The Making of a “Heroine”: Huang Bamei and the Politics of Wartime History in Postwar Taiwan, 1945–1982

Written by Weiting Guo.

In this article, I examine the life and images of Huang Bamei 黃八妹 (1906–82)—a female bandit, guerrilla leader, and women’s organization coordinator during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–45) and the second phase of Chinese Civil War (1945–58).

Born to a poor peasant family near Shanghai, Huang Bamei was known for her active role in piracy, smuggling, and banditry. She had become the leader of a local gang that had frequently raided the coastal areas of Jiangsu and Zhejiang. She was once captured by the police and was fortunate to escape execution. The outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War gave her an opportunity to extend her influence as the Nationalist military recruited bandits, secret societies, and local armed groups. Although her troops were continuously involved in smuggling, piracy, and trade with pro-Japanese elements, Huang and her followers were recruited by the military in the fight against Japanese invasion. The authorities hid her past by portraying her as a “patriotic woman”; yet fears about her potential threat to local communities did not cease until the end of the Nationalist-Communist war. After the Nationalist government had retreated to Taiwan, Huang participated in the secret service and in guerrilla warfare against the Communist forces. The Nationalist authorities granted her land, a garment factory, and funds to prevent her collaboration with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States. The government also promoted Huang and several “heroines” to demonstrate that women could not only participate in war zone work but could also further the goal of “woman managing the housework.” Films and literature revealed her past as a pirate and “Han traitor,” but the Nationalist government continued to manipulate her images and commemorate her as a wartime heroine. The turbulent time had brought her ample opportunities to switch in alliances and join in different forces. It was also because of her chameleon-like quality, together with the discursive construction of villains and heroes alike, that made her stories popular during and after wartime.

Drawing on abundant sources from government archives, newspapers, memoires, films, and interviews, this article argues that the multiple images of Huang Bamei —either as bandit, guerrilla leader, and heroine, or as businesswoman, teahouse owner, and model housewife—had been used to promote various social and political agendas and stimulate Chinese patriotism and Taiwan’s war commemoration in different historical periods. Moreover, while Huang’s images as a heroine had been utilized to mobilize the masses and reconstruct the roles of women during wartime, her images as a woman outlaw who was unrestrained in her sexual life were also produced and circulated primarily by her opponents. As a result, it is intriguing to look at this chameleon-like woman in light of the vicissitudes of cultural and national imaginations, as well as her tortuous journeys in a tempestuous era in modern China and Taiwan.

It is not surprising that Huang Bamei’s enemy-fighting tales—many of which contain decorative details that make her stories even more attractive—were used to promulgate patriotism in war commemoration. Yet, like many heroic figures in Chinese history, Huang’s images were also consciously patterned by later commentaries to suit their various needs and specific circumstances. Most narratives exaggerate her shooting skills and her bravery in fighting to an extent that we are witnessing the rise of a legend. The retrospective construction of her bandit past, including tales about her collaboration and sexual relationships with gang leaders, also make one wonder the accuracy of all these accounts. Moreover, while there exist abundant details regarding her famous acts of killing “Japanese devils,” it remains unclear how she defeated those well-equipped Japanese forces with her under-trained soldiers. It also remains puzzling how she morphed from a smuggler into a bandit, and turned into a military commander, and then switched to a guerrilla leader who was able to destroy some of the experienced troops of the Communist Party. Although in the postwar period tales of Huang Bamei gradually disappeared from public attention, in the 2000s both China and Taiwan underwent a renewed wave of Huang Bamei commemoration.

In the 2010s, thanks to the remembrance of the Nanjing Massacre and the Resistance War, the Chinese government and media started to commemorate Huang as a legendary woman who engaged in the war, while neglecting her role in the battles against the Chinese Communist Party. Contrary to the mainland view that portrayed Huang as an “anti-Japanese heroine,” the Taiwanese narratives focused on the civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists. The enemy in such memories subtly shifted from the “Japanese devils” to the “Communist bandits,” while regimes across the Taiwan Strait fought to have a say on the “War of Resistance against Japan.” To uncover the myth and the narration works behind Huang Bamei stories, this study explores a wide array of sources to reconstruct Huang Bamei’s life and the myths surrounding her. Sources used in this article include the archival sources in Taiwan, China, and the US. Nevertheless, while some may think that we have garnered enough fragments of Huang Bamei’s life, one should bear in mind that the richness of her literary representations, together with the scarcity of her appearance in official documents, may have made her disappear inside the conventions of her own stories—a dilemma that often appears in the memories of mythologized figures.

 

Weiting Guo is Assistant Professor at Simon Fraser University. Image Credit: Flickr/ Gary Todd. This essay is an abstract of Weiting Guo’s presentation, which is part of EATS 2019 conference special issue.

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