A propaganda painting pointing the finger at the Gang of Four. STEFAN LANDSBERGER COLLECTION.

The Gang of Four (siren bang) is the name given to the four most influential supporters of the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), namely Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan, Wang Hongwen, and Jiang Qing. Their arrest in 1976 represented the end of the Cultural Revolution, according to the Chinese Communist Party’s version of history.

The Gang of Four (siren bang ???), the epithet given to the four most influential, and notorious, supporters of the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), included three men, Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan, and Wang Hongwen, and one woman, Jiang Qing. According to the official Chinese Communist Party (CCP) version of history since the early 1980s, the arrest and overthrow of the Gang of Four on 6 October 1976 signaled the end of the Cultural Revolution.

The Gang

Zhang Chunqiao (1917–2005) was a noted radical ideologue. He was born in Shandong province in northeastern China. Zhang joined the CCP in 1940 and fought against the Japanese in 1942 and 1943. After the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, he moved to Shanghai and became a radical writer and party propagandist. In January 1967—with the help of the other members of the Gang of Four—he seized control of the local party organization and established the Shanghai People’s Commune, which was modeled on the 1871 Paris Commune. Although the commune was short-lived, Zhang’s actions helped fan the flames of the Cultural Revolution.

In 1969 Zhang was elected to the CPC Politburo. In January 1971 he was appointed Shanghai party leader. And in 1975 he became vice premier and chief political commissar of the People’s Liberation Army. With his new position and power, he began to organize people’s militias, planning eventually to seize power on Mao’s death and to install himself as premier and Jiang Qing as party chairman.

Yao Wenyuan (1931–2005) was born near Shanghai. He became a radical journalist and a dedicated ultra-leftist who believed in Mao’s theory of perpetual revolution. Yao rapidly rose to prominence. In November 1965, he wrote an article that attacked the play The Dismissal of Hai Rui (Hai Rui baguan) as hostile to the Chinese Communist Party and to Mao. At the time Yao’s article was credited with launching the earliest stage of the Cultural Revolution. (The play was written Wu Han, a noted historian and then deputy mayor of Beijing and first published in January 1961. The play tells the story of the good and honest Hai Rui, a Ming official who was vilified for criticizing the emperor’s poor treatment of the people. Wu Han died in prison in 1969.)

Wang Hongwen (1935–1992) was born in Changchun, Liaoning Province, in northeastern China. He joined the CCP and the Chinese People’s Volunteers around 1950 and fought in the Korean War. In 1956 he moved to Shanghai and worked in a textile mill. He also became politically active in the left wing of the local CCP organization and formed alliances with the future members of the gang. In 1967 Wang served as vice chair of the Revolutionary Committee of the Shanghai People’s Commune. In 1969 he was appointed to the CCP national Central Committee. In 1971 he became Shanghai municipality party leader. And in 1973 he was inducted into the CCP Politburo’s Standing Committee, and Mao made him vice chair of the CCP.

Jiang Qing (1914–1991) was the leader of the Gang of Four and its best-known member. She was born Li Shumeng in Zhucheng, Shandong Province. In the early 1930s she launched a career in acting and appeared in numerous plays and Chinese films. She took the stage name Lan Ping (Blue Apple). Also about that time she joined the CCP. She belonged to several groups that adapted the revolutionary Soviet model of art and literature. Her radical political activities often got her into trouble, and she was jailed several times in the 1930s. (Many of the facts of her life at this time have been expunged from official records.) In 1939 she married Mao, her fourth husband. From then until 1966, she remained in the background of Chinese political affairs.

Even before the Cultural Revolution started she had begun replacing traditional Chinese art with revolutionary art and reforming the Chinese theater, supervising the creation of the “revolutionary model dramas.” Mao appointed her deputy director of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. She used her influence to incite the Red Guards against government officials, senior party members, and old-school intellectuals. From 1969 to 1976, she also served as one of the most powerful members of the CCP Politburo.

The Plot

Sometime in 1975 or 1976, the Gang of Four launched a plot to seize control of China and the Communist Party following Mao’s death, with Jiang succeeding Mao as party leader. There was much unrest and plotting within the government at that time, and the term gang of four came to be associated with small cliques that isolated themselves from the government. It is said that Mao himself coined the term. It was first used publicly in a speech by Beijing CCP first secretary Wu De (1910–1995) on 24 October 1976 to an enormous crowd in Tiananmen Square. After Wu’s speech, the term was widely used in China.

Following the death of Mao in 1976, the Gang of Four staged its coup. It failed, and all four members were arrested. The CCP Central Committee dismissed all four from their posts, accusing them of being “bourgeois careerists, conspirators, and counterrevolutionary double-dealers.” A power struggle between radical and conservative factions within the party followed. Deng Xiaoping eventually came to power. The four were accused of treason and blamed for virtually all the excesses of the Cultural Revolution.

The Trial

The members of the Gang of Four were tried by a special court toward the end of 1980. They were accused of a range of crimes, especially of persecuting large numbers of people, including CCP and state leaders. Jiang Qing was most vocal in her own defense, arguing that she was simply carrying out Mao’s wishes. Despite this, all four were convicted. Actually, she was right in the sense that none of the four could have done what they did without Mao’s support, and it was he, not they, who led the Cultural Revolution. But the Chinese government went to considerable lengths to clear Mao of any criminal motivation or action, instead laying blame on the gang.

The Outcome

The court issued its verdicts against the Gang on 25 January 1981. It sentenced Jiang Qing and Zhang Chunqiao to death with two-year reprieves. Neither was executed. Jiang committed suicide in May 1991. Zhang was given medical parole in 1998 and died of cancer in 2005. Wang Hongwen was sentenced to life imprisonment and died in 1992. Yao Wenyuan was given twenty years in prison but was released in October 1996. He died of diabetes in 2005.

Further Reading

Bonavia, D. (1984). Verdict in Peking: The trial of the Gang of Four. London: Burnett Books.

Suing, J. C. (Ed.), with documents prepared by Chiu, H. (1981). Symposium: The trial of the “Gang of Four” and its implication in China. Baltimore: School of Law, University of Maryland.

MacFarquhar, R., & Schoenhals, M. (2006). Mao’s last revolution. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Source: Mackerras, Colin. (2009). Gang of Four. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 884–886. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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