This article examines a curious poetry exchange around a painting in early 1942 between Wang Jingwei and the top officials of his regime at Nanjing, to investigate the functions of Wang’s iconography as an assassin in constructing the legitimacy of his collaborationist regime. Wang rose to national prominence in 1910, after his failed assassination attempt on the Manchu Prince Regent. The said painting, likely finished around 1929 to glorify Wang as a founder of the Republic, depicted the Warring States warrior Jing Ke’s departure to assassinate the King of Qin in 227BC, on the eve of the latter’s conquering the whole China. Wang’s attempt on the father of China’s Last Emperor, and Jing Ke’s on her First, thus echoed in time.
This article first traces the transformation of Jing Ke’s image in Chinese poetry over time. While most poets before mid-Tang admired his courage and envied his success in finding patronage, since the rise of Confucianism poets increasingly viewed Jing Ke with distaste. Regicide, in particular, posed a challenging ethical problem. Only since late Qing in an “Era of Assassination” inspired by the romantic ideal of an anarchist revolution, Jing Ke was transformed into a Republican Hero. And since mid-1920s, in Japan’s hastening steps of aggression, he further became a National Hero to mobilize united resistance.
The historical context suggests that, by 1942, Qin had become a conventional metaphor for Japan in adaptations of the Jing Ke story. The collaborationist elite’s comparison of Wang Jingwei to Jing Ke therefore raised intriguing questions, especially considering that Japanese elite read classical-style Chinese poetry too. I argue that while cultural memory can be evoked as a legitimizing discourse to serve actual political needs, its malleability gives it versatility. Wang Jingwei’s iconography as a new Jing Ke was a floating symbol which assumed different meanings to himself, to his followers, and to his Japanese patron, justifying, paradoxically, both resistance and collaboration.