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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.)

One of the most detailed of Wakeman’s portraits is of Sun Yaxing, leader of the assassination team that threw a bomb at the Japanese Army’s victory parade down Shanghai’s main shopping street on December 3, 1937, and that killed or wounded several collaborators early the next year. Sun was the son of a traveling salesman, and moved from place to place as a young man. He received a scrappy education that he later diligently supplemented with night school and spent several years as an apprentice to a jeweler before opening his own store in the French Concession. But his sense of political involvement in the tortuous political struggles of the time was clearly sincere. In the Manchurian crisis of 1931, when he was just twenty, he joined the Shanghai Citizens Volunteer Corps to offer his services to his country. In 1936 he joined a war organization, the “One Heart League,” with the goal of “furthering national salvation activities.” And a year later, hearing of the Japanese assault on Chinese troops at the Marco Polo bridge outside Beijing, he sold his jewelry business to provide funds for yet another organization, the “Chinese Youths National Salvation Association.”

* * *

The passion to form or to join such groups ran strongly among the youth of China during the first part of this century. Many young people besides Sun were joining patriotic groups at this time, desperate for a way to express their anguish over the threat posed by Japan and other foreign powers to their homeland. Even the courtesans of Shanghai were caught up in the patriotic spirit of the times. In a recent study the historian Gail Hershatter describes how courtesans during the early republic dressed in trousers printed with the national flag; around 1919 courtesans formed their own “Courtesan National Salvation Corps,” and at the same time that Sun was forming his new organization, a group of courtesans was conducting its own a cappella singing contest to raise desperately needed money for refugee relief.3

Sun Yaxing’s patriotic activities had alerted Nationalist Juntong officers to his possible value as an underground agent. They decided to sponsor him, giving him some technical and ideological training, as well as knowledge of weapons and explosives. In the Shanghai fighting of late 1937, Sun prepared for future terrorist activities by hiding Mauser machine pistols, Browning automatics, and Mills hand grenades in the attic of his former business premises. After receiving instructions from Dai Li in person, Sun and various comrades, refugees, and acquaintances whom he trusted formed their own special assassination corps in Shanghai.

Sun Yaxing’s group overreached themselves in the summer of 1938, and were rounded up by the police of the foreign concessions. Following procedures that were now becoming standard, they were handed over by concession authorities to the Japanese- collaborator police, whose most feared headquarters was in the center of the Badlands, at 76 Jessfield Road. Juntong or other Nationalist agents who might keep silent for months under concession police questioning usually broke within a few days after being interrogated at Jessfield Road.

It is not surprising that Sun’s group was caught. The members were not tightly organized; some of the men had women in their rooms as they waited for their assignments; contacts between the members were made casually and without careful surveillance; and “walk-ins”—men and women who volunteered to help—were allowed to join in the operations, even when nothing at all was known of their background or political loyalties. On at least one occasion the group used a twelve-year-old boy as a courier. As Wakeman observes, “The squad of patriots grew overly confident, security grew lax, and one mistake led to another until half the original group, including Sun Yaxing himself, was in police custody.” He was later shot.

The experiences of Sun’s squad were a warning to other would-be assassins. As the war grew costlier and the targets of the Nationalist assassination squad grew more important—and hence better defended—Dai Li’s agents grew more skilled, and their procedures somewhat more professional. The smaller the assassination group, the less the risk of detection.

* * *

In his account of the assassin Nieh Cheng, Sima Qian described how Nieh was offered extra men and logistical support by his powerful sponsors, but turned them down cold. As Nieh put it: “If you try to use a lot of men, then there are bound to be differences of opinion on how best to proceed; if there are differences of opinion, then word of the undertaking will leak out; and if word leaks out, then the whole state of Han will be up in arms against you! What could be more dangerous?”4 In the largely subterranean war in the Badlands between the Nationalists and the Japanese collaborators, the most important person assassinated was the puppet foreign minister, Chen Lu, who was killed on February 19, 1939. Though in this case there was not just a lone killer as in the example of Nieh, the secrecy and the coolness of execution had some of the qualities that Sima Qian clearly admired.

Chen Lu, a fine scholar of classical Chinese and a career diplomat of distinction, with a law degree from the University of Paris, had served as China’s ambassador to Mexico and to France. Apart from Wang Jingwei, he was the most prominent Chinese figure to agree to serve with the collaborationist regime. Usually Chen worked under heavy guard in the puppet capital of Nanking, but he had kept the mansion he owned in Shanghai, and on a sudden whim in February decided to visit Shanghai secretly to see members of his family and celebrate the Chinese New Year.

Dai Li’s intelligence agents had infiltrated the ranks of Chen Lu’s bodyguards—the guards were Manchurians, who especially resented the Japanese occupation of their homeland—and one of the bodyguards tipped off the Juntong Shanghai Station about the planned trip. Wakeman describes the assassination squad’s weapons—Browning pistols concealed in a wooden picnic box—as well as their various journeys to Chen Lu’s home—by double-decker bus and rented car—and their disarming of Chen Lu’s night watchman:

Inside the house, where the table was laid for New Year’s dinner, Chen Lu and his wife were entertaining Mr. and Mrs. Luo Wen’gan in the drawing room. Chen Lu and Luo Wen’gan, the former minister to Denmark, reclined on a couch, while the two women sat in armchairs on either side. Suddenly a man walked in from the door at the back of the room, drew a pistol and fired three shots point-blank at Chen Lu. [Mrs. Chen] threw herself between the gunman and her husband, and the Luos rushed to the other door. They fumbled with the lock and threw it open, only to have Liu Geqing, who had been standing in the hall, slip by them and empty his pistol at the foreign minister, who was fatally struck with a shot to the temple.

As Chen Lu slid from the settee to the floor, Liu Geqing drew out a scroll he had prepared earlier in the hotel room and threw it over the traitor’s body. It read in large black characters: “Death to the Collaborators. Long Live Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek!” Another sheet, strewn on the sofa, read: “Resistance Will Result in Victory. Construction of the Country Will Succeed. Keep China’s Property Forever!” Both were signed by the “Chinese Iron and Blood Army.”

In this case, Liu Geqing confronted his victim face to face, and perhaps for an instant the kind of link between victim, killer, and sponsor that Sima Qian had sought to convey was established. But Wakeman shows in The Shanghai Badlands how the victims were often ordinary people attempting to live ordinary lives. Their tragedy was that they were employed by businesses tied to the collaborationist regime, particularly the Shanghai banks whose hapless clerks and accountants became the assassins’ targets.

Wakeman describes how these grim events grew naturally out of the struggle between the Nationalist regime in Chungking—which maintained branch banks in the foreign concession areas—and the collaborationist Wang Jingwei regime, which used other Shanghai banks to issue its own currency. The stakes were huge: which currency would prevail in eastern China. Pro-Japanese bank officials had been the targets of Nationalist assassination squads for some time, along with pro-Japanese newspaper publishers and judges. But in February and March 1941, the struggle took a new turn, as each side began to launch bomb attacks against the opposition’s banks and bank employees.

The reprisals by the collaborationist regime’s own assassination squads became ever more serious as the Nationalist-sponsored terror grew in scope. Wakeman describes how in late March 1941, puppet gunmen posing as policemen entered the company dormitory of one of the pro-Nationalist banks. The killers “flipped on the lights and began shooting at random into the beds” where bank employees were sleeping. Five men were killed where they lay, and six others “left comatose in blood-saturated blankets.” The same night at 3 AM, squads of puppet police and Japanese military police raided another Chungking regime bank compound in the Badlands; they roused 128 bank employees out of bed, and locked them up in the puppet police headquarters at 76 Jessfield Road.

The collaborationist regime announced that these 128 employees would be held as hostages: three of them would be killed each time a puppet regime bank employee was killed. Heedless of the warning, in April the Nationalist regime’s Juntong assassins hacked to death—in the presence of his family—a senior accountant of the puppet central reserve bank. Later the same day, puppet regime police took three senior accountants from the ranks of the 128 bank hostages and shot them. That evening, the remaining employees of Nationalist banks fled from their dormitories.

* * *

During the closing months of 1941, the violence in Shanghai grew ever fiercer and more indiscriminate. Wakeman simply lists the deadly episodes, an effective device, since the reader becomes more aware of victims and their ordinariness than the killers and their political goals. Among the dead were a tramway employee, a cotton-mill worker (he was pumping a flat tire on his bike at the time he was shot), ferry-boat passengers, and a movie-theater owner. The terrible cycle only ended after Pearl Harbor, when the Japanese occupied the foreign concession areas and thus were able to end the overlapping structures of law enforcement and political allegiances that had made the nightmare world of the Badlands possible in Shanghai.

Was the reign of terror justified? Did it make any sense at the time? Wakeman concentrates mainly on the events themselves, and not so much on their broader significance, but he offers two general conclusions. The first is that the violence had reached such a crescendo by late 1941 that the people of Shanghai were “numbed” and “psychologically devastated.” As a result, not only was the emerging civil society “shredded,” but the people of Shanghai found “compliance” with the Japanese occupiers a comparatively restful choice. The second, which he presents more cautiously, is that the harsh reprisals by the Japanese and puppet forces prompted the United States finally to follow the lead of the British in “abrogating commercial relations” with Japan. That, Wakeman suggests, was a crucial step on the road to Pearl Harbor.

I do not find either conclusion completely persuasive. Violence can end by numbing, but the savage efficiency of the Japanese authorities once they took control of the whole city was surely a more important factor in the city’s comparative calm after 1942. And the very pervasiveness of the violence unleashed on the city by the assassination squads caused the British and the Americans to take a dim view of both the Japanese collaborators and the Juntong sponsors of the killer squads.

It is a harsh and complicated story, and one wonders what Sima Qian would have thought of it. Would he still have accepted the moral arguments of the assassins’ sponsors? Would he have felt that the personality and the commitment of the killer can be discerned, even in the most random and apparently casual acts of violence? Would he have sung, one last time, Ching K’o’s great lament?

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

In his Historical Record Sima Qian observed that Ching K’o sang the stanza twice: the first time was in “the mournful pien-chih mode” and “tears streamed from the eyes of the company.” The second time was “to the mode with its martial air” and “this time the eyes of the men flashed with anger and their hair bristled beneath their caps.”5 Both responses are understandable; but having read Wakeman’s telling of this Chinese tale in its twentieth-century setting, we can see more clearly that for all the bravery of some of the assassins, the lament is often more deserved by the victims than it is by their killers.


  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. Reviewed in these pages April 20, 1995, pp. 17-20.
  3. Gail Hershatter, Dangerous Pleasures: Prostitution and Modernity in Twentieth-Century Shanghai (University of California Press, 1997), pp. 171, 172-174.
  4. Watson, Records, pp. 52-53.
  5. Watson, Records, pp. 62-63.
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History