Formosa Straits

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Table Of Contents


Many people have pointed out that photographs often play an important role in my stories, carrying some especially important piece of information or sounding a particular emotional resonance. I’m happy to agree, for I’ve been an enthusiastic photographer all my life. And this is certainly true of Formosa Straits. A photographic, cinematic theme runs through the whole book and its plot eventually takes us into the early life of Jiang Ching, the movie actress who became Mao’s wife and the leader of ‘The Gang of Four’ in the Cultural Revolution. This was a conscious strategy. China is unfamiliar ground to most people, so I kept trying to link it to images they might be more familiar with, often drawn from the movies. Hopefully, this makes it easier for Westerners to make sense of the wild, neon-lit landscape of modern Asia. But the history worked into the story is true for all that: the attempted coup by Lin Biao, the role of Kang Sheng in Chinese intelligence, the development of a Chinese ballistic missile program, and of course the position and character of Jiang herself.


Gore Vidal often complained that Serious American novels were written only to be taught in universities, while popular fiction drew its inspiration, not from life, but the movies, merely reflecting "the films each author saw in his formative years" and so becoming "deliberate attempts, not so much to create new film product, as to suggest old movies..." Even more pessimistically, Vidal's own creation, Myra Breckinridge, was astute enough to recognize “that it was no longer the movies but the television commercial that engaged the passionate attention of the world's best artists and technicians."

With Formosa Straits I'll plead guilty, at least in regard the movies. But I can offer an excuse, though its post-modernist tilt will only irritate Vidal's shade. The background of the novel—indeed its Hitchcockian MacGuffin—is the Chinese film industry in the 1930s. It was then that a sexy young actress, Jiang Qing, later to be the wife of Chairman Mao, got her start. So it seems only fitting that the story unwind like a film noir, and the book's epigram is a few lines from Josef Sternberg's Shanghai Express.

Marlene Deitrich meets Charlie Chan…in Shanghai, of course

There should, of course, be no doubt as to the historical accuracy of this aspect of the novel. Jiang Qing most definitely felt threatened by her cinema past and during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) she did everything possible to suppress it, regardless of consequences. Jiang Qing was trying to suppress part of her own life, but also a crucial part of China’s life, to deny aspects of both personal and national existence. And of course that only proves how crucial those aspects were. Their origins lie in China’s cultural capital, Shanghai, during the 1930s, a time of extraordinary turbulence and creativity.


Jiang Qing arrived in Shanghai in 1933, at the age of 19.

She was the daughter of a concubine, the “little wife" of the owner of a cabinet-making shop. Her birth name was Shumeng, but in school this had been changed to Li Yunhe, "Crane in the Clouds”—few thought it suited her. In a rough, half-trained way, she was an actress. As a fourteen year-old, she'd run away with a vagabond theatrical troupe, and had later studied for a time at an arts academy and then Qingdao University. When she left Qingdao for Shanghai she was leaving behind a divorced husband, and a young lover from an upper-class family who'd been imprisoned for his activities in the Communist Party of China; since February 1933, under his influence, she'd been a member herself. Now she fell into Shanghai’s bohemian demimonde, on the fringes of the theater and left-wing politics. "Young and energetic, she'd come to the one city where success, if it was within her capacity at all, could be won; and where failure, for a woman of humble origins seeking work in the arts, would very likely bring the bitter alternative of prostitution." ("The White-Boned Demon: a Biography of Madame Mao Zedong," Ross Terrill, p.49)

Shanghai, the 1930s

When Jiang Qing arrived in Shanghai, it was the largest city in Asia, with a population of three million, a million more than Tokyo. It was China’s largest port, connected to the world by the great steamship lines of the age. For a young woman from the provinces, Shanghai was endlessly exciting with its bars and dance halls—the Ambassador, the Canidrome, the Vienna Ballroom. Here wealthy Chinese men and women jived to jazz and pop, western music which soon had its own local variant, the “yellow music” of Li Jinhui, and stars like Wang Renmei, “the Wildcat of Shanghai.”

Shanghai in the '30s was connected to the world…

Buck Clayton was one of the many international stars who performed at the
Canidrome, one of Shanghai's premiere nightspots

Wang Renmei, 'the wildcat of Shanghai, performed the work of Li Linhui, the
father of Chinese "pop." His daughter, Li Menghui, was a great singing star,
while his adopted daughter, Li Lili, was one of the very greatest early film
stars. The father of Wang, 'the wildcat,' was a teacher in Hunan province. One
of his students was Mao Zedong,…which earned his daughter political protection
throughout her life.

Shanghai was a city full of western influences because many westerners lived there. This was the result of the Opium Wars (1839-1860) which had compelled the Chinese government to legalize opium so the British could export it to them (from British India) and so balance their own imports of Chinese goods. Additionally, the treaties concluding the Wars put the administration of Chinese custom duties into western hands, set up “treaty ports” open to western goods, and divided Shangai into zones, the “foreign concessions,” where British, French and Americans lived exempt from Chinese law.

Shanghai, showing the foreign concessions

But Shanghai’s “westernization” had two other faces. One was political. Communism, after all, was a great Franco-German export, the most cosmopolitan political tendency in the world. And the second was cultural, the movies. In Chinese, they are called dianying or “electric shadows”—and increasingly these shadows were cast by America.

Faces Jiang Qing knew… Hue Die, known as 'Butterfly Wu,' had a huge career,
starring in the first martial arts film 'The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple'
and China's first talkie, 'Sing Song Girl Red Peony.' She survived all China's
upheavals to die in Vancouver, 1989.Though born in Korea, Jin Yan was China's
answer to Valentino and was often compared to Cary Grant. He died in Shanghai
in 1981. After a meteoric career, Ruan Lingyu died in classic Hollywood
style—an overdose of barbiturates in 1935. She was only 24. She's the subject
of a biopic, 'Centre Stage.' Cai Cusheng, who had a romance with Ruan, directed
Jiang Qing in 'Fifth Brother Wang' while his 1947 epic 'Spring River Flows
East' is sometimes called China's 'Gone With the Wind.' Like many figures from
the 30s close to Jiang Qing, he was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution
and died in 1968.


Though it later came to be suspicious of its own roots, Shanghai was the birthplace and spiritual home of The Communist Party of China. It was founded there in 1921. And because of her Communist lover in Qingdao, Jiang Qing's contacts in Shanghai were in the Party or close to it. But by the time she arrived the Party was in bad shape. For more than 250 years, China had been ruled by the Qing Dynasty (the Manchu’s), but in 1911 their rule had finally been overthrown by the Kuomintang (KMT), under the leadership of a westernized, Chinese liberal, Sun Yat-sen. The KMT had established a Chinese Republic, but at once found itself fighting a complex civil war against regional strongmen or “warlords.” At first the Kuomintang and the Communists co-operated, but on April 12, 1927 the KMT, by that time led by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, massacred Party members in Shanghai and elsewhere, forcing the Party underground.

The suppression of the Communists in Shanghai was extraordinarily brutal… The
classic description of 1920s Shanghai is Andre Malraux's novel, "Man's Fate."
For a scholarly account, see "Underground: The Shanghai Communist Party and the
Politics of Survival, 1927-1937," by Patricia Stranahan.

When Jiang Qing arrived in Shanghai, the Party was still leading a clandestine existence. Naturally, she was cautious. Even so, in 1934 she was briefly arrested. Deciding to keep her head down, she changed her name to Lan Ping and devoted herself to her career. This resulted in what was probably her finest moment as an actress, playing the role of Nora in a production of A Doll’s House. Ibsen's great play had an immense influence in China: "modern" Chinese women were often called "Nora's." She was well-received: “Miss Lan Ping has made us know the real Nora for the first time,” one critic wrote. (Those who wrote less glowing reviews would feel her wrath thirty years later during the Cultural Revolution.) In the wake of this success, she was offered a three month contract at Diang Tong Studio, the smallest of Shanghai’s film production companies.

Here was the second great influence of the West, "the electric shadows" of the movies. By the 1930s, Shanghai was well-established as the center of Chinese film-making. The first Chinese film screening had taken place, in Shanghai, in 1896, only three years after the Lumiere brothers had demonstrated their Cinematographe in Paris. A 1905 recording of the Peking Opera became the first Chinese-made film, and 1913 saw the production of China’s first feature, The Difficult Couple.

By the time of Jiang Qing's arrival, Shangai was home to dozens of film studios. Three were most important:

Mingxing Film Studios made light comedies, and could claim two important 'firsts'. In 1928, the studio produced the first martial arts film, The Burning of Red Lotus Temple, and in 1931 Mingxing made China's first sound film, Sing Song Girl Red Peony.

The Tianyyi Film Company was founded by the Shaw brothers, and made films for the overseas Chinese market. This meant they were produced in Cantonese, but successive Chinese governments had legislated to make Mandarin the national language, and eventually Cantonese films were banned. Accordingly, in 1934 the Shaw brothers moved their operations to British Hong Kong, where successor companies still produce for both television and films today.

The Linhua Film Company was created in 1930 from the merger of four smaller studios. Its principals included Li Minwei (1893-1953), one of the “fathers” of Chinese cinema. As an actor (in drag) he'd starred in the classic Zhuangzi Tests His Wife (released 1913), whose cast also included Li's own wife, Yan Shanahan, who played the part of a servant and so became the first Chinese actress to hit the silver screen. Lianhua, with large production facilities, made films right up to the Japanese occupation in 1937. They included Daybreak,(1933), The Goddess (1934), and Bloodbath on Wolf Mountain (1936), a film that would give Jiang Qing one of her larger roles.

Of course, despite this considerable local production most films show in China were American, and the culture of films—the star system, magazines, publicity, gossip, “fans,” celebrity—was entirely American. Films, most definitely, were the products of “western imperialism.” So what was a Communist doing in them? It was a question that could be asked of Jiang Qing, but indeed of a good many others.

In answering, it’s important to remember that Chinese Communism, especially at this point in its history, was very much a cultural movement. In fact, all left, progressive, “modern” tendencies in Chinese life and thought begin with “The New Culture Movement” that developed, in the years before the First World War, around a magazine, New Youth. Mao Tse-tung was first published here, and Chen Duxiu, its editor, was a co-founder of the Chinese Communist Party. The ideas of the “New Culture Movement” were pro-western, pro-scientific, pro-democratic, and anti-Confucian. “New Culture” even sought a reform of Chinese writing, from the traditional, elitist wenyan system to a simpler, vernacular style, baihua. As Chen Duxiu put it, the movement initiated “an intense combat between the old and the modern currents of thought”—a struggle still going on.

The May 4th Movement began with student protests in Beijing. Chen Duxiu, one
of its leaders, co-founded the Chinese Communist Party in 1921, and the Party
always saw the day as theirs. But in 1989 students took over the official May
4th celebrations to protest against the government and were violently
suppressed. The extraordinary photo of the lone man opposing Chinese tanks in
Tiananmen Square is copyright 1989 by Jeff Widener, AP.

Although not explicitly political in its original aims, “The New Culture Movement” was powerfully politicized in 1919 when the Versailles Peace Conference transferred Germany’s concessions in Shadong Province to Japan. In protest, thousands of students rioted in Beijing, and the whole country was swept by strikes, demonstrations and boycotts against Japanese goods. The Chinese government was finally compelled to back down, and refused to sign the Versailles Treaty, but a nationalistic and revolutionary spirit had been let loose in Chinese society. Both the Kuomintang and the Communists were expressions of this. And until 1927, they overlapped a good deal; Mao, for example, was a member in good standing of the Kuomintang. As for the Communists, they were still very much an urban movement. The dominance of Mao's theories, emphasizing the importance of China's peasants, lay in the future; following the model of European Communism, the Party concentrated on organizing the urban proletariat. And they also had a huge following among students, intellectuals and artists: the same constituency that had supported “The New Culture Movement.” Because of this, their involvement with the rise of the Chinese film industry was virtually inevitable. In May 1932, a director of Mingxing wanted to recruit three writers of “The New Culture Movement” to be script consultants. In fact, the writers he wanted to hire were all Party members and the Mingxing proposal was discussed at the highest levels of the Party, finally being approved by Qu Qiubai, head of the propaganda section. So, with the Party’s approval, Xia Yan, Qian Xingchun, and Zhenq Boqi joined Mingxing. This trickle of left talent into the film industry soon became a flood, and Jiang Qing was only one of many. Until the Japanese invasion of 1937 put an end to independent film production in Shanghai, “left” films were produced by all the Shanghai studios. The “official” Chinese history, The Chinese Left-Wing Cinema Movement (1963) puts the final number at 74. This was the movement in which Jiang Qing participated. What were these films like?

"Spring Silkworms," an important 'leftwing' film, was based on a story by Mao
Dun (available in this bilingual edition) who became China's first minister of
culture; he survived the Cultural Revolution and has since been rehabilitated.
Xia Yan, who wrote the screenplay, didn't fare so well. Despite his great
career as a dramatist and scenarist—and he was made deputy minister of culture
in 1954—he was imprisoned for eight years by Jiang and the Red Guard.  The
still from the film shows the family feeding their silkworms.

The first “left” film on the official list was Three Modern Women (1932). The film was directed by Bu Wancang (1903-1974), with a script by the screenwriter and lyricist, Tian Han (1898-1968). The male lead was Jin Yan (the most popular leading man in China—usually compared to Cary Grant) who played an actor. He has an affair with a young woman, Zhou Shuzhen, who nurses Jin after he’s been wounded by the Japanese (who bombed Shanghai in January 1932) and later joins the strikers at the company where he works, earning his admiration. The role of Zhou was played by Ruan Lingyu, an enormously popular young actress who committed suicide three years later. The film was a great success. Torrent (1933) was the first title influenced by the group that went into Mingxing: their leader, Xia Yan, wrote the script. Directed by Cheng Bungao (1896-1966), the film was built around documentary footage he’d shot of catastrophic floods on the Yangzi River in 1931. “After discussing the story with the new Mingxing Script Comitteee, Xia Yan decided to rewrite it and added elements of class struggle and social criticism into the story.” In the same year, Cheng and Xia also produced Spring Silkworms, based on a story by the great Chinese writer Mao Dun (1896-1981): a family of silkworm producers is driven into bankruptcy, partly by the market, partly their own superstition. The Goddess (1934), written and directed by Wu Yonggang, depicts the darker side of Shanghai through the eyes of a prostitute, who sacrifices herself to create a future for her son. These descriptions could be multiplied, but often the title alone gives a hint of their quality: Twenty-Four Hours in Shanghai, Women’s Outcry, City Nights, New Woman, Sons and Daughters of the Storm, March of Youth, Street Angel.

Altogether, Jiang Qing appeared in only four feature films, and they slide quite easily into a list like the one above. She had minor parts in The Goddess of Liberty (1935) and Scenes of City Life (1935), then more important roles in Bloodbath on Wolf Mountain (1936)—a poor print can be found here; and Fifth Brother Wang (1937)—an equally poor print is here. Made toward the end of Shanghai’s great cinema period—with the threat of war constantly looming over the city—it's not surprising that both her major films involved resistance to the Japanese. Bloodbath on Wolf Mountain was an allegorical tale of a village fighting off attacks from a pack of wolves, who symbolized the Japanese. Fei Mu, the director, was exceptionally talented—here, he’s making his first sound movie—and Li Lili, the lead, was as usual very strong. The film can still be watched today. (Quotations in the preceding two paragraphs are from "Building a New China In Cinema: The Chinese Leftwing Cinema Movement," Laikwan Pang, 2002.)

It was an echo of the best period of 1932-1934, when all the contributors to a film agreed on their goal. In this case the goal was the defense of China without the censors realizing it. Shen Fu had written a story called ‘Cold Moon and Wolf’s Breath,’ and he and Fei Mu, who was to direct the film, enlarged the tale in scenario to a parable of wolves (the Japanese) threatening a community, killing its people individually until they learn to stand together against the beasts. This symbolism, filmed chiefly in dramatic landscapes, was a subject that Chou Ta-ming’s talent for composition and light could help. Blood on Wolf Mountain was submitted to the censors under its milder foreign title of Brave Hunters. *When it was shown to the Shanghai Municipal censors, they suspected that the wolves in the story alluded to the Japanese, and insisted that they would not say ‘yes’ before the Japanese gave their nods. But when the Japanese censors saw the pictures they refused to admit that wolves were symbolic of the Japanese people and let the picture go. "Dianying: Electric Shadows," Jay Leyda, 1972, p, 106-107. Leyda quotes from a 1937 Shanghai magazine, T’ien Hsia Monthly. Note that the film not only passed local, but also Japanese, censors— and this censorship regime was in place even before the Japanese invaded.

Jiang Qing’s next and last film was Fifth Brother Wang (1937), also called Old Bachelor Wang. It was directed by Cai Chusheng, one of China's greatest directors. This was the last film he would make in Shanghai, and has been considered one of the films that represent “not only the climax of the left-wing cinema movement but also a golden two-year period in Chinese film history.” Set in the slums, Jiang Qing plays the role of a young woman whose father dies, leaving her no choice but to marry an old bachelor. It is a film “that shows us the lives of the Chinese proletariat most intimately and passionately.” (Laikwan Pang, p.63). It's a strange, dreadful world. Surrounded by poverty, alcoholism, and finally invasion by the Japanese, Jiang Qing’s character grimly but triumphantly survives.

So had Jiang Qing, it might be said. The Japanese invaded Shanghai on August 13, 1937. Departing in July, Jiang Qing took with her a lover, and left behind yet another husband, Tang Na, critic, minor actor, a Shanghai sophisticate: he could speak English, and was familiar with western culture. (He ended up in France running a restaurant.) Some of this brushed off on her. She now had a veneer of the cosmopolitan. She'd learned to wear western clothes, dance to western music (she loved dancing), and had been as "modern" as a Chinese woman could probably be: a Nora. And no doubt this stood her in good stead as she got ready for her next husband, Mao, a rich peasant’s son from Hunan who could barely speak Mandarin. Around Mao, she was never quite able to forget her past; perhaps was not forgiven for it. And when the Cultural Revolution gave her the chance, she tried to bury it forever. Why was it so shameful? What dread secret did it reveal?


Jiang Qing and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution had a variety of causes, most unrelated to Jiang Qing except as they effected Mao’s leadership. The Great Leap Forward (1958-1961) had been an attempt by Mao to move China from a rural-agricultural state to an industrial society. Agriculture was collectivized; private farming prohibited. Large-scale but ill-planned schemes for irrigation were built, often using forced labour; thousands died. In an attempt to increase steel production, Mao encouraged "backyard" blast furnaces—often fired with wood that denuded the surrounding countryside, and diverted labour from planting and harvesting. The overall results were catastrophic. 15 million people is a very low estimate of the number who died in the resulting famine. Inevitably, this failure weakened Mao’s position and allowed “moderate” leaders with more conventional and western ideas of development to rise in the Party, most particularly Deng Xiaoping and Liu Shaoqi. The Cultural Revolution represented Mao’s attempt to retake this lost power. No doubt his motivation was not purely personal. He was reacting, at least in part, to what he took to be the betrayal of socialism in the USSR, the anti-Stalinist policies of Nikita Khrushchev and “peaceful co-existence.” He was also aware that the Communist Party of China was becoming bureaucratic and corrupt: probably everyone in the country agreed on that. But there was also one very personal consideration, his age—what was his legacy? who would succeed him? He was 73 when the Cultural Revolution began, and it only came to an end with his death.

Whatever role Jiang Qing may have played in the Cultural Revolution her presence and actions are a constant reminder that it was cultural. The Great Leap Forward had been an attempt to transform society by revolutionizing the country’s economy: the Cultural Revolution took place largely in the realm of ideas, politics, the arts. The Red Guards, who became the storm troopers of the Revolution, were told to destroy the “four olds”—Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas. Books were burned and monuments defaced all over the country; teachers and professors were attacked, beaten, sometimes killed. Politicians and administrators were labelled as “renegades,” “scabs,” “capitalist-roaders,” and were imprisoned and tortured. The arts were front and center in this. And it was here, naturally, that Jiang Qing starred. Probably her most spectacular interventions concerned the famous Peking operas, which she had re-done as “The Eight Model Operas”—instead of themes and figures from China’s history, Mao, the Red Army and the Party were glorified.

Taking Tiger Mountain and Raise the Red Lantern, two of the "revolutionary"
operas Jiang Qing helped design.

But as well as revising the traditions of Chinese opera, Jiang Qing was also interested in re-visiting her own history, and this took her back to Shanghai.

This was Jiang's life, her personal world; and it’s certainly true that much of what Jiang did involved a purely personal revenge. For example, when she'd first come to Shanghai, she'd left a lover behind in Qingdao, the man who'd introduced her to Communism. His name was Yu Qiwei, and he had died in 1958, but his wife, Fan Jin, was editor of the Peking Evening News. In a retrospective spasm of jealousy, Jiang had her denounced and arrested, compelled her current husband (an air force officer) to divorce her: she was tortured and died in 1968. But more than vindictiveness was involved in Jiang's strange A la recherche du temps perdu. The best man at her marriage in Shanghai with Tang Na had been Zheng Junli (1911-1969.) He’d been an important actor in Shanghai, later made documentary films, and co-wrote Spring River Flows East (1947), usually described as a leftist classic; he’d also translated Stanislavski, the Russian acting theoretician, into Chinese. In 1966 he received a demand from Jiang Qing to collect any and all letters, records and photos relating to her in Shanghai and send them to her in Beijing. His response didn’t satisfy her. Police broke into his home, ransacked it, and removed documents, books, diaries, manuscripts. Zheng was persecuted, lost his job, was hounded through the streets, imprisoned: he died in 1969. (Others present at Jiang’s wedding to Tang Na, such as the actors Zhao Dan and Gu Eryi, were likewise imprisoned.) Even the chief of Shanghai’s police was compelled to go through his records for anything relating to Jiang. When she expressed her dissatisfaction at the results, he too was put in jail and died there.

But Jiang wasn’t just trying to erase her own history in Shanghai; she wanted to wipe out the whole history of the left-cinema in the 30s. The screening of the relevant films was banned. Most of the important figures from the period, who weren’t already dead, were persecuted. A few examples. Xia Yan had led the group going into Mingxing; he’d ultimately become one of the most influential figures in the Chinese film industry of the 20th century, and been appointed a deputy minister of culture in 1954. Jiang had him imprisoned for eight years. The men who’d joined Mingxing with him, Zheng Boqi and Qian Xingchun, were hounded to death. Perhaps the greatest of all Chinese screenwriters was Tian Han, who'd written the script for Three Modern Women. He was also a lyricist, and the 1935 film, Children of Troubled Times includes his lyric for “The March of the Volunteers” which became and remains the national anthem of the People’s Republic of China. Jiang had him jailed and he died there.
And Cai Chusheng (1906-1968), who'd directed Jiang in Fifth Brother Wang,, died under torture in 1968.

How can we explain this?

In the first place, we should do more than observe the irony that if she'd not been the wife of Chairman Mao, Jiang Qing would have been a perfect target for the Red Guards, and quite likely been attacked as a "rightist" "deviationist" "scab,” "an imperialist worm." Yes, she’d been a Communist; but she'd come to Shanghai to be a star, not join a revolution; and her principal contribution to the Party had been the sexual satisfaction of its leader. She'd been caught up in, and absorbed by, the most powerful cultural expression of American imperialism, the movies—she'd been on the cover of fan magazines. But this, indeed, is more than irony. It goes to the heart of the matter and hints at why her purge widened to include the whole of 30s Shanghai, that it was more than personal vendetta.

The culture she'd belonged to in Shanghai had been 'left'—certainly—but no more to the left than Charlie Chaplin and Paul Muni's I Was A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932). The left-wing cinema of Shanghai built a “socially conscious” element into popular entertainments much as Hollywood did. And this is not to disparage either group. Circumstances in China led the Shanghai left-wing cinema to become part of a revolutionary movement while in the United States, the reformism offered by Roosevelt (rather than the murderous repression of Chiang Kai-shek) would successfully defuse the potentially revolutionary circumstances created by the Depression. It's worth noting that the director of Mingxing (a decidedly commercial endeavour—remember that it produced the world’s first martial arts films) had asked his friend for people "from the New Culture Movement" to write scripts for the studio. The men who'd joined had indeed been Communists, but at the time these two currents were commingled, hard to differentiate even for those floating in them. Thinking of the Cultural Revolution, and Jiang Qing's purge, it's worth recalling McCarthyism and the Hollywood blacklists. Both were much the same phenomenon: a response to the calamities of the 30s. In the United States, this response, having failed, was too much and had to be effaced; in Shanghai, it also had to be rubbed out—because it was not enough. But it could never have been enough. The world that Shanghai’s films reflected, and the world that its participants belonged to, was a world that was urban, industrial, commercial, and westernized—the world of movies. It was a world that could harbour revolutionary thoughts and sentiments, especially under pressure of foreign invasion, but it didn’t represent—as Mao understood—a revolutionary world in 20th century China. The revolution was made in the countryside, with the peasantry. Yet Mao was always enough of a Marxist to understand that a revolution of the peasantry does not lead to socialism, but to bourgeois industrialism. The Great Leap Forward had been an attempt to accelerate, even telescope, history so it could move to the next stage, a true communist transformation. It failed. So the Cultural Revolution became one more attempt at transcending the logic of the Marxist theory in whose name it was made. It failed too. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution it was called, but there was nothing proletarian about it. Like the May 4th Movement, it was largely a movement of students and intellectuals. So the irony is crueller. Jiang Ching, with her style, feminism, sexual vivacity and narcissism was a figure who would be perfectly at home in the bourgeois, capitalist society that Mao’s revolution, and the logic of history, was bringing into existence, the China we know now. Perhaps she recognized this, and found it insupportable: her own past and self couldn’t be recognized, only obliterated. On May 14, 1991 Jiang Qing committed suicide in Beijing. The Communist Party of China declared the Cultural Revolution to be “responsible for the most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the Party, the country, and the people since the founding of the People's Republic.” Today, at least—and despite her best, terrible efforts—Jiang Qing’s films, and those of her friends in Shanghai, can be seen again.


"To be in the company of a king is to be in the company of a tiger” – old Chinese proverb, quoted by Lin Biao.

“Chairman Mao need only utter one sentence to remove anyone he chooses.” — Lin Liguo, son of Lin Biao.

Who was Lin Biao?

Lin Biao (1909-1971) was the most successful Communist general during the Chinese Communist Revolution, and was considered Mao Zedong’s “closest comrade-in-arms.” He was made Vice-Premier in 1954, and became Minister of Defence in 1959, serving in both posts until his death. In August 1966 he was publicly named to succeed Mao as China’s leader (technically, to succeed Mao as First Chairman of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.) A leading figure during the early years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), he was often seen with Mao, standing a little behind him, always brandishing “the little Red Book” of Mao’s quotations.

Lin and Mao and the Little Red Book

What was the Lin Biao Incident?

The Chinese government alleged, and still claims, that Lin Biao, his son (Lin Liguo), and four of Lin’s generals planned a coup d’etat against the Communist regime. This plot would have involved assassinating Mao by attacking a train he was travelling on, and establishing a separate government in Guangzhou (Canton). The existence of the plot, and its true nature, have been a subject of debate for many years. But certainly Lin, his wife, son, and a few others boarded a Trident 1E aircraft on the night of September 12, 1971 at Shanhaiguan airport, near Beidaihe, where Lin was staying. The plane first flew west, then turned north, and finally headed west again, disappearing over Mongolia early in the morning of September 13. The plane’s wreckage was discovered near Öndörkhaan. Everyone on board had perished. Although it was claimed the plane was flying to Irkutsk, in the USSR, later evidence indicated that it was probably flying away from the Soviet Union. The plane had not been shot down. More likely, it had crashed while flying at very low altitude in an attempt to evade radar.

The Background of the Lin Biao Incident

The Lin Biao incident took place at a particularly tense time in Chinese history. Just a few months before—on July 9, 1971—Henry Kissinger had made his first (secret) trip to China to pave the way for the establishment of Chinese-American diplomatic relations. (President Nixon announced his visit to China on July 15, the visit taking place in February, 1972.) At about the same time, the Sino-Soviet ‘split’ had created a war scare within the Chinese leadership. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 had alarmed the Chinese, and by 1969 the ideological differences between the two countries had escalated into a series of border conflicts, fighting breaking out in March 1969 on Zhenbao Island and along the Ussuri River.

Kissinger and Chou En Lai chat, Soviet and Chinese soldiers fight

The Chinese feared a surprise Soviet strike against their nuclear facilities (the first Chinese underground nuclear test took place on September 23, 1969) and in October 1969 a meeting of the Chinese Politburo ordered the dispersal of the entire Chinese leadership, with the exception of Zhou Enlai, to places outside of Beijing. In addition, the Chinese redeployed over a million troops, dispersed the Chinese Air Force, and camouflaged military facilities. Although diplomatic steps were taken to lower tensions, China remained intensely suspicious of the USSR in the years following. These international developments were taking place against a domestic background defined by the Cultural Revolution which had been disrupting the country since 1966. The country's civil administration was in disarray, cadres of the Chinese Communist Party had been ‘struggled'—subjected to ruthless criticism and self-criticism—and many leading figures having been killed or imprisoned. And of course there was an elephant in the room. In 1971, Mao turned 78. In history, he might be immortal, but he couldn’t live forever. As it turned out, he was dead in five years. Who would succeed him? What would China without Mao become?

Even Mao couldn't outlive history…


All these perturbations effected, and potentially might have displaced, the Chinese leadership; the notion of a coup was not entirely implausible. The idea, in a small way, was even in the air.

On November 7, 1964 a senior Russian officer remarked to He Long (a veteran Chinese army officer, and Vice-Premier) “Now we have gotten rid of Khrushchev, you should follow our example and get rid of Mao.” This faux pas earned an apology from Leonid Brezhnev, the USSR’s leader at the time.

In 1966 Mao possibly feared a coup involving Peng Zhen, mayor of Beijing, and the previously mentioned He Long—Mao later claimed (to a visiting Albanian delegation) that two divisions of garrison troops had been moved to the capital as a precaution. (It should be noted that Peng was never charged or tried, and that he was later rehabilitated completely, becoming Secretary of the Political and Legal Affairs Commission of the Communist Party of China Central Committee in 1980.)

And on May 18, 1966—on the eve of the Cultural Revolution—it was Lin Biao himself who raised the possibility of a “rightist” coup in a speech to the Politburo: “In recent months, Chairman Mao has paid particular attention to the adoption of many measures toward preventing a counter-revolutionary coup d’etat…because of this Chairman Mao has not slept well for many days. It is a very profound and serious problem.” Mao, wide awake, would later comment, “If there is an anti-Communist rightist coup in China, I am certain that it will not be peaceful and very probably will be short-lived.”

Regardless of these fears about planned coups (other examples could be cited) no actual coups against the Chinese Communist regime were ever attempted. And there were no recorded attempts to assassinate Mao Zedong after the People’s Republic was formed. On the other hand, Mao planned and executed many purges of his political colleagues, displacing them from power, assassinating them politically and certainly causing the deaths of several. In executing these purges, Mao often charged the victims with plotting “coups.” Did such allegations ever have any factual basis?

The accusation against the Mayor of Beijing, Peng Zhen, is worth looking at as an example. In July 1966, as the Cultural Revolution got underway, a poster appeared on the campus of Peking University—posted by the Red Guards—claiming that the municipal government had planned the previous February to station troops at the university, where the Red Guards had been ’struggling.’ This then became the sole evidence against Peng Zhen: the movement of troops was, presumably, part of a conspiracy to take over the city. (He Long, the Chinese general who'd been advised to get rid of Mao as the Soviets had ridded themselves of Khrushchev, was charged later, which at least gave the plot some military credibility.) But the real reason for Peng Zhen’s downfall was different, and rather obscure. Serving directly under Peng as Vice Mayor of Beijing was a man named Wu Han. Wu was a great Chinese historian, and an expert on the Ming Dynasty. In 1961 he had written a play for the Peking Opera, Hai Rui Dismissed From Office, based on the life of a Ming Dynasty official. In the play, Hai Rui, seeking to serve the people, goes before the emperor and criticizes him for the corruption of the imperial government. Dismissed from office for his honesty, he’s restored to his post after the emperor dies. The play was initially successful; indeed, Mao praised it. But in 1966, Mao reversed himself, orchestrating an attack against the play—after all, it could have been interpreted as an allegory in which he was the emperor. In 1966, at the very beginning of the Cultural Revolution, Wu Han was put in prison, where he died in 1969, and since Peng Zhen was his superior, he too was implicated. But the ultimate target of Mao’s machinations was even higher up the scale, a patron of Peng’s, Liu Shaoqi. Liu was President of the People’s Republic (1959-1968) and in 1961 had been named Mao’s successor (as Lin Biao would be in 1966.) Although he’d initially supported Mao’s Great Leap Forward, he later criticized it (the Great Leap Forward was the only period after 1949 in which the Chinese economy shrank) and in 1960 Liu and Deng Xiaoping were put it charge of setting the economy right: it perhaps did the careers of neither men much good that their efforts were successful. Liu, both as a personality and as the representative of a more moderate ideological tendency, now became an enemy of Mao. He would finally be purged in 1967, beaten and tortured, dying in 1969. But here’s the question: in this rather torturous narrative, was there, at any point—in relation to anyone—a conspiracy to topple the regime?

Peng Zhen, still in office, greets an Indian Communist. His protogé's play,
"Hai Rui Dismissed From Office" led to his downfall—but the real target was Liu
Shaoqi, one of the great early Chinese Communists.

By May 1965, Mao felt he was losing power and was surrounded by conspirators. Some of his colleagues, he felt certain, were forming “independent kingdoms” to expel him from leadership, while others were preparing a coup d’etat. He criticized Deng Xiaoping and Li Fuchun, a premier, for their “independent kingdoms” in the Central Secretariat and State Planning Commission. He then levelled the same charge at Peng Zhen and charged Peng with plotting a coup. Luo Ruiqing lost his position as chief of staff of the PLA in December 1965…Mao also removed Yang Shangkun from his position as director of the General Office of the Party Central Committee for allegedly bugging Mao and secretly recording Mao’s private conversations. In retrospect it is clear that there were no valid charges against any of these victims of the Cultural Revolution. That all held key positions and were rehabilitated after Mao’s death in 1976 suggests they were victims of Mao’s paranoid fear of a coup against him. (Jin Qiu, “The Culture of Power: The Lin Bao Incident in the Cultural Revolution,” p. 57)

Mao’s fears of a coup were, in the event, were almost certainly baseless. But the fear of being purged among members of the Chinese leadership was clearly real enough. Did Lin Biao think he was about to be purged? Was he right to do so? The answer to both these questions is “yes.” And this raises another: did he plot a coup defensively, a pre-emptive strike to prevent being assassinated politically himself?


Lin Biao, and his family. His daughter, Lin Doudou, did not flee with her
father and is still alive today. The document purports to outline the
"plot"—Project 571

The documentary and testamentary evidence presented by the Chinese government doesn’t link Lin in a substantial way either to the planning or the execution of any plot, or coup attempt. What the evidence does indicate is that people around Lin, especially his wife and son, felt he was in danger and took some steps— not very concrete or effective—to prevent this. The most important piece of evidence about a plot comes from a notebook left on a table in a house at the air force academy where Lin’s son, Lin Liguo, spent time. But there's no evidence, or reason to believe, that it was connected to Lin Bao or reflected his thinking. As for the document itself, it is scarcely a plan, more a critique of Mao’s policies and a description of the political situation in China as the Cultural Revolution raged. The country was in a political crisis, led by a clique that is more or less identified with Jiang Qing, and their object is to "change successors." Since Lin Bao was the chosen successor, this could only mean displacing him.

Was this danger real? Was Lin, here, facing a threat to his political existence—one that might have tempted him to strike first?

The Chinese authorities have a difficulty at this point because they tried the Lin Biao clique and the Jiang Qing clique together, releasing guilty verdicts in 1981; so it is difficult to posit that the two cliques were opposed. Moreover, there’s little doubt that Lin supported the Cultural Revolution initially; indeed, Lin’s whole political strategy was to support Mao punctiliously in everything: “We should all follow Mao closely,” he told a secretary, “I don’t have any talent. What I know, I learned from Mao.”

Still, there's no doubt that Lin and Jiang Qing began moving apart as the Cultural Revolution went on. Lin was loyal to Mao—but also to the Army. And in early 1967 Jiang Qing attacked Xia Hua, Director of the General Political Department of the PLA (People's Liberation Army.) His house was ransacked, top secret documents were removed from his safe. Lin Bao was furious, and got into a shouting match with Jiang Qing. Only Lin's wife prevented him from going to Mao and resigning.

Personal, familial, even sexual relations became increasingly important in
the Cultural Revolution. Extreme right: Lin's ambitious wife, Ye Qun with her
daughter, Lin Doudou. On the left, Li Na, Mao's daughter with Jiang Qing

Lin’s opposition to Jiang Qing was now coming into the open. It became even more evident on May 13, 1967 in a bizarre incident at the Zhanlanguan Theater in Beijing. By this time, military headquarters was divided into a radical faction that was supported by Jiang Qing and the Red Guards, and a conservative faction, the difference being focussed on support or opposition to a number of senior officers, especially the head of the air force, Wu Fuxian, and Qiu Huizou, director of the General Logistics Department. The conservative faction, as a demonstration of their determination and strength, decided to hold an artistic performance to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Mao’s Yanan talks on literature and art. The radicals, backed by Jiang Qing, threatened to disrupt it. The theatre turned into a battlefield, and not just metaphorically. Many were seriously injured, and only the intervention of a contingent from the navy prevented deaths. In the aftermath of the debacle, Zhou Enlai and others criticized the conservatives, but Lin now showed his hand. He dispatched his wife, Ye Qun, to sympathize with conservative victims of the fracas who were in hospital, and then, on May 23, Lin ordered troops from the Beijing garrison to maintain order as a repeat performance of the show was staged in Tiananmen Square. Lin was challenging, and defying, Janq Qing. And he won. At a a third performance on June 9 virtually all of the Chinese leadership was in attendance.

The incident shows that Lin was not without power. He had faced down Jiang Qing. He was Mao’s anointed successor. He led the military. He was a national hero.
He could be a political force, if he chose to exert himself. But he rarely did. He had no political programme, nor did he represent any ideological tendency in the Party. He wrote little, and mainly about military tactics. Without political ambition, his position as Mao’s successor had been forced upon him. Moreover, he was a passive, neurotic man. Seriously wounded in 1938, he was obsessed with his health, worked only a few hours a day, took frequent, long holidays of recuperation. If Mao had decided to replace Lin, it may well have been because he doubted his capacity. As early as 1967, Mao had told Wang Li (a member of the Central Cultural Revolution Small Group): “If Lin Bao cannot function anymore because of his health, I will restore Deng to the leading position.” (Wang Li, “Xianchang lishi,” p 96, cited in “The Culture of Power: Lin Biao and the Cultural Revolution.”)

Lacking political ambition, it could be argued that Lin still might have personal ambition; but as a military man, he could have risen no higher, and all he had to do was wait to have the highest position in the land. But of course his wife, Ye Qun, and son, Lin Liguo, were entirely dependent on Lin for their positions, and they did have ambitions. Ye Qun was extraordinarily status-conscious and like Jiang Qing, had maneuvered to gain a seat on the Politburo. Lin Liguo, Lin’s son, had used his father’s name to gain a high position in the Chinese air force. Both Ye Qun and Lin Liguo knew that Lin’s fall meant their fall, too.

And by the summer of 1970, Lin was obviously in trouble. At a conference in Lushan, it was clear that Lin was losing power, and on September 1, 1970 the Politburo demanded that people close to Lin—such as Wu Faxian, the airforce chief and Ye Qun, Lin’s wife—be "criticized," which was the usual prelude to humiliation. The writing was on the wall.

Wu Fuxian, one of "the plotters"—his daughter would write one of the better
accounts of "the incident."

Did Lin strike first? In the year following the Lushan conference, he did nothing, apparently accepting his fate, whatever that might be. In August 1971, Mao embarked on a tour of the provinces and when word leaked out that he was preparing people for a major change in the top ranks of the leadership, Lin still did nothing—he was, as usual, in very poor health, recuperating at Beidhaie. But his wife? Son? Whatever they did, it was ineffective. There is no evidence of any attempt to organize the military forces that would have been necessary to launch a successful coup. Lin’s surviving daughter, Lin Doudou believes that her brother never told their father of his plans, whatever they may have been. As for Ye Qun, Lin’s wife, she spent her time at Beidhaie reading a translation of Pere Goriot. Lin, on the fatal night, was not executing a coup or even awake—he’d taken sleeping pills and was in bed. Roused by his wife, he was bundled into a car and driven to the airport. Apparently Li Wenpu, Lin’s bodyguard, then realized what was happening, and as they approached the airport guard house he ordered the driver to stop the car, and got out—and apparently wounded himself as a proof of his innocence. As for the four generals, who were supposedly involved, there was no evidence against them. Eventually, “charges connected with any ‘conspiracies’ by the Lin family were eliminated from the generals’ verdicts. All the generals were released from prison soon after the trial for health reasons.” (“The Culture of Power: the Lin Biao Incident in the Cultural Revolution.”)

A final judgment on the Lin Biao incident is impossible to render—we know too little. Even if it didn’t involve Lin himself, his wife and son probably made tentative, amateurish attempts at protecting themselves that, if not a coup, were at least subversive. More importantly, the case shows how the leadership of China had become concentrated in the hands of one man, and lost any semblance of collegiality or collectivism. And it demonstrates the terrible problems of the transition of power in a revolutionary dictatorship. With no legitimate and legitimizing political process to turn to, power becomes a matter of will and whim. At the end, in Mao’s China, political power was purely personal, a matter of family and connections, clients, patrons and cronies; and so it seems to be today. China, today, is both a terrible proof—Mao’s revolution was certainly in trouble—and a warning: determination and will can’t stop the implacable force of history. The Lin Biao incident is a story in which Lin was a tragic victim, but so was Mao. Despite his vast, heroic, revolutionary heart, he was the greatest capitalist-roader of them all.

Past and Present: Mao and Xi Jinping