Opinion

Life and death of Nie

Life and death of Nie

Nie Yuanzi, who died at 98 this week, created the poster for, and became the poster-child of, Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. Nie, a mid-level Communist Party of China (CPC) functionary at the University of Peking in 1966, put out what Mao called “the first Marxist-Leninist big character poster”, which denounced senior functionaries at the university. Mao, eager to assert himself once again after being somewhat sidelined in the CPC following the failure of the Great Leap Forward in the previous decade, pounced on the poster as a way to root out “revisionists” and “reactionaries” from China. What followed was over a decade of purges, murder, anti-intellectualism and chaos, which culminated ultimately in the end of the reign of the “Gang of Four” and tarnished Mao’s image to a great degree.

For a couple of years, Nie became a political celebrity, feted for her loyalty to the leader and party, and held up as an example to follow. She was a leader of the Red Guards — CPC gangs, really — and helped bring down the undesirables. But soon enough, she fell from favour, accused of disobedience and later, of the torture of Deng Pufang, Deng Xiaoping’s son. For most of her life, she insisted that her role was limited to making the poster.

The trajectory of Nie’s political career mirrors that of many stalwarts of the CPC, including Mao himself. The children of the revolution, the leaders of the party, from Lin Bao, to Deng, Luo Ruiqing, found themselves labelled disloyal following sectarian battles and personal vendettas, often stemming from insecurities at the top. Tragedies like the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution were ideological creations: They tried to force people to fit a vision of society. Nie was one among the many who were lifted up and then cast out in the process.