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on August 30, 2009
Seagrave's view of pre-World War II Chinese history consists of equal parts of conspiracy and corruption. These elements are certainly present in Chinese history, but Seagrave's presentation is so biased, confused, and poorly documented that no one should accept his account without careful research.
For conspiracy, the most notable claims are that the Kuang-hsu emperor was poisoned (116), that the Dowager Empress Tz'u-hsi was poisoned (116), that Yuan Shikai was poisoned (text on 162 says uremia, footnote on 480 says "Such medical diagnoses were suspicious at best. Was it ever possible, organically, for a Borgia to die a natural death?"), that Charlie Soong was poisoned (142-3): "The facts surrounding Charlie Soong's death are obscure... the possibility of foul play has always existed... Euphemistically, stomach cancer was as common in revolutionary Shanghai as lead poisoning was in Chicago and Marseille." Seagrave goes on like this for almost a page in an exceptionally tendentious passage. There is of course zero documentation for all of these claims.
In a way though, these claims are almost trivial. It makes no difference to Seagrave's narrative whether these people were poisoned or not. A much more essential point is the central role that Seagrave claims the Green Gang played. Unfortunately, Seagrave's account of the Green Gang has many problems. Brian G. Martin, whose book "The Shanghai Green Gang: Politics and Organized Crime" is probably the best account of the Green Gang in English, says that Seagrave's account, "with its conspiratorial view of Chinese history in the 1920s and 1930s and of Jiang Jieshi's rise to power, sacrifices historical fact for sensationalist effect." (2)
This is not an overstatement. One of the strangest things in "The Soong Dynasty" is how Seagrave identifies the well-known Green Gang boss Chang Hsiao-lin as a member not of the Green Gang, but of the "Blue Gang". The Chinese name of the "Green Gang" was "qing bang," with the word qing referring indifferently to both green and blue. Thus many early accounts of the Gang refer to them as the "Blue Gang." The Comintern representative Sneevliet regularly calls them this in his reports. The "Blue Gang" is the "Green Gang" and the "Green Gang" is the "Blue Gang." How Seagrave confused one gang into two I have no idea.
Rather than rendering his account more difficult, however, this seems to open a door for Seagrave. Huang Chin-jung, Tu Yueh-sheng, and Chang Hsiao-lin were the Shanghai gangster troika, mentioned in numerous books. What Seagrave does is largely replace Chang Hsiao-lin, the Green Gang boss, with Chang Ching-chiang, one of the "four elder statesmen" of the Kuomintang, and a close advisor to Chiang Kai-shek. Thus Huang, Tu, and Chang Ching-chiang appear in various combinations throughout the book. Chang is an intimate of Tu (161), a business partner of Tu (163-4), a kidnapper like Tu and Huang (212), and so on. This is how Seagrave grafts Tu and the Green Gang onto Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT. Was Chang Ching-chiang really an important member of the Green Gang? He is mentioned in Brian Martin's book only once, as someone Tu and Huang were appealing to to continue the Shanghai purge in 1927. This is in contrast to Chang Hsiao-lin (Zhang Xiaolin), who occupies large chunks of Martin's book.
Putting aside the conspiratorial events, the historical events Seagrave attempts to recount are so confused and contradictory that C. Martin Wilbur calls "The Soong Dynasty" "a travesty of a book from a historical viewpoint." (Wilbur's "China in My Life", p. 285). This is very bad for people who read "The Soong Dynasty" for history, rather than scandal or speculation.
Anachronistic (or at least highly confusing) statements are a major part of this problem. A striking example is Seagrave's account of the Western Hills meeting (November 1925). He first quotes Isaacs' description of the goal of the meeting as being to "Ally with Chiang to overthrow Wang (Ching-wei)." Why overthrow Wang? According to Seagrave, Wang was "too weak to prevent a Communist coup. He had just convened a Second Party Congress that placed most of the critical departments of the southern government in the hands of the CCP and other leftists" (210). It seems to me a reasonable interpretation of this is that Seagrave thinks that first Wang convened the second party congress and then the Western Hills reactionaries decided to dump him. But the Second Party Congress was held in January 1926, after the Western Hills meeting. Why overthrow Wang? Try Wilbur's book "The Nationalist Revolution in China" (30-32). Wilbur gives a clear discussion of the factionalism facing the KMT at this point. Anachronisms aside, Seagrave is lost, complaining in his footnotes that these are "murky developments." (484)
An even more startling discussion is Seagrave's account of the "First Shanghai Uprising" (217). Apparently Seagrave got this from Harold Isaacs' "Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution", but compare Seagrave with Isaacs (p. 131 of the 1961 edition), or even better, with "Missionaries of Revolution" by Wilbur and How (p. 328-329). Seagrave's account is simply wrong, adding in the Green Gang with no sources, misidentifying people, misunderstanding the circumstances, claiming "large numbers" of casualties and a blow to the Communists, where Wilbur and How list documents that give the casualties as 10 people killed, and Isaacs, the champion of the labor groups involved, dismisses the event with the remark "The incident passed almost unnoticed on the fringe of events."
"The Soong Dynasty" does provide some interesting information in the earlier part of the book on Charlie Soong, father of the six Soong children. In particular, Charlie's success as a businessman and his work on behalf of Sun Yat-sen has been neglected, and there is still no extended account of these available today. Unfortunately, most of Seagrave's materials on these aspects is also poorly documented. Thus Seagrave claims that Soong joined the Hung-men Society ("the Red Gang") "shortly before the 1888 Chinese New Year celebration" (57), but gives no source for this. All of his comments about Charlie's activities and the Red Gang: that he was introduced by his brothers-in-law (58), that he printed the Gang's secret papers (57), that Gang members provided capital for his business ventures (60), that he bought the building for his printing shop through the Gang (61), that the steamship Charlie and his family fled to Japan on in 1912 was owned by the Gang (130), are all unsourced.
It is a pity that Seagrave's book turns out to be so unreliable; it would be nice if there were one book that covered the people and events of this period, but I don't think there is one single work that does this. Wilbur's books are solid historical accounts, and Brian Martin's book has excellent documentation, though the Green Gang, like the Mafia, is murky water. As for the history of the Soongs, despite Seagrave's massive onslaught, the field remains barren.