When Nie Yuanzi put up a vitriolic wall poster one day in 1966, she plunged into the political maelstrom of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. For the rest of her life, Ms. Nie wrestled with the fame, and the infamy, that her act of rebellion would bring.
The poster brazenly denounced the Communist Party secretary of Peking University, where Ms. Nie worked, as well as two other Beijing officials. After Mao praised the poster, Ms. Nie vaulted to the front of the Red Guard movement, which Mao was stoking to attack his foes.
For a couple of heady years, Ms. Nie touched the peaks of power, meeting Mao, consorting with his aides and urging Red Guards to pillory fallen officials and scholars.
Yet even before Mao died in 1976, Ms. Nie (pronounced n’yeh) fell from favor, a casualty of the ruthless politics of that time. When Mao’s successors turned on the Cultural Revolution, a decade of upheaval, persecution and purges, they also turned on Ms. Nie.
She was imprisoned and made a political pariah, accused of persecuting innocent officials, scholars and students, including Deng Xiaoping’s son, Deng Pufang, who became disabled after jumping from a building at Peking University to try to escape torment by radical Red Guards.
Ms. Nie died on Wednesday at 98. Her death was confirmed by her son Yu Xiaodong, who said the cause was respiratory failure. She was cremated on Friday in a brief ceremony that brought together about 10 relatives, Mr. Yu said.
The Chinese news media has remained silent about her death, a sign of how sensitive the traumas of the Cultural Revolution remain. Next month the country will mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and any reflection on the dark times of the republic are unwelcome.
Chinese scholars who interviewed Ms. Nie said that she exemplified how the Cultural Revolution could turn on its own loyalists. The persecutors often became persecuted themselves.
“At the early stage of the Cultural Revolution, she became an important card played by Mao Zedong,” said Bu Weihua, a historian of the Cultural Revolution. “She experienced the Cultural Revolution as a high point for the first two months, only to be followed by tragedy.”
In her later decades, Ms. Nie tried to rescue her reputation. She denied some of the worst accusations against her, including that she played any role in abusing Deng’s son. But she never offered the full penitence that her critics called for. She instead dwelled on the notorious poster — a public denunciation called a “big-character poster” in Chinese political argot — that she and six other activists put up outside a restaurant on the Peking University campus.
“I accomplished just one thing in the Cultural Revolution: taking the lead in writing that big-character poster,” she said in a profile published in 2016 by the Chinese website of The New York Times. “That poster brought me tremendous fame and prominence, yet it also brought endless pain and torment for the rest of my life.”
Ms. Nie was not a typical Red Guard. When Mao began the Cultural Revolution in 1966, Ms. Nie was a midlevel Communist Party functionary at Peking University. At 45, she was more than two decades older than the high school and university students who formed the bulk of the Red Guards.
Ms. Nie was born on April 5, 1921, in rural Henan Province in central China, the youngest of eight children (she had four brothers and three sisters). Her father belonged to a long family line of well-off landowners and doctors, but many of his children embraced revolutionary politics.
Ms. Nie joined the Communist Party in 1938, in the early years of China’s war against the invading Japanese. She moved to Yan’an, where Mao had established the headquarters of the communist forces. The wartime struggle fostered unquestioning faith in Mao and the party in Ms. Nie’s generation, Mr. Bu, the historian, said.
After the Communist Party came to power in 1949, Ms. Nie climbed the political apparatus in northeast China. Her big chance came in 1960, when she was transferred to the prestigious Peking University.
Despite her limited education, Ms. Nie was among the party loyalists sent to watch over the university, regarded as a seedbed of unorthodox ideas. In 1963 she was promoted to Communist Party secretary of the philosophy department, which was turning out teachers and theorists trained in Marxist-Maoist doctrine.
When Mao called for a Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, Ms. Nie did not question his accusations that dangerous “revisionists” and “capitalist roaders” had infiltrated the party and were trying to derail his revolution.
“I thought that I had to obey Chairman Mao,” she wrote in her memoirs, “In the Vortex of the Cultural Revolution,” published in Hong Kong. “This was personally launched and led by Chairman Mao; of course I had to respond positively.”
Ms. Nie said that she and six other party activists associated with the philosophy department came up with the idea of a big-character poster laying out their frustrations with the university leader, Lu Ping, and that they had no plans to ignite a wider political firestorm. But some historians have said that Ms. Nie was no innocent, and that she became part of a scheme to undermine party leaders by lighting a political fuse at Peking University.
“She was attuned to the political struggles in the high ranks,” said Ye Yonglie, a popular historian who was a student at Peking University from 1957 to 1963.
After Ms. Nie put up her poster on May 25, 1966, Peking University erupted in debate. Officials and students were unsure how far attacks could go. The campus was soon awash in rival posters supporting or rejecting the accusations that Mr. Lu, the university’s party secretary, and two other officials were resisting Mao’s orders.
A few days later, Kang Sheng, a powerful security official, reported to Mao about the poster. Mao immediately grasped it as kindling for his Cultural Revolution. He ordered that it be reprinted and spread, and later praised it as the “first Marxist-Leninist big-character poster in the country.”
Ms. Nie leapt to political stardom. She joined Mao when he reviewed an ocean of fervent Red Guards in Tiananmen Square. Pictures from that time show Mao and Ms. Nie in cheerful conversation.
But Ms. Nie later said she had developed private misgivings about the Cultural Revolution.
“I didn’t know we were heading toward disaster,” she told The New York Times in 2006. “Once I understood,” she added, referring to the party’s orders, “I stopped following them.”
Even so, she remained a prominent Red Guard leader, trusted by Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife, who was among the most fervent radicals.
Ms. Nie fell out of favor after Ms. Jiang accused her of disobedience in 1968. A few years after Mao died in 1976, she was arrested and detained, and in 1983 a court in Beijing formally sentenced her to 17 years in prison for persecuting and vilifying people, including party leaders. She was released on medical parole in 1984.
Ms. Nie was married twice; both husbands are dead, her son Mr. Yu said. In addition to him, survivors include another son and a daughter.
“I’ve been described as a counterrevolutionary careerist and schemer, an unforgivably wicked madwoman,” Ms. Nie wrote in her memoirs, which grew to almost a thousand pages when reprinted in 2017. “I tell you readers: Thanks be, I’m still alive, and still fighting!”
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