Monday, January 09, 2006

Poison Pen

From David in the UK comes this obituary from the Manchester Guardian on Yao Wenyuan, the last surviving member of the Gang of Four. Yao was the Gang's polemicist, whose infamous critique of the play, Hai Rui Dismissed from Office, signaled the launch of the Cultural Revolution.
In the essay Yao claimed that a play written by Wu Han, a deputy mayor of Beijing, was a coded attack on Mao for dismissing, in 1959, the then minister of defence Peng Dehuai (who had criticised Mao's disastrous Great Leap Forward).

Confused by this unexpected salvo from Shanghai, Beijing's party leadership tried to protect Wu Han, thus providing the pretext for the full-scale "struggle" launched by Mao against them in the following year. Yao was soon promoted to the Cultural Revolution Group.

If the Gang of Four had not been arrested after Mao's death in 1976, Yao, though devoid of practical experience in government, would have become one of China's supreme leaders. In a popular cartoon published after their downfall, Jiang Qing is shown standing next to a deer on which a placard hangs proclaiming it to be a horse. The image is based on a story, satirising those who demand blind loyalty, which dates from the first Chinese imperial dynasty.

In the cartoon, the second most senior member of the gang, Zhang Chunqiao (obituary, May 13 2005) gives instructions to Yao, who has his notebook open. "Anyone who dares call it a deer," said Zhang "take his name down!" The fourth member of the gang, Shanghai worker-rebel Wang Hongwen, stands on guard. In denunciations of this kind, Yao was always portrayed as a literary hack who wrote to order. The truth was more complex.

Although Yao was often opportunistic in his polemics, their radical views were shared by many other young intellectuals who believed, with Mao, that the pace of China's "transition to socialism" was too slow.
A part of the complexity was the real role of the Gang of Four in the Cultural Revolution. As the LA Times points out:
Many observers say the arrest and imprisonment of the foursome decades ago allowed the Communist Party to avoid taking responsibility for the disastrous policies of its founding father, Chairman Mao Tse-tung.

"The Gang of Four was created as a symbol by the post-Mao leadership to pass off the burdens of the Cultural Revolution," said Andrew Nathan, a political scientist at Columbia University. "One reason the regime does not want to open discussions on the Cultural Revolution is it does lead back to Mao — not just Mao the man but the single-party system that allowed the Cultural Revolution to happen."
Perhaps Jiang Qing, Madame Mao put it best at her trial in 1981: "I was Chairman Mao's dog. What he said to bite, I bit." The same could be said of Yao, her "literary hit man."

Yao received the lightest sentence of the Gang and was released early on medical grounds in 1996. Apparently he continued to write, unpublished articles and entries in a journal he'd kept since he was 15.

It's doubtful we'll be seeing any of this writing soon. But what I wouldn't give for a look at Yao's own version of Hai Rui Dismissed from Office...

(Thanks again to David for the link)

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