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The Memory of an Assassin and Political Legitimacy in the Wang Jingwei Regime (1940–45)

When Nov 01, 2017
from 05:00 PM to 06:00 PM
Where Rooms 8 & 9
Contact Name
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China Research Seminar given by Yang Zhiyi, Frankfurt

This paper investigates the function of Wang Jingwei’s 汪精衛 (1873-1944) romantic image as a would-be assassin in constructing the legitimacy of his collaborationist Reorganized National Government (RNG). Wang rose to national prominence in 1910, after his failed plot to assassinate the Manchu Prince Regent. This act, originally inspired by anarchist revolutionary romanticism as well as China’s warrior tradition, was elevated to a new level of importance after the foundation of RNG. It was glorified not just to increase Wang’s personal charisma, but also to encourage expectations on unstated possibilities in his collaboration.

In particular, I examine a poetry exchange in Nanjing in 1942 among Wang’s followers, around a painting depicting the Warring States warrior Jing Ke’s 荊軻 departure to assassinate the King of Qin in 227BC, on the eve of the latter’s conquering the whole China with despotic violence. However, if Wang Jingwei was once a Jing Ke in 1919, in 1942 he was no longer a lone warrior, but the head of a regime. His eulogizing a regicidal assassin was thus a curious business, as political assassination challenges the due course of history and the rule of law. The cooption of an ancient assassin in a propagandist effort to boost a regime’s legitimacy requires ideological gymnastics, which was made possible by the broad spectrum of reactions to the Jing Ke story through Chinese literary history, especially concerning his relation to power. An examination of the literary tradition shows that Jing’s story had been appropriated to serve various political agendas. For RNG poets, revoking the story also implicitly compared Japan to Qin, implying their emotional resistance. And yet, despite the cruelty of Qin’s conquest, it unified China and established a bureaucratic state, which was the foundation of political institutions for the next two millennia. The historical allusion therefore implies a pessimistic outlook on China’s resistance, the permeation of the official Pan-Asianism discourse to their private imagination, and a romantic projection of their historical destiny. Their poetry constructed a community based on personal loyalty, memory, and feelings, which compensated the Wang regime’s deficiency in institutional or legal legitimacy.

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