50 years ago today: the life of China's glamorous First Lady took a turn for the worse

(This is the 3rd of a series of posts on Chinese historical female figures from the 20th century.   Feel free to read my
previous posts regarding Song Mei Ling and Sun WeiShi.)

In the end life balances out. 

And so it did for Wang Guangmei.

The story could stop here.  A two line summary of China’s True First Lady.   The First, First Lady of China, whose glamour only fifty years later Peng Liyuan can only begin to remind people of.  I’m afraid most young Chinese today are not familiar with Wang Guangmei.   Her time came very early on, and though her light continued to flicker, the glow she brought to China’s prestige around the world had long since dimmed.   Wang Guangmei was the Jackie O of China.   She paid the price for being Jackie O.   Both lost their husbands in the most gruesome of ways, one publicly and one privately.

But perhaps while both were predestined to marrying well, Wang Guangmei simply had good fortune on her side.  A good upbringing in a Catholic school.  (In China? Yes!)  No one would have been surprised if she had simply went abroad.   To America.  She had the opportunity.  It was her goal actually.   But while it was her destiny, History decided it was not to be her fate.  For some reason, she felt it necessary to travel instead to Yanan.   Like many other Chinese Youth, she was swept up in the wave of patriotic fervor.  And that of course changed everything.   Her life.  And yes, even the history of China.

Her English skills came in handy as a translator when General Marshall came to town.  By this time she was already not just Liu Shaoqi’s translator, but personal secretary.  He the 5 time married(!) Chinese Statesmen who would someday be the President of China.  Just another example of how the elite of China(all men) led personal lives and made moral decisions vastly different from those of everyone else in China, both the urbane elites and the peasantry.

Wang Guangmei could’ve simply went to America and probably served in the State Department. Even then her knowledge of China’s inner workings, while still in her mid twenties, was greatly valued.   But Liu Shaoqi had his eye on her, and by making her his personal secretary, that was that.   Not only putting the proverbial “this girl is mine” stamp on her, but instantly cementing her status to his as well. 

And that was a pretty good plan, eh?  Wang Guangmei could’ve said “no”.   Surely she knew what the future Chinese 
President was up to.  Nevermind Liu was 23 years her senior.   They were in love!
Image result for wang guangmei
Happy times…..perhaps Wang Guangmei’s most widely scene photo.

Wang Guangmei the sophisticated college grad, confident, fluent in multiple languages. She represented what was best of a Future Modern China.  Young, vibrant and pure.  Yes, Wang Guangmei would represent China well.   And she did represent China well.  Too well, it turned out.   Of course she knew Jiang Qing, herself a divorcee cum actress from the decadent scene of 30’s Shanghai.   Jiang Qing it goes without saying was the extreme opposite of Wang Guangmei.   Each woman representing polar opposites of an image China wished to project upon the World.  Let alone arguably what a Chinese Man wished a Chinese Wife to be.

In due time, Wang Guangmei’s husband became the President of China.  And just like that, she was First Lady.   The year was 1959.   They had barely been married ten years.  These were chaotic times in China.  The Great Leap Forward was in full throttle and by then clear to all an utter failure.   This in turn led to starvation and  low rumblings of “corruption”, if one can call the need to live “corruption”.  Liu sent his wife down to the countryside to investigate.   His trust in her intelligence was quite apparent.   Indeed, his relationship with his wife was very different from that of Mao and his own wife.  The horrific “corruption” discovered was that peasants were beginning to till their own land.   

Wang Guangmei’s sense of fashion was also on display as First Lady of China.   On one overseas trip she wore a pearl necklace, along with a supposedly tight fitting qipao.   Contrast this with Jiang Qing’s simple trousers and tunic.  Alas, there were those who felt Wang Guangmei’s sense of fashion did not mesh well with China’s socialist image.  Of course, Wang Guangmei’s intelligence, while superbly representing China in a favorable light overseas, simply caused jealousy and resentment at home.  

One can guess who Wang Guangmei’s rival was, right?  Jiang Qing herself.   After all, the only female that could outrank WGM was of course none other than the wife of Mao.   But WGM, by virtue of her well bred background, was of course the Party Favorite.  How could she not be?  Everyone simply ignored the fact her father was a minister in the Pre-Communist Government.   And who could hate that virtuous smile?   Contrast that with Jiang Qing’s rampant insecurities. 

By 1964 Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping had come out in favor of economic moderation.  The better to alleviate the downward spiral in China’s economy as well as to better the lives of China’s peasants.   The Communist Party after all depended upon China’s peasantry for continued support of the Revolution.   This in turn eventually led them to oppose Mao’s economic policies.  Which in turn led Mao to scheme for their removal. 

Mao’s resentment of Liu had slowly been building since the early 60’s.  He resented Liu’s comments on Mao’s policies, even though Liu had originally supported them.   Liu’s opinion of things to Mao was quite candid.  After all, weren’t we all comrades?  From the caves of Yanan to Zhongnanhai, surely the long road taken allowed frank talk, right?  

Meanwhile, WGM with Liu’s active encouragement was continuing to be involved in politics, further antagonizing Jiang Qing.  In 1967 WGM was sent to QingHua University to purge party leadership. 
Instead, she found herself being unceremoniously struggled against.

And this is perhaps the most infamous photo of Wang Guangmei.  Here, on April 10, 1967, she is being struggled against in front of 300,000 people.  (The Chinese love a scene.)  She is wearing the same qipao that Jiang Qing had complained about on her State Visit to Indonesia.  Further, the ping pong ball necklace is a representation of her infamous pearl necklace worn on the same trip.   

For some reason, the higher the rise only guarantees the steeper the fall.   This is the case with Wang Guangmei.  Her ascent into the upper reaches of Chinese Political Society during the 50’s and early 60’s can only be matched by the darkness she encountered throughout the rest of the 60’s and all of the 70’s.

Struggling against her opened the way for Mao to then struggle against Liu.  The same tactic had been used against Hai Rui, which led to Peng Zhen, which in turn also led to Liu.

Wang Guangmei of course could’ve simply followed her destiny and went to America.  Her English abilities, intelligence and charm would’ve guaranteed her a comfortable life.  Her insights into the inner workings of China’s Party Leadership would’ve been of great value.  But like many, many of China’s brightest youth, she was lured by the dream of a better China.  All of which they realized, albeit much later in life then they had hoped.

Wang Guangmei was eventually imprisoned for 12 years and not released until 1979.  I don’t believe she ever saw her husband again after this picture was taken.  Liu Shaoqi died a few years later, purportedly on a cold concrete floor in November of 1969.  However, this is a rumor.  Maybe even a deliberate legend.

During this timeframe Wang Guangmei’s children had no inkling of what had become of their parents.  But Mao knew.  Only when they finally asked four years after their mothers imprisonment did they find out father was dead but mother still alive.  Such was the life of China’s Former First Lady.

Upon her release, her husband was finally rehabilitated, with a proper ceremony. 

Wang Guangmei’s power and influence within China came to an end the day she stepped upon the QingHua campus in April 1967.  Alas, the glamorous, sophisticated image the Chinese People held of their First Lady has only now been rekindled with the appearance of Peng Liyuan upon the scene. 

Today her children have all prospered.  One is a Harvard grad.  Another a former general. 

Later in life it is said Wang Guangmei was forbidden from leaving the country.   Particularly after a book on Chairman Mao’s life was written by his former private doctor, who had somehow been able to leave the country.  One can only tell what Wang Guangmei would’ve written, could’ve said.  It is a story we will never hear told.


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