Jan 12th 2006
Copyright The Economist
Yao Wenyuan, the last of the Gang of Four, died on December 23rd, aged 74
FROM the age of 15 Yao Wenyuan kept a diary, in preparation for writing his memoirs later. He knew his life might be important. At his trial in 1980, one particular entry was read out to him: Ã¬Why can’t we shoot a few counter-revolutionary elements? After all, dictatorship is not like embroidering flowers.Ã®
Of the awful quartet who unleashed and directed Mao Zedong’s bloody Cultural Revolution, Mr Yao was the only one who had grand literary pretensions. Jiang Qing, Mao’s fourth wife, wrote operas; Zhang Chunqiao was a political thinker; Wang Hongwen, an organising type, had been an official in a textile mill. Yet credit for China’s descent into hell always went to Mr Yao and what was to become his most famous piece of writing: Ã¬On the New Historical Beijing Opera ‘Hai Rui Dismissed from Office’ Ã®.
The title hardly sang; and as seminal works go, this one, published in November 1965, was especially obscure. It was not even Mr Yao’s idea; Madame Mao and Zhang had put him up to it. They knew that Chairman Mao was fascinated by the story of Hai Rui, a Ming dynasty official who had criticised the emperor to his face and had been sacked. A popular play about him, Ã¬Hai Rui Dismissed from OfficeÃ® had been playing at the Beijing Opera for four years. But it was dangerously counter-revolutionary. Looked at through pure Maoist glasses, the emperor was Mao and Hai Rui was his defence minister, Peng Dehuai, who had been sacked in 1959 for openly criticising the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s disastrous effort to collectivise industry and agriculture. Fearlessly, Hai Rui spoke up for the peasants:
You pay lip service to the principle
that the people are the roots of the state.
But officials still oppress the masses
while pretending to be virtuous men.
They act wildly as tigers
and deceive the emperor.
If your conscience bothers you
you know no peace by day or night.
If a counter-blast were needed to such subversive cant, Mr Yao’s credentials were perfect. His base was Shanghai, a city that was friendlier to Mao in the early 1960s than Beijing was. He was the son of a left-wing writer from Zhejiang province, a leading light in Proletarian Writers for Purity and the editor of Liberation Daily, Shanghai’s main newspaper. His history was solid orthodoxy. In the mid-1950s, when other angry young writers were beginning to edge away from China’s communist revolution, Mr Yao had enthusiastically joined a state-run campaign to purge a famous writer, Hu Feng, from the writers’ league for Ã¬subjectivismÃ® and Ã¬self-reflectionÃ®Ã³in other words, for thinking that idealistic individuals, as well as parties, could make revolutions. When more than 100 writers were brought down with Hu, many to be isolated in remote corners of China, Mr Yao exulted.
He fancied himself as Balzac to Mao’s Napoleon, wielding his Ã¬goldenÃ® pen to smite the bourgeois individualists and Ã¬right deviationistsÃ® who might get in the chairman’s way. When the Hai Rui business came up, he was happy to be useful. He took himself away to a sanatorium, pretending to be ill, in order to write his 10,000 words of diatribe against the playÃ³words so tedious that the Beijing People’s Daily published them as Ã¬Academic ResearchÃ®. There were said to be ten drafts, three of which Mao wrote himself. The central thrust, however, was Mr Yao’s: Ã¬If we do not clean up [this poison], it will harm the people’s cause.Ã®
It was nothing but a placeman’s rant, but it unleashed the whirlwind. More articles followed, attacking public figures in the name of party purity. A Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution took shape, especially on university campuses, where students were recruited for a new Ã¬shock forceÃ®, the Red Guards. From January 1967 factories, banks and power plants were seized nationwide, while the Red Guards and the army sought out, terrorised or simply killed all deviants from orthodoxy.
What role Mr Yao played in all this is difficult to say. He was in charge of propaganda: so the hate-filled articles, the staged Ã¬free debatesÃ®, the Ã¬big-characterÃ® posters and banners and cartoons, may have had some origin with him. So may the use of Mao’s quotations, handily bound in a little red book. But it seemed to some that Mr Yao was a puppet, not a master; that he went along happily, even sadistically, for the ride, and was swept up in the horror.
On Mao’s death, in 1976, the Gang of Four’s already waning primacy ended with arrest and disgrace. At his trial, Mr Yao was mostly silent, managing only to stutter that the words in his diary did not represent his views. He received the lightest sentence of the four, 20 years in Qincheng prison.
There he was glimpsed occasionally, a small, very bent figure in an all-grey Mao suit. He still kept his diary, and was said to be writing a book. So much self-reflection he could manage. China’s rulers could not, and cannot. They had no interest in what he might write or say; after his release they allowed no one to speak to him, and even his death, announced two weeks late, was an embarrassment. China still has no way of coping with the trauma that Mr Yao’s article helped unleash: one which Mao, a national hero, inspired, and in which millions joined.