Laiwu lies tucked in a valley just east of Taishan, one of the most celebrated mountains in China. Variously designated as a district or county by its various wartime governments and today returned to county status, Laiwu is surrounded on three sides by mountains but located only a mere 110 kilometers southeast of the provincial capital Jinan. Laiwu was overshadowed by the prominence of the nearby town of Tai’an and its famous mountain, but was an important producer of coal and valued for its yellow and white silk production. To the north, a mountain pass connected it to the city of Zichuan on the JiaoJi railway, the artery connecting Jinan with the port of Qingdao. To the west beyond Tai’an lay the important north-south JinPu railway from Tianjin to Pukou, just outside of Nanjing. The district had the misfortune of being located in the shadow of the mountainous districts that were home to many Communist forces, but also close enough to be easily accessible by Japanese forces and their allies.
(Map of Laiwu and environs)
Laiwu offers a setting where a number of the differing forms of military collaboration with Japan can be found as well as the interaction between puppet armies, Nationalists, Communist forces, and other armed groups. Japanese forces entered the county on 1 January, 1938. Only two days later, local Communist party and other armed locals rose up in revolt and within a week had joined forces with other revolts in nearby Tai’an and the town of Xintai. Japanese troops continued their progress south in February without leaving a garrison, but no sooner had they left than Nationalist guerrillas under Qin Qirong entered the district and fought a series of battles with the local Communist-led resistance. A semblance of a “united front” between Communists and Nationalists was only restored with help from the Nationalist 69th Corps commander, the former warlord Shi Yousan, who helped local Communist forces expel his supposed ally Qin from the district.
In August, 1939, a resistance government was formally established for Laiwu in the southeastern mountain village of Zhujiazhuang under Communist Party member and guerrilla leader Tan Keping. Together with a county magistrate appointed by the Nationalist forces in 1940, an avowed anti-Communist Liu Boge, the county would soon have three separate governments. The Japanese army, which had reestablished some presence in the county by late 1938, sought to strengthen its control beginning in September, 1940 by building up local strong points and recruiting military collaborators. It also carried out its first major mopping-up operation in the county. Communist sources claim that some 360 civilians were killed in 25 separate Japanese massacres during this campaign. However, a new collaborationist county government established by the Japanese occupying forces was deeply infiltrated by 1943, with a number of its leading members Communist Party members accepting Japanese sponsored county positions under its policy of “white skin, red heart.” As a result, much of the county remained effectively under Communist Party control until the end of the war, while puppet armies and Japanese troops continued to occupy strong points in the county seat of Laicheng and a few other locations such as Kouzhen and Luxi villages.
This distribution of power in the district can be found in many Japanese occupied areas in northern China, but the simplification is only possible by subsuming a number of other armed groups under either the Japanese or Nationalist corner of the triangle, or else classifying them as apolitical bandits. Religious sects and rural self-defense associations were also important players. Four or five distinct armed groups in Laiwu eventually fought together with Japanese occupation forces. A county level security battalion and a county garrison are referred to in a number of sources, but it is not clear if these were separate organizations. The former is described as mostly made of up of soldiers who were not from the county, and were of poor quality. One unit deserted in 1943. In 1945 many of them retreated into Anhui province, while those that remained revolted on behalf of Communist forces and attacked the Japanese supported county government. The least information remains about a separate “Revive Asia and Eliminate Communism Army” (xingya jiaogong jun) headed by a local bandit named Yan Jiguang and an “intellectual,” Liu Yaonan as his second in command. Its other officers were said to include local merchants, and was alleged to operate an intelligence network in the county that depended on its traders, but the whole army was merged into the county controlled security battalion in 1942. The more formidable, and dangerous, of the puppet armies in Laiwu came from organizations that predated the war and could command stronger loyalties from its thousands of members across multiple villages in the county.
In the mountainous east of Laiwu, an “Eliminate Communism Autonomous Army” (jiaogong zizhi jun) operated under the command of one Zhang Wenzheng. Zhang was the “great teacher” and leader of the local branch of the “Middle Way” (zhongyang dao) religious sect, which was active in over 20 counties of Shandong. There are two versions of how the followers of the Middle Way in Laiwu. Communist sources, some of which where used to suppress the sect in the early 1950s, claims that around 1,800 followers of Zhang fought on behalf of the resistance with a Nationalist commander operating further south, Zhang Liyuan, but that they later transferred to the control of two important commanders who eventually surrendered to the Japanese, Zhang Buyun and Wu Huawen. By the time the army of the Middle Way had joined Wu Huawen’s forces, most likely when he was stationed in Laiwu, they had dwindled to some 500 men and were of little use. Their leader Zhang Wenzheng was killed by Communist forces in 1945.
A 1947 Nationalist report on puppet armies in Laiwu tells their story somewhat differently. It claimed that early in the war against Japan, the Middle Way followers first fought in league with local Communist forces but, following disagreements, they were expelled from the county and surrendered to the Japanese in 1941. They then returned to Laiwu and grew in strength to about 3,000 rifles with Japanese support. The Middle Way then turned upon their former allies and were responsible for the capture and killing of hundreds of members of the “treasonous Party” (the Nationalist term for the Communist Party). Part of their army was dispersed by the Japanese in 1942 on suspicion of working secretly with the resistance, while the remainder was wiped out by Communist forces in 1946, after Japanese surrender.
Better remembered in Laiwu is the army of the “Hard Fist Society” (yingquan dao), which was connected to the Red Spears (hongqiang hui) movement. This organization, also with a strong religious element, was one of many in a complex world of rural defense associations and religious societies found throughout Shandong and northern China. The Hard Fist society was, like other Red Spear societies, led by local landlords and rich peasants, but had wide community participation. It grew rapidly in the 1920s in Shandong, where the “Hard Fist Society” resisted warlord and bandit violence and appropriations in rural areas. Both Nationalist and Communist sources agree this time that the Laiwu based Hard Fist Society began the war in alliance with the Communist-led revolt. They were predominantly active in western Laiwu, especially around the village of Luxi where they worked together with the resistance movement until late 1939. It was then that the relationship fell apart, thanks to the “leftist deviations” of the Communist Treason Elimination Bureau (chujianbu).
The year 1939 was already a bad one for Treason Elimination Bureau agents who, at this point, focused more on rooting out Party heterodoxy than exposing enemy spies and punishing collaborators. By the end of the year, the provincial Party Sub-Bureau was reeling from that news that over 300 executions of accused Trotskyites had been carried out by bureau agents in southern Shandong in a widely condemned witch-hunt that became known as the “Huxi Incident.” In Laiwu, the Hard Fist Society became their target, where agents of the Bureau executed two of the society’s leaders and beat other prominent figures in the organization. Suspicion and factional strife broke out and head of the society, Qi Xiangde, fled the county and went over to the Japanese in September, 1940.
Qi was just in time to help the Japanese in their new efforts to strengthen control in Laiwu and, with their support, he returned to gather his followers and create around half a dozen separate armed units. Communist sources claim that they included around 1,000 armed followers, while the 1947 Nationalist government report claims that they had 7,000 followers of which 2,000 had firearms. Until the Hard Fist Society retreated into Anhui province as the Japanese surrender neared, they were a menace to both Communist and Nationalist forces in Laiwu. The postwar Nationalist report claims they often carried out nighttime assassinations of resistance leaders and members of a Nationalist youth group. A Communist source claims the Hard Fist Society broke up 100 Party branches, coerced 600 party members to give themselves up to the Japanese, and killed around 400 members of the resistance. After the war Qi and the Hard Fist Society’s remained in Laiwu in service of the returning Nationalists as an autonomous unit. When Qi’s unit was captured by Communists in 1947, he was executed for the society’s wartime crimes.
In Laiwu, there was no shortage of bandit figures or ragtag soldiers serving in the Japanese supported county garrison. In this county, however, the most serious threats from the puppet armies supporting the Japanese occupation came in the form of local institutions with local ambitions for power and a reason to carry out violence in the name of vengeance. Communist Party propaganda deployed a patriotic rhetoric describing a national problem of puppetry: armies filled with deceived and drafted farmers, of heartless bandits, and of urban ruffians who were betraying their country through ignorance, desperation, or a propensity for cruelty. In places like Laiwu, however, local Communist Party resistance forces faced circumstances that came nowhere near to fitting this picture and its Enemy Work Bureau, tasked with winning them over to the resistance, adapted accordingly.