The epithet “Gang of Four” was Mao Zedong’s (Mao Tse-tung) name for his wife, Jiang Qing, and her three lieutenants, Yao Wenyuan (Yao Wen-yuan), Zhang Chunqiao (Chang Ch’un-ch’iao), and Wang Hongwen (Wang Hung-wen) in 1976; the four rose to power during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966–76). Jiang had hoped to succeed her husband as leader of the Chinese Communist Party when he died, with the assistance of her three confederates. Instead, they fell from power within a month of his death, were tried for high crimes in 1980, and were convicted.
Jiang Qing (1913–91) was an actress in Shanghai before she went to Yan’an (Yenan). She became Mao’s secretary, then his wife, over the objection of his colleagues, who reputedly made him promise to keep her out of politics for at least 20 years. Largely sidelined from running the party since 1960 as a result of the failed Great Leap Forward, Mao promoted her to great prominence in 1966 to help him recapture power. Together they unleashed the Cultural Revolution and empowered the youthful Red Guards to inflict a reign of terror that eliminated Mao’s enemies. Jiang Qing took control of the media and banned all entertainment except for the eight “model operas” that she authorized.
However, before his death in September 1976, Mao appointed Hua Guofeng (Hua Kuo-feng), minister of public security and acting premier, to be his successor. Jiang then planned to mount a coup and assassinate the senior party leaders with the aid of her lieutenants and the militia, which was loyal to them. But they were preempted by Hua, who had the support of the senior party and military leaders. Hua invited the Gang of Four to attend an emergency meeting of the Politburo (the supreme council of the Communist Party) at its headquarters at midnight on October 5. Zhang, Wang, and Yao fell into the trap and were arrested as they arrived for the meeting; Jiang was captured while still in bed. None of their supporters rose to their aid. This event was called the Smashing of the Gang of Four.
Nevertheless it took four years before the Gang of Four was brought to trial for crimes they had committed against the state and people because of the difficulty of assessing Mao’s role in what transpired during the Cultural Revolution. In November 1980 a special court charged them with framing and persecuting party and government leaders, torturing and killing more than 34,750 people, and plotting an armed uprising in Shanghai after Mao’s death. Although the others admitted guilt, Jiang remained defiant, claiming that she had acted as Mao’s dog, doing his bidding. The trial lasted two months and resulted in death sentences for Jiang and Zhang, with a two-year suspended execution. Wang was sentenced to life and Yao received 20 years. Some sources say that Jiang committed suicide in jail in 1991. Wang died in 1992, Zhang died in 2005, and Yao died in 2006.
See also Deng Xiaoping.