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1st November, 2017

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

Presenter: Professor Zhiyi Yang, Professor of Sinology, Goethe University of Frankfurt

In late February, 1942, men of letters in occupied China became aware of a collection of curious poems published in the magazine Accord (《同声》), a prestigious monthly dedicated to the research and writing of classical Chinese literature. Published by the much-debated political figure Wang Jingwei and his followers, the poems drew comparisons between Wang and the ancient hero-assassin Jing Ke, a comparison that Wang wished to use to strengthen his political legitimacy. In her lecture, Professor Yang delved into the content and historical context of these poems, in the process painting a more nuanced picture of a man that has in the past been vilified as the most duplicitous of traitors.

Wang Jingwei first rose to fame in 1910 after his failed attempt to assassinate the regent to the imperial throne, an attempt likened in the Accord poems to Jing Ke’s attempt on the life of the first emperor of Qin. The poems also implicitly compare Japan to Qin, which, according to Professor Yang, served to pre-emptively refute the institutional memory of the Reorganized National Government for future generations. In the end, Professor Yang raised a number of questions: might Wang have believed that winning over the hearts and minds of the Japanese was China’s greatest chance for victory over them? Could Wang have been planning to eventually stab Japan in the back? None of these possibilities can be ruled out, and therefore Wang Jingwei and his motives might not have been as simple as they are often portrayed.

During the discussion section, many questions related to perceptions of Wang outside of China, for example in Taiwan and Japan. As Professor Yang explained, while Wang is still viewed as a traitor in mainland China, there have been some attempts to portray him more objectively, though these studies purposefully avoid politically sensitive areas. In Taiwan, meanwhile, a pivot towards Taiwanese literature means that Wang no longer receives as much focus there. Other questions centered on how Wang acquired his excellent oratory skills, the significance of his preference for white clothing, as well as the possible whereabouts of the mysterious painting “Bidding Farewell at the River Yi”, upon which the colophorm that inspired the above poetic exchange first appeared.

Blogpost by Michelle  Eastman