Good guys in Shanghai | jonathan d. Spencer (2023)

A little over two thousand years ago, China's first great historian, Sima Qian, decided to include a chapter on assassins in his long history of his newly unified homeland. He chose five men as representative examples of those who tried to kill Chinese leaders and explained the reasons for that decision in a brief note at the end of the chapter. Burton Watson's excellent translation says: "Of these five men, from Ts'ao Mei to Ching K'o, some have done their duty successfully and some not. But it is perfectly clear that they were all determined to do so. I do not know they were wrong in their intentions. Is it not fair, then, that their names should be handed down to later ages?1

The success or failure of each assassin was less important to Sima Qian than their sincerity. He understood that a murderer to be remembered had to be incited to his act both by his internal determination and by the moral pressure of a minister or ruler whom he respected. As a sister of the murderer Nieh Cheng explained to local residents after seeing her brother's disfigured and mutilated body for all to see in the public market, she really had no choice in her reckless endeavor. He owed a debt to Prime Minister Yen Chung-tzu, under whose orders he had carried out the assassination, because Yen had shown him generosity and trust that should be reciprocated. She told the audience surrounding her: "Yen Chung-tzu saw my brother's value, raised him out of need and shame, and became his friend, treating him with kindness and generosity. So there was nothing he could do." A gentleman will always be willing to die for someone who recognizes his worth."

Nieh's sister here reflected the hierarchical code of values ​​and honor that prevailed in China's "Warring States" period, when these events occurred. The Chinese term used by Sima Qian, which we translate here as "murderer", isci ke, isdayhas the meaning of "sting" andDieIt conveys the feeling of being a valued guest or caretaker. But apart from this common core of moral obligation, the five men portrayed by Sima Qian approached their endeavors in very different ways and with varying degrees of success.

The first, Ts'ao Mei, was a general who, at a meeting attended by his own ruler and main rival, drew his dagger and threatened his rival with death if he did not surrender the conquered land. The rival ruler reluctantly agreed. In this case, Ts'ao Mei's goal was achieved and no one was killed. In the second case, the assassin concealed a dagger in the belly of a fish that had been roasted for a feast, thus eluding the vigilant guards of the ruler he intended to kill; Arriving in the king's presence, he seized the dagger from inside the fish and killed the king, himself being killed by the king's bodyguards who briefly evaded.

In the third case, the would-be assassin set out to kill the ruler who murdered his master, Chih Po. Captured after two failed attempts (one in the ruler's toilet, another while he was hiding under a bridge the ruler would ride on) and sentenced to death, he asked for a final blessing, the loan of the ruler's royal robes. Then, in Sima Qian's startlingly vivid words, he "drew his sword, jumped into the air three times, and struck the robe, shouting, 'Now I can go to the world below and report to Chih Po!' Then he fell. on his sword and died. That day, when truly determined men in the Chao state heard what he had done, they all wept for him."

The fourth assassin, Nieh Cheng, killed his designated victim, the Han State Premier, with the simplest of means: he passed through the bodyguards to the Prime Minister's office, drew a hidden sword, and stabbed the man. He later committed suicide. The fifth example Sima Qian chose was Ching K'o, later famous in Chinese folklore and popular history, for attempting to kill the ruler of the state of Ch'in on behalf of his own patron, the Crown Prince of Yen. Ching K'o, slipping into the ruler's presence, seemed for a second to have achieved his goal: he seized the Ch'in ruler's sleeve with his left hand and raised a razor-sharp dagger with his right hand, ready to strike. the target.

But in a fatal moment of hesitation, Ching K'o did not plunge his sword. Seizing the opportunity, the ruler freed himself from him, leaving his torn sleeve in Ching K'o's hand. Pounded by repeated blows of the king's sword, Ching K'o, "leaning against the column, legs spread in front of him," laughing and cursing at the same time, offered an explanation for his indecision, suggesting that he had been trying to emulate Ts'ao Mei's success centuries ago: "I failed because I tried to threaten you without killing you and demanded a promise that I could return to the crown prince!" The king's bodyguards advanced and finished him off.



For Sima Qian, each of these acts of violence, successful or failed, was a deeply personal adventure, shedding light on the character of everyone involved: killer, victim, sponsor. The political rhetoric, the moral justifications, the feats of gesture and deed, that was what sucked him in. Stories of him resonated through the centuries in China, and almost every schoolchild knew the haunting song Ching K'o sang before he died:

the winds cryhsiao-hsiao
Yi the water is cold.
Brave men, once they're gone,
never come back

Perhaps no Chinese historian since those distant days has delved so deeply into the world of Chinese murder, searched so carefully for the intersections where moral ambiguity and political commitment intersect, as Frederic Wakeman. For a decade he has focused on the city of Shanghai in the first half of this century, which saw numerous political assassinations. Your previous studyPolice work in Shanghai,2examined the myriad social, political, and economic aspects of the city between 1927 and 1937. His latest book,The badlands of ShanghaiAlthough more limited in scope, it takes a closer look at the role played by violence and terrorism between 1937 and 1941, December 1941.

During those four years, China once again found itself in a "Warring States" period. Shanghai itself was a fractured universe: the Japanese had seized the parts of Shanghai previously controlled by Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government and incorporated them into the collaborative regime they had established under their chosen puppet ruler, the Chinese politician Wang Jingwei. whose capital was at Nanking. Chiang Kai-shek withdrew to Chungking in the extreme southwest. Living in awkward juxtaposition, and collaborating with the Japanese, were the French, who controlled their own "French Concession" west of the old Chinese city, and the other foreigners (particularly British and American) who controlled the large international settlement. extending from the banks of the river, it ran from the financial district known as the "Bund" along Soochow Creek into open country to the west. To the north and east of the international settlement were densely populated industrial areas of Shanghai, badly damaged by bombs and shells in the early months of the war and now also under the control of the collaborationist regime. And to the west of the international and French concessions was an area of ​​mixed control where the Japanese military police, collaborationist police forces, and various foreign law enforcement agencies lived and worked in uneasy proximity and within uncertain jurisdictional boundaries. These were the "wastelands" in the parlance of the day, which Wakeman aptly chose for his title.

In the late 1930s, the fragmented region of Shanghai itself was only a subsection of a fragmented nation. The Japanese had established their puppet state of Manchukuo in the far north; the communists had their stronghold in the northwest at Yan'an; Another collaborationist regime occupied the Beijing region, and Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Kuomintang government occupied the southwest. Each of these domains had its own government and economic system, but Shanghai, with its overlapping jurisdictions and powerful criminal presence, was a natural focus for the political intrigues, both domestic and international, of the time. Many of the leaders of the Green Gang crime syndicate, which was particularly powerful in Shanghai, were strongly anti-Japanese and allowed their members to be recruited by nationalist intelligence and espionage services. Because many of the Green Gang's members were also employed in French and international concession police forces, sometimes in the highest ranks, they had valuable access to foreign intelligence sources.

These new recruits into the world of covert warfare were overseen by Chiang's fiercely anti-communist and anti-Japanese Lieutenant Dai Li, whose euphemistic name "Military Statistics Bureau", Juntong, initially maintained a Shanghai station in the Concessions foreign comparisons. When that station was infiltrated by pro-Japanese counterintelligence agents, Dai Li divided his operation into two "special forces." Agents from these two units carried out their deadly deals in greater secrecy and were responsible for approximately 150 murders of Japanese and Japanese collaborators in the Shanghai area between 1937 and 1941, many in the Badlands. It is these murders and the men behind them that Wakeman describes here in meticulous and often chilling detail.


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Sima Qian had suggested in four of his five case studies that the killers were likely immigrants, migrating from one employer to another in search of patrons, and in two of the cases they were migrating from one state to another. One had killed a man in an argument and was forced to flee his home state; another had an assistant who had killed a man when he was thirteen. Only one of the five had any official career. Two were unofficial advisers to officials; one worked as a "convict worker" - apparently by choice - to achieve his goal, and the other worked as a butcher.

InThe badlands of Shanghai, Wakeman offers his own detailed case studies of the type of men who ended up being murderers in Shanghai in the late 1930s. They came from a wide variety of backgrounds, although many had received limited education; They all had troubled pasts and often uncertain futures, and were largely from the social group Wakeman calls small-towners. Their restlessness in the changing city of Shanghai marks them as part of a modern and volatile new Chinese world, though most of them also displayed a genuine political commitment to the nationalist and anti-Japanese cause, as well as strong personal loyalty to their own patrons, and Dai Li or Chiang Kai-shek. (Although assassins from the ranks of the Chinese Communist Party played a significant role in the urban political violence discussed in Wakeman's earlier study, they lost their power base in Shanghai in the 1930s and, in the story he tells here, did not matter).

One of the most detailed portraits of Wakeman is that of Sun Yaxing, leader of the assassination team that threw a bomb at the Japanese Army's Victory Parade on Shanghai's main shopping street on December 3, 1937, killing or wounding several. collaborators at the beginning of the following year. Sun was the son of a street vendor and moved from place to place when he was young. He received a meager education, which he later diligently supplemented with night school, and spent several years as a jeweler's apprentice before opening his own shop in the French Concession. But his sense of political involvement in the torturous political struggles of the day was clearly sincere. During the Manchurian crisis of 1931, at just twenty years old, he joined the Shanghai Citizens' Volunteer Corps to offer his services to his country. In 1936 he joined a war organization, One Heart League, with the aim of "promoting national salvation activities". And a year later, when he learned of the Japanese attack on Chinese troops on the Marco Polo Bridge outside Beijing, he sold his jewelry business to provide funds for another organization, the Chinese Youth National Salvation Association.

The passion to form or join such groups was widespread among the youth of China in the first half of this century. Many young people other than Sun at the time joined patriotic groups desperate to find a way to express their fear at the threat Japan and other foreign powers posed to their homeland. Shanghai courtesans were also caught up in the patriotic spirit. In a recent study, historian Gail Hershatter describes how courtesans in the early Republic wore trousers emblazoned with the national flag; Around 1919, the courtesans formed their own Courtesan National Salvation Corps, and at the same time that Sun formed his new organization, a group of courtesans were running their ownthe chapelSinging contest to raise much needed money for refugee relief.3

Sun Yaxing's patriotic activities had alerted Juntong nationalist officials to his potential value as a clandestine agent. They decided to sponsor him and give him technical and ideological education, knowledge of weapons and explosives. With the fighting in Shanghai late in 1937, Sun prepared for future terrorist activity by hiding Mauser submachine guns, Browning automata, and Mills hand grenades in the attic of his former business premises. After receiving personal instructions from Dai Li, Sun and several trusted comrades, fugitives, and acquaintances formed their own special assassination squad in Shanghai.

Sun Yaxing's group overreached in the summer of 1938 and was arrested by the foreign grant police. Following procedures that have since become standard, the concession authorities handed them over to the Japanese Collaboration Police, whose most feared headquarters was in the center of the Badlands at 76 Jessfield Road. Juntong or other Nationalist officers who may have remained silent for months during interrogations by authorized police, usually collapsed on Jessfield Road within days of the interrogation.

It's no surprise that Sun's group got caught. The members were not tightly organized; some of the men had wives in their rooms while they awaited their assignment; Contacts between members were made casually and without careful supervision; and "walk-ins," men and women who volunteered to help, were allowed to participate in operations even if nothing was known about their origins or political allegiances. At least once, the group used a 12-year-old boy as a courier. As Wakeman notes, "The Patriot group became overconfident, security became lax, and one mistake led to another, until half the original group, including Sun Yaxing himself, was in police custody."

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The experiences of Sun's squad served as a warning to other assassins. As the war became more costly and the Nationalist Assassination Squad's objectives became more important, and therefore better defended, Dai Li's agents became more skilled and their procedures a bit more professional. The smaller the murder pool, the lower the risk of detection.

In his account of the assassin Nieh Cheng, Sima Qian described how Nieh was offered additional men and logistical support by his powerful patrons, but he coolly refused them. As Nieh said: “When you try to use a lot of men, there is likely to be disagreement about the best way to do it; In case of differences of opinion, the company will be known. and when the news breaks, the entire state of Han will turn against you! What could be more dangerous?4In the largely clandestine war in the Badlands between the Nationalists and Japanese collaborators, the most important person killed was the puppet Foreign Minister Chen Lu, who was assassinated on February 19, 1939. Although there was no single perpetrator in this case, as in the case of Nieh, the secrecy and coldness of the execution had some of the qualities that Sima Qian clearly admired.

Chen Lu, an eminent classical Chinese scholar and a respected career diplomat with a law degree from the University of Paris, served as China's ambassador to Mexico and France. Apart from Wang Jingwei, he was the most prominent Chinese figure to agree to serve the collaborationist regime. Chen normally worked under tight guard in the puppet capital of Nanking, but had kept the mansion he owned in Shanghai and, on a sudden whim, decided to secretly visit Shanghai in February to see family members and celebrate Chinese New Year.

Dai Li's secret agents had infiltrated the ranks of Chen Lu's bodyguards (the guards were Manchurians particularly resentful of the Japanese occupation of their homeland) and one of the bodyguards tipped off the Juntong Shanghai station about the planned trip. . Wakeman describes the assassination squad's weapons, Browning pistols hidden in a wooden picnic box, as well as their various trips to Chen Lu's house, in a double-decker bus and rental car, and how they disarmed the night watchman of Chen Lu. Chen Lu:

In the house where the table was set for the New Year's dinner, Chen Lu and his wife welcomed Mr. and Mrs. Luo Wen'gan into the living room. Chen Lu and Luo Wen'gan, a former minister of Denmark, reclined on a sofa while the two women sat in armchairs on either side. Suddenly, a man entered the door at the back of the room, took out a pistol, and fired three shots at Chen Lu at point blank range. [Women. Chen] threw himself between the shooter and her husband, and the Luos ran to the other door. They tampered with the lock and opened it, but Liu Geqing, who had been standing in the corridor, walked past them and pointed his pistol at the Foreign Minister, who was fatally shot in the temple.

As Chen Lu slid from the sofa to the floor, Liu Geqing took out a scroll that he had prepared earlier in the hotel room and tossed it onto the traitor's body. He said in big black letters: "Death to collaborators. Long live Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek!" Another sheet scattered on the sofa read: "Resistance will lead to victory. The country will be built. Keep ownership of China forever!" Both were signed by the “Chinese Iron and Blood Army”.

In this case, Liu Geqing brought his victim face to face and perhaps, for a moment, made the kind of connection between victim, murderer and sponsor that Sima Qian wanted to mediate. But Wakeman appearsThe badlands of Shanghaihow the victims were often ordinary people trying to live a normal life. Their tragedy was that they were employed by companies associated with the collaborative regime, particularly the Shanghai banks, whose hapless employees and accountants were targeted by the assassins.

Wakeman describes how these shady events arose naturally from the struggle between the nationalist regime in Chungking, which had bank branches in the foreign concession areas, and the collaborationist Wang Jingwei regime, which used other banks in Shanghai to issue its own currency. The stakes were high: which currency would prevail in eastern China. In addition to pro-Japanese newspaper editors and judges, pro-Japanese bank employees have been targeted by nationalist assassination squads for some time. But in February and March 1941 the fighting took a new turn when each side began bombing opposition banks and bankers.

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Reprisals from the collaborationist regime's own death squads became increasingly severe as nationalist-sponsored terror grew in scale. Wakeman describes how, in late March 1941, armed puppets posing as policemen entered the corporate dormitory of one of the pro-Nationalist banks. The assassins "turned on the lights and began to shoot indiscriminately against the beds" where the bank employees slept. Five men were killed where they lay and six others "lie comatose in blood-soaked blankets." That same night at 3 am, puppet police squads and Japanese military police stormed another Chungking regime bank building in the Badlands; They woke up 128 bank employees from their beds and locked them in the puppet police headquarters at 76 Jessfield Road.

The collaborationist regime announced that these 128 employees would be taken hostage: three of them would be killed every time a puppet regime bank employee was killed. Despite the warning, in April, Juntong assassins from the Nationalist regime hacked to death, in the presence of his family, a senior accountant for the puppet Federal Reserve. Later that day, puppet regime police took three high-ranking accountants from among the 128 banks hostage and shot them dead. That night, the remaining employees of the Nationalist banks fled their dormitories.

In the last months of 1941, the violence in Shanghai became increasingly violent and indiscriminate. Wakeman simply lists the deadly episodes, a powerful tool as the reader becomes more aware of the victims and their vulgarity than of the murderers and their political goals. Among the dead were a streetcar employee, a cotton mill worker (he was inflating a flat tire on his bicycle when he was shot), ferry passengers and a movie theater owner. The vicious cycle only ended after Pearl Harbor, when the Japanese occupied foreign concessions, ending the overlapping structures of law enforcement and political allegiance that had made the nightmare world of the Shanghai badlands possible.

Was the reign of terror justified? Did it make sense then? Wakeman focuses primarily on the events themselves rather than their broader implications, but offers two general conclusions. First, by the end of 1941, the violence had reached such a high point that the people of Shanghai were "stunned" and "mentally devastated". As a result, not only was the nascent civil society "torn apart", but the people of Shanghai considered "docility" towards the Japanese occupiers a relatively relaxed choice. The second, which he presents with more caution, is that harsh retaliation by the Japanese and puppet troops ultimately led the United States to follow Britain's lead in "severing trade ties" with Japan. That, according to Wakeman, was a crucial step on the road to Pearl Harbor.

I don't find either conclusion entirely convincing. Violence can end in a daze, but the brutal efficiency of the Japanese authorities after they took control of the entire city was certainly a bigger factor in the comparatively quiet post-1942 city. The city's assassinations led to British and American disapproval from both the Japanese collaborators and the joint sponsors of the assassination squads.

It's a tough, complicated story, and one wonders what Sima Qian would have thought of it. Would he still have accepted the moral arguments of the murderers' sponsors? Would he have felt that the killer's personality and commitment were evident in even the most haphazard and apparently haphazard acts of violence? Had he sung Ching K'o's Great Lament for the last time?

the winds cryhsiao-hsiao
Yi the water is cold.
Brave men, once they're gone,
never come back

In itsHistorical recordSima Qian noted that Ching K'o sang the verse twice: the first time was in "the duel".pien-chihway" and "tears welled up in the company's eyes." The second time was "forFaceFashion with its martial air” and “this time the men's eyes flashed with anger and their hair stood on end under their caps”.5Both responses are understandable; but after reading Wakeman's retelling of this Chinese story in its 20th century context, we can see more clearly that, despite the bravery of some of the murderers, denunciation is often more deserved by the victims than by their murderers. .

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