Captain of the Roving Bandits: Spoken drama and the culture of Rural Pacification in Japanese-occupied China

There is a rich academic literature on the cultural history of modern/spoken drama (huaju) and its links to May 4th nationalism in Republican China. Spoken drama also forms a key part broader discussions around Chinese cultural resistance to the Japanese occupation (1937–45). And as scholars such as Brian DeMare have shown, ‘red drama’ played a major role in early post-1949 efforts to ‘dramatise’ the communist revolution in rural regions of China. However, this same form has been largely overlooked in the recent cultural histories of Japanese-occupied China, with emphasis instead being directed towards visual cultures, literature and cinema.

In this talk, Professor Taylor will examine the importance of spoken drama to the Reorganised National Government (RNG) of Wang Jingwei by exploring the fate of one particular early-war resistance play – Liukou duizhang (Captain of the Roving Bandits) – which was appropriated by this regime to support the Rural Pacification campaign that it had introduced in 1941. While it is impossible to gauge the ‘success’ of this play in occupied China, it is clear that the RNG’s propaganda apparatus saw Captain of the Roving Bandits as a vehicle for disseminating its own vision of rural China. The story around the play’s adaptation and production also tells us much about the uses, and limits, of the spoken drama form under the RNG, beyond the theatres of Shanghai.

In examining the spoken drama form, Professor Taylor aims to contribute to wider efforts at putting ‘culture’ back into our understanding of Rural Pacification (a campaign which generated significant amounts of cultural production, yet which continues to be viewed by many scholars as little more than a cynical and violent attempt at counterinsurgency). As Professor Taylor has argued elsewhere, cultural programmes introduced under Rural Pacification drew on aspects of pre-war May 4th and Republican practices. Such programmes also demanded a creative re-working of the contents and messages that such distinctly Chinese cultural products adopted as they steered a path between Japanese censorship and the RNG’s own claims to wartime Chinese patriotism.

Jeremy E. Taylor is professor of modern history and head of the History Department at the University of Nottingham. He is the author of over 30 journal articles and/or book chapters on the cultural history of East and Southeast Asia, as well as two monographs, including, most recently, Iconographies of Occupation: Visual Cultures in Wang Jingwei’s China, 1939–1945 (2021). He has also edited four volumes, including, most recently, Chineseness and the Cold War (with Lanjun Xu) (2022). The research he is presenting at this seminar is supported by a generous research grant from the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation (‘Documenting Wartime Collaboration’, RG001-U-22).