Wang Guangmei

Former first lady of China


Wang Guangmei, secretary and campaigner: born 26 September 1921; married 1948 Liu Shaoqi (died 1969; two sons, two daughters); died Beijing 13 October 2006.

Wang Guangmei was China's former first lady whose husband, Liu Shaoqi, was killed at the height of Chairman Mao Tse-tung's chaotic Cultural Revolution. Local media carried no reports of her death, unwilling to prompt bitter memories of the period of ideological fervour between 1966 and 1976 which led to thousands of deaths and millions of lives destroyed.

Born during the short-lived republican era in China in 1921, Wang was the daughter of a high-ranking government official and, unusually for a woman then, received an excellent education, culminating in a master's degree in atomic physics from Fu Jen Catholic University in Beijing in 1943. Her good English earned her a job as an interpreter in the mission led by the US representative George Marshall to mediate between the nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and Mao's Communists after the Second World War.

Wang joined the Communists at their headquarters in Yanan in 1946 and there met Liu Shaoqi, who was Mao's close ally and heir apparent. Liu was 23 years her senior and Wang worked as his secretary for 18 years after she became his sixth wife in 1948.

Liu replaced Mao as President in 1959 after the disastrous agricultural reform known as the Great Leap Forward failed miserably and killed some 30 million people. Wang was known for her beauty and many say this helped incur the envy of Mao's wife, Jiang Qing. Famously, Wang wore a string of pearls at a time when make-up and fashion accessories were considered bourgeois and decadent.

Mao set his Red Guards on to Liu and his family during the Cultural Revolution, the ideological campaign which Mao described as "a single spark that started a prairie fire". Liu was condemned as a traitor and is said to have died in 1969 after being beaten and locked in a bank vault. It was many years before his wife was told of his death.

After Jiang Qing accused Wang of being an American spy, she was forced to appear in one of the revolution's "struggle sessions" in front of 300,000 people at Tsinghua University in 1966. She was made to wear a string of ping-pong balls (to represent her pearls) when she was purged in 1967. Wang was then jailed for 12 years and released in 1979.

After her release, she dedicated her life to the alleviation of poverty. Her rehabilitation was complete in September, when she was nominated for a special personal achievement award for her efforts to fight poverty through a charity programme she ran called "Project Happiness" aimed at improving the situation of 700,000 poor mothers around China. In 1996, she auctioned six antiques from the Qing (1644-1911) and Song (960-1279) dynasties, left by her mother. While the antiques had been seized, they escaped destruction by the Red Guards. The auction raised 566,000 yuan (£38,000) for Project Happiness.

Despite the way her family was treated by Mao, Wang never held a grudge against him and recalled with fondness the times they would go swimming together. Her loyalty to Mao always puzzled, and indeed angered, many in China, who hoped she could help with calls for a re-evaluation of Mao's record.

Clifford Coonan

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