Hidden History

The Prince and the Rebel

A thwarted assassination that almost changed the course of Chinese history – Jeremiah Jenne

Beijing. Early spring, 1910. The early hours of morning. Two young men are furtively digging a hole in the hard dirt beside a small stone bridge in the hutong just north of Houhai. Most other residents are asleep. March nights in Beijing are usually cold, and most people sleep with the windows shut. But there are ears other than human. The clanging of shovels and scratching of earth draws the attention of the neighborhood dogs, whose barking threatens the men with discovery. They run off with the job half-finished.

The next night, they return and complete their excavation. They carefully lower an iron cask into the hole, covering it with dirt to conceal it. That is when they discover that they are missing a crucial item. Their mistake means another delay. After a visit to a local hardware store the next day, the two young men are back the following evening. Only now there is a human witness to their nocturnal activities.

Hidden History

The Peking Aesthetes

An alienated community of foreigners in interwar Peking – Jeremiah Jenne

In 1935, American scholar George N. Kates settled into a courtyard home in a Peking hutong just north of the Forbidden City.  “No electric light, no wooden floors, no heating apparatus except several cast iron stoves, and no plumbing did I ever install,” he wrote in his memoir The Years That Were Fat: Peking, 1933-1940, which Kates published in 1952 (and which later inspired the title of Chan Koonchung’s sci-fi novel The Fat Years). Long before anyone had coined the term “Hutong Hipster,” Kates and a group of like-minded cultural enthusiasts – dubbed the Peking Aesthetes – were learning Chinese, raising crickets, studying painting from elderly neighbors, and shunning the distractions of the city’s international community. Interwar Peking was a city divided along lines that would not be unfamiliar to foreign residents of Peking almost a century later.

Hidden History

How Japan Tried to Save Thousands of Jews from the Holocaust

The plan for a Jewish settlement in Japanese-occupied China – Kevin McGeary

A number of events have happened in the last few years to suggest that we might be returning to the 1930s, the last great period of darkness in Western political history. Yet a little-known tale from World War II involves a dispute between Japan and Germany, two of the 20th century’s biggest partners in war crime. Japan’s campaign to populate Manchuria with Jewish refugees, many of whom were fleeing the Nazis, was marketed as a humanitarian project, but many of the officials behind it would be executed as war criminals after Japan’s 1945 surrender. Its backstory is even more bizarre than the premise suggests.

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

The Refugee Emperor

How the Yongli Emperor was strangled in Kunming by a turncoat general – Jeremiah Jenne

Even researching a column titled Hidden History, this was getting to be a bit much.

Our impromptu guide in Kunming, capital of China’s mountainous southwest province of Yunnan, led us past a police guard post, into an underground garage, up three flights of stairs, through a pediatric hospital, and then out the lobby of what looked like the emergency room. “Turn left; it’s right there.”

And there it was: A stone tablet set slightly back in a small urban park, complete with exercise equipment and a signboard reminding us to “Learn from Lei Feng.” Inscribed on the stone in slightly faded red letters: “The site where Emperor Yongli of the Ming (1623-1668) gave his life for his country.” It was on this spot in 1661 that the last claimant to the throne of the Ming Dynasty was strangled to death by his captor, Wu Sangui (1612-1678).