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Wang Guangmei, 85; Chinese First Lady Was Jailed by Mao

October 19, 2006|Adam Bernstein | Washington Post

Wang Guangmei, the former Chinese first lady who was publicly humiliated, widowed and jailed during the Cultural Revolution of Chairman Mao Tse-tung, died Friday at a military hospital in Beijing. She was 85.

Wang was variously reported to have died of cancer, and heart and kidney ailments.

Her husband, President Liu Shaoqi, was Mao's contemporary and his presumed successor as Communist Party chairman. His prominence in the late 1950s coincided with Mao's disastrous Great Leap Forward, an economic policy undermined by unpopular efforts to collectivize agriculture that led to widespread famine. Liu was increasingly vocal about political and economic differences with Mao.

Meanwhile, the highly educated and exquisitely dressed Wang attracted the harsh jealousies of Mao's wife, Jiang Qing. Their rivalry was heightened in 1963 when Wang, against Jiang's suggestion, wore a pearl necklace during a state visit throughout Southeast Asia. This accouterment was considered dangerously decadent in a country where women dressed simply.

In 1966, Mao moved to reassert his authority with the Cultural Revolution. He saw this as a way of reviving the revolutionary spirit of his party's ascension to power. It also became a way to purge his political rivals, chief among them Liu, labeled the country's "No. 1 Capitalist Roader" and a "lackey of imperialism." Thousands of professionals were attacked and killed during the next few years.

In August 1967, Wang and her husband were marched in front of 100,000 spectators at Tiananmen Square and forced into uncomfortable positions to mock and humble them. They were then beaten in front of their young children before being separated. They would never see each other again. Liu died in 1969, presumably from medical neglect while in a prison in Kaifeng.

Their children, including a 10-year-old daughter, were persecuted and jailed. In 1972, they were allowed a rare visit to their mother in Qincheng Prison. They found her "hardly able to stand, wearing an old army coat, her face blank and sullen," Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Harrison E. Salisbury wrote in his book "Heroes of My Time."

Though sentenced to death, Wang was saved when Premier Zhou Enlai persuaded Mao to have mercy, Salisbury wrote.

She spent nearly 12 years in prison before being released in 1979 -- three years after Mao's death and a year before the Communist Party Central Committee declared her family rehabilitated.

She discovered on her release that she was widowed, but she lived to see the show trials that sentenced Jiang and the other members of the so-called Gang of Four, who oversaw mass purgings.

Wang Guangmei was born in September 1921 in Beijing, where her father was a ranking industry official in the republican government.

She received a science degree from Fu Jen Catholic University in Beijing. But after joining the Communist Party, she mostly worked as an interpreter of French and English.

In the late 1940s, Wang began working as a secretary to Liu, who was nearly twice her age. She became his wife and remained his secretary for 18 years.

After her jail term, she reentered public life as director of the foreign affairs section of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Survivors include four children.

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