Originally an actress in Communist theater and film, her marriage to Mao in 1939 was widely criticized, as his second wife, Ho Zizhen, was a celebrated veteran of the Long March who Mao had divorced while she lay languishing in a Moscow hospital. His first wife, Yang Kaihui, was killed by the Nationalists during the Chinese Civil War.
Jiang Qing was ordered to stay out of politics, and she did so until the 1960s, when she openly criticized traditional Chinese opera and the bourgeois influences in Chinese arts and literature. In 1966, Mao made her first deputy head of the Cultural Revolution and gave her far-reaching powers over China’s intellectual and cultural life. The Cultural Revolution was Mao’s attempt to revolutionize Chinese society, and Jiang proved adept at manipulating the media and the young radicals known as the Red Guards. The movement was characterized by terror and purges in which tens of thousands were killed and millions suffered.
In the late 1960s, the Cultural Revolution waned, and Jiang faded from the public eye. However, after her husband’s death in 1976, she and three other radicals who had come to power in the revolution were singled out as the “Gang of Four.” Jiang was arrested and in 1977 expelled from the Communist Party. Three years later, the Gang of Four were put on trial. Jiang was held responsible for provoking the turmoil and bloodshed of the revolution, but she denied the charges and denounced China’s leaders. She was found guilty and sentenced to die. On January 25, 1983, exactly two years after she was condemned, the Chinese government commuted her sentence to life imprisonment. In 1991, she died in prison of an apparent suicide.