Writing the history of the Gang of Four


Ye Yonglie is well-known for his biographies of major public figures in recent Chinese history.

He started his career in the 1960s writing popular science texts, was one of the luminaries of genre writing in the post-Cultural Revolution period, and then turned to biographies following the anti-Spiritual Pollution campaign. More recently, he has been publishing travel writing and photo essays of his visits to countries around the world.

His set of biographies on the members of the Gang of Four — Jiang Qing, Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan, and Wang Hongwen — have been issued in multiple authorized editions and are quite widely pirated. In January, the People's Daily Publishing House issued Ye's massive, three-volume Rise and Fall of the Gang of Four, which synthesizes his four separate biographies into a single narrative work.

Last week, the Nanguo Metropolis Daily printed Ye's account of how the book came to be: why he wrote it, and what external factors influenced its decades-long publication history.

Why I Wrote The Rise and Fall of the Gang of Four

by Ye Yonglie / NMD

Initial inspiration came from two books

The decade of the Cultural Revolution was a massive catastrophe for the Chinese people, a miscarriage of justice that left its victims everywhere. "The upright are dead at the side of the road, while titles have been conferred on the twisted" — indeed this was the case. The Cultural Revolution was truly an enormous calamity, the likes of which had never before been seen in Chinese history.

The Sixth Plenum of the Eleventh National Congress of the Communist Party of China passed the "Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party Since the Founding of the People's Republic of China," which noted:

The Cultural Revolution...was responsible for the most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the Party, the state and the people since the founding of the People's Republic.
History has shown that the Cultural revolution, initiated by a leader labouring under a misapprehension and capitalized on by counter-revolutionary cliques, led to domestic turmoil and brought catastrophe to the Party, the state and the whole people.*

In 1980, I wrote the novella Black Shadow, which dealt with the tragic suffering of a patriotic intellectual during the Cultural Revolution. It was serialized in Yangcheng Evening News in 1981. From the mouth of the novel's protagonist came these words:

"Truth will ultimately triumph over power, and light will ultimately triumph over darkness. Strength may win temporarily, but victory ultimately belongs to reason!"*

"Those dark days have finally passed, yet we should always remember the weighty lessons of history."

As that book was being serialized, the Supreme People's Court of the People's Republic of China was in session, and the ten chief culprits of the Lin Biao and Jiang Qing Counterrevolutionary Clique had been hauled before the bench of history. Each evening, I sat in front of the screen with all of my attention fixed on the trial that had captivated the world. I took notes as I watched. I could sense that the astonishing facts revealed in the trial would be more shocking than any fictional story! And thus was formed the germ of an idea for a long-form non-fiction project about the Cultural Revolution...

I was aware that the curtain had closed on the tragedy, travesty, calamity, and farce of the Cultural Revolution, and the turbulent decade of catastrophes had settled down into history. However, even today that unusual period of history still attracts attention, within China as well as abroad. Going behind the curtain of the Cultural Revolution remains a selling point for thousands upon thousands of readers.

My initial inspiration was drawn from two books:

One was Ba Jin's Random Thoughts, which was gradually being issued at the time. His penetrating castigation of the Cultural Revolution in that book shook my mind.

The other was The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by the American writer William L. Shirer, who wrote the lengthy work using 485 tons of files from Nazi Germany over the course of five and a half years.

In his preface, the author quoted a line from Santayana that has echoes in Ba Jin's work: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

The great wounds visited upon the Chinese people by the ten years of calamity no less deep than the suffering that Hitler and the Nazis brought to Germany.

Ye at a May 7 Cadre School in the late 60s

Literature to fill a gap in history

As a Shanghai writer, my thought process started off from literary works related to Shanghai's history:

  • On the opening of Shanghai and the arrival of foreigners to the city, there is the novel Shanghai: Paradise of Adventurers (上海——冒险家的乐园)*;
  • On Shanghai in the 1930s, there is the Ke Ling-penned film City Without Night (不夜城, 1957);
  • On the liberation of Shanghai, there is the film The Battle of Shanghai (战上海, 1959);
  • On Shanghai in the 1950s, there is Zhou Erfu's novel Morning in Shanghai (上海的早晨, 1962/1980)...

As I saw it, two major historical topics were lacking treatments in literature:

First was the birth of the Communist Party of China in Shanghai in 1921. In the words of Mao Zedong, that was an epoch-making event, yet no long-form literary work had been devoted to it.

Second was the emergence of the "Shanghai clique" (the Gang of Four), and its development during the 1960s and 70s until it was extinguished in October 1976. This major historical subject lacked a literary adaptation as well.

So I decided to fill in those two gaps.

For the birth process of the Communist Party of China in Shanghai, I wrote Red Beginning.

When I turned my hand to the rise and fall of the Gang of Four, many people joked that I lacked the ability — could I complete such an immense writing project all by my lonesome?

But once I set my mind to something, I'm the sort of person who has to see it finished.

This lengthy work on the Gang of Four has gone through several name changes:

At first, it was called Shanghai's Shifting Winds (上海风云) and told things from a Shanghai perspective in three parts.

Then I came to feel that "shifting winds" (风云) was too pedestrian — it lacked fire — so I changed the name to Shanghai Struggles (上海的拼搏), still in three parts.

But when I started writing I soon discovered that the subject was too large. It looked to be so long that for a time I had a hard time setting pen to paper. So I changed my writing plan, splitting the overarching theme into four sub-topics that became the four biographies Jiang Qing, Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan, and Wang Hongwen. The name of the overall work was changed to Complete Biographies of the Gang of Four.

In October 1986, a publisher learned of my outline and asked to publish the draft I had completed under to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the downfall of the Gang of Four. Using the name Catastrophe, it was "priority project" that would be issued in just one month (an extraordinarily fast publication time in those days). When the manuscript was turned over to the print shop, I received an unexpected telegram from the publisher asking me to take a plane from Shanghai immediately, as they had something important to discuss with me. After I rushed over, I learned that the printing of Catastrophe had been halted. I gathered up a bag of manuscripts and returned to Shanghai with a heavy heart.

Later I learned that someone had been advocating "letting the Cultural Revolution fade away," so control had been tightened over books on the subject.* Even though I was unable to publish the book, I remained undaunted. I believed that a book on such an important topic required meticulous composition and careful editing. I spent over a year editing and revising, until the political climate in China finally grew a bit more permissive.

Over the six months starting at the beginning of 1988, the first editions of the Complete Biographies of the Gang of Four were published. The four books attracted quite a bit of attention, yet I felt that the first editions were too rough, so I continued editing and making additions. In 1993, a revised edition of the set was published.

A clear account of the rise and fall of the Gang of Four

The Complete Biographies of the Gang of Four was a set of four independent yet interlocking books. When I wrote it, I was aware of a problem: the members of the Gang of Four were closely involved with each other. If Hai Rui Dismissed from Office, for example, were to be discussed in Jiang Qing, as well as in Zhang Chunqiao and Yao Wenyuan, then the volumes would be repetitive. But it could not be exclusive to in Jiang Qing, because Hai Rui was a major event for both Zhang Chunqiao and Yao Wenyuan, too.

Rise and Fall of the Gang of Four

To solve this problem, I decided in the course of my writing to limit the amount of detail I used: if an individual was a major player in a particular event, then I wrote a detailed account in their biography; if not, then I sketched a brief outline. For the criticism of Hai Rui Dismissed from Office, then, I wrote a detailed account in Yao Wenyuan's biography, for it was he who wrote the article "On the New Historical Beijing Opera Hai Rui Dismissed from Office," while in Jiang Qing's and Zhang Chunqiao's biographies I discussed it only briefly. This largely solved the redundancy problem in the four biographies.

However, the four individuals were after all a "gang," a single unit. After I had completed the Complete Biographies, I set about uniting the four books into a single work, merging the four sub-themes into a single main theme and returning to my original idea. The name was again changed, this time to The Rise and Fall of the Gang of Four.

Treating the Gang of Four a group in this book allows their rise and fall to be clearly seen, and entirely eliminates the redundancy of the individual volumes.

After more than two decades of work and countless revisions and expansions, I have finally completed The Rise and Fall of the Gang of Four.

* * *

On his blog, Ye notes that the actual writing of the unified work was completed in 2002, but he has spent the last seven years revising it and submitting it to the censors for multiple rounds of review.


  1. Text taken from the translation at the Marxists Internet Archive. []
  2. 一时强弱在于力,千秋胜负在于理! This is generally attributed to playwright Cao Yu in the "famous quotes" lists that circulate online, but I haven't been able to find an actual source. []
  3. Shanghai: Paradise of Adventurers was published in 1937 and credited to G.E. Miller, a pseudonym of Mexican honorary consul Mauricio Fresco. Controversial at the time, it was later translated into Chinese where it found a welcoming audience. The preface was even included in the appendix to Ye Shengtao's book of lectures on composition (文章例话:叶圣陶的二十七堂作文课). See the FEER Travellers' Tales blog for more information. []
  4. About one paragraph here has been taken from the Introduction to the book itself. The newspaper article, which is a condensed version of that Introduction combined with another of Ye's articles, deleted the references to censorship. Other edits include print numbers and related information about various editions of earlier publications, which I have not added back into the translation. Ye Yonglie has written elsewhere about the "fading away" idea: The "textbook problem" - Ye Yonglie on Cultural Revolution education. []
Links and Sources
There are currently 5 Comments for Writing the history of the Gang of Four.

Comments on Writing the history of the Gang of Four

that sounds intresting at first look, but 3 volumes?!

A magnum opus completed over two long decades is both admirable and dubious. A lot has changed since the eighties, and the present always puts the past in a new light. I don't imagine there is much science behind the erudition presented in these volumes, especially not after seven years of tedious censorship.

In any case, the concept of a Gang of Four is not an accurate point of departure for understanding the Cultural Revolution. That's like viewing the Third Reich through the lens of Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels and co., a simplified approach to history that privileges agency over structure, demonizing a few and exonerating many.

In his recent collection of lectures "大题小作", Han Shaogong - author of 马桥词典 and editor of 天涯 - discusses the Cultural Revolution in a more balanced light. He recognizes the progress made in infrastructure, literacy rates, and small-scale market economies in the countryside during that tumultuous period. "No one starved", in spite of the "chaos" wrought by the "Gang of Four". That was not just the result of prudent policies by Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping.

Han also identifies different ideological currents beneath the surface of Maoist autocracy, such as Trotskyists vs. Stalinists, Westernization vs. anti-Westernization etc. Competing factions of Red Guards- esp. the children of officials and the children of workers and farmers - had their own agendas, not to mention the role of the military that had the Cold War to worry about.

At risk of a pro-Western bias, I would say that no one has written as well about the Cultural Revolution as Robert MacFarquhar at Harvard, and that's that.

It's Roderick MacFarquhar.

Iacob: Ye Yonglie works within the system. He's had high-level access throughout his entire career, from his science writing up through his biographies. What I find fascinating about his descriptions of his process of writing and publishing (here and in other cases like the banned book on North Korea) is not what's between the covers -- which, as you say, is unlikely to be ground-breaking -- but rather the frank picture of what censorship means for someone working hand in hand with the system.

"No one starved" seems like an odd defense of the Cultural Revolution. It seems to me like the majority of the criticisms that get leveled at the "chaos" these days are about the individualized nature of its ideological extremism rather than widespread effects like famine (which are more associated with the previous decade -- I wonder if Ye will get a chance to write an authorized history of the Great Leap?)

Is "gang of four" or "bang of four"?

China Media Timeline
Major media events over the last three decades
Danwei Model Workers
The latest recommended blogs and new media
From 2008
Front Page of the Day
A different newspaper every weekday
From the Vault
Classic Danwei posts
+ Culture and corporate propaganda in Soho Xiaobao (2007.11): Mid-2007 issues of Soho Xiaobao (SOHO小报), illustrating the complicated identity of in-house magazines run by real estate companies.
+ Internet executives complain about excessive Net censorship (2010.03): Internet executives complain about excessive Net censorship at an officially sanctioned meeting in Shenzhen.
+ Crowd-sourced cheating on the 2010 gaokao (2010.06): A student in Sichuan seeks help with the ancient Chinese section of this year's college entrance exam -- while the test is going on!
Danwei Archives