In a letter to his New Fourth Army commander Chen Yi and its political commissar Liu Shaoqi on 17 August, 1941, Mao answered their request for an official Communist policy towards puppet troops fighting for the Japanese. The party should, he said, patiently follow the policy of ‘seven times capturing Meng Huo.’” Four chapters of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms are dedicated to the story of how the brilliant strategist Zhu Geliang suppressed a rebellion in the south of the kingdom Shu, in modern day Sichuan province. The rebellion was sparked and sustained by the forces of the Man tribe under their king Meng Huo. After defeating the Man in battle Zhu captured the fleeing king in an ambush. When asked what he would do if he was released, Meng said he would raise his troops to fight again, but if captured a second time he would submit. Zhu released Meng Huo despite the protests of his commanders. To these Zhu replied, “I can catch him again with ease whenever I choose to. But the pacification of the south requires that we subdue the hearts of the Man people.” In the chapters that followed, Man was captured time and again, but five times he reneged on his promise to submit to the Shu and end the rebellion. Finally, on his seventh capture, Meng Huo and his family swore the south would not rebel again, “For generations to come, our children and theirs after them will gratefully acknowledge your all-protecting, all-sustaining love, deep as Heaven, vast as earth.”
This most likely apocryphal story of Meng Huo’s repeated capture is mentioned in several sources but found in most detail in the influential Three Kingdoms romance. Though the four character compound ‘seven times capturing Meng Huo’ (qi qin Meng Huo) has been interpreted in more abstract terms since, when Mao used it in 1941, he meant the application of its most literal original meaning.
In principal, whether they are officers or soldiers and no matter what social background they come from, no puppet troop captives are to be killed. Even those elements who have a deep hatred for us and come back to fight us again after being released may be spared execution. That is, the method of repeated capturing and releasing is better than killing, and its impact is greater. In releasing captives, there should be absolutely no posting of bail, and they should not be made to vow that they will never be puppet soldiers in the future. But they can be required to swear that they will not really help the Japanese oppose the New Fourth Army in the future. And if they do actually violate their oath and help Japan fight us, then we should still patiently carry out the policy of “seven times capturing Meng Huo.”
Mao’s own directives emphasized the importance of the task of “winning over and disintegrating” (zhengqu wajie) puppet armies at least as early as his “On the New Stage” report to the Sixth Plenum of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party in October, 1938. In November, he directed that political subversion of puppet regime troops seek to maximize the long-term impact on the enemy. When puppet troops were won over cadres were to “strive to bring them nominally under the command of the Eighth Route Army, and then transform or reorganize them during a process of struggle…”
In late 1940 Mao offered more specific instructions on releasing captured puppets. At this point, however, while the basic policy was to “set them all free,” he allowed for the execution of military collaborators that had “incurred the bitter hatred to the masses.” By May, 1941, the policy had come to settle upon the Meng Huo inspired policy of extreme leniency. In a directive to forces the Shaanxi-Ganzu-Ningxia border region cadres were even ordered to forgo attempts to force those captured to show repentance and removed the possibility of retribution against those guilty of particularly heinous crimes,
Toward enemy soldiers and officers and soldiers of the puppet army captured in battle, carry out a policy of leniency in all cases, regardless of the individual’s situation. Those who wish to participate in the War of Resistance should be accepted and treated favorably. Those not wishing to do so are to be released, and under no circumstances may they be killed, humiliated, forced to confess, or forced to compose statements of repentance. Those who are recaptured after having been released, regardless how many times they have been captured, are all to be dealt with in this manner.
The other important figure in establishing policies towards puppet forces was the head of the Eighth Route Army, Zhu De. He had a long military career before becoming a close associate of Mao Zedong in 1928 and was no stranger to military defections. As a graduate of the Yunnan military academy, he betrayed his own Qing army to participate in the Yunnan army revolt in October, 1911. Already during this earlier revolution he used subversion to persuade other Qing soldiers to defect to the Republican forces. Again in 1916, while serving the Yunnan warlord Cai E during the National Protection War, Zhu helped secure the defection of thousands of Sichuan troops to join the cause of Cai’s National Protection Army (huguojun). As a commander of ostensibly Nationalist troops in 1927, Zhu supported a Communist military insurrection in Nanchang before again briefly integrating his troops into those of the warlord and Nationalist commander Fan Shisheng. While Mao had looked to the Three Kingdoms for inspiration, Zhu could simply look back upon his own career.
In his 1938 essay “On Anti-Japanese Guerrilla War” Zhu De discussed the importance of political warfare against military collaborators. Many of the rank and file and some of the officers among both the Japanese and their collaborators were “unwilling to die for the Japanese conquest of China.” Political tactics, therefore, should be used to compel the puppets to “turn their guns against the Japanese warlords and the Chinese traitors.” In a later essay from April, 1945, Zhu took a more flexible approach than the unconditional mercy Mao proposed and suggested that a diverse range of approaches be taken, urging cadres not to, “apply one hard and fast rule to all puppet troops.” While the diehards were to be destroyed, officers and men who were only “temporarily fooled” by the enemy should be won over. They were to be warned, however, that time was running out. “These puppets have committed many crimes. Unless they cross over to our side soon, they will not have time to serve their country and redeem themselves; and they will be punished as the nation demands.” The puppets would have to, as British commanders claimed the Burma National Army did in the spring of 1945, “work their passage home” by joining the war of resistance.