The tragic lives of a national hero turned traitor and the wife who stayed loyal

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 March, 2010, 12:00am

The lives of Wang Jingwei and his wife are the stuff of Shakespearean tragedy.

Wang was born in May 1883 in Panyu , Guangdong province, one of nine children; his parents died when he was 14 and 15. He finished first in the province's exams for the imperial civil service, and the Qing government sent him to study at Tokyo's University of Politics and Law.

In 1905, he joined the Tong Meng Hui, the party of Sun Yat-sen, and edited a revolutionary newspaper. He became an ardent supporter of Sun and his revolution and followed him in his travels in Southeast Asia.

Wang became famous as an excellent public speaker and supporter of Chinese nationalism. He advocated a republic and the end of the monarchy.

In March 1910, he went to Beijing to assassinate the regent. The plot was discovered, and he was arrested and sentenced to life in prison. He wrote his will.

After the success of the Wuchang revolution in 1911, Wang was released from prison and became a national hero. He became a close adviser to Sun and also studied in France. In 1921, he became the head of the education department of Guangdong, an adviser to the government and a member of the Senate. Wang lived an ascetic life; he did not drink or smoke or keep mistresses, unlike many of his fellow leaders.

At the founding congress of the Kuomintang, he was elected to the central committee, and put in charge of propaganda. As Sun's health failed, he and Chiang Kai-shek were the top contenders to succeed him.

Photographs of them together catch the stark contrast - Wang, well dressed, intellectual, polyglot and sophisticated; Chiang, the rough soldier who spoke Mandarin with a thick Zhejiang accent and had little understanding or appreciation of the outside world.

But, after Sun's death in March 1925, it was military might that counted most, and Chiang took power. Over the next 10 years, Wang led several attempts to overthrow Chiang but lacked the military muscle. He spent a lot of time abroad and met Adolf Hitler in Germany.

In November 1935, when Wang was premier, he was seriously wounded in an assassination attempt. After the outbreak of the Japanese war in July 1937, he was vice-chairman of the Kuomintang and went with Chiang to his new capital in Chongqing .

Wang told meetings that Western imperialism was a greater danger to China than Japan and that China needed to negotiate a settlement with Japan to resist the Western powers.

In December 1938, he made a fateful decision, escaping secretly to Hanoi, where he made contact with Japan. Agents sent by Chiang tried to assassinate him. In March 1940, the Government of National Salvation was set up in Nanjing , with the same name and flag as that of the one in Chongqing, with Wang as president.

But, like Vidkun Quisling in Norway, he discovered he had little power - that rested with the Japanese military. Chinese people transferred to him the hatred they felt for the cruel, brutal Japanese. The wartime Norwegian president's name has become a word for 'traitor' in the English language. So also is Wang remembered today as the shame of the Chinese nation.

In March 1944, Wang went to Japan for treatment of the wound he had suffered in the assassination attempt in 1939. He died in a hospital in Nagoya on November 10, 1944.

His wife, Chen Bijun, was born in 1891, the daughter of a wealthy overseas Chinese who met Wang in Penang, Malaysia, and fell in love with his wit, talent and idealism. She spurned the marriage arranged by her family with the son of an overseas Chinese tycoon and followed Wang on his adventures.

After Wang had been sentenced in 1910, someone challenged her to use her British passport to help him. She took it out of her pocket and tore it up, as an expression of her loyalty to Wang and China. 'The high walls of the prison prevent us from seeing each other, but I feel that our love for each other can fly over the walls,' she wrote to him.

They married in 1912. She followed him faithfully for the next 32 years, in China and abroad, through good times and bad. She never lost her faith in him. In 1944, she went with her husband to Japan, where the government provided the best hospital and doctors available. She did not utter one word of thanks; she regarded the Japanese with dread.

Arrested after the end of the war, she strongly defended her husband at her trial in Nanjing in April 1946. 'The invasion by the Japanese bandits, the loss of national territory and the sufferings of the people - were these the responsibility of Wang Jingwei or Chiang Kai-shek? The territory under the Nanjing government [of Wang] was under the control of the Japanese military and not land given by him. On the contrary, he wrested back powers from the enemy. He advocated peace and the recovery of lost territory. This was not a crime but an achievement.'

She told the court that Wang was a patriot who loved China and its people and had acted because he believed that the sacrifices from fighting Japan would be too heavy and that a peaceful solution was better.

The judges turned a deaf ear and sentenced her to life imprisonment. 'I have the courage to face death but not the patience to stay in prison. Please sentence me to death,' she said.

In 1949, Chiang left her in prison on the mainland. In 1952, she was visited there by Song Qingling , the widow of Sun Yat-sen. The government decided that if she wrote a letter recognising her husband's crimes, she could be released. She refused - and maintained this view until her death in prison on June 17, 1959, at the age of 68.

Some people consider her a model of a Chinese wife, loyal to her husband through thick and thin and defending his reputation when everyone around her had turned against him.

In one lifetime, Wang was a brilliant student, eloquent revolutionary and political leader - and national traitor. If the assassination attempt in 1935 had succeeded, he would be remembered as a national hero. But who defends him now?