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 to members of the anti-warlord Nationalist Party, who were playing the Shanghai Stock and Commodity Exchange as a way to help finance Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionary political organization in the south. By some accounts it was in 1921 that Dai Li first met Chiang Kai-shek, who was a Sun Yat-sen loyalist and an associate of the Shanghai speculators. But according to conflicting accounts, Chiang Kai-shek later could not recall meeting with Dai at this time. In any case, if there were contacts they were fleeting, and between 1922 and 1925 Dai Li seems to have spent time with his family in Zhejiang, and to have had a couple of jobs: one in the local educational bureaucracy, and one as the leader of an anti-bandit local militia group.

In late 1925 Dai Li was alerted by a friend to the career possibilities being held out by the Whampoa Military Academy near Canton, where Chiang Kai-shek had been appointed commandant. Dai Li made his way south, successfully passed the admissions requirements, and in early 1926 was enrolled in the sixth class of Whampoa cadets. By chance, at the age of twenty-eight, Dai Li had found the ideal environment for a future spymaster. The Whampoa academy had been founded by Sun Yat-sen as part of a united front with the Comintern (the Third Communist International), to train China’s future army leaders for their role in the Nationalist revolution. But the Communist–Nationalist alliance had always been an uneasy one, and after Sun Yat-sen died of cancer in 1925 the alliance began to collapse. Chiang Kai-shek started to curb the Communists’ power and to strengthen his own base. Though the sources on Dai Li’s early career are exasperatingly skimpy and contradictory, and even all Wakeman’s knowledge cannot put them together again into a tightly structured narrative, it seems to have been in the spring of 1926 that Dai Li—though merely a junior cadet—somehow used his prior contacts to gain some kind of access to Chiang Kai-shek. Once he had this opening, Dai exploited it by passing on, at first quite unofficially and without any formal permission, brief intelligence reports on the identities and activities of the pro-Communists within the sixth Whampoa class.


In the spring of 1927 Chiang, who had advanced north with many of his best troops, unleashed a bloody suppression of the Communists and labor unions in Shanghai. Sensing the opportunities in the air, Dai Li joined a group of cadets heading north—he never did finish his courses or graduate with the sixth class—in order to reestablish contact with Chiang. This Dai managed to do, and over the ensuing months he sent Chiang detailed intelligence reports on the comparative strengths of the various military forces in central and northern China, with which Chiang would have to do battle in the future if he was to successfully reunify the country. With his impassioned eye for detail, Wakeman tells us that the reports were written with rice gruel, and the messages only became legible when they were treated with iodine.

Dai Li was in no sense a member of any conventional Chinese elite, either by birth, education, or marriage, or by specialized training, and he did not even have any especially influential sponsors. Furthermore, Chiang Kai-shek placed his deepest trust in a small group of the Whampoa-trained officers from the first three classes, and Dai Li had not even finished his courses with the sixth class. But in this chaotic period of China’s history, formal elite status was not necessary for success. What Dai Li did have was more important: an intensely tuned sense of what Chiang wanted to know, an extraordinary ability to convince Chiang of his absolute personal loyalty and his deep hatred of communism, and a sense of personal destiny inspired by the great Chinese tales of the heroic bands of the past who had united to right great wrongs.

Wakeman gives many examples of these stories, their origins, and the ways they could inspire action. What was especially important about these values was that they coincided with Chiang’s own sense of his personal destiny, and his determination—as the self-declared heir of the Nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen—to play the role of “leader” (lingxiu) in the single-party government that alone could give China the strength to smash the Communists once and for all, before marshaling the nation’s strength to oppose the Japanese and the other foreign imperialists.

Dai Li had begun to prove his usefulness to Chiang by sending intelligence reports—sometimes obtained at considerable risk. He seems to have consolidated his position by offering his services as a bodyguard to Chiang during the dangerous later months of 1927, when Chiang’s own power was in eclipse. When Chiang returned to power in 1928, he retained Dai Li as a bodyguard and also appointed him to serve in the cumbersomely and innocuously named Nanjing Office of the Whampoa Alumni Association Investigation Department. This group was in fact, as Wakeman demonstrates, the “security unit for Chiang Kai-shek’s military training system” and gave Dai Li consistent access to the ranks of the most loyal Whampoa cadets—now purged of all known Communists—who were later to become the nucleus of one of Chiang’s key front organizations, the Society of Chinese Revolutionary Comrades, one of the many components of Chiang’s notorious Blue Shirts.

Having also been rewarded with promotion to senior captain of Chiang’s personal bodyguard, Dai Li was able to use the regular access to the leader that this afforded to pass on a steady stream of information about the political loyalties of those close to the inner circles of power. Given a monthly stipend by Chiang of three thousand yuan (Chinese dollars) for “activities expenses,” Dai Li used the money to recruit nine young officers and former cadets to construct—under his own leadership—a “League of Ten” to perform “special services.”

As staff liaison officer of this group, confirmed by Chiang himself in his dual roles of commander in chief and head of the Nationalist Party, Dai Li had a base that was to grow into the (again innocuously named) Bureau of Investigation and Statistics within the Military Affairs Commission. In the early 1930s, Wakeman is able to demonstrate, Dai Li on his leader’s orders was allowed to hire ever more agents, and granted ever more financial resources (including access to effective modern weapons and the use of automobiles). He was gradually assigned to move beyond domestic surveillance, loyalty checks, and anti-Communist counterespionage to the assassination of certain of the leader’s enemies: these ranged from hostile militarists and suspected Communists to human rights advocates and those who pushed too vigorously for anti-Japanese countermeasures, since Chiang was fanatically determined to curb the desire to contain the Japanese until the Communists had been exterminated.


Wakeman reminds us that whatever formal titles Dai Li may have held as he advanced toward his goal of being the indispensable spymaster, he was himself very aware that he was only one part of a complex system of intersecting secret service groups that Chiang could manipulate at will and pit against one another if necessary, as he consolidated his own personal power as leader. Similarly the Blue Shirts—seen by many at the time and since as a deliberate copy of the Nazi Brown Shirts or the Italian Black Shirts—were but one element of an intricate apparatus of tight secretive groupings, all of which were pledged in loyalty to their leader’s service, and which all had their own pecking orders, recruitment procedures, and usually overlapping jurisdictions and spheres of operation.

Of these groups, the most important was almost certainly the Society for Vigorous Practice (Lixingshe), composed of Whampoa cadets from the earliest classes, who were passionately loyal to Chiang Kai-shek and his goals of anti-Communist Nationalist reunification. Many of them had studied in Japanese colleges and military academies, as had Chiang Kai-shek himself in his youth. The Society for Vigorous Practice took form during 1931 and swiftly became what Wakeman calls

the single most important political formation within what the public called the Whampoa clique…. Its members constituted a military freemasonry that admired fascism and pledged itself to carry out Sun Yat-sen’s Three People’s Principles under the guidance of its supreme leader, Chiang Kai-shek.

Starting out as a small group of close friends who met privately over dinners to discuss the fate of their nation, by 1932 they had formed themselves into a “top-secret organization of three hundred devoted Chiang loyalists” and won Chiang’s approval for their basic concept of a secretly recruited society dedicated to the leader’s service.

In late February 1932, twenty-five of the inner group held a series of night-time meetings with Chiang Kai-shek at his villa near Nanjing, and he listened with intense concentration as each man presented his views of China’s problems and how best to handle them. Dai Li was present at these, and addressed the group himself, though he was neither a graduate of Whampoa nor a member of their elite inner circle. Instead his preliminary role seems to have been the supervision of the logistical planning needed to get the group together, and the supplying of security for all those who were gathered in such an isolated woodland location in the darkness. According to Dai Li’s own later account, it had been on February 26 that Chiang met one-on-one with Dai Li in the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum Park just outside Nanjing, and authorized Dai to form a Special Services Department inside the nascent Lixingshe.

On February 29, in a scene dramatically reconstructed by Wakeman from participants’ later reminiscences and biographies, after the Lixingshe members (including Dai Li) had been tested both orally and in writing by Chiang, they formed a circle around their leader and—raising their right hands—swore a solemn oath before him:

I swear in all my sincerity to practice the Three People’s Principles with vigor, to recover revolutionary spirit, to revive the Chinese race, to sacrifice all personal interest, to obey orders, to adhere strictly to secrecy, and to complete the task of revolution and of building the country. If I breach my oath, I am willing to accept the most severe punishment. I pledge this sincerely.

Each man then placed his thumbprint on a written copy of the oath, Chiang Kai-shek affixed his personal seal, and the paper was burned just as paper money for the spirits was burned at Chinese funerals.

Then, as the members of the group held hands, Chiang pledged he would do his best to lead them. Wakeman comments that in this way, “in a ceremony that eclectically drew upon the cultural trappings of the sworn brigand brotherhood and the literati’s Confucian examination system,” the Lixingshe was formally established. And thus was Dai Li ensconced by his leader in a privileged position at the very heart of the secret loyalist organization, the existence of which was totally unknown to almost all Chinese, including many who were senior members of the government.


Who then were Dai Li’s agents, what did they do, and where did they come from? In Wakeman’s view, many of them were from the very edges of Chinese society. This should surprise no one, he writes, since “espionage and counterintelligence were hardly a reputable occupation” at this time. It is Wakeman’s belief—and he makes his point vigorously—that the “cultural universe” of many of these recruits to Dai Li’s secret service was “dominated by traditional heroic lore and by historical allegories,” including those drawn from famous historical novels such as Three Kingdoms and The Water Margin, which were replete with martial arts adventures, the actions of those living outside the law, and the sayings of shrewd strategists of the occult. Indeed information assembled by Wakeman about former lives and occupations of many of these recruits sounds as if it could have come straight from the Warring States period of China in the third century BCE, rather than from the small rural townships and the backstreets and alleyways of China’s newly growing cities. In Wakeman’s words,

Many of these early recruits—the rank and file in particular—were drawn from the lower strata of society: jugglers, wrestlers, itinerant entertainers, journeymen traders, jailers, executioners, thieves, and gangsters. These agents readily put on the disguises of candy hucksters, porters, street hawkers, restaurant and hotel waiters, domestic servants, newspaper vendors, and ricksha pullers when they were on assignment.

And in many of Wakeman’s graphically rendered accounts of the counterespionage activities of Dai Li’s foot soldiers, it is their effortless blending into the messy urban landscape that made their missions of harassment, kidnapping, beatings, and murder so hideously effective.1

But concentration on these colorful but clearly low-life agents, on their noisy and cramped lodgings and eclectic weaponry, and on their tempestuous liaisons, gives perhaps too romanticized a picture of Dai Li’s minions, who were often dangerous and well-trained professionals. At least from 1930 onward, Wakeman demonstrates, Dai Li had access to a steady stream of educated male and female recruits for his secret service via his connections with the police training academy in Hangzhou. It was here that he organized his first “secret service communications training group.” Dai Li had seen that radio communications nets along with sophisticated mastery of codes were essential to any finely integrated intelligence operations, and he was eclec-tic about where that knowledge came from: the training methods in Hangzhou, Wakeman writes, “were drawn from Cheka and KGB manuals, but its technical know-how, based upon the experience of recruits from Shanghai intelligence units, reflected Ameri-can electronics skills and supplies.” In April 1931 it was revealed that Chiang Kai-shek’s chief personal decoder was a Communist mole who had passed Chiang’s own top-secret code book along to the Communist leader Zhou Enlai. This made it seem all the more urgent for Dai Li to take drastic action.

By 1933 Dai Li had de-cided to establish his own radio training school and cryptanalysis program in Shanghai; the people trained there greatly strengthened Dai Li’s expanding organizations and his ability to get accurate information to Chiang Kai-shek ahead of the competing agencies. But Dai Li knew too that radio skills by themselves were not enough. Among the special classes in the Hangzhou police training school available to his future agents, Wakeman tells us, were those on the theory of special operations, codes and ciphers, the uses of poison and morphine, the analysis of tracks and fingerprints, explosives and demolition, stenography and speed writing, and various other skills ranging from photography and martial arts to automobile driving. A former Communist taught classes in international espionage, and courses in the Japanese language and horseback riding were also offered.

Things did not go well for Chiang Kai-shek during the 1930s. The Communists proved to be unexpectedly obdurate in both their rural and their underground urban bases. The Japanese threat grew ever stronger, and the unpopularity of Chiang’s policy of delaying confrontation with Japan while he tried to finish off the Communists was proven by countless demonstrations against him. Human rights groups protested his despotic ways. He was constantly short of money. Warlords were still powerful in much of China. The narcotics problems were intractable. In 1936 Chiang Kai-shek was kidnapped in Xian by a general sympathetic to the Communists, but was released. Each of these crises made Dai Li more indispensable, and gave him more work to do.

In his instructions to his agents, Dai Li mentioned always that they had to excel in a number of specific ways: exploitation of human foibles and sexual relationships, manipulation of both informal and formal political operatives, the handling of funds, and “making do” with the resources to hand. Wakeman gives careful study to all these aspects within the turbulent times and concludes—correctly, it seems to me—that “Dai Li’s genius as a secret police chief was in his ability to shift so readily from one role to another,” an ability “that in turn depended upon his skill at reading his audience’s expectations of himself.”

Dai Li instructed his agents to do literally anything for the leader, and it is clear from the evidence accumulated by Wakeman that behind the headline news stories of disappearances and murders lay a terrible substratum of special prisons directed by Dai Li’s agents, where interrogations were conducted with horrific violence; torture was commonplace, and unknown numbers of those arrested simply disappeared. Exactly why people behave with such horrendous cruelty in such situations is a question that Wakeman touches on, but cannot answer, except by analogy to other times and places. He comes closest to an answer, perhaps, in his taut statement that Dai Li’s

understanding of human nature stressed the ignoble qualities of others, qualities that he viewed with equanimity in himself. Yet it was precisely because he was willing to recognize, and even pander to, his own vices that he felt himself to be such a master of men’s souls.

Wakeman tells us that as Dai Li grew more powerful, he imposed puritanical restraints on his agents but demanded more of the trappings of power for himself: numerous “safe houses” in different cities, cars available at all times for his personal use, and a constantly shifting group of sexual companions—including colleagues’ wives, his own female agents, and the female students from his training schools. Such stories are given in various sources but may not necessarily be true, since many accounts were later written by people with good reason to denigrate Dai Li, or by his own former operatives who stayed on the mainland after 1949 and denounced Dai Li at the behest of their new Communist masters. It makes sense to guess that someone with as many enemies as Dai Li might have realized the dangers of an uncautious succession of such liaisons.

With the final outbreak of full-scale war between China and Japan in 1937, Dai Li’s workload increased yet again. Now it was collaborators with Japan who were added to the government’s hit list; and even people who continued with their humdrum jobs in the cities occupied by Japanese or collaborationist forces faced possible assassination. Dai Li’s earlier con-tacts with the Green Gang and other such groups were useful here, and he was able to plant agents or double agents, drawn from criminal syndicates, alongside his own agents in many key places. Security was difficult, and Dai Li kept many of the details of his operatives’ true politi-cal loyalties in his head as he joined Chiang Kai-shek in the long retreat from Nanjing to Wuhan, and from Wuhan to Chongqing, far up the Yangzi gorges, but still in reach of Japanese bombers.

In Chongqing, Dai Li faced new challenges. His agents, fanned out across the country, were adept at spotting Japanese planes and sending advance warnings of their imminent raids. Others monitored weather patterns along with Japanese troop movements. Dai Li’s agents’ cryptography skills were dramatically increased by his imaginative decision to hire the brilliant American Herbert Yardley, famous for having broken the Japa-nese foreign office codes in 1919 and 1920. Yardley accepted Dai’s invitation to work in Chongqing between 1938 and 1940, where he trained around two hundred of Dai Li’s agents, intercepted more than 200,000 Japanese army communications, and broke the primary Japanese air force cipher. The heavy-drinking Yardley might have rendered still greater services to Dai Li had a Japanese raid not destroyed his carefully assembled supply of London gin, hastening his decision to return to the United States in the summer of 1940. During this period Dai Li, now with the rank of army general, had been named by Chiang head of the reorganized military statistics bureau, and had expanded his operation from four departments, one hundred office staff, and two thousand field operatives to ten departments, a headquarters staff of over a thousand, with tens of thousands of basic cadres and field operatives.

Once the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the Americans entered the war, it did not take them long to realize that Dai Li’s agents might be of crucial help in tracing Chinese continental weather patterns, providing information that would greatly help Admiral King make long-range plans for deploying the Pacific Fleet.2 Commodore Milton Miles, as head of United States naval intelligence for the China region, worked closely with Dai Li, and became a great admirer of his operations.

It was through Miles’s contacts with the Sino-American Cooperative Organization (SACO) that Dai Li was granted huge supplies of weapons and American personnel to help him train his agents, most especially in the Unit Nine camp, situated in Happy Valley, in southwest China. Since it was believed by the United States that Dai Li’s agents would use their advanced skills in guerrilla warfare against the Japanese, the American instructors included former FBI operatives, Secret Service agents, New York city bomb squad experts and state troopers, who introduced Dai Li’s agents to a wide range of investigative techniques, including miniaturized transmitters, radio direction finders, lie detectors, use of police dogs, “truth serum,” and even botulinus toxins. Those with even partial knowledge of Chinese political realities knew that the Nationalists would be fighting the Communists again as soon as the Japanese were defeated, and thus that this aid would inevitably be used in the domestic civil war. Wakeman is sharply critical of the technical aspects of the Happy Valley training, which he sees as a “sinister precedent” for the later CIA training schools for secret police in Latin America.

Dai Li’s activities once the war was over seem to have been even more secretive than before, and Wakeman gives us fewer details on this period. There was still no denying Dai’s reputation as the head of a terrible and effective security apparatus, but it is possible that Chiang was wearying of him, or felt that his longtime spymaster had outlived his usefulness. There were even rumors that new intelligence officials would be chosen to take over Dai Li’s apparatus. Methods that had been accepted in the 1930s seemed suspect during the reconsolidation of Nationalist authority in late 1945 and 1946. One thing is certain, that Dai Li was kept busy flying between China’s major cities in search of allies and reassurance. On March 17, 1946, Dai Li, some friends, a code clerk, and three bodyguards took a long-distance plane out of Qingdao airport, heading for Shanghai. The weather was stormy, and the flight was deflected to Nanjing. But there the storm worsened, visibility was lost, and the plane crashed into a mountain, killing all aboard. The bodies were found several days later by search teams. Despite many rumors, no evidence of foul play was ever discovered.

If one studies a spymaster for ten years, one is perhaps tugged unwittingly into finding a kind of romance enfolded within the horrors of his world. A logic begins to emerge, attachment grows. Wakeman says as much in a brief but self-revelatory afterword he appends to his book, entitled simply “Daemons.” For much of his life, he informs us, he has been confronting the daemons of China’s history, both drawn to them and repelled, like a man “watching a cobra just a room away.” Exposing how the daemon used his “hypnotic stare” has been to him a way to both resist and comprehend it. By writing about Dai Li, he tells us, he can somehow imagine himself “repulsing the daemon’s indifferent glance.” Wakeman is a wonderfully imaginative and erudite recorder of China’s past, and his account of Dai Li is crucial for understanding Nationalist and Communist power in China. But in using his daemon’s metaphor, Wakeman is bringing in a new element to his analysis: he is trying to graft Dai Li into the history of the great figures of China’s past, most specifically the hero of the third century CE, Zhuge Liang, about whose uncanny skills Dai Li liked to lecture his student agents. I resist the analogy and believe that eventually Wakeman will come to do so as well. Dai Li had no magical powers. He was a devious and cruel man, and he was killed by the weather.

This Issue

March 25, 2004