Gu Kailai, the wife of disposed leader Bo Xilai, was the last woman in a Chinese tradition of so-called dragon ladies. Historian and author Paul French puts her in that tradition together with empress Cixi, Jiang Qing and many others in Foreign Policy.
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 World War II, 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…
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 murderess? 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.