Chiang Kai-shek Meets Tu Yueh-sheng

This note picks up from my last post on the sources and claims of Sterling Seagrave’s 1985 book, The Soong Dynasty (SD).

SD enjoyed a fourteen-week run on the New York Times best-seller list and launched Seagrave’s career as a chronicler of Asian history. His books since then have  generally met with success, and in the case of SD, have even had some influence on more scholarly works. This is unfortunate, because SD is one of the least reliable books on history I have ever read.

Tu Yueh-sheng, Chiang Kai-shek, and the Soongs

One of the main themes of Seagrave’s book is the role of Tu Yueh-sheng, leader of Shanghai’s Green Gang, in the lives and fortunes of the famous Soong family, and in the career of Chiang Kai-shek, perhaps the most prominent politician and military leader of pre-Communist China.

According to Seagrave, Chiang Kai-shek’s relationship with Tu Yueh-sheng can be traced back to the the beginning of China’s Republican era (1911). Through this relationship, Chiang, fronting for the Green Gang, helped Tu over the Nationalist Party (the KMT), the ruling party of China from 1927 to 1949.  As Seagrave says:

Chiang’s direct connection with the notorious Shanghai Green Gang after the winter of 1926-27 has been known for many years, but there has been only a vague understanding that those links went back much earlier, and of how they affected his career. It is now possible for the first time to see the “Divine Skein” linking them all the way back to his youth, before 1910, and the manner in which the Green Gang leaders used Chiang decisively (and were used by him) to snatch the revolution from the hands of Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s coalition. (12)

In fact, Seagrave’s evidence for an earlier alliance between Chiang and Tu is non-existent, based on a single spurious citation.

A non-existent reference

Seagrave’s most specific claim for an early acquaintance between Chiang and Tu is given on page 152 of the Soong Dynasty:

Big-eared Tu enjoyed visiting the famous Blue Villa and cruising the other Green Gang brothels in the Blue Chamber District with a young, ill-tempered bravo by the name of Chiang Kai-shek.

My last post on Seagrave’s book attempted to find a source, any source, for the existence of a Shanghai brothel called the Blue Villa, staffed, according to Seagrave, by 121 prostitutes (SD 158).  As it turned, there was indeed a book which mentioned such a place: a 1977 novel by Alain Robbe-Grillet called Topology of a Phantom City.

The fictional provenance of this detail cannot inspire confidence in the reliability of Seagrave’s claims, but for the general fact of an early acquaintance between Chiang and Tu, Seagrave’s endnote gives what seems to be a non-fictional source: “The intimate brothel relationship between Tu and Chiang at this early stage is noted by Murphey, pp. 7-9.”

This is a reference to Rhoads Murphey’s 1953 book Shanghai: Key to Modern China.  Unfortunately, this reference is as fictional as the Blue Villa itself. Pages 7-9 of Murphey do not mention Tu or Chiang.  In fact Tu Yueh-sheng is not mentioned once in Murphey’s book. Chiang is mentioned, once, but it is a quote on Shanghai’s status in the 1943, with no relevance to the brothels of early 20th century China (Murphey, 25).

The spurious nature of Seagrave’s citation was first noted by C. Martin Wilbur, an important scholar of China’s Republican era, in a review of Seagrave’s book, which Wilbur titled “Fabricating History.” 1

Wilbur’s review examines only the first 200 pages of Seagrave’s book, compiling a long list of errors, exaggerations, “flourishes” and “embellishments” and several claims that Wilbur bluntly calls fabrications.

Discovering that Murphey’s book had nothing on Tu and Chiang at the Blue Villa, Wilbur went through some of Seagrave’s other materials and decided that this claim may have been based on a passage in Brian Crozier’s biography of Chiang, The Man Who Lost China.  This passage does indeed describe Chiang paying regular visits to the brothel district of Shanghai.  There is a major discrepancy with Seagrave’s claim, however; according to Crozier, Chiang’s companion in his brothel excursions is not Tu Yueh-sheng, but Ch’en Ch’i-mei (陳其美).

Ch’en was an important figure in the years immediately before and after the revolution of 1911.  He was also an important figure in Chiang Kai-shek’s life, supposedly responsible for introducing Chiang to Sun Yat-sen. The passage Wilbur found in Crozier reads:

“Chiang’s friend Ch’en Ch’i-mei was his mentor in other things besides revolution. Whenever he frequented the houses of prostitution, Chiang was with him” (44).

In fact, a second passage from Crozier is even closer to Seagrave:

His revolutionary mentor, General Ch’en Ch’i-mei, had introduced him to the “blue chamber” district, with its brothels for all purses. (58)

Here we encounter the “Blue Chamber district” Seagrave mentions. These are the only references to Chiang visiting brothels with a named person that I have found in any of the books Seagrave lists in his bibliography.

But why cite Murphey for Crozier? It is of course possible for Seagrave to mistakenly reference book A for information derived from book B. In fact, it is frequent; there are dozens of examples of this in SD.  But for Seagrave, based on Crozier’s book, to confound Ch’en Ch’i-mei with Tu Yueh-sheng is not possible.  So as Wilbur asks, “Why the switch of names? Could it be because Ch’en died in 1916, and so cannot fit the conspiracy theory?” (132)

This spurious reference is the only one in Seagrave’s entire book claiming to document a tie between Chiang and Tu predating 1927.  Perhaps it is appropriate, then, that Seagrave places their carousing in Robbe-Grillet’s Blue Villa, fictional icing on top of historical falsehood, and a strong justification for the title of Wilbur’s review.

Tu and Chiang’s First Meeting: Huang Chin-jung speaks

So when did Chiang and Tu first meet?  One possible answer is in Brian Martin’s 1996 book, The Shanghai Green Gang: Politics and Organized Crime, 1919-1937.  Martin cites no less a source than Huang Chin-jung (Huang Jinrong), known to Seagrave’s readers as Pock-marked Huang. The meeting took place following the defeat of the warlord forces in Shanghai in 1927. Martin claims that:

According to Huang Jinrong’s own account, as told to a senior Chinese detective in the French Concession police in 1939, he and Du Yuesheng [Tu Yueh-sheng] personally met Jiang’s [Chiang’s] airplane at Longhua Airfield [in Shanghai] on March 26, where he introduced Jiang to Du. (99)

Despite Martin’s enthusiasm, the source is not Huang himself, but a reminiscent account from the detective, Xue Gengxin (薛畊莘), which was published in a 1980s compilation.2 While it still might not be the petrified truth, at least it really appears in a book.

  1. C. Martin Wilbur, “Fabricating History,” Issues and Studies 22.5 (1986): 129–148.
  2. Jiu Shanghai de banghui 舊上海的幫會, 1986, pp. 87-107
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2 Responses to Chiang Kai-shek Meets Tu Yueh-sheng

  1. larry says:

    So, Professor Robert, Are there more reliable books on Chinese history that you would recommend?

    • Robert says:

      Hey Larry! Good to hear from you, hope all goes well with you guys. If you are interested in the period and people covered in Soong Dynasty I suggest the following:

      For Chiang Kai-shek:
      Taylor, Jay. The Generalissimo : Chiang Kai-shek and the struggle for modern China. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011.

      For Madame Chiang Kai-shek, AKA Soong Mayling:
      Tyson-Li, Laura. Madame Chiang Kai-Shek : China’s eternal first lady. 1st ed. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006.

      For an overview of Tu Yueh-sheng (Du Yuesheng) and the Green Gang:
      Martin, Brian G. The Shanghai Green Gang: politics and organized crime, 1919-1937. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

      If you only have time to read one, pick Taylor. It is not just a biography of Chiang, but also accurately covers most of the history that Seagrave’s book mangles, and has much new information, scrupulously sourced.

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