Ang Lee‘s (李安) new movie Lust, Caution (色，戒) is apparently being released later this week in the United States. The movie won a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival (where it was labeled as coming from “USA/China/Taiwan, China“), received a full mix of reviews (1,2,3,4,RT), and may ultimately get an unusually limited showing due to its NC-17 rating. The version which eventually cleared censors in China supposedly had to cut some thirty minutes.
The movie is based on a novella by Eileen Chang (張愛玲）which in turn is inspired by an historical event: the attempted assassination of Ding Mocun (丁默邨 1903-1947) on December 21st, 1939 by the 22 year old half-Japanese spy Zheng Pingru (鄭苹如 1918-1940).
Ding Mocun was a leading figure in Chinese intelligence in the 1930s until his execution in 1947. He was a former Communist Party member who recanted and rose quickly to power in the Nationalist party with the support of the CC Clique and especially Chen Lifu (陳立夫). When he was squeezed out of power in a 1938 reorganization of the Nationalist intelligence services into the Zhongtong1 and Juntong2 and accused of corruption, he left unoccupied China and together with Li Shiqun (李士群 1905-1943) worked for the creation of a spy agency supporting Wang Jingwei‘s (汪精衛/汪兆銘 1883-1944) peace movement in Japanese occupied areas.3 The headquarters of the resulting organization, founded in April, 1939, was located on 76 Jessfield Road, Shanghai, and became a site of infamous torture and death often simply referred to in Chinese accounts as “#76” (七十六號). In its twenty or so holding cells Ding and Li’s operatives, along with Japanese officers, extracted what information they could from suspected Communists and supporters of the Nationalist government in Chongqing before dispatching them.
Ding is now usually listed among the dozen or so most famous Chinese traitors (hanjian 漢奸) for his collaboration with Wang’s government and the Japanese. He was arrested in September, 1945, convicted of treason in February 1947, and executed on July 5th.4 Like many of the leading collaborators put on trial after the war, however, Ding pleaded that he secretly cooperated with the Nationalist spymaster Dai Li (戴笠). Many of the other leaders in the Wang government, most famously Zhou Fohai (周佛海 1897-1948) also claimed be working closely with the Nationalists in great secret. This came to be referred as the argument of “saving the country through twisted means” (曲線救國, more on this at my personal blog, Muninn). With the arrival of a movie which is inspired by the story of Ding and the attempt on his life by Zheng Pingru, there has been renewed interest in his case.
Roland Soong, who runs the world’s best weblog covering the Chinese media, ESWN, recently posted a translation of an article by the famous writer and critic Lung Ying-tai (龍應台) discussing the new movie and the historical figure Ding Mocun: Lung Ying-tai on Lust, Caution
You can find the original Chinese version of her article here: 贪看湖上清风──侧写《色，戒》
In her essay Lung responds to criticism that Eileen Chang did not portray the character of Mr. Yi (who is inspired by Ding Mocun) as a sufficiently evil person. I certainly commend her for this, as I really don’t think Chang’s fictional character Yi needs to be everything that Ding Mocun was. However, many writers who try to counter efforts to portray the wartime collaborators as one-dimensional evil-dooers and malicious traitors, in my view, take the completely wrong approach: the reversal. Instead of restoring nuance, or at least moving beyond simple nationalist critiques to evaluate the legacy of these figures in terms of their acts while in positions of power (under whatever regime), Lung embraces a strategy I find frustrating, to say the least: the evil-dooer wasn’t evil at all, he was, in fact, a patriot.
“the novella and the film aside, the Mr. Yi in the history of the Republic of China was really not a very “bad” person.”5
Lung writes that she read through the archival materials related to Ding’s various positions in the regimes of occupied China and his trial records along with the memoirs of Chen Lifu.6 Lung argues that we should reevaluate the historical figure Ding because beginning in 1941 he 1) began to secretly work with Chiang Kai-shek’s government, 2) helped rescue some secret agents, 3) continued to serve the Nationalist government to repress bandits (read Communists) in the chaos of the immediate aftermath of the war and his work was highly valued both by Dai Li and Chen Lifu.
So this means that Ding Mocun was a capitulating general that the Republic of China government successfully converted from the other side. This general did not return immediately to take up arms against his former side; instead he stayed behind on the other side and worked as the worm inside the apple against the other side. He was in fact a spy that the Republic of China planted within the enemy. As such, he faced great dangers and his accomplishments were significant. In wartime, the impact of a secret spy can be much more than the warriors who shed their blood in the trenches. Right?
This is a very good example of the sympathetic version of the 曲線救國 argument. While the accused traitors defended themselves with the argument that they worked for the Nationalists during their trial, this was a huge embarrassment to Chiang’s regime. As far as my research has been able to determine the 曲線救國 argument was most often exploited by Communist writers as a way to attack the Nationalists for their connections with the traitorous Wang government, beginning with several wartime uses of the term 曲線救國 by Mao Zedong and Zhu De7 and in early postwar attacks on the Nationalists8. However, most recently the defense used by the accused collaborators and the accusations of a close relationship used in Communist attacks. The phrase 曲線救國 can now be occasionally found in Chinese books on economics and business to justify the embrace of capitalism. More importantly though, these connections can be used to show that these collaborators were, in fact, anti-Communist heroes.
I find this kind of problematic for two reasons, which I hope to address in greater detail in my dissertation.9
1) It is incredibly difficult to confirm the claims of communication between the Nationalist government in unoccupied China and its counterpart with its capital in occupied Nanjing. We must be very careful when we rest these claims on the memoirs of some extremely partial participants or the accusations of their political opponents. I think, however, there is plenty of evidence to show that there was significant communication and secret cooperation going on between the Chiang’s regime and Wang’s regime in occupied China. It would be a huge mistake however, to conclude from this that these figures were all, therefore, valiant freedom fighters. Many of them, like their counterparts in the Nationalist government, or within the Communist party, were people guilty of all manner of reprehensible acts, whatever the end they were pursuing.
Besides, wanting to work with the Nationalists, for many of these people, was surely no more than an insurance policy and reminds me of how my non-Christian parents who jokingly (?) told me they had me baptized as a baby, “just in case.” The difference, of course, is that there was certainly some risk, but the occasional information shared, the occasional captured juntong operative spared by the people at the top has a lot in common with the puppet troops who came to local agreements with Nationalist or even Communist troops in their area. The cases of puppet troops who refused to attack the enemy are not always examples of noble patriots who didn’t want to kill their fellow Chinese (especially given that many of them were former bandits who specialized in killing their fellow Chinese), but instead often failed to see the benefit in taking the risk of attacking or, as the case was increasingly from 1942, saw that the wind started blowing pretty hard the other way as Japan’s losses piled up.
Finally, a short note: there is nothing surprising about the fact that Ding was told to continue work after surrender. Almost all the later executed or imprisoned collaborators were asked to keep working. The last thing the Nationalist government wanted in August, 1945 was complete chaos in the cities. Better to have the anti-Communist puppet governments continue to maintain order (or, in many cases, the Japanese) than have general collapse of order before Chiang Kai-shek’s forces could arrive. Chiang Kai-shek absorbed many of the puppet troops and others into the postwar regime, just as Americans absorbed huge numbers of Koreans who had held positions throughout Japan’s colonial rule (especially the police) into its occupation administration. These tactical choices would have long term consequences for Chinese and Korean politics, but given the choices faced by Chiang in China or the US in Korea (or Germany!) and whether we believe they made the right decision or not, we should not be terribly surprised to see this happen. When occupying powers have done the opposite, completely dismissing and disbanding local institutions, they also face serious risks, as the United States has most recently discovered.
2) More importantly, the appropriate response of a historian to a highly reductive narrative of national resistance is not to take nationally designated villains and praise them as national heroes, or vice versa. Nor is it to dismiss the importance of resistance movements, nor play down the violence and consequences of collaboration with a brutal occupying force. If you take the nation out of the picture and out of the cockpit of the historical narrative, the questions change, or rather the range of questions one can ask become less clouded by the phenomenal weight that the nation once occupied as the subject of the story. The result is rarely, if ever, a reversal of the story once told, but it is much richer.
Lung does add something interesting and new, which I have not seen in anything else written on Ding, that she found in the memoirs of Chen Lifu.
On page 232 of Memoirs of Chen Lifu: Ding Mocun could have avoided the death penalty. One day, he fell ill and he was taken out from of the prison to visit a doctor. Coming out of the Nanjing Detention Center, he took a visit Xuanwu Lake … when Generalissimo Chiang read the report, he said angrily: “How can he tour Xuanwu Lake when he is ill? He should be shot immediately!”
So that was how Ding Xuanwu was executed. He came out of prison and he wanted to enjoy the breeze on the lake. He was spotted by a tabloid newspaper reporter who wrote about it.
Oh, I had to close the book and sigh. It was no wonder why the death sentence verdict document of Ding Mocun sounded so unconvincing. It totally ignored the various powerful evidence that Ding Mocun offered to save his life. He was sentenced to death not by a real court under real laws.
In such an era, wouldn’t you leave a space for humanity between the so-called difference between the good guys and the bad guys, no matter whether it is between Mr. Yi and Mr. Ding, or Eileen Chang and Wu Lancheng?
Lung’s essay made an attempt at a rescue of Ding from his nationalist critics but offered them a tragic hero instead – stripping the life of Ding of his involvement in torture, murder, of petty political maneuvering, and of his infamous personal reputation. Having looked at the archival documents and trial records on a snowy evening in Germany, she must have seen the accusations, but chose not to mention them in her own account. We are thus softened enough to sympathize with her conclusion that asks whether there is any space for “humanity” (人性的空隙). There should be, and the anecdote is certainly interesting since, if true, it is a great example, among many others, of the incredibly arbitrary nature of justice in the treason trials of the early postwar period. And yet, when we make space for that humanity in telling the life of an almost universally reviled historical figure, let’s not throw out the inhumanity that pervades their political career and personal life.
Brian Martin, “Shield of collaboration: The Wang Jingwei regime’s security service, 1939-1945” Intelligence and National Security 20, No. 4 (2001): 100. 劉傑 『漢奸裁判』 (The Hanjian trials) (東京：中公新書、2000), 176 ↩
劉傑 ibid. ↩
All translations from the article are Soong’s ↩
Mao Zedong Mao Zedong xuanji vol. 3 (Guangdong: Renmin chuban she, 1991) p1043-4. Zhu De Zhu De xuanji (Beijing: Renmin chuban she, 1983) p174. He also refers to quxian jiuguo when he describes the three wartime anti-Communist “tides” on p140. Also in vol. 4 p1137. ↩
“Yuandong guoji fating shang de guaiju” Renmin Ribao August 2, 1946 p1, “Zhu zongsiling dianfu Hao pengju jiangjun” August, 13, 1946 p1, “Jiaodong qiyi jiaotong jingcha dadui” August 27, 1946 p1, “Huigu shiwu nian” September, 20, 1946 p1, “Renzheng wuzheng juzai jiaoban bude! Jiang Jieshi zao shi da hanjian” May 13, 1947, p1, “Jiuguo bixu mie Jiang” September 20, 1947 p1, “Suining Xibei diqu shengli chubu zhanguo” November 22, 1948 p1, “Canhai kangRi junmin xie zhang” March 9, 1949 p2. I’ve also seen this in early postwar articles of Jiefang Ribao, but don’t have references handy. ↩
My dissertation looks at political retribution against accused pro-Japanese collaborators in China and Korea. ↩