The press has called her China's Jackie Kennedy, Lady Macbeth and the Empress. There's been no trial, except by the blogosphere; no real evidence beyond rumor and innuendo. Yet Gu Kailai, the wife of fallen Politburo member Bo Xilai, has effectively been tried, convicted and executed both on China's Internet and in the foreign media for the death of British businessman Neil Heywood.
It's an irresistible story: The wife of a senior Communist party figure and high-profile Chongqing party secretary is said to have arranged the murder and cremation without autopsy of the family confidant and her rumoured lover Heywood in a Chongqing hotel in November 2011.
After Bo's former police chief, Wang Lijun, fled to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, torpedoing Bo's career, Gu's involvement began to seep out, and in April, China's official news agency, Xinhua, confirmed that Gu was being investigated for Heywood's murder. On June 22, the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, citing "Communist party sources," claimed that Gu has confessed to murdering Heywood.
Sadly, "dragon ladies" are an all too familiar trope in Chinese history: A successful man achieves power, wealth and the love of many before being brought low by an excessive ambition encouraged by his wife, a beautiful woman obsessed with money and power. There has been a consistent demonization of women in traditional Chinese history. Blamed for the collapse of the three earliest dynasties, women were regularly described as tyrants and nymphomaniacs who destroy thrones and cause war. Even today, the Communist party prefers the narrative of a dragon lady to the reality of a massive internal rupture in the halls of government.
We could go back a long way -- history tends to in China -- and recall Empress Wu Zetian, who ruled between 665 and 725 AD. The Confucian historians who disliked her reforms portrayed her as sexually rapacious, a devourer of young men and corrupter of Buddhist monks. The most famous dragon lady, however, is the Dowager Empress Cixi, an outsider who rose in the late 19th century through sexual exploits from an emperor's concubine to the one person running -- and, many would argue, ruining -- the Qing dynasty. Although there's no more actual evidence of Cixi's homicidal tendencies than there is of Gu's, this hasn't stopped historical soap operas on Chinese television from claiming that Cixi murdered the Guangxu Emperor to preserve her legacy after her death.
Most dragon ladies are married to a man but wedded to the throne. Soong Mei-ling, the wife of Chiang Kai-shek, China's ruler before Mao Zedong, was allegedly politically conniving, all-corrupting, sexually promiscuous and self-enriching. After the Second World War, it became clear that the Chiang family had pocketed hundreds of millions of dollars of American aid intended for the war. She reputedly bedded 1940 U.S. Republican presidential nominee Wendell Willkie as part of her plan to see him become president so she "could rule the East and he the West," though no evidence of this exists. The communist-driven historical narrative, which formerly cast Chiang as a traitor, now views him as a "misguided patriot." Today, Madame Chiang is seen as a style icon -- her cheongsams with thigh-high slits are still popular -- and a consummate manipulator. Indeed, to follow the new, approved narrative of Chiang as a misguided one is to be encouraged to believe that Madame did a large amount of the misguiding.
Jiang Qing, or Madame Mao, was as ruthless as her husband. A former movie star who became Mao's fourth wife (ousting wives is a trait Madame Chiang and Madame Mao share with Gu, herself a second wife accused of ousting the first), Jiang dictated China's cultural policy during the Cultural Revolution, personally driving dozens, if not hundreds, of artists to suicide. Imprisoned after her husband's death, Jiang defended herself by saying, "I was the Chairman's dog. Whoever he asked me to bite, I bit." The notion of a player behind the throne -- coming with smiles to do the dirty work of the male leader -- plays into the dragon-lady trope in both East and West, whether it's Fu Manchu's beautiful but murderous daughter Fah Lo See in the 1932 Yellow Peril B-movie The Mask of Fu Manchu, or, as we are led to believe, Madame Gu ridding her husband of Heywood, an annoying foreign irritant.
Sex sells in China, too; despite official primness, there's a public taste for prurience. Tales of conniving and murderous mistresses are constant tabloid fodder, as are the poor family men led astray by nasty ladies of the night. It's more maddening in China because of the lip service paid to women's liberation: China had a first wave of feminism in 1949, with Mao claiming that "women hold up half the sky," and the banning of foot-binding and concubinage, but he never eradicated China's deep-seated misogyny. Job ads for women still stipulate that candidates should be a certain height, with the requisite measurements and looks, workplace sexual harassment and domestic violence are commonplace, and successful women are still treated with suspicion.
Because of their husbands' influence, the wives of China's senior leaders remain off limits in mainland Chinese media. Articles don't cover President Jiang Zemin's rumoured mistress, a patriotic songstress, or Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's wife's alleged involvement in the diamond market. Perhaps because of this media blackout, the celebrity-style gossip that surrounds the powerful wives of western world leaders -- Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama and even Cherie Blair -- continues to fascinate Chinese tabloid readers.
But Chinese women who have achieved power on their own invariably have "masculine" attributes attached to them. Women, so the thinking goes, can only be successful through their sexuality or through their manliness. Minister Wu Yi, who handled China's WTO accession negotiations in the late 1990s, was pitched by both the western and Chinese media as the tougher of the two sides -- China's no-nonsense, tough-as-nails "Iron Lady" against the more feminine scarf-wearing U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky. Vice-Foreign Minister Fu Ying, one of China's most successful female diplomats, is seen as a bruiser who berated Pyongyang over its rogue nukes, slapped down Canberra over Australian iron ore prices, and put the Brits in their place over London's criticisms of human rights during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
When the Bo scandal broke, enemies needed to be found fast -- Bo was a senior party member and thus could not be portrayed as a complete traitor. A sinister manipulator had to be found, and Gu fit the historical narrative perfectly. Ultimately, dragon ladies are sideshows, part of the sleight of hand to deflect from the real action. Demonizing Cixi allowed the state to avoid picking at the rot that ran through the Qing court; focusing on Madame Chiang's legs and looted wealth distracted from the failures of the war against Japan; the obsession with Madame Mao's power plays misdirected the blame due her husband, the real architect of the chaos.
The Gu Kailai soap opera distracts as well. Did she have an affair with a suspicious foreigner? Did she amass a fortune through fear, intimidation, and political connections? Is she a murderer? Was she ultimately the power behind the throne in Chongqing and not her husband? Who knows? The gossip is deafening, the evidence scant.
What's for sure is that while too many of us have been obsessing over whether dragon lady Madame Gu killed Heywood using cyanide or not, we should be paying more attention to the Communist party's unprecedented internal fight. History is written by the victors, and in China's case, that's a group of buttoned-up old men both scornful to and deathly afraid of their women.
Paul French is the author of a number of books on China's history, development and society, including most recently Midnight in Peking, the re-creation of the previously unsolved murder of a young English woman in Beijing in 1937.
-- Foreign Affairs