Zheng Pingru, The Courtesan spy

Zheng Pingru on the cover of a Chinese fashion magazine in 1938.

Zheng Pingru on the cover of a Chinese fashion magazine in 1938.

Imperial Japan had long wished to extend its influence in China. Civil strife in China made it vulnerable to foreign invasion, and, in 1931, the Japanese took advantage of the situation to launch a military assault on the region of Manchuria.

By the end of the 1930s, the Japanese empire controlled most of eastern China. Using a combination of local puppet administrations, military might, and covert operations, the Japanese imposed a reign of terror upon the people of China.

One of the puppet states “allied” with (i.e. controlled by) Japan was the Reorganized National Government of China, which was formally based in the historic Chinese capital, Nanjing. The de facto capital, however, was the great city of Shanghai.

Shanghai had long been China’s most important trading city, boasting a fabulous harbor that was ideal for international shipping, plus access to the Chinese interior via the Yangtze River.

It was a cosmopolitan and vibrant city, and had been a center of political activism for both the nationalists and the communists. Shanghai was also a city of vice, including the opium trade and organized crime.

The Japanese and their puppet regime attempted to control Shanghai through a mix of bribery, force, and fear. For Chinese people who toed the line, basic supplies and even luxury items were available. But any locals who resisted the Japanese faced torture, hunger, and death.

Kenji Doihara was the ruthless Japanese spymaster whose mission was to maintain his country’s domination of China - by any means necessary. This included controlling the opium trade, flooding restive areas with the drug in order to quell opposition, while raising revenue to fund the occupation.

In 1938, Kenji enlisted the services of a man named Ding Mocun. He was Chinese, and had previously been a member of both the Communist Party and the nationalist Kuomintang.

Ding became a leader of the Reorganized National Government’s secret police, which he turned into a brutal but effective force that uncovered and executed many underground resistance fighters in Shanghai. He was so feared in the city that he earned the nickname “Butcher Ding.”

In 1938, the world - or at least Shanghai - seemed at the feet of Zheng Pingru. Aged 18, she was already a glamorous fixture of the elite social scene, having graced the cover of one of China’s most popular fashion magazines.

A university student, actress, and musician, she was the daughter of a well-known lawyer father and a Japanese mother.

Fluent in Chinese and Japanese, she could have maintained a comfortable position for herself in Shanghai society under Japanese rule.

Instead, she chose to work with the resistance. Using her ability to mix in high social circles, she provided intelligence on the doings of the Japanese and collaborationist Chinese elite.

In the fall of 1939, the Chinese resistance gave Zheng Pingru a mission: become the girlfriend of Ding Mocun, win his trust, gather intelligence … and at the right time, lead him to his death.

In December of that year, she persuaded Ding to take her shopping on the fashionable Nanjing Road. Little did he know, however, that two Chinese nationalist assassins were waiting outside the shop where Zheng said she wanted to browse for furs.

Ding, the ever-watchful professional, spotted his would-be attackers and fled, unharmed.

Zheng’s cover was blown. She was soon arrested and, in January 1940, killed.

At the end of the war, both Kenji and Ding were executed for their crimes.

Zheng Pingru is still remembered and honored, in both Taiwan and mainland China, as a hero who sacrificed her life as part of the struggle to liberate her country from Japanese rule.

Attribution for music used in this episode:

Assassinations Podcast Theme Music (Intro, Outro, and Transitions) written and performed by Graeme Ronald

"Midnight in the Green House" by Kevin MacLeod is in the Public Domain, CC0 / A derivative from the original work