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Goodfellas in Shanghai

Just 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 united homeland. He chose five men as representative examples of those who had tried to kill Chinese leaders, and he explained the reasoning behind this decision in a brief note appended to the end of the chapter. In Burton Watson’s excellent translation, it reads: “Of these five men, from Ts’ao Mei to Ching K’o, some succeeded in carrying out their duty and some did not. But it is perfectly clear that they had all determined upon the deed. They were not false to their intentions. Is it not right, then, that their names should be handed down to later ages?”1

The success or failure of the individual assassins was less important to Sima Qian than their sincerity. He understood that an assassin worth remembering had to be spurred on to his deed both by his inner determination and by the moral pressure of a minister or ruler whom he respected. As a sister of the assassin Nieh Cheng explained to the local townsmen, after viewing her brother’s defaced and mangled corpse exposed in the public marketplace for all to see, he had really had no choice in his reckless venture. He owed a debt to chief minister Yen Chung-tzu, at whose behest he had undertaken the assassination, for Yen had shown him generosity and trust that had to be reciprocated. As she put it to the listeners who crowded around her, “Yen Chung-tzu, recognizing my brother’s worth, lifted him up from hardship and disgrace 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 full worth.”

Nieh’s sister was here reflecting the hierarchical code of value and honor prevalent in China’s period of “the Warring States” in which these events took place. The Chinese term used by Sima Qian which we here translate as “assassin” is ci ke, where ci has the meaning of “to stab” and ke carries a sense of being a valued guest or retainer. But apart from this shared core of moral obligation, the five men depicted by Sima Qian undertook their ventures in very different ways, with different kinds of success.

The first, Ts’ao Mei, was a general who drew his dagger at a meeting attended by his own ruler and their main rival, threatening the rival with death unless he relinquished the land he had seized. The rival ruler grudgingly acquiesced. In this case, Ts’ao Mei’s goal was attained 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 banquet, and thus eluded the watchful guards of the ruler he sought to kill; as he came into the king’s presence, he seized the dagger from inside the fish and killed the king, being promptly killed himself by the king’s briefly evaded bodyguards.

In the third case, the would-be assassin set out to kill the ruler who had murdered his lord, Chih Po. Captured after two failed attempts (one in the ruler’s privy, one when concealed under a bridge over which the ruler would be riding) and condemned to death, he asked for one final boon, the loan of the ruler’s royal robe. Then, in the astonishing and vivid words of Sima Qian, he “drew his sword, leaped three times into the air, and slashed at the robe, crying, ‘Now I can go to the world below and report to Chih Po!’ Then he fell on his sword and died. That day, when men of true determination in the state of Chao heard what he had done, they all wept for him.”

The fourth assassin, Nieh Cheng, killed his designated victim—the prime minister of the state of Han—by the simplest of all means: strolling past the bodyguards into the prime minister’s office, drawing a concealed sword, and stabbing the man to death. He then committed suicide. The fifth example chosen by Sima Qian was Ching K’o—later to be celebrated in Chinese folklore and popular history—for his attempt to kill the ruler of the state of Ch’in on behalf of his own sponsor, the crown prince of Yen. Ching K’o, having tricked his way into the ruler’s presence, seemed for a second to have obtained his goal: grasping the Ch’in ruler’s sleeve in his left hand, he raised a razor-sharp dagger with his right hand, ready to strike home.

But in a fatal moment of hesitation, Ching K’o did not drive in the blade. The ruler, seizing the opportunity, jerked himself free, leaving his ripped-off sleeve in Ching K’o’s hand. Slashed by repeated sword thrusts from the king, Ching K’o, “leaning against the pillar, his legs sprawled before him,” laughing and cursing at once, gave an explanation for his indecision, which suggests he had been trying to emulate the success of Ts’ao Mei centuries before: “I failed because I tried to threaten you without actually killing you and exact a promise that I could take back to the crown prince!” The king’s bodyguards moved in, and finished him off.

To Sima Qian, each of these acts of violence, whether they succeeded or failed, was a profoundly personal adventure, one that illuminated the characters of all those involved: killer, victim, sponsor. The political rhetoric, the moral justifications, the heroics of gesture and deed, these were what absorbed him. His tales reverberated across the ages in China, and almost any schoolchild knew the haunting song that Ching K’o sang before he strode out to his death:

Winds cry hsiao-hsiao
Yi waters are cold.
Brave men, once gone,
Never come back again.

Perhaps no historian of China since those far-off days has probed so deeply into the world of assassination in China, has searched so carefully for the points at which moral ambiguity and political commitment intersect, as Frederic Wakeman. For a decade now, he has been concentrating on the city of Shanghai in the first half of this century, during which political assassinations abounded. His earlier study, Policing Shanghai,2 surveyed the myriad social, political, and economic aspects of the city between 1927 and 1937. His latest book, The Shanghai Badlands, though narrower in scope, gives an even more intense scrutiny to the role of violence and terrorism between 1937 and 1941, i.e., the period from the Japanese capture of Shanghai to the enlargement of the war that came with the Japanese bombing at Pearl Harbor in December of 1941.

During these four years, China was once again in a period of “Warring States.” Shanghai itself was a fractured universe: the Japanese had captured the parts of Shanghai previously controlled by the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek and incorporated them into the collaborationist regime that they had set up under their chosen puppet ruler, the Chinese politician Wang Jingwei, whose capital was in Nanking. Chiang Kai-shek retreated to Chungking in the far southwest. Living in uneasy juxtaposition and cooperation with the Japanese were the French, who controlled their own “French Concession” to the west of the former Chinese city, and the other foreigners (especially British and Americans) who controlled the large international settlement running from the riverside financial district known as the “Bund” out along Soochow Creek to the open countryside in the west. North and east of the international settlement were densely populated areas of industrial Shanghai, heavily damaged in the bombing and shelling of the war’s first months, now also controlled by the collaborationist regime. And west of both the international and the French Concessions was an area under mixed control, where Japanese military police, the collaborationist police forces, and various foreign enforcement agencies lived and worked in uneasy proximity, and within uncertain jurisdictional lines. These were the “Badlands” in the then current parlance that Wakeman has aptly chosen for his title.

In the late Thirties, the fractured Shanghai region was itself just one subsection of a fragmented nation. The Japanese had established their puppet state of Manchukuo in the far north; the Communists had their stronghold to the northwest in Yan’an; another collaborationist regime occupied the Beijing region, and the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang held the southwest. Each of these domains had their own government and economic system, but Shanghai, with its overlapping jurisdictions and powerful criminal presence, was a natural focal point for the political intrigue—both national and international—of the time. Many of the leaders of the Green Gang criminal syndicate, which was especially powerful in Shanghai, were strongly anti-Japanese, and allowed their members to be recruited into the Nationalist intelligence and espionage services. Since many of the Green Gang members were also employed in the international and French Concession police forces, sometimes at the highest ranks, they had valuable access to foreign information sources.

These new recruits to the world of covert warfare were supervised by Chiang’s passionately anti-Communist and anti-Japanese loyal lieutenant Dai Li, whose euphemistically named “Military Statistics Bureau,” the Juntong, initially maintained a Shanghai station in the comparative shelter of the foreign concessions. When that station was infiltrated by pro-Japanese counterespionage agents, Dai Li split his operations into two “special operations units.” Conducting their deadly business with greater secrecy, agents from these two units were responsible, between 1937 and 1941, for an estimated 150 assassinations of Japanese and Japanese collaborators in the Shanghai region, many of them in the Badlands. It is these assassinations, and the men behind them, that Wakeman describes here, in meticulous and often chilling detail.

Sima Qian had suggested, in four out of his five case studies, that the assassins tended to be wanderers, drifting from employer to employer in search of patronage, and in two of the cases moving from state to state. One had killed a man in a quarrel and been forced to flee his native state; another had an assistant who had killed a man when he was thirteen years old. Only one of the five had any kind of official career. Two were unofficial advisers to public officials; one worked as a “convict laborer”—apparently of his own choice—to get nearer to his target, and one worked as a butcher.

In The Shanghai Badlands, Wakeman gives his own detailed case studies of the kinds of men who ended up as assassins in the Shanghai of the later Thirties. They came from a wide range of backgrounds, though many had received only limited education; they all had drifting pasts and often uncertain futures, and were largely from the social group that Wakeman calls petty-urbanites. Their restlessness in swiftly changing urban Shanghai marks them as part of a newly volatile modern Chinese world, though most of them also showed a real sense of political commitment to the Nationalist and anti-Japanese cause, as well as strong personal loyalties to their own sponsors, and to Dai Li or Chiang Kai-shek. (Though assassins from within the ranks of the Chinese Communist Party featured largely in the urban political violence discussed in Wakeman’s previous study, they lost their Shanghai power base in the Thirties, and are not significant in the story he tells here.)

  1. 1

    For this and the following passages from Sima Qian, see Records of the Historian: Chapters from the Shih chi of Ssu-ma Ch’ien, translated by Burton Watson (Columbia University Press, 1969), pp. 45-67. The section is Chapter 86 of the original history.

  2. 2

    Reviewed in these pages April 20, 1995, pp. 17-20.

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