Hidden History

Republican China’s Most Mysterious Man

An assassin who met a suspicious end – Kevin McGeary

The first half of the 20th century had many characters – T.E. Lawrence springs to mind – who excelled as both men of thought and men of action, living lives that dwarf any author’s imagination. As Orson Welles ad-libbed in The Third Man, there is something about living through the kind of times nobody wants to live through that brings out greatness.

Another such man was Dai Li 戴笠. A genius of military intelligence, Dai (also known as Dai Yunong 戴雨農) was China’s most accomplished assassin during the War of Resistance against Japan. As well as helping Chiang Kai-shek claim the scalps of high-profile enemies and defectors, he also bedded some of the most glamorous women of his day.

After Dai’s death in a plane crash on March 17, 1946, Chiang Kai-shek is known to have rallied his troops by insisting, “Dai Li never died.” His death was indeed mysterious and conveniently timed for those who might have wanted him dead. Several years ago, on the anniversary of his “disappearance,” Xinhua went over the whole story and the various conspiracy theories around the plane crash. However, none are as bizarre as the official history.

Hidden History

China’s Most Played Piece of Music

A funeral dirge with a red history – Kevin McGeary

Music that wears its politics on its sleeve is destined to swing violently in and out of fashion. The fado, Portugal’s most famous musical form, is now tainted by its association with fascism. Richard Wagner – who in his lifetime was given his own opera house – has long suffered the stigma of his association with the Nazi Party, which was founded 37 years after his death. China’s “red songs,” works that show support for the Chinese Communist Party and its causes, appeared to be making a comeback in 2011 due to a campaign by charismatic Chongqing official Bo Xilai. A few years earlier, an American going by the stage name of Hong Laowai became a much-loved online celebrity in the People’s Republic for his renditions of patriotic Mao-era songs. In neither case was a movement sparked.

Though writing music is often an attempt at achieving immortality, even the most popular music can die with the beliefs that inspired it. Songs that were staples in the 1960s, such as ‘The East is Red,’ are now seldom heard outside period dramas due to their toxic associations. But one such song that has endured in China is the funeral dirge (āiyuè 哀乐), composed in 1945 by then-25-year-old Luo Lang.

Q&A

Gods of China Past and Present

Kevin McGeary talks to Xueting Christine Ni about Chinese deities

What drew you to the topic of Chinese deities? How are they unique compared to other cultures?

There are very few books in English on the subject that are accessible and at the same time provide sufficient depth. It tends to be either academic research or glib guides that merely skim the surface. Chinese spirituality is one of the best facets through which Western readers can understand China’s society. Its observation and practice have completely integrated with China’s social customs and everyday life, and are also very much linked to broader economic and political developments in history.  Chinese gods have evolved through centuries, from multiple belief systems, some indigenous like Confucian philosophy and Daoism, others foreign, such as Buddhism and even Persian religions. Not to mention the 56 officially-recognized ethnic groups in this vast country, each with their own languages, cultures and beliefs. This process is only really possible in a climate unique to China, and is one of the reasons why Chinese spirituality is so diverse. Whilst there are many unique elements, it’s by no means alien to anyone on the outside, and I do think that letting people in on this subject is a key for better understanding.

Review

The Invisible Valley

Kevin McGeary reviews The Invisible Valley by Su Wei, translated by Austin Woerner

In a 1983 lecture at the National Word Festival in Canberra, fantasy author Alan Garner explained the importance of childhood in making someone a writer1. He recalled his own early years in England during World War II, living life on a mythic plane of absolute good against absolute evil, with survival feeling like a daily struggle. Garner claimed that this seeped into the psyches of his generation and subsequently, its writers’ work, which was profound where the literature of later generations, he argued, was trivial and effete by comparison.

At the Macao Literary Festival in 2018, translator Austin Woerner – whom I first met at a literary translation boot camp in Huangshan in 2014 – explained that his early ambition was to be a novelist, but his comfortable, suburban, American upbringing was not great fodder. Fortunately, for lovers of genre-bending, constantly surprising, and occasionally-hilarious fiction, when studying Chinese at Yale, he met Professor Su Wei.