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: Gu Kailai, the wife of senior Communist Party figure and high-profile Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai, is said to have arranged the murder and cremation without autopsy of the family confidant and her rumored 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 A.D. 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, that 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 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.
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.