What Was the Gang of Four in China?

They Rose to Prominence During the Cultural Revolution

Beijing residents read posters chastising "Gang of Four" on Beijing's "Democracy Wall,"

Getty Images / Bettmann

The Gang of Four, or siren bang, was a group of four influential Chinese Communist Party figures during the latter years of Mao Zedong's rule. The Gang consisted of Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, and her associates Wang Hongwen, Yao Wenyuan, and Zhang Chunqiao. Wang, Yao, and Zhang were all major party officials from Shanghai. They rose to prominence during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), pushing Mao's policies in China's second city. When Mao's health began to decline over that decade, they gained control of a number of major government functions.

The Cultural Revolution

It is not clear how much control the Gang of Four really exercised over the policies and decisions surrounding the Cultural Revolution, and to what extent they simply carried out Mao's wishes. Although the Red Guards who implemented the Cultural Revolution across the country did revive Mao's political career, they also brought a dangerous degree of chaos and destruction to China. The unrest sparked a political struggle between a reformist group, including Deng Xiaoping, Zhou Enlai, and Ye Jianying, and the Gang of Four.

When Mao died on Sept. 9, 1976, the Gang of Four sought to take control of the country, but in the end, none of the major players took power. Mao's choice and his eventual successor was the previously little known but reform-minded Hua Guofeng. Hua publicly denounced the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. On Oct. 6, 1976, he ordered the arrest of Jiang Qing and the other members of her cabal.

The official press gave the purged officials their nickname, "The Gang of Four," and asserted that Mao had turned against them in the last year of his life. It also blamed them for the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, setting off a nationwide round of denunciations against Jiang and her allies. Their major supporters in Shanghai were invited to Beijing for a conference and were immediately arrested as well.

On Trial for Treason

In 1981, the members of the Gang of Four went on trial for treason and other crimes against the Chinese state. Among the charges were the deaths of 34,375 people over the course of the Cultural Revolution, as well as the persecution of three-quarters of a million innocent Chinese.

The trials were strictly for show, so the three male defendants did not mount any defense. Wang Hongwen and Yao Wenyuan both confessed to all the crimes with which they were charged and offered their repentance. Zhang Chunqiao quietly and steadfastly maintained his innocence throughout. Jiang Qing, on the other hand, yelled, cried, and ranted during her trial, shouting that she was innocent and had only obeyed orders from her husband, Mao Zedong.

The Gang of Four's Sentencing

In the end, all four defendants were convicted. Wang Hongwen was sentenced to life in prison; he was released to a hospital in 1986 and died of an unspecified liver ailment in 1992 at just 56 years of age. Yao Wenyuan received a 20-year sentence; he was released from prison in 1996 and passed away from complications of diabetes in 2005. 

Both Jiang Qing and Zhang Chunqiao were sentenced to death, although their sentences were later commuted to life in prison. Jiang was moved to house arrest at her daughter's home in 1984 and committed suicide in 1991. She reportedly had been diagnosed with throat cancer and hanged herself to avoid suffering any longer from the condition. Zhang was released from prison on medical grounds in 1998 after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He lived until 2005.

The downfall of the Gang of Four signaled widespread changes for the People's Republic of China. Under Hua Guofeng and the rehabilitated Deng Xiaoping, China moved away from the worst excesses of the Mao era. It established diplomatic and trade relations with the United States and other western countries and began to pursue its current course of economic liberalization paired with firm political control.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "What Was the Gang of Four in China?" ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/the-gang-of-four-195613. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2021, February 16). What Was the Gang of Four in China? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-gang-of-four-195613 Szczepanski, Kallie. "What Was the Gang of Four in China?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-gang-of-four-195613 (accessed February 8, 2023).