Yao Wenyuan, the last surviving member of the Gang of Four, who has died aged 74, was a literary polemicist whose pen, under Mao Zedong’s patronage, launched the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-76). His vitriolic essays provided ammunition for Mao and his wife, Jiang Qing (Madam Mao) in their campaign to destroy senior communist leaders with whom they had fallen out, including the president Liu Shaoqi.
Yao operated from the Lilac Garden, a colonial-style villa on Shanghai’s leafy Huashan Road. With its fine lawns, the villa provided a pleasant base for the ”literary research” of a group of radical writers under Yao’s direction. It was here that Yao wrote his famous polemic Comment on the Play Hai Rui Dismissed from Office, published in November 1965. 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 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. Yao’s family background, and the tradition of intellectual polemics in Shanghai, also moulded his outlook.
Yao was born in Zhuji County, Zhejiang province. His father Yao Pengzi was a Shanghai literary radical and already a member of the Communist party. In 1934 Yao Pengzi was jailed by the Chinese government, during the first civil war between nationalists and communists, and forced to renounce his allegiance to the party, but he remained active in leftwing literary circles throughout China’s war against Japan (1937-45).
His son joined the party in 1948, a year before the communist victory. He too chose to pursue a literary career, but did so from within the party’s propaganda apparatus. Yao’s first big chance came in 1954, when the veteran writer Hu Feng, who had upset Mao by calling for more cultural freedom, was denounced as a ”counter-revolutionary”.
Yao, although allegedly an admirer of Hu, promptly penned an anti-Hu critique that caught the eye of Zhang Chunqiao, the then editor of Shanghai’s party newspaper. Three years later, during the Hundred Flowers campaign, when Chinese intellectuals were briefly encouraged to speak out, and then punished for doing so, Yao published another polemic denouncing the novelist Yao Xueyin (no relation), who had criticised the party for its ”dogmatism”.
This time Yao’s article caught the attention of Mao himself: chosen to represent Shanghai at a propaganda conference in Beijing, Yao was praised by the chairman. Now hailed as a ”literary star”, Yao was promoted to senior positions in the party’s propaganda department in Shanghai, including membership of the ”anti-rightist leading group” which targeted dissenting intellectuals, and sent thousands of them to labour camps in the countryside.
When Mao, through his wife Jiang Qing, decided, in 1965, to launch what became known as the Cultural Revolution, Yao became chief polemicist. He was soon promoted to become the city’s propaganda head before moving to Beijing. From there, he and Zhang Chunqiao encouraged Shanghai rebels to ”seize power” from the city party leaders in the January (1967) Revolution. He then helped Zhang to throttle demands by local radicals for the establishment of a Shanghai Commune that would have replaced the party’s authority.
The party was to be transformed, not abolished, and at its national ninth congress in 1969 Yao joined the ruling politburo. A new struggle for power emerged, as Mao approached his end, between the radicals who sought ”continuous revolution”, and more moderate forces led by Deng Xiaoping (backed by Zhou Enlai) who called for economic modernisation.
By this time Yao was in charge of the entire propaganda machine, including the party’s journal Red Flag. In 1975 two articles by Yao and Zhang mixed serious theory with vicious polemic, warning that a ”new bourgeoisie” was emerging within the party. Yao argued that as long as classes existed in China, so did ”the soil and conditions that engender capitalism”. The answer was to restrict ”bourgeois rights” by continuing to reduce inequalities in the wage structure and by expanding collective ownership.
In January 1976 the death of Premier Zhou brought the conflict to a head. Yao reduced newspaper coverage of Zhou’s death from the planned four pages to one. At the Qingming festival in April, when graves are traditionally swept, Tiananmen Square filled with mourners for Zhou, who used the occasion to denounce the ultra-left leadership. One famous poem, declaimed in the square, denounced Yao and his colleagues as ”wolves and jackals”. To Yao’s fury the official media quoted this poem in full while purporting to condemn it. He suspected a ”counter-revolutionary plot”.
Although Deng Xiaoping was forced to retire temporarily, it was an empty victory for the radicals, who had alienated all other factions in the party, including, critically, the army that ensured their arrest after Mao’s death. At his trial, Yao showed no sign of defiance, arguing feebly that he had ”committed mistakes but no crimes”. His 20-year sentence was ended early on medical grounds, and Yao hoped to write his memoirs, but he was prevented from doing so by the propaganda apparatus that he had once controlled.
The Cultural Revolution is still a sensitive subject, and Yao’s death was only reported briefly by the official Chinese news agency after a two-week delay. – Guardian Unlimited Ã‚