SPYMASTER: Dai Li and the Chinese Secret Service by Frederick Wakeman

Spymaster: Dai Li and the Chinese Secret Service by Frederic Wakeman (2003, University of California Press)


Spymaster: Dai Li and the Chinese Secret Service by Frederic Wakeman, is the only book I have been able to find on the reclusive man who served as General Chiang Kai-shek’s security chief. General Dai Li was a reclusive man who was fiercely loyal to the generalissimo and did every thing he could to see the him stay in power. The book is a scholarly work which is written with a ton of references and foot notes. Unfortunately, it doesn’t give us much of a glimpse of the human side of Dai Li.

Dai Li rose to prominence in with General Chiang after the failure of the 1911 Chinese revolution. The Manchu dynasty finally abdicated after the country was being ripped apart by civil war. The nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) party led by Dr. Sun Yat-sen led the first election in Chinese history, only to watch everything collapse a few years later when regional war lords declared sovereignty. In the 1920’s, Chiang Kai-shek, who had been chancellor at the nationalist’s Whampoa Military Academy assumed control of the KMT and led it until the day he died. China was tossed around by communist revolutions and regional war lords in the 1920’s. In the 1930’s it was encroached upon by Japanese imperialists. The generalissimo Chiang dealt with disunity in China by a northern campaign to bring the regional war lords under control He also pursued a scorched earth policy against the communists. Chaing tolerated the Japanese aggression until 1937 when China was officially at war with Japan. During WW2, the United States assisted the nationalists and communists against the Japanese. After the war, the communists were able to seize control of all of mainland China, pushing the nationalists off to a few coastal islands where they remain today.

Dai Lee was another rural young man on the make when he finally joined up with General Chiang’s entourage. His family owned some land, but Dai’s father had squandered it away. Bored with his education as a school teacher and arranged marriage, he traveled to the big town looking for opportunities. He found it by supplying the generalissimo with daily reports on his own. Eventually, General Chiang noticed the bright young man in the background and appointed him to security chief. Dai Li became so powerful he was known as Chiang Kai-sheck’s “Himmler”. Dai Li died in a mysterious air plane crash in 1946.

This is a very scholarly book. The author takes great length to phonetically spell out chinese names and terms into English. Plus, he has no compunction at all in publishing the chinese characters for the same whenever necessary. Since so much of the primary sources are available only in Chinese, it’s understandable. Given the author was a professor of Chinese history at UCLA, the reader expects it. However, there is no attempt to explain many of the key historical incidents in the book. When the author talks about the hundred days reform of the Guangxu Emperor, he assumes you know what he’s talking about. No footnote or glossary to explain. Ditto for the Long March and the Marco Polo Bridge Incident of 1937. Best to read this book with Wikipedia up unless you have a good grasp of modern Chinese history.

And thorough the mysterious life of Dai Li it emerges just how different traditional china is from traditional America. For instance, early in Dai Li’s career, the joins a secret society devoted to the generalissimo. Called the Society for Vigorous Practice, General Chiang chairs its first gathering clad in a blue scholar’s robe and assigns essay topics. At further meetings he appears in the same garb and grades papers. Huh? One could hardly imagine General Dwight D Eisenhower conducting a bible class dressed as a school master. But in Chinese society,the role of the Confucian scholar was very honored and respected. There is no equivalent in the west.

Wakeman shows how Dai Li was ruthless in his persecution of the generalissimo’s enemies. Dai Li maintained his own network of secret prisons and interrogation centers. No one know how many people he killed during his extermination campaign against political rivals. At the same time, Dai Li’s agents penetrated the network of spies and saboteurs the invading Japanese army utilized in its occupation of China. There’s even a reproduction of the joint of the terms of the Sino-American Special Technical Cooperation Agreement with the government of China in 1943.

But the Dai Li which emerges from the book is a hidden man. No matter how much the author quotes the people who knew him, he never seems to come alive. This was as how Dai Li would have prefered it. He kept innumerable houses and cars, never sleeping in the same location whenever possible. He was the man who infiltrated the Japanese army and Chinese communist party with his agents. But in the end of the book, he remains an enigma.

About Timothy L Mayer

Timothy Mayer has written 313 post in this blog.

I'm a full-time ghost writer, business owner, expert on spy fiction, martial artist, tax payer and self-appointed expert on obscure movies. Available for lectures. Donations appreciated

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