ON 6 OCTOBER 1976, Jiang Qing, Yao Wenyuan, Zhang Chunqiao and Wang Hongwen (clockwise from top left), popularly known as the “Gang of Four,” were arrested on the orders of Hua Guofeng, the new chairman of the Communist Party of China. Their arrest came soon after the death of the CPC’s founding chairman, Mao Zedong, on 9 September.
The Gang of Four rose to prominence during the Cultural Revolution, which sought to stamp out “bourgeois” elements in the party at a time when Mao’s policies were coming under criticism. Jiang, a former stage actor and Mao’s third wife, was appointed the deputy director of the Central Cultural Revolution Group in 1966. Along with Zhang, she produced revolutionary operas, denounced many party leaders and intellectuals as revisionists, and mobilised “Red Guards” to arrest and kill dissidents. Yao, a literary critic whose 1965 review condemning the play Hai Rui Dismissed From Office as anti-Mao led to the first purges, was the group’s primary propagandist. Wang led the establishment of the Shanghai Commune in 1967, following which Zhang and Yao took over the city’s party leadership. By 1973, having successfully purged several CPC leaders—including Lin Biao, Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping—all four members held top posts in the party.
Following Mao’s death, the Gang of Four tried to seize power through their control of state media and the party apparatus, with Jiang allegedly attempting to forge a will that named her Mao’s successor. Hua—who, as first vice-chairman of the party, was the official successor—arrested Zhang, Yao and Wang, after inviting them for a politburo discussion on Mao’s Selected Works, and sent soldiers to arrest Jiang at her home. On 25 January 1981, following a show trial, they were convicted of treason, usurping power, persecuting nearly eight hundred thousand party members and killing over thirty thousand people.