As the wife of Wang Jingwei, Chen Bijun’s rightful place in history has long been the subject of debate. The daughter of a wealthy merchant from Penang, Chen met Wang Jingwei for the first time in 1908, when Wang accompanied Sun Yat-sen during a tour of Southeast Asia to fundraise and advocate for the Revolution. The strong-willed sixteen year-old Chen who was filled with fervor for contributing to China’s welfare through revolution, was immediately attracted to the graceful and elegant Wang, who was twenty-four. Against her father’s wishes, she decided to follow Wang to study in Japan and join the revolutionary cause. In times of turmoil, Wang and Chen developed an undying love for one another. From the revolutionary activities of their youth to the tumultuous political upheavals in later years, without complaint or regret, Chen remained by the side of her “Fourth Brother” as she called Wang. Although she has been virtually erased from history books in China, Chen Bijun made many contributions to public welfare and philanthropic causes. As a political figure, under the Wang Reorganized National Government during the 1940s, she negotiated vigorously with the Japanese occupiers in Guangdong to secure its stability and development. Chen was not only the wife of Wang Jingwei; she was also the mother of five children who played a key role at the core of the Republic since its founding.
The Early Years
Chen Bijun, courtesy name Bingru, was born in Penang, Malaya, although her ancestral home was in Guangdong Xinhui. Her father Chen Gengquan, the young xiucai (a scholar who passed the county level imperial examination) was born impoverished, went to Nanyang (present-day Southeast Asia) seeking work. After a few years, with money saved, he returned to Guangdong in search of a wife. His betrothed was Wei Yuelang, who set sail alone for Malaya to marry Chen at age 15. Together, they worked hard and became the owners of rubber plantations and tin ores throughout Malaya, earning Chen Gengquan the nickname “Millionaire Chen.” Wei bore three sons and a daughter. The first two sons died in infancy; the third son Jizu studied in England and became a barrister, while the daughter was Chen Bijun. Chen Gengquan also fathered other children including Chen Yaozu, Chan Cheong-choo and Chen Shunzhen, who married Chu Minyi. (See the Chen family genealogy chart.)
Chen Bijun’s mother doted on her, which might have contributed to the fearlessness and air of arrogance for which she became known. Chen attended Catholic school and studied English. Her father valued good education for his children, hiring private tutors to teach them Chinese literature and poetry which helped build her foundation in Chinese.
Meeting Wang Jingwei and joining Tongmenghui
Chen Bijun, ca1912
In 1908 when Wang Jingwei spread the word about the Revolution with Hu Hanmin and others accompanying Sun Yat-sen to Nanyang, he met Chen Bijun at the house of Wu Shirong, the chairman of Penang Tongmenghui. The 16 year-old Chen was very taken by Wang’s looks and magnetic personality as well as his revolutionary ideals. Accompanied by her mother, Chen went to meet with Sun Yat-sen in Singapore, and both mother and daughter joined the Tongmenghui. Chen broke off her betrothal to cousin Liang Yugao, and went to Japan to pursue her studies. Considering Chen’s young age, Sun Yat-sen asked Fang Junying (who was Tongmenghui’s Executive Chief) and Zeng Xing to look after Chen. While in Japan, Wang and Chen developed a close relationship and became close friends with Fang and Zeng. In 1909, Wang, Zeng, Fang, Li Zhongshi, Huang Fusheng and Yu Peilun formed an assassination squad, targeting high officials in the Qing Court to rekindle the spirit of the revolutionaries as the main goal. Chen returned to Nanyang to raise funds, and with her mother, sold jewelry to support the mission. When Wang Jingwei and Huang Fusheng were arrested and sent to prison in 1910, it was Chen’s mother Wei Yuelang who funded the attempts to have him released. In addition to contributing to the activities of the assassination squad, Chen and her mother supported the activities of the Tongmenghui with donations.
Chen Bijun, ca. 1900
Before the assassination attempt, Wang and Chen made a mutual commitment to marriage, and Chen wrote a letter to Wei Yuelang (Wang later wrote “My Mother” in Chen’s name as a tribute to Wei’s understanding, affection and support for the revolution) while Wang wrote to Fang Junying and Zeng Xing, declaring their wish to be married on the eve of imminent death. When Wang was released, he and Chen married in April, 1912. Wang was 29 and Chen was 21. The ceremony was officiated by Hu Hanmin while He Xiangning was the bridesmaid.
Traveling to France
After their marriage, Wang and Chen went to France to continue their studies, accompanied by Chen’s mother Wei Yuelang, Fang Junying, Fang’s younger sister Fang Junbi, Zeng Xing, Zeng’s younger brother Zhongming, and Chen’s younger brother Cheong-choo. In April 1913, Chen gave birth to a son in Montargis, who was named Ying after Fang Junying. At the end of 1914, the whole family moved to Bordeaux in the south away from the war. During their travels, Chen gave birth to their second child, a daughter, who was born prematurely at 7 months. She was name Xing, after Zeng Xing. With Zeng and Fang’s help, Chen’s mother Wei Yuelang nursed Wang Xing. Chen also joined the French Women Red Cross as a nurse during the War. Between 1912 and 1916, Wang and Chen answered to Sun Yat-sen’s calls to return to China several times, to consult over the affairs of the state. In their absence, Wang Ying and Wang Xing were taken care of by Fang Junying, Zeng Xing, Fang Junbi, Zeng Zhongming and others.
Chen Bijun and Wang Jingwei, Fangjunying and Zeng Xing (holding Wang Ying) in May, 1913, Montargis, France.
In early 1917, Wang Jingwei answered Sun’s call and returned to China. In September of that year, Sun started the Constitutional Protection Movement and established the Militarist Government, and Wang became the Chief Secretary and a trusted aide. Chen, who was still in France, decide to bring her two children back to China to join her husband, ending five years in France.
Nationalist Government and Guomindang internal struggles
While planning the Zhixin School to commemorate Zhu Zhixin in 1923, Sun Yat-sen sent Chen Bijun to the United States to fundraise among overseas Chinese. Accompanied by her brother Yaozu, Chen arrived on April 30, pregnant with her fifth child. Rushing around to raise funds, she was admitted to the hospital for the signs of miscarriage on August 22. The next day, she gave birth to a son, named Jing. Chen was busy giving speeches and couldn’t not take care of her baby, who then caught pneumonia and died in the hospital. Swallowing her pain, Chen continued her fundraising activities, creating a stir wherever she went. Many overseas Chinese clamored to see her, the “Revolutionary Activist.” At the end of November, Chen returned to Shanghai and buried her child’s ashes at Baiyun Mountain, in Guangzhou, where Fang Junying who died the same year was also buried. The funds raised on this trip to the US were used to help set up the Whampoa Military Academy and also used to battle Chen Jiongming.
Chen Bijun, ca. 1920
In January, at the Guomindang 1924 First National Congress, Sun Yat-sen sent Chen Bijun, He Xiangning and Tang Yungong to attend as the three women representatives. At this meeting, Wang Jingwei was elected to the Central Executive Committee and Chen to the Central Supervisory Committee. When Sun Yat-sen died in March 1925 and Wang wrote his will, Chen was present as one of the witnesses.
After Sun’s death until the end of the 1930s, Wang held important roles within the Guomindang several times, which inevitably entangled him in internal party power struggles. As Wang’s wife, Chen also became unavoidably involved in Wang’s political decisions; Wang had great respect for her opinion. Rather than being viewed with a prominent title as Wang Furen (Madame Wang), Chen preferred to be addressed as Committee Member Chen, showing her wish to be treated for what she did, not for who she was.
When the Nationalist Government was established in July 1925 and Wang Jingwei was elected its first Chairman, Chen Bijun also participated in political meetings and became active in army relief efforts. When the Zhongshan Warship Incident broke out in March 1926, Wang’s relationship split with Chiang Kai-shek, who was the headmaster of the Whampoa Military Academy at the time. Since Sun’s death, Wang became one of the three senior leaders of the Guomindang along with Hu Hanmin and Liao Zhongkai. But when Liao was assassinated and suspicions around Hu led to his arrest, it gave way to Chiang’s ascending power. Although both Wang and Chen appreciated Chiang’s military talent, Chen’s dislike for Chiang’s rising political ambitions grew. Politically, Chiang’s anti-communist proposal conflicted with Wang’s persistent support of Sun’s United Front. The Zhongshan Warship Incident further brought into focus the differences between Wang and Chiang, after which Chen left for France with Wang to recuperate from his illness and to temporarily leave the tumultuous political situation. Wang’s departure caused great changes within Guomindang’s upper echelon; resulting in Chiang’s taking over more than half of Wang’s positions, heading the National Military Council, and later on, being elected Commander-in-Chief and Chair of the Central Committee, assuming control over the leadership for the party.
In April 1927, Chen returned to China amidst strong internal party support for Wang, who became the leader of the Wuhan Central Guomindang and of the Nationalist Government, creating the separation with Chiang in Nanjing, known as the Ninghan Split. During this time, as a member of the Central Supervisory Committee, Chen was active in the women’s movement in Wuhan, along with He Xiangning, Song Qingling, etc.
Left to right: Fang Junbi, Lin Rufen, Wang Wenxing, Chen Bijun, Wang Wenti, Zhu Mei, ca. 1920
Between 1927 and 1931, internal struggles within the Guomindang raged, leading to multiple splits and collaborations between Wang and Chiang, and a return to France in 1928. During this period, Chen stayed by Wang’s side, backing him with strong support. After the 1931 Shanghai Incident, Wang again decided to cooperate with Chiang. When Wang became the President of the Executive Yuan and Foreign Minister, Chiang was the Chair of the Military Council.
When Wang was President of the Executive Yuan, in her office as a member of the Central Political Committee Chen performed many tasks, including financial contributions for army relief and public construction. In 1934, she argued with members of the legislative council for equal legal rights for women; in 1935 she raised funds for slum-dwellers, promoted swimming as a sport, and built diving boards in Qingdao. She also funded the metal chains that connected the poles ascending the mountain range favored by tourists at Huangshan.
At the Sixth Plenum of the Guomindang Fourth Central Committee in November 1935, Wang Jingwei was struck by gun shots while a group photograph was being taken. Wang resigned his post to seek treatment in Germany with Zeng Zhongming, Chen Yaozu and Dr. Knorr. He was not accompanied by Chen this time, who kept him abreast of the changing political situation in China. After the Xian Incident at the end of 1936, Wang returned to China to keep the nation united. After the outbreak of the war with Japan, Chen and Wang moved to Chongqing when the capital of the Nationalist Government moved there.
Wang’s proposals for peace with Japan had not been accepted by the Central Guomindang. At the end of 1938, Wang left Chongqing for Hanoi, and published the yandian (December 29, 1938 telegram), declaring his decision for the Peace Movement. On January 1, 1939 both Wang and Chen were dismissed from the party.
Reorganized National Government and the Peace Movement
Beginning with the Marco Polo Bridge Incident on July 7, 1937 when Japan began its comprehensive invasion of China until the yandian at the end of 1938, Wang Jingwei’s brewing Peace Movement began to take shape. How much of this was the result of Chen Bijun’s influence is a difficult question to answer. What is certain, is that during the time when Wang had to face unprecedented difficulties, Chen’s support and for and firm belief in him remained unchanged.
In the eyes of many, Wang’s gentle demeanor was a stark contrast to Chen’s fearlessness. This created the impression that Wang was under Chen’s control and influence. In fact, their their harmonious relationship and deep mutual affection are clearly depicted in Wang’s poetry. One clear illustration of this is the fact that Wang used Shuangzhao (after Du Fu’s “Moonlit Night”) as the name of his poetry collection. Chen’s reported “interference” into Wang’s affairs could also be attributed to her expression of concern for her husband. After all, can any outsider comment on the relationship between any husband and wife?
Due to Wang’s busy schedule and ill health, Chen took on a protective role as a “supervisor” and “guardian”, to keep Wang from over exhaustion. Chen was strict about not letting Wang work after dinner or on Sundays, to reserve time for spending with the family. After dinner, the Wangs would gather together to chat, watch children play, and occasionally play chess. Once a week, a movie would be shown at the Wang household. On Sundays, Chen would take Wang on walks. Although, when Chen was not around, Wang would prefer to stay indoors. During their time in Nanjing, the couple would go to the hot springs at the Tangshan Club for government workers, and meet with friends. Sometimes when Wang was sick at home, Chen would take the telephone off the hook to not avoid disturbing him during his rest with political matters. Wang liked red wine, but because of his health, Chen did not let him drink much. Jin Xiongbai</> recorded this incident he witnessed at the Wang home, which vividly describes Chen’s personality and the interactions between the couple:
“I had dined at the Wang’s several times. Although Madame Wang often did not attend, she would appear late and seeing that Wang, who liked wine, had already had a few, would give him a stare and a call “Fourth Brother” at which point, Wang would hesitate and put down his cup. The quests present would then be reminded of Wang’s health, and a sadness prevailed.” (Wang Jingwei de kaichang yu shouchang> (The Rise and Fall of the Wang Jingwei Regime))
During the six years of Wang Jingwei’s Nanjing Nationalist Government, Chen Bijun was a Nationalist Central Supervisory Committee member and the Guangdong Political Director. With her relatives such as three-term Guangdong Governor Chen Yaozu, Chen Chunpu and Chu Minyi by her side; she wielded much influence in Guangdong. Her biggest accomplishments there included fighting for provisions and repeatedly lowering the price of rice, and using her strong character to negotiate with the Japanese for the benefit of the citizens of Guangdong.
With the attack on Pearl Harbor and the US declaration of war on Japan, the Pacific War broke out. Provisions were confiscated by the Japanese army for their military use, creating a serious deficit for the citizens in occupied territories. Chen announced eight emergency steps and vigorously bargained with the Japanese to resolve the crisis. Everyone more than 70 years old was to be given rice for free. Chen also founded schools to care for poor refugee children. She organized groups of other married women and often took care of the children herself, giving them baths and sewing clothes for them. She also negotiated with the Japanese to abolish requiring Cantonese citizens to remove their hats in salute to Japanese soldiers, replacing them with Chinese policemen instead. The “Guangzhou Commemorative Festival,” which was instituted by the Japanese to celebrate the anniversary of their occupation of Guangzhou was also abolished by Chen.
Chen Bijun, Wang Wenxing and Wang Jingwei in Hankou, 1937,
While in Nanjing, Chen worked strenuously behind the political scenes and contributed to social welfare and construction. When the Japanese invaded Hong Kong, Chen helped tens of thousands of refugees to relocate to Guangzhou. In addition, the Zhongyang and Renji hospitals affiliated with the Nanjing Government accommodated many displaced doctors from Hong Kong, including Li Fu (Lai Fook), Lin Kaidi (Ling Ke-dieh), Lu Runzhi (Li, the Director of Zhongyang Hospital, accompanied Wang to Japan for medical treatment in 1944; Lin was the Director of Renji Hospital; Lu was Chen’s opthamologist.)
To commemorate Zeng Zhongming and Shen Song, who sacrificed their lives for the Peace Movement, the Nanjing Government opened the Mingsong School in 1941, with primary and middle school levels. Aside from raising funds, Chen also helped recruit quality candidates as teachers.
In December, 1941 when the Japanese occupied Hong Kong, Chen Bijun and head of Department of Education Lin Ruheng helped the botanist Chen Huanyong to negotiate with the Hong Kong Governor to transport artifacts and botanical specimens at the Zhongshan University botany research center to Guangzhou for safekeeping. She also raised funds for plans to expand Zhongyang Hospital, with outstanding results.
In Shanghai, Chen Bijun set up a cotton yarn exporting business, the Xiangxing Company, to prevent cotton produced in China from going into the hands of the Japanese army. The company was managed by Qu Xiangbang and operated in a way that diverted the cotton supply to the citizens in the occupied territories. Revenue from the business was also used to pay for Wang Jingwei’s travels abroad.
In early 1944, Wang was diagnosed with multiple myeloma resulting from the bullet who remained lodged in his spine since the 1935 attack. Chen and their family stayed by his side in Nagoya, Japan, while he was being treated. Wang died in November that same year. After his death and with Japan losing in the Pacific War, some who were close to Chen such as Chen Chunpu and Lin Ruheng tried to persuade her to leave. She responded by saying:
“On the day Mr. Wang left for Japan for treatment, he made the order to transfer all official duties to [Chen] Gongbo and [Zhou] Fohai, who are performing their duties as delegated. If I alone should vanish, all my aides would also leave, it would appear as though I am undermining Chen and Zhou. From a personal point of view, I would be offending Mr. Wang’s order. With Gongbo and Fohai, I owe them my friendship, even if I can disregard the question of disaster and happiness, I could not in good conscience do this. As for the country, today’s war will be won, it’s only a matter of time. Therefore, even if I should leave with Gongbo and Fohai, it would cause no harm. But there are still more than 3 million Japanese troops stationed in China; the Peace [Wang’s Nanjing] Government had openly declared and spared no effort to fight for equal status with Japan, in order to block the army’s interference with my administration. If we stay, the citizens in the occupied areas would continue to have someone to protect them. If we leave, the regime would be disbanded, and the Japanese, after multiple defeats, would take their anger out on us as their enemies with flagrant violence; what kind of life would the people who remained in the occupied areas edure? I cannot only think about my personal safety, just to cause endless disaster and suffering on millions upon millions.” (Wang Jingwei de kaichang yu shouchang (The Rise and Fall of the Wang Jingwei Regime))
In September 1945, after Japan surrendered, Chen Bijun and Chu Minyi along with 16 others were rounded up by the Bureau of Investigation and Statistics in Guangzhou “to see Chiang Kai-shek in Chongqing.” What in fact happened was, after being detained for weeks, they were transferred to Nanjing instead. According to Ho Mang Hang, the 16 were Chen, Chu Minyi (Governor of Guangdong), Zhou Yingxiang (Head of the Guangdong Civil Affairs Bureau), Li Yinnan (Head of Guangdong Construction Bureau). Wang Zongzhun (Wang Jingwei’s nephew, Head of Guangdong Finances Bureau), Chen Lianglie (Head of Guangdong Education Bureau), Ho Mang Hang, Wang Wenxing, He Bingbing (oldest daughter of Ho Mang Hang and Wang Wenxing), You Jinglian (Chen Bijun’s maid), Gao Qixian and Xi Yizong (both assistants of Chu Minyi’s), Wang Wenti (Chen’s fifth son). Wang Chenghui (Wang’s nephew’s son), Chen Guoqiang (Chen’s nephew) and Wang Dejing (Wang Zongzhun’s son). Chen, along with Chu Minyi and others were later sent to Suzhou Lion’s Mouth Prison.
At the trial, Chen refused to hire a lawyer. In the courtroom, she maintained her valiance and denied that Wang Jingwei was a traitor.
“How can we say that Wang Jingwei sold his country out? The area that Chongqing controlled, it was not up to Wang to sell. The three provinces of the Northeast were not his to sell either. Weren’t they Chiang Kai-shek’s to give to the Japanese? As for Guangdong: at the time that the Japanese invaded, the high-level officials of the provincial government fled on hearing the news. Who had responsibility to protect the land with all his strength? This was Chiang Kai-shek’s responsibility. Was it Wang Jingwei’s responsibility?” (Wang Jingwei de kaichang yu shouchang (The Rise and Fall of the Wang Jingwei Regime))
Chen Bijun hand-copied Wang Jingwei poetry in prison
She also refused to appeal her charges of hanjian, because she thought it would make no difference. However, she appealed for leniency towards other associates of the Nanjing Government. Her daughter Wang Wenxun’s attempt for a retrial of Chen Bijun with the help of a lawyer was denied.
Chen Bijun’s life in prison has been the subject of discussion in the media, including published “eye witness” accounts. Since these reports are often contradictory, we are left with more questions than answers, while the truth remains unverified. According to family members, even though she was cared for by her maid You Jinglian until her transfer to Shanghai’s Tilanqiao Prison in 1949, Chen Bijun became very weak with illnesses and had to be hospitalized several times during her incarceration. In addition, Chen had been given injections of heavy analgesia for relief from chronic muscular and joint pains for decades. Her suffering in prison could only increase her pain.
When Ho Mang Hang was released from prison in February, 1948, he and his wife Wang Wenxing visited Chen Bijun in Suzhou Prison and saw her for the last time before they went to Hong Kong in March to join his family. Ho described Chen in his memoirs: “even though her hair turned white, her vigor remained unchanged while her physical condition has been reduced greatly. The fellow prisoners were respectful of her. She spent her days writing and reading. When she saw me, she gave me a book of Shuangzhaolou poetry.”
Chen wrote several handcopies of Shuangzhaolou poetry by Wang Jingwei. The great scholar and fellow prisoner Long Yusheng wrote a postcript for one of these books. Aside from leaving these handcopies for her descendants, she also gave copies as gifts to those who had helped her, including Duan Mukai, whose partner Wang Wenhao was Ho Mang Hang’s defense lawyer. This copy is now at the Soochow University Library.
When Ho Mang Hang spent his 33rd birthday in prison, Chen Bijun invited Long Yusheng to create an compilation of selected poetry from the Song dynasty. The compilation, entitled Tianfeng ji, was copied by hand by another prisoner and given to Ho as a birthday present. In addition, Chen Bijun also hand copied poetry selected by Long from different dynasties, as well as from Wang’s Shuangzhaolou collection, to the three-volume work called Mingyue Ji. Long Yusheng’s Discourse on Tuning was also written at Chen Bijun’s urging.
Aside from hand copying Wang’s poetry, Chen also composed her own poetry while in prison. The six poems in the collection of the Wang Jingwei Irrevocable Trust, describing her illness, missing her husband and children, offer a glimpse of her frame of mind and the sadness she endured.
Poem written in prison by Chen Bijun
When the new government was established in 1949, Song Qingling and He Xiangning tried to plead with the authorities for clemency for Chen’s release, with a written repentance from her as the only condition. Chen rejected the deal. In 1959, she died of a heart attack in the prison hospital at age 68. Her ashes were sent to Hong Kong where family members scattered them at sea.
Newspapers and magazines from the Minguo period
Interviews with Ho Mang Hang
Ho Mang Hang. “Reflections after Reading the Biography of Chen Bijun by Zhang Jingxing,” unpublished manuscript.
Jin Xiongbai. Wang Jingwei de kaichang yu shouchang (The Rise and Fall of the Wang Jingwei Regime), 5 Volumes. Hong Kong: Chunqiu chubanshe, 1959-1964.