History's verdict stays the same

Linda Yeung

THE exploits of 'Big-Eared Du', the nickname for Du Yuesheng, were rarely detailed in China before the early 80s. Even history books written earlier only carried partial accounts of his life due to his anti-communist stance. Now researchers working on modern Chinese history can readily find books on Du in mainland bookstores after biographies of the man, many published in Taiwan and Hong Kong, were allowed on to the Chinese market. Several mainland publishers have also come up with books giving full accounts of Du's life over the past decade and the gangster has become a well-researched figure, frequently mentioned in articles by academics studying modern Chinese history.

But despite the upsurge in interest, the gang leader's reputation has not improved. Accounts state that Du helped purge the Communists in pre-war China. In a crackdown on communist supporters among labourers in 1927, Chiang's Kai-shek's force enlisted the help of Green Gang members in killing over 100 labourers. Du himself reportedly tricked a top unionist into going to his home in Shanghai, then had him tied up and driven to the countryside where he was murdered. The successful purge paved the way for Du's later rise to prominence in the Nationalist government. While Du became a prominent businessman with top positions in several trade associations in Shanghai, he also controlled most brothels and the supply of opium in the city's French Concession.

In 1936, to consolidate his position in the Green Gang, Du falsely accused his key rival of murdering a nightclub manager, eventually causing his arrest and imprisonment. During the early Sino-Japanese war, the Green Gang continued to be instrumental in tracking down members of the Communist Party on behalf of the Nationalists. Unsurprisingly, Du was seen as a taboo figure in the early days of the Communist regime, although recent works have covered his involvement in the resistance movement against the Japanese. Yang Tianshi, a researcher at the Beijing-based China Academy of Social Sciences, said publications on Du released since the 80s no longer ignored this once-neglected element of his life.

But as a spokesman for the Wen Wei Pao Publishing House in Shanghai adds: 'People mostly see him as a wicked person. You can't change history.'