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Republican Personality Cults in Wartime China: Contradistinction and Collaboration

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 June 2015

Jeremy E. Taylor*
School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham (UK)


This paper explores the development of the Wang Jingwei personality cult during the Japanese occupation of China (1937–1945). It examines how the collaborationist Chinese state led by Wang sought to distinguish its figurehead from the person he had replaced, Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek. Drawing on visual, archival, and published sources, it traces the development of the Wang cult from the early years of the war, and argues that the unusual context in which the cult evolved ultimately undermined its coherence. The case of Wang Jingwei illustrates how the Chinese case more broadly can enhance our understandings of personality cults that develop under occupation. To this end, I compare the Wang regime with various European “collaborationist” governments that sought to promote their leaders in similar ways.

Research Article
Copyright © Society for the Comparative Study of Society and History 2015 

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20 This included new and hastily edited collections of Chiang's wartime admonitions, but also republications of much earlier works by or about Chiang. In 1939, for instance, forty thousand copies of Lingxiu zuijin yanlunji (A collection of speeches by the leader) were produced by the PDMAC, along with other booklets with didactic titles such as Fucong lingxiu (Follow the leader). Details are in PDMAC, Yinian lai yiban xuanchuanpin suokan (Collection of ordinary propaganda publications produced over the last year) (n.p.: PDMAC, ca. 1939), 10.

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30 Se yanjing (Colored spectacles) (Beijing: Xinminhui, 1939). Hoover Institution Archives, David Nelson Rowe Papers, 78064, box 10.

31 Wu guo de jiushi maiguonu. Minzhong tongku kewang heping: Cushi dang fu fanxing, (Those who harm the nation are the traitorous slaves. The people are suffering and thirst after peace: [we] urge the party to seriously reflect [on the matter]) (n.p., ca. 1939), propaganda leaflet, British Museum, 2006, 0117, 23.

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33 On this, see Boyle, China and Japan at War, 286–87.

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39 On the day the RNG was proclaimed, Lin Bosheng's Zhonghua Ribao carried advertisements for a brand of eye drops which featured a lithograph image of Wang and read, “The eye drops of the great and famous” (weiren yu mingshi yanyao).

40 Barrett, “Wang Jingwei Regime.”

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43 For an example of such lists published in Chongqing, see Di'erqi kangzhan biaoyu (Slogans for the second phase of the War of Resistance) (Chongqing: Zhongguo guomindang zhixing weiyuanhui xuanchuanbu, 1939).

44 “Wang zhuxi yuzhao zeng yu Chaoxian ge qiaoxiao” (Portraits of Chairman Wang given to overseas Chinese schools in Korea), Xing Ya yuebao (Revive Asia monthly) 1, 1 (1942): 34.

45 Chinese in the occupied Philippines, for instance, were asked by the Japanese to stomp on portraits of Chiang Kai-shek while shouting, “Wang Jingwei wan sui” (Long live Wang Jingwei). George Henry Weightman, “The Philippine Chinese: A Cultural History of a Marginal Trading Community,” PhD diss., Department of Sociology, Cornell University, 1960, 99.

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52 This is based on my examination of the extensive photographic record produced by the RNG state, held by Academia Historica in Taipei, which is cited throughout this paper. These images provide valuable insight into ways in which the RNG pictorially represented itself. Unfortunately, reproduction of them is not allowed.

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57 “Wang Zhaoming jieshou qingxiang gongzuo renyuan zhuzeng tongxiang” (Wang Jingwei accepts a bronze bust made by a rural pacification worker), undated photo, Wang Zhaoming shiliao, Academia Historica, Taipei, 118-030400-0001-013.

58 Note from Wang Jingwei to Li Shiqun, 1 Mar. 1943, Wang Zhaoming shiliao, Academia Historica, Taipei, 118-010100-0047-070.

59 “Wang ni Jingwei ye pa yi chou” (Turncoat Wang fears his own stinking legacy), Su xun (Suzhou news) 478 (1943): 9.

60 Bunker, Peace Conspiracy, 231.

61 Ibid.

62 Nicholas Atkin, Pétain (London: Longman, 1998), 110.

63 Jiang Hao, “KMT Reorganization.”

64 von der Goltz, Anna and Gildea, Robert, “Flawed Saviours: The Myths of Hindenburg and Pétain,European History Quarterly 39, 3 (2009): 439–64CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 440.

65 American reports from the summer of 1939 suggest that even at this early stage the figure of Sun was central to the promotion of Wang. See Doris Rubens, “Japanese Propaganda Efforts in Shanghai,” China Weekly Review, 12 Aug. 1939.

66 “Xuanchuan yaodian di liushi'er hao” (Main points on propaganda, number 62), 28 Mar. 1942, Shanghai Municipal Archives, R18-1-54.

67 It appears that the figure of Sun was so sacred that even when such comparisons were made they were distanced. In this instance, the author suggests “in the eyes of most Japanese people.” Chen Ming, “Wang zhuxi fendou shi” (A history of Chairman Wang's struggle), Zhongguo manhua (Chinese cartoons) 1 (1942): 29.

68 Andrew Cheung is one of the few scholars who has examined the importance of Sun in this cult in detail; “Slogans, Symbols, and Legitimacy.”

69 “Wang Xiansheng wei guofu zhuxi” (Mr. Wang is the chairman of the National Government), Xin Dongfang zazhi 2 (Apr. 1940): 7–8.

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76 Guofu huandu di'er nian guomin zhengfu shizheng gaikuang (The current state of affairs in the second year following the return of the National Government) (Nanjing: Xuanchuanbu, 1942).

77 An example is Rana Mitter, “Contention and Redemption: Ideologies of National Salvation in Republican China,Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions 3, 3 (2002): 4474Google Scholar.

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80 Leese, Mao Cult, 11.

81 Mu, Ling, “Wang Jingwei zhuyi yu xin guomin yundong” (Wang Jingwei-ism and the New Citizens Movement), in Jinyuan, Zhu, ed., Wang Jingwei guomin zhengfu qingxiang yundong (The rural pacification movement of the Wang Jingwei National Government) (Shanghai: Xinhua shudian, 1985), 381–83Google Scholar. The article first appeared in April 1942.

82 Wang Jingwei has been absent from the academic literature on Mao badges in 1960s–1970s China. That the RNG used such “cult products” in the mid-1940s may indicate that debates over the origins of the Mao badge should be revisited.

83 “In many of the advanced countries around the world,” read instructions from the ministry, “almost every single person wears an image of their leader out of respect. Why is it that even in this minor issue we are unable to keep up?” 6 June 1943, Shanghai Municipal Archives, R48-H112.

84 Wang Kewen, “Wang Jingwei zuihou zhi xinqing” (Wang Jingwei's last sentiments), Dangdai (Contemporary) 155 (July 2000): 50.

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88 Leese, Mao Cult, 11.

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90 “Guofu yixiang ji zhuxi xiaoxiang zhizuo shenqing shencha ban fa” (Regulations on the request for the reproduction of portraits of Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek), 11 Dec. 1943, Nationalist Party Archives, Taipei, 5.3/221.9.

91 Rees, E. A., “Leader Cults: Varieties, Preconditions and Functions,” in Aporm, Balázs, Behrends, J. C., Jones, P., and Rees, E. A., eds., The Leader Cult in Communist Dictatorships: Stalin and the Eastern Bloc (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 45Google Scholar.

92 Tikhomirov, Alexey, “Symbols of Power in Rituals of Violence: The Personality Cult and Iconoclasm on the Soviet Empire's Periphery (East Germany, 1945–61),Friedlander, Jacqueline, trans., Kritika 13 1 (2012): 4788CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

93 Ironically, and as Wang Ke-wen has pointed out, contradistinction was also at play in this process, for “destroying Wang's place in history was necessary to the establishment of Jiang [Chiang Kai-shek] as the legitimate, and only, heir to Sun Yat-sen….” Wang Ke-wen, “Irreversible Verdict?,” 59.

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