During the late 1930s and World War II, it was common to call Dai Li “China’s Himmler,” as if Chiang Kai-shek’s secret police and intelligence chief during that period performed functions similar to the head of the Gestapo and the SS under Hitler. But as becomes clear after reading Frederic Wakeman’s absorbing and intricately detailed study Spymaster, the apparent parallels between China and Germany quickly fade. Dai Li was not China’s Himmler, any more than Chiang Kai-shek was China’s Hitler. Rather, as Wakeman shows, both Chiang and Dai Li were intensely and indissolubly Chinese: their natures and their fates, like their successes and their failures, were drawn from profound Chinese roots.
Indeed, Dai Li in particular drew much of his power from his deep dislike of those Chinese who had given up their traditional values to pursue a Westernized curriculum of foreign languages and mathematics in China’s new schools, which Dai considered irrelevant to China’s true needs. In his ambitious book—ten years in the making—Wakeman not only unveils the singular trajectory of the Chinese spymaster’s road to power in the chaotic early years of China’s republic; but in doing so he also helps us to understand Chiang Kai-shek, surely the most elusive and least studied of all the political figures who had a major impact on the history of the first half of the twentieth century.
As one might expect of a future spymaster, the exact steps of Dai Li’s ascent to power are by no means easy to track. Bits of his background are known. He was born in the southern part of the east coast province of Zhejiang (also Chiang Kai-shek’s home province) during late May 1897 and attended local village and county schools. After Dai Li finished his elementary and county schooling, he had, in 1914, an arranged marriage to a neighboring landowner’s daughter—they had one child, a son, born in 1915.
Dai Li’s forebears had been minor officials and owned a good deal of land, but his father was a wastrel and a layabout, who lost most of the family holdings, and it was Dai Li’s mother who saw him through school with her own savings. But not even his mother could deal with Dai Li’s restless energies. In the years just after his marriage Dai Li seems to have made a precarious living from gambling, which led to accusations of cheating and of theft. He had fights, in one of which his nose was broken, leaving him with sinus problems for the rest of his life. He did a brief stint of military service in a regional Zhejiang infantry unit, was charged with desertion, and worked at part-time jobs in Ningbo, Hangzhou, and Shanghai. Somewhere during this time, Dai Li made connections with members of one of Shanghai’s toughest groups of racketeers, the “Green Gang.” It was probably through Green Gang contacts that Dai was introduced …