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.
Paul French traces female figures in politics through Cixi the Dowager, Chiang Kai-shek’s wife Soong Mei-Ling, Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, and up to today’s Gu Kailai:
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.
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.