An Anne Boleyn Analog in Modern China?

Today, January 25, is the day Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII wed in secret for the second time in 1533. From the Catholic perspective, it was bigamy, in that the Pope had not released Henry from his first marriage. The marriage was also wildly unpopular with his subjects because Anne was thought of as a home-wrecker, upstart, and political busybody.

Anne and Henry’s marriage was not the first scandalous marriage between a high-ranking man and an unpopular new bride, and it certainly wasn’t the last. Nor is this phenomena a particularly Western issue. In many ways Jiang Qing, the last wife of Mao Zedong, was the “Anne Boleyn” of communist China. Jiang only echoes Anne Boleyn in superficial ways, but their situations were similar enough to have some distinct parallels.

One major similarity between Jiang Qing and Anne Boleyn is that Mao (a de facto king) had a popular wife still living when he married his fourth spouse.

At 45, Mao was nearly twice Jiang’s age, and Jiang had lived a highly bourgeois lifestyle before coming to Yan’an. Mao was still married to He Zizhen, a lifelong Communist who had previously completed the Long March with him, and with whom Mao had five children. Eventually, Mao arranged a compromise with the other leaders of the CCP: Mao was granted a divorce and permitted to marry Jiang, but she was required to stay out of public politics for thirty years … On November 28, 1938, Jiang and Mao married in a small private ceremony following approval by the Party’s Central Committee. Because Mao’s marriage to He had not yet ended, Jiang was reportedly made to sign a marital contract which stipulated that she would not appear in public with Mao as her escort

Li Na, Jiang Qing and Mao in Yan’an in 1943

Like Anne Boleyn, Jiang also made enemies because she wasn’t a docile and meek wife, but one who used her political clout. Although few could argue that her participation in brutally quashing dissent and murdering critics of Mao during the 1960s was a good thing or in any way comparable to Anne Boleyn’s support of religious reform, her sins were compounded by the fact she was a woman who wielded power. Moreover, to the Catholic factor of Tudor England, Anne Boleyn’s act of encouraging Henry to leave the Church was every bit as heinous as Jiang’s crimes are to us. In the opinion of her foes, Anne Boleyn was murdering the immortal soul of everyone she lured or seduced away from the True Faith and condemning them to eternal torture in the fires of hell.

Both Boleyn and Jiang became the lightning rod for public hatred that should have been more justifiably aimed at their husband. Henry’s decision to leave his first queen and make his eldest daughter illegitimate was blamed on Anne, rather than the king himself. Jiang was tried, convicted and sentenced to death for crimes she swore she committed under Mao’s orders. She famously said, “I was Chairman Mao’s dog. I bit whomever he asked me to bite.” Ironically, being a dutiful wife meant she must obey her husband, but (as with Anne Boleyn) Jiang had also been criticized for not being a proper and humble wife.

There is no plausible defense of either Mao’s or Jiang’s behavior during or after the Great Leap Forward (1958–1961), but even if she had never participated in the slaughter of the opposition she would have still been reviled as a home-wrecking hussy who didn’t know her “place”. As with Henry VIII, Mao’s infatuation with the “other woman” was depicted as something almost beyond his control, and instigated by an ingénue’s womanly wiles. Thus, the “other woman” was constructed as the true villain in popular culture.

This shunting of the moral and ethical onus onto the wives or partners of powerful men is another facet of The Jezebel Effect: his sins are always her fault.

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