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Nie Yuanzi (5 April 1921 – 28 August 2019) was a Chinese academic administrator at Peking University, known for writing a big-character poster criticising the university for being controlled by the bourgeoisie, which is considered to have been the opening shot of the Cultural Revolution.[1] She became a top leader of the Red Guards in Beijing, and was sentenced to 17 years in prison after the end of the Cultural Revolution.

Nie Yuanzi
Born(1921-04-05)5 April 1921
Died28 August 2019(2019-08-28) (aged 98)
OccupationAcademic administrator, high-level leader of the Red Guards
Chinese name
Simplified Chinese
Traditional Chinese聶元梓

Early lifeEdit

Nie was born in 1921 into a wealthy family in Hua County, Henan, the youngest of four siblings.[2] Her eldest brother, Nie Zhen (聂真), was a founder of the Communist Party cell in the county.[3] He was married to Wang Qian, a senior Party member and the ex-wife of President Liu Shaoqi.[2]

When the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out in July 1937, Nie, then sixteen years old, joined the Communist resistance in Shanxi, which was supported by warlord Yan Xishan. She received military training at the National Teachers' College in Taiyuan and joined the Communist Party in 1938.[2] In the 1940s, Nie moved to the Communist base in Yan'an, where she met Kang Sheng and his wife Cao Yi'ou.[4]

After the surrender of Japan, Nie was sent to the formerly Japanese-occupied Northeast China in 1946, where she worked in the government of Qiqihar. A year later, she was appointed Director of the Theory Section of the Propaganda Department of Harbin.[4] In 1959, she divorced her first husband Wu Hongyi (吴宏毅), with whom she had two children, after he was denounced as a "rightist" during the Anti-Rightist Campaign.[5]

In 1963, Nie was transferred to Peking University, a turning point of her life. She served as Vice Chair of the Department of Economics and was appointed Party Secretary of the Department of Philosophy a year later.[3] In early 1966, she married Wu Gaizhi [zh], an official in the powerful Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and a peer of the radical leader Kang Sheng. Many thought that she married him to further her own career.[5]

Cultural RevolutionEdit

People gathering to read Nie Yuanzi's 1967 poster condemning Deng Xiaoping

On 25 May 1966, Nie put up a big-character poster on the campus of Peking University. The poster criticised Song Shuo, deputy director of the Beijing Municipal University Bureau, Lu Ping, the President of Peking University and head of its Party committee, and Peng Peiyun, an official in the Beijing Municipal University Bureau. Although Nie's main criticism was over the control of Peking University by the bourgeoisie, the aim of the campaign was to legitimise the purge of the Beijing municipal party chief Peng Zhen, by exposing his alleged crime of supporting a bourgeoise reactionary education line. This was pushed by members of the radical clique surrounding Mao Zedong, including Kang Sheng and his wife Cao Yi'ou.[6][4]

A week later, Mao Zedong ordered the poster to be read on the Central People's Broadcasting Station and published in the People's Daily, accompanied by official commentaries.[4][7] Two months later, Mao declared her poster as the "first Chinese Marxist-Leninist big-character poster".[4] Mao's approval encouraged attacks on authorities[7] and inspired students at other universities to write posters, most of which expressed support for the "revolutionary action" of Nie.[8]

Nie initially supported the persecution of other academics, but later disagreed on the course the Cultural Revolution was taking and tried to quit her position in the Red Guards. She controlled revolutionary activities at Peking University, along with her colleagues, protected by her status as a celebrated rebel.[9] She became widely known as one of the top five leaders of Red Guards in the capital.[3]

Nie was made an alternate member of the 9th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. In December 1969, she was sent to labour at Peking University's farm in Liyuzhou (鲤鱼洲), Jiangxi. She returned to Beijing in 1970 to recuperate from an illness.[10]

In 1971, Nie was subjected to examination and her movements were restricted. In 1973, she was sent to work in the Xinhua Printing House, where she lived, ate and slept in the factory. She moved to a factory that made apparatuses for Peking University in 1975.[10]

Imprisonment and later lifeEdit

After the end of the Cultural Revolution, Nie was sent to Yanqing Prison on 19 April 1978.[10] In 1983, she was convicted of multiple crimes including counterrevolutionary activities and defamation. She was sentenced to 17 years in prison,[3] but was paroled in October 1986.[11]

In 1998, the renowned scholar Ji Xianlin published his memoir Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, recounting his persecution during the period. In the book, Ji strongly condemned Nie Yuanzi for her capriciousness, cruelty and arrogance.[11]

Nie was critical of the post-Mao Chinese government and expressed a desire for greater freedom of opinion.[7] In 2005, her memoirs were published in Hong Kong.[11]

Nie died on 28 August 2019, aged 98.[3]


  • Nie Yuanzi (2005). 聶元梓回憶錄 [Memoirs of Nie Yuanzi]. Hong Kong: Shidai Guoji Chubanshe. ISBN 978-98-89760-86-1.



  1. ^ Honig (2003), p. 149.
  2. ^ a b c Lee (2016), p. 407.
  3. ^ a b c d e 毛泽东拍赞全国第一张马列主义大字报人聂元梓今传逝世. Radio France International (in Chinese). 28 August 2019. Retrieved 29 August 2019.
  4. ^ a b c d e Lee (2016), p. 408.
  5. ^ a b Lee (2016), p. 409.
  6. ^ Dong (2010), p. 31.
  7. ^ a b c French (2006).
  8. ^ Dong (2010), p. 38.
  9. ^ Dong (2010), p. 46.
  10. ^ a b c Zhang Aijing 张爱敬, ed. (18 November 2003). 蒯大富聂元梓……文革时五大学生"领袖"今安在 [Kuai Dafu, Nie Yuanzi... five university student 'leaders' of the Cultural Revolution still live]. Renmin Wang. Retrieved 3 February 2017.
  11. ^ a b c Liu 刘, Ruo 若 (19 May 2016). 聂元梓文革后的半生点滴 [Nie Yuanzi's half-life after the Cultural Revolution]. New York Times. Retrieved 3 February 2017.

Works citedEdit

Further readingEdit

  • Walder, Andrew G. (2006). "Factional Conflict at Beijing University, 1966–1968". The China Quarterly. The History of the PRC (1949–1976) (188): 1023–1047. JSTOR 20192703.