1930: Yang Kaihui, Mao Zedong’s wife

2 comments November 14th, 2012 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1930, Yang Kaihui was executed in Changsha, China.

The 29-year-old mother of three was beheaded for her refusal to renounce the Chinese Communist Party and Mao Zedong. She was technically Mao’s second wife; a previous marriage had been arranged for Mao by his parents, but he and the woman never lived together and the marriage was never consummated.

Yang and Mao grew up together in Changhsa — she was the daughter of one of his teachers — and fell in love as young adults. Yang, like Mao, was an enthusiastic Communist. She joined the CCP in 1921, becoming one of its earliest members. She never held any official position in the CCP, however, and wasn’t terribly active in the movement, since she had to raise the children.

Mao and Yang truly loved one another. Phillip Short, in his biography of Mao, writes of this period: “Perhaps for the only time in Mao’s life, he had a truly happy family to come home to … It was a surprisingly traditional Chinese household.”

But Mao became more and more absorbed in dangerous revolutionary work, and he and Yang were often separated when he traveled. The last time she saw her husband was in 1927, the year the Chinese Civil War started and Mao became a guerrilla leader, hiding in the mountains, far from his family. They maintained sporadic contact after that, but often what little she knew about his activities came from the papers.

During the final years of her life, Yang missed her husband desperately and had thoughts of suicide. “No matter how hard I try,” she wrote once, “I cannot stop loving him.”

Yang predicted she might meet with a violent death. She was right: on October 24, 1930, a warlord loyal to the nationalists captured her and one of her sons.

She did not break under threats and torture, and refused to give in and publicly repudiate her husband and Communism, even though her captors offered to spare her life if she did so. She became one of the CCP’s earliest martyrs.

Yang was executed more for being Mao’s wife than she was for anything she’d done herself. She wasn’t the only woman who would be killed for being married to a prominent member of the CCP; the wife of Zhu De had met with the same fate in 1929.

Mao, who had always called Yang his true love, was reportedly devastated by her death and wrote, “the death of Kaihui cannot be redeemed by a hundred deaths of mine!” He wrote a poem about her in 1957 that suggests he still grieved for her even then. But it must be noted that he never tried to rescue her or his sons when he knew their home had turned into a battleground and their lives were in danger.


Propaganda poster of Yang and Mao.

Tragedy followed the lives of Yang and Mao’s three sons.

The youngest boy, Anlong, died of dysentery in Shanghai at the age of four, soon after his mother’s execution. The oldest, Anying, was killed in the Korean War. Middle child Anqing lived to be 83, but perhaps as a consequence of watching his mother being put to death as a youth, he suffered bouts of mental illness throughout his life. He died quietly in China in 2007.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",China,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Notably Survived By,Other Voices,Revolutionaries,Torture,Wartime Executions,Women

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1951: Antonio Riva and Ruichi Yamaguchi

5 comments August 17th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1951, the first two foreigners — Italian merchant Antonio Riva and Japanese bookseller Ruichi Yamaguchi — were convicted and immediately executed in Beijing for a supposed plot to assassinate Mao Zedong.

According to Time magazine’s coverage of the affair, Radio Peking said that

“the streets they passed through [en route to execution] were thronged with people who expressed their feelings .. . with shouts of ‘Down with imperialism! Suppress counterrevolutionaries! Long live Chairman Mao!'”


No relation.

Riva (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) was a World War I fighter ace who had relocated to Beijing/Peking in the 1920s to peddle aircraft and training the Chinese Koumintang.

(In 1936, Riva married Catherine Lum, the daughter of American wood block artist Bertha Lum and sister of Eleanor Peter Lum, who took after mom.)

When the guys those planes were being used against won the Chinese Civil War, Riva mulled an expedient departure, but reportedly declared (Spanish link) that he could do business under any regime type.

The Communist government decided he had a different sort of business in mind. Citing Chinese state media, the London Times (Aug. 18, 1951) described the plot thus:

the conspirators planned to fire mortar shells at a reviewing stand outside the Tien An gate of the forbidden city in Peking during a procession to celebrate China’s national day on October 1 last year.

Several others, both Chinese and foreigners, drew long prison sentences as part of the “conspiracy” uncovered in a one-hour trial. The most illustrious of those was the Italian bishop Tarcisio Martina.*

Though Riva and Yamaguchi were the first foreigners officially executed by the new Chinese government, they were far from the last. All the more remarkable, then, that in a country that carries out thousands of executions per annum, Antonio Riva is thought to have been the last European citizen put to death there until Akmal Shaikh in 2009.

The Shaikh case helped rekindle interest in Riva’s execution — a timely confluence, since a recent book, L’ uomo che doveva uccidere Mao, critiqued the case against the Italian aviator.

* American diplomat Col. David Barrett, safely beyond the reach of the Maoists at Formosa, was a supposed ringleader.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Italy,Japan,Notable for their Victims,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Ripped from the Headlines,Shot,Wrongful Executions

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1979: Gu Shan, of The Vagrants fame

1 comment March 21st, 2010 dogboy

It’s the spring equinox, but here at Executed Today, this date brings no bunnies or pastels.

However, in the spirit of softness, it brings this time only a fictional execution.

On this date in 1979, Gu Shan, the central character of Yiyun Li‘s novel The Vagrants gets a bullet to the heart in the Chinese town of Muddy River. The novel traces the lives of several townspeople in Muddy River who are touched by Shan’s death.

The short life of Gu Shan is secondary to the action of the novel itself: first a revolutionary, then a counter-revolutionary, the 28-year-old is imprisoned for acting against the government. As she sits in jail, she continues to write, and the scribbles in her journals are used in a retrial to garner a death sentence.

In a town of 80,000, her actions can be both consequential and inconsequential, but the people around her are a wholly forgotten lot. In a sense, then, Shan is important mostly because she’s noticed, and, as the saying goes, that really ties the room together.

The story tracks a cluster of characters who interact on the streets but live very different — almost uniformly bleak — lives. These range from Nini, a deformed girl whose mother was brutally assaulted by Shan when the latter was a revolutionary (a crime for which Shan suffered no consequences) to Bashi, the deranged son of China’s best Korean War-era pilot, who mutilates Shan’s corpse and shows a mild obsession for a 7-year-old boy.

Muddy River plays host to dozens of other characters connected to the execution, and Li paints a vividly depressing picture of China immediately after Mao Zedong’s death. The town is a collection of sad lives mired in moral depravity brought about by destitution and Party corruption. The most positive events transpire in quarters in a portable toilet.

Assuming you’re not looking for a pick-me-up on this equinoctial day (and why would you be at this blog if you were?), The Vagrants is well worth the read.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,China,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Fictional,Shot

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1952: Liu Qingshan and Zhang Zishan, the first corruption executions in Red China

2 comments February 10th, 2010 Headsman

China has been clamping down on official malfeasance lately, but corruption trials have a long and storied vintage in the realm.

The very oldest casket in the cellar has stamped upon it this date in 1952, when Maoist China carried out its first corruption executions.


The public trial of Liu Qingshan and Zhang Zishan. (Source.)

“Faithful and unyielding” during wartime, Liu Qingshan and Zhang Zishan exploited their resulting positions of authority to plunder economic development money.

Theirs was the signal case in an anti-corruption “campaign against three evils” that ended late in 1952, with the announcement that 196,000 party members and cadres had been convicted of something. (Cited here.)

One then-youthful man remembered that

in the winter of 1951, Mao launched a national campaign against what he called the three evils — corruption, waste, and bureaucracy. Taking advantage of the winter holidays, students were sent to various places as members of so called Tiger Hunting Teams. With six other students I was sent to the Art Supply Service then attached to our school. It was housed two miles from the campus. I worked there under the office of the Campaign Against the Three Evils. The entire staff and all the workers were organized to study Party policies attached to this campaign. The staff was then called upon to make a clean breast of their crimes and accuse others they knew to be criminals as well. These crimes included embezzling, forgery, theft, bribery and other white collar crimes. Some suspects were already being locked up in isolated rooms within the offices. Most of those locked up were directors on various levels. Some were even old Party members from the early Yanan days. We had no mercy on those we saw to be “criminals.”

I learned from the newspaper that corruption and waste had become very serious problems indeed. It also revealed how Party cadres had degenerated from revolutionary heroes into grafters. The best example we were told of was two senior cadres, the secretaries of the Tianjin Prefectural Party Committee, Liu Qing-san and Zhang Zi-shan, who were even sentenced to death for their crimes. The Party wanted to show that its own members were not exempt from justice. In showing this, they concurred with the old Chinese belief that it was best to execute one as a warning to a hundred.

Took the words right out of Mao’s mouth.

Only if we execute the two of them, can we prevent 20, 200, 2,000 or 20,000 corrupt officials from committing various crimes.

… although of course, that was a primitive age; one could hardly expect that sort of startling yield on investment in today’s on-the-go China. “[T]he effect would not be so great. To show our determination, we would have to execute several more than two.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Milestones,Pelf,Politicians,Public Executions,Scandal,Shot,Theft

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