him, where would China be? He really was the one man who made all the difference, and it’s scary to think of what might have happened had the Gang won out.

May 10, 2005 @ 5:13 pm | Comment

Richard, I enjoyed Salisbury’s book too – though I always feel like Zhou Enlai doesn’t get the coverage he should – this is a book I’m supposed to be writing, actually…one of these days…

May 10, 2005 @ 5:52 pm | Comment

The cultural revolution does not threaten the CCP’s legitimacy in the eyes of most Chinese, mainly because most of the people who were victims of the cultural revolution have been running China for the past two decades. I think one of the most common oversimplications/misunderstandings about China in the West is looking at the CCP as monolithic historical unit. We look at the CCP as the party of Mao and the cultural revolution; most Chinese do not associate the Cultural Revolution with “communism” or the CCP specifically. Some even associate it (however absurdly) with “democracy” and the dangers of populism. In Western eyes, something like the GLF and the cultural revolution tar the entire “system” and the party in particular. This is simply not how Chinese view it.

To Chinese this is probably like saying that slavery should permanently discredit American democracy. Or that the Democratic or Republican party should obviously be permanently discredited in the eyes of Americans because of the actions of a Nixon or a Clinton.

Also, if you think most Chinese are dying to “vent” about those years (as that article implies), you are dreaming. Most of the generation that was around at that time we’re either victims of the insanity or participated in it. Most of the younger generation are barely aware of what even happened at that time. In any case, most Chinese I know who are aware of those events don’t blame the CCP as a whole, they blame Jiang Qing and Mao. That is hard to digest as an outsider who sees the CR (and anything else negative that has ever happened in China since 1949) as proof of the demonstrable evil of the CCP as a whole – past, present and future.

May 10, 2005 @ 6:32 pm | Comment

I think you are reading way more into this than anyone said, Tuode. Obviously the CCP isn’t monolithic or a force of pure evil. But the CR is one thing they do shy away from, just as some other nations shy away from ugly things in their own pasts.

Slavery ended nearly 150 years ago. The CR ended 30 years ago and many of the Red Guard and their victims are around and still suffering the effects of what Mao wrought on the country. And that I know for a fact.

May 10, 2005 @ 6:38 pm | Comment

There was a period, when I was there, in fact, when talking about the CR was actually encouraged, because Deng Xiaoping et. al. had also been persecuted during the CR. But I think that there were limits on how far this discussion could go (as in the book I cited).

I’ve said it before, but I’ll repeat: the CCP is far from monolithic, there are all kinds of factions, and one hopes that said factions will eventually form the basis of a more representative system of government.

May 10, 2005 @ 6:45 pm | Comment

Lisa, we’re in agreement on this one.

May 10, 2005 @ 7:11 pm | Comment


I was mainly talking about the way Chinese see it. I think the gist of that article (the complete article) is that if Chinese were only allowed to discuss/vent about the CR, the CCP would obviously be in danger of collapse. That is just the usual wishful thinking on the part of the Western media.

About the slavery analogy, that is not “my” analogy. That is how I’ve heard some Chinese challange Western notions of the CR vis-a-vis the CCP.

May 10, 2005 @ 7:17 pm | Comment

I know, they always bring up the aslaves and the American Indians. As though America hasn’t realized the horrors of what it did and never sought to make amends….

May 10, 2005 @ 7:24 pm | Comment

I would add that most people who lived through CR are NOT either victims OR participants, but are BOTH. Everyone was victimized at some level, and yet participated in the victimization of others, at least in a passive capacity. Personal scores were settled under the guise of political struggle, and the roles shifted constantly. Perhaps this is why the nation is not yet ready to confront the CR head-on.

May 10, 2005 @ 7:31 pm | Comment

Which one is still alive? And where?

May 10, 2005 @ 7:35 pm | Comment

FSN9, it’s above: “Zhang Chunqiao’s death leaves a sole survivor – Yao Wenyuan, who was released nearly a decade ago into quiet oblivion….”

May 10, 2005 @ 7:49 pm | Comment

I agree with schtickyrice completely. Sure, the CCP doesn’t want to talk about the CR because the consensus in contemporary Chinese society that the CR was a horrible thing. Politically, it would be difficult, and I would argue pointless, to “acknowledge the scope of the crime and deal with the victims.” Chinese already know the scope of the crime. Dealing with the victims doesn’t make any sense in this situation because there was no accountability as who was actually responsible. Obviously the Gang of Four had a great deal to do with it, but the CR was more of social phenomenon rather than an authoritarian agenda that was imposed against the will of the people.

May 10, 2005 @ 7:57 pm | Comment

Schticky’s point is excellent. And I also agree with Tuode – I don’t see how “confronting the CR” would bring the CCP down. Like Schticky said, many people were both villains and victors, but I think it’s fair to say that many of those currently in power see the CR as a huge disaster, something that must never be repeated. This of course was the justification for 6/4, in many of the leaderships’ minds…

May 10, 2005 @ 9:26 pm | Comment

Japan’s most henious war criminals were tried and executed for their crimes, yet China still hounds Japan as if they were allowed to go free.

China’s henious leaders have been allowed to slip away into obscurity despite killing more people in China than Japna did in the whole of Asia.

Maybe Japan should start printing hisotirically accurate text books about the Cultural R. You can be your bottom dollar China would not be pleased to see thi kind of truth in a Japanese text book.

May 10, 2005 @ 10:54 pm | Comment

well, to be fair, the Gang of Four were in prison for a good long time, and Jiang Qing died there. Of course they were far from alone in bearing the responsibility for the CR…that guy in the tomb in the center of Beijing, for example…

May 11, 2005 @ 12:07 am | Comment

My experience with older Chinese people who experienced the CR jives with Tuode – they don’t want to remember, and when they do, the only they say is “it was insane” and that the younger generation hasn’t got a clue.

Anyone who lives through a turbulent and traumatic period like the CR, I think, naturally wants to move on. What I find interesting is that the older generation seems to have no interest whatsoever in making sure the younger generation knows – in fact, they seem to think it is better left to history. Contrast that with other countries experiences with recent painful history, such as the Vietnam War for the U.S., the Holocaust for Germany, apartheid for South Africa – in every case there were and are incredibly outspoken witnesses who feel its their moral duty and obligation to keep the memory alive. Why the difference?

May 11, 2005 @ 12:48 am | Comment

I think the big difference is what schticky pointed out above. In all the examples you gave, you can distiguish between victim and commiter. In its height CR had all charecteristics of a civil war, with numerous factions fighting against each other. Also the unceirtanness must have been terrible. What one day was the truth could be heretical on the other day. Similar to the 30es in USSR, when Stalin “cleaned” the party.
H. Arendt decribed it with the words: “When yesterdays hangman becomes the victim of today, terror has reached its height.”
Most people tend to come to terms with the past by just forgetting the bad things. Not every victim has the urgent need to tell about the terrible things he or she had to endure. I think the majority is like that, cause telling makes you live through it and suffer once again. What concerns the committers, its obvious that they don’ want beeing asked about the past.
So its not surprising that most people just don’t want to think and speak about the past, as many were victims but also guilty in one or the other way.

May 11, 2005 @ 3:13 am | Comment

Obviously the Gang of Four had a great deal to do with it, but the CR was
more of social phenomenon rather than an authoritarian agenda that was
imposed against the will of the people.

This is a tricky issue. It certainly became a social phenomenon, and at the start it was like a thrilling adventure, brimming with energy and patriotism. But it was architected by Mao for very political purposes and politic pervaded every moment of those dark years. First it was designed to ensure Mao’s legacy, tarnished by the Great Leap Backwards. It was also all about making Mao a classic clut figure like Hitler or Stalin or Kim Jong-il. More than anything, it was about weeding out civil servants and politicians, suspected “enemies,” and often treating them with appalling barbarity. With complete control over what people learn and see and hear, organizing such social movements isn’t too hard. While it wasn’t imposed against the will of the people, it was certainly imposed against the best interest of the people, many of whom were destroyed along the way. But it was imposed from the top, by the government, and was “Mao’s baby,” so to speak, at least for the first few years, before Mao got too old and the Gang of Four gained such fearsome power. Thank God for Deng.

May 11, 2005 @ 6:40 am | Comment

Read Ronald MacFarquar’s excellent series, THE ORIGINS OF THE CULTURAL REVOLUTION for background.

May 11, 2005 @ 10:31 am | Comment

Of course Mao was an astute politician that used CR to his advantage, but he was also a poet, a philosopher, and a madman. Once unleashed, the CR was something that neither Mao nor the Gang of Four could control. Sure, many politicians and bureaucrats were victimized, but in many cases it was not without reason. Given the chance, wouldn’t the Chinese underclass of today react just as harshly to the corrupt CCP bureaucrats of today? Has anyone read the Hundred Day War: CR at Tsinghua University? It really puts into perspective all the first hand stories and experiences that I’ve heard about at the dinner table.

In the long run, China’s national psyche would be much healthier if the CR could be confronted head-on in an open manner. I for one have benefited immensely from my mom’s open discussions about her experiences during the CR. Unfortunately a truly open dialogue is not possible in the current situation in China and until that happens the only option is the numbing pursuit of wealth and materialism.

May 11, 2005 @ 7:44 pm | Comment

That the majority of people in China that you and I know may not seem to remember or care about such things as the CR or the GLF does not mean these events are forgotten by the Chinese as a nation. The vast majority of US college students can’t place the civil war in the correct decade, yet as a nation that war will never be forgotten in America. All it takes is that these events are remembered by people whose memory actually counts: people who are leaders now and people who will becom leaders in the future. By leaders I don’t mean just those who are in power, but those who represent the conscience of the nation. There is no lack of such people in China, just as there has been no lack of such people in any other country where such memories are needed. CCP has done a very good job of keeping the memory alive by constantly trying to supress it whenever someone dares to bring it up in one form or another. Everyone in CCP leadership knows it’s just a matter of time when all this will come to surface. All they can do is hoping it does not happen under their own watch. Deng himself said so much in 1989 when he ordered the crackdown at Tiananmen: I have to do this so we can have peace for the next 20 years! He knew better than anyone else that the Chinese as a nation would not forget or forgive him for his actions. That was also the reason that he, an his successors, have been trying so hard to focus the mind of the nation onto making money (looking foward and looking at money have the same pronounciation in chinese).

May 13, 2005 @ 8:12 pm | Comment


August 15, 2005 @ 1:49 am | Comment

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