My Article on a Chinese Pirate Queen
Huang Bamei and Faina Chiang Fang-liang. Source: Academia Historica,
005-030203-00006, “Jiang Fang-liang zhaopian ziliao jiji” (1949, 4)
A few weeks ago, I published an article on the life of Huang Bamei 黃八妹 (1906–1982)— a female bandit, pirate queen, guerrilla leader, and women’s organization coordinator. I wrote this article because I have been long interested in the life stories of certain marginalized groups who have experienced the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945) and the subsequent conflicts between the Nationalists and the Communists from 1945 to 1960. I have developed several projects respectively exploring the stories of guerrilla leaders during the cross-Strait conflicts, the daily life of a Chinese village during the Japanese occupation, and the displacement of wartime refugees in postwar Taiwan. Huang Bamei is one of those individuals who experienced all of these traumatic journeys, and her unique experiences demonstrate how regimes and media developed various ways of characterizing her images throughout the wartime.
Here, I provide a quick summary of my article (for the full paper, please visit: the website of Cross-Currents). Huang Bamei was born to a poor family near the border of Shanghai and Zhejiang. Like many other residents along the coast, Huang’s family occupation was selling and transporting smuggled salt. Sources suggest that Huang had been involved in her family’s smuggling business since a very young age. In fact, by the 1930s, she had become the leader of a local gang that frequently raided the coastal areas of Jiangsu and Zhejiang. In 1933, Huang was arrested by the police and was sentenced to death. However, as luck would have it, she was released due to her family’s connections with a district police director. After the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War, Huang’s troops continued to engage in smuggling activities. In 1938, Huang was apprehended again and given the name “Han traitor” due to her trade connections with pro-Japanese elements. She was described as “a notorious pirate queen who joined the bogus regime in Shanghai.” Shortly after, though, when Huang was recruited as a guerrilla leader by the Nationalists, she was praised as a “double-gun heroine.”[i]
Photo of Huang Bamei, the “notorious pirate queen,” being captured by
Chinese guerrilla forces. Source: “Zhanzheng zhaopian” (1938, 10).
Huang was fortunate to join the army of Mao Sen 毛森, one of the top intelligence leaders of the Nationalist’s Loyal and Patriotic Army. While some complained that “a woman who had never received education and could not read a word” could not serve as a guerrilla commander, several military officers came to her defense and she was deputed an army commander. Newspaper reports praised Commander Huang’s heroic acts without mentioning her bandit and pro-Japanese past. Yet, shortly after the end of the war, Huang was believed to have triggered a revolt against the government. Throughout the 1940s, rumors and reports about her potential threat to local communities never ceased. It was the following war that once again her political compass saw another radical change that profoundly impacted the latter half of her life.[ii]
Photos of Huang Bamei and Mao Sen; provided by Huang’s grandson, Xie Weike.
From 1948 to 1950, Huang participated in guerrilla warfare along the coast of Zhejiang and Jiangsu. For a significant amount of time, she managed to maintain extensive connections along the Hangzhou Bay. However, after the Communists fiercely attacked her base in Yangshan, she retreated to the Dachen Islands. The outbreak of the Korean War (1950–1953) compelled the United States to collaborate with Chiang Kai-shek to resist and deter the growth of a Communist China. Notably, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) also reportedly attempted to hire Huang Bamei as a U.S. proxy, convincing her to sign an agreement through the Western Enterprises Incorporated (WEI). However, as the Nationalist government was suspicious of the United States and the CIA, it asked Huang not to sign the contract with WEI. In exchange, the Nationalists agreed to grant Huang land for her guerrilla soldiers, an initiative, which, in time transformed concurrently with the change in Huang’s work from guerrilla warfare to the women welfare related activities. In particular, after the Dachen Retreat in 1955, Huang did not spend much time in military affairs. She helped establish Hua Hsing Children’s Home to accommodate the children from Dachen, passing away in the year 1982, in Taipei.[iii]
Photo of Huang Bamei in Dachen; provided by Huang’s grandson, Xie Weike.
Looking back, what is the takeaway from Huang’s stories?
As I conclude in my article, “To endure the wars, Huang swiftly shifted her roles from female bandit to guerilla leader and women’s organization coordinator. As a result, the stories of chameleon-like Huang Bamei offer an excellent window onto the life of a female outlaw who not only managed to maintain an alliance with competing regimes but also escaped execution, reemerged, and interacted with existing norms while shaping and reconstructing herself within the values of women’s roles throughout a turbulent era.”[iv]
Moreover, Huang’s stories offer an example of how a nominal character strategized her actions between competing regimes to survive the turbulent and uncertain political times. Her story also demonstrates how a “nobody” turned into a woman made “legend”—and also, a military “elite”—, utilizing her networks and resources to navigate the numerous power games and build connections with influential figures amidst different political circumstances.
[i] Weiting Guo, “The Portraits of a Heroine: Huang Bamei and the Politics of Wartime History in China and Taiwan, 1930–1960,” Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review (UC Berkeley) 33: 10–16.
[ii] Guo, “The Portraits of a Heroine,” 17–21.
[iii] Guo, “The Portraits of a Heroine,” 21–26.
[iv] Guo, “The Portraits of a Heroine,” 26.