Madame Mao’s Trial

An influential trial in China will be a tendentious reminder of how much — and how little — China has changed in the last three decades. 

A Trial Most Foul: The Gang of Four with Madame Mao rightmost

A popular saying, oft attributed to Marx [1], notes, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce”. Marx’s intellectual heirs in Beijing can take little solace in those words as they try Madame Gu Kailai for murder in coming weeks and months in a judicial event that recalls the trial of Mao Zedong’s widow in 1980.

Both Gu and her husband, Bo Xilai, were the party elites, having born into highflying Communist families; the duo were more Maoist and communist than their technocratic peers in Beijing, and in their home fiefdom of Chongqing, they oversaw retro-populist, Mao-nostalgic projects. Mr. Bo had been tipped to become a senior figure in the government reshuffle later this year, before internecine struggles led to his purge and revelations that Madame Gu arranged the murder of a family confidant and her rumored lover, a British businessman named Neil Heywood last year.

Over 30 years ago, an equally imperious woman found herself in dock. The Gang of Four, led by Mao Zedong’s wife Jiang Qing, was accused of an attempted coup and of the excesses during the Cultural Revolution. For all indictments, the grisly centrepiece of the case against Madame Mao came down to a single death — that of a State Council Member Zhang Linzhi. On December 14, 1966, she had denounced Zhang, then the Minister for Coal Industry; he was later beaten to death in prison on the orders of Madame Mao, the prosecutors alleged, projecting the photos of his mangled corpse inside the courtroom (see youTube below).

Before the trial, Zhang’s death was reported as ‘suicide’ much like Heywood’s death was reported as ‘accidental overdose’ by the police. For two months, Madame Mao displayed her feisty and defiant behavior in front of 35 magistrates (all presiding simultaneously) and 880 ‘spectators’ who heckled and jeered at her. She dismissed her lawyers and defended herself, at one point memorably saying, “I was the Chairman’s dog. Whoever he asked me to bite, I bit.”

The process was televised, although the fate of Madame Mao was already fait accompli in the Chinese press; “What kind of a trial is this?” she spat. For all the reforms, progress and developments made in China three decades since, Gu’s trial underlines two things that had not changed. Firstly, she had committed this murder (and other excesses that are no doubt going to come out during the trial) because she knew that she would have gotten away protected by her husband’s aegis. This remains the prevailing attitude inside the Chinese political class. Secondly, initial covers-up of Heywood’s death suggest that this trial will be all too kangaroo. It never was a legal process arraigned not to seek out justice. It is just merely the last step in discrediting of a political opponent. That is troubling.

The great Simon Leys once wrote, “Without Mao there could have been no Madame Mao.” With the same certainty, we can say, without the Communist Party, there could have been no Madame Gu.



[1] What he actually wrote in Der achtzehnte Brumaire des Louis Bonaparte was “Hegel bemerkte irgendwo, dass alle großen weltgeschichtlichen Tatsachen und Personen sich sozusagen zweimal ereignen. Er hat vergessen, hinzuzufügen: das eine Mal alsTragödie, das andere Mal als Farce.” Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

Portrait of the Artist as A Communist Tyrant

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

“If Mao’s Little Red Book was the national bible, Mao’s official portrait was the national stamp,” wrote the New York Times. Of these omnipresent facsimiles which graced bookcovers, stamps and money, not to mention walls of homes, schools, factories and government buildings, the most famous weighs 1.5 tons and stands six meters tall. A potent symbol of Communist power still hangs on the Tiananmen gate tower, from which rostrum Chairman Mao commenced a new republic in 1949 and the Cultural Revolution in 1966.

But very few people remember that Mao was not the first Chinese leader to appear in such hagiographical form on the Tiananmen Square. After his death in 1925, Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the Chinese Republic, was remembered by a giant portrait erected in the square. A similar image of Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist leader, stood on the guard tower from in 1945 (below left).

That Was Then, This Is Now

When the Communists first seized power in February 1949, they replaced Chiang Kai-shek not only literally but also on the Tiananmen. The first version of the iconic Mao was a hastily sketched portrait that stood barely a meter tall. But by the time Mao declared the founding of the People’s Republic on October 1st, the portrait was already in its second iteration, and showed Mao with an octagonal cap and coarse woolen jacket.

Soon, the cap has to go too, and in 1950, after a brief competition, a teacher from the Beijing Art Institute named Zhang Zhenshi was made Mao’s first official portrait maker. He painted the standard image, Mao in his trademark gray suit, that became the imprimatur of Communist China. (It was on one of Zhang’s images that Warhol based his Mao series.) Initially, the portrait had a functional purpose — it served as Mao’s double for people who were too far away to make him — a primitive version of those video screens at concerts. This portrait, which had Mao gazing into distance, was replaced by one in which Mao stared down at people.

In 1967, when the Cultural Revolution was already raging, a final tweak was added to the painting: for the first time, it showed both of Mao’s ears, rather than just one, proof that he was listening to all the people and not just a select few. This frontal pose has remained the standard ever since. In 1976, when Mao died, the colorful oil portrait was briefly replaced by a black and white photograph during the mourning period.

In Black And White

During the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, three teachers from Mao’s hometown defaced Mao’s portrait by throwing eggs filled with ink at it. They were swiftly arrested, and later received some of the harshest sentences in the crackdown with sentences of 16 years, 20 years and life respectively. For all the symbolism it represented, the portrait is often defaced (most recently in 2007 and 2010), and a spare is always kept on hand by the Communist Party for such eventualities. During the Tiananmen Square protests, however, the party was unable to replace the portrait swiftly, and they covered it with black cloth.

just one of many cover-ups in China that year

However, its importance in national myth is indelible; when the very first portrait was to be auctioned off, the public reaction forced the Chinese government to intervene and retain it. Similar outcry from Chinese diaspora forced Citroen to withdraw adverts featuring the iconic Mao unflatteringly.

Citoyen Mao




Truth be told, seeing Mao even on Baidu Maps (China’s propaganda mouthpiece-cum-searchengine) inspired this post. Looking at Baidu Maps in 3D is like playing SimCity. My only objections are (1) that the Tiananmen Gate didn’t have such huge lanterns on it, and (2) that they still haven’t installed tanks in front of the Beijing Hotel yet.



Founding of the PRC



October 1st 1949. Mao Zedong inexplicably arrived an hour early at the red-lacquered Gate of Eternal Peace, entrance to the 500-year-old palace of China’s emperors. He had chosen a symbol of ancient power to declare his new China. The man in charge of preparations, a loyal soldier named Guo Ying, 24, who had been fighting with the communists since he was 13, seated Mao in the former emperor’s waiting room and fetched him a bowl of apples. There Guo learned that Mao, in his haste, had forgotten the ribbon that each new leader pins to his tunic.

Just outside, in Tiananmen Square, 300,000 people squinted through a yellow haze of soot to see the man who, after two decades of fighting, had routed the American-backed forces of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. As Mao waited, Guo dispatched a comrade to find a piece of red satin and write “chairman” upon it in gold. That crisis averted, Mao stood on the rostrum above a massive portrait of himself and announced in his peasant brogue, “The central government of the People’s Republic of China is established!” “Long live Chairman Mao!” answered the crowd, which began cheering soldiers fresh from battle as they marched in the new country’s first military parade. Guo stood behind Mao and wept for “a victory won with the blood of millions of revolutionaries.”

From Time Magazine’s 80 Days that changed the world.

The above photos were taken by Xu Xiaobing (1916–) and Hou Bo (1924–), a married couple well known for their portraits of Communist leaders from the 1930s to 1950s. Hou Bo was Mao’s personal photographer from 1949 to 1961 and her studio portraits of Mao became the basis for  many paintings, posters, and banner images of Mao that were reproduced everywhere.

Mao swims in the Yangze


In the early 1960s, as the Great Leap Forward led China into political, social and economic disasters, the opposition to Mao Zedong’s leadership grew; Chairman Mao’s reaction was to purge the party leadership of intellectuals and officials in what is now termed, “the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.”

On July 16th 1966, amidst persistent rumors that he was ill or suffered a heart attack, Mao staged a media event to indicate that he was still vigorous and capable to lead China. It was a swim in the Yangtze River at Wuhan. Throughout his life, Mao loved swimming and regarded it as the best of sports; he took the first of his sporadic swims in the Yangtze in 1956, but as Simon Winchester wrote in The River At the Centre of the World, “the one that [Mao] accomplished on July 16, 1966 when he was seventy-three years old and, as it happened, even more frustrated with his country’s progress than he had been ten years before—that was a truly great event, a swim seen round the world.”

The Chinese press spared no adjectives in its account of Mao’s dip; the report said. Mao contested energetically with waves stirred up by 20-mph winds. His cheeks were “glowing” and “ruddy”. Mao “swam with steady strokes”, “cleaved through the waves” and “floated to view the azure sky above.” When he passed by a swimmer who knew only one stroke, the report continued, the chairman paused to teach the girl the backstroke. The spectators went into “spasms of cheers” and they were quoted as saying “Our respected and beloved leader Chairman Mao is in such wonderful health” and “this is the greatest happiness for  … revolutionary people throughout the world.”

The international media was more skeptical. Time reported that Mao swam “nearly 15 km in 65 minutes that day–a world-record pace, if true.” The photo released (above) was thought to have been doctored; the London Daily Mirror described the photograph as “astonishing.” “Have you ever seen a picture or live men swimming and none of their arms showing? … A picture where no man-made ripple breaks the surface [and] not one of the swimmers has his mouth open?”

At least on this occasion, this healthy skepticism was unfounded. His aquatic feats may have been exaggerated but Mao’s celebrated dip did happen. An entire episode of the 12-part documentary “Mao Zedong” (broadcast in December 1993 by China Central Television) is devoted to Mao’s swim and includes footage of his particular chaise-longue swimming style (below). To this day, July 16th remains a memorable day in the Communist calendar. The swimming costume Mao wore on that occasion has been preserved and is on display in Zhongnanhai. Mao’s successor as the paramount leader of China, Deng Xiaoping would also jump into the Yangtze when he was in his eighties to prove his credentials.


See Gao Qiang’s painting of a sickly-looking Mao swimming in a blood-red Yangtze River here.