Yao Wenyuan, the last surviving leader of China's so-called "Gang of Four," who along with Mao Zedong led the country's ultra-leftist Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in the 1960's and 70's, is dead.
The Chinese government released news of Yao Wenyuan's death on Friday, saying he had died on December 23 of complications from diabetes. Yao had been a member of the "Gang of Four," a group of Communist Party activists led by Jiang Qing, the wife of Party Chairman Mao Zedong.
The group acted under Mao's authority, and was largely responsible for propelling the Cultural Revolution, and the country, into utter chaos. They issued political directives and wrote criticisms of Communist Party leaders and others who were targeted during the movement.
For many Chinese interviewed on the streets of Beijing Friday, news of Mr. Yao's death came as a surprise only because they thought he had died a long time ago. This woman in her 30s says she has little recollection of the Cultural Revolution, and no memory at all of who Yao Wenyuan was.
"I don't remember anything about them [the Gang of Four]," she said. "My parents' generation might, but for our generation, that period is very unclear. Whatever happened is in the past. Right now, people are focusing on how to conduct our own lives, and not worshipping anything blindly."
The Cultural Revolution was very real, however, to those who lived through it. It was started by Mao in 1966 and lasted 10 years, during which millions were persecuted and an untold number of people were killed.
The government discourages public discussions or research on the movement, which was meant to consolidate Mao's hold on power.
The stated aim was to create a pure socialist society, by destroying elements of traditional Chinese culture and attacking party leaders, intellectuals and others who were seen as members of the elite.
It ended in late 1976 with the death of Mao Zedong and, quickly thereafter, the arrest of the Gang of Four. The four who also included Wang Hongwen and Zhang Chunqiao were given long prison sentences in 1981, but all died out of prison.
David Zweig is a political scientist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, who has written extensively on the Cultural Revolution. He says opening up discussion on the matter would be risky for the Chinese leadership, because it would raise questions about Mao himself, whom some here still revere as the creator of the Chinese communist state.
"If you call into question too much his status, then you call into question the legitimacy of the Communist Party's rule," prof. Zweig said.
Professor Zweig says many Chinese lost their faith in hard-line communist ideals during the chaotic years of the campaign, opening a void that he says allowed China to become more receptive to Western ideas and culture in the decades that followed.