Without knowing why and apparently without relishing it

Is there precedent for weaponizing stereotypes? Tools and tactics of propaganda can share a function to dramatically different ends, but does it work?

The last emperor of the Qing Dynasty in China, the deposed Puyi, found himself, after being convicted of war crimes for collaborating with the Japanese Emperor as a puppet monarch of Manchukuo— part of larger geographic area the historic origin of the Qing Dynasty’s Manchurian leaders, at the time occupied by Japanese forces in the 1930’s-, subject to a (successful, he’d claim) program of re-education under the Maoist regime in the PRC, having been released by the Soviets after the conclusion of the civil war in China. The purpose of said hand-off was in the interests of Sino-Soviet alliance, while the purpose of sparing the life of Manchukuo’s leaders for reeducation, unlike the execution ordered by Lenin of the Tsar in the Soviet Union following such a failure, was Mao Zedong’s desire to utilize Puyi as a propagandist. Basically, to demonstrate, either (or both), the superiority of China’s Communism over that of the Soviets, and to present a challenge to reactionaries that, if even the imprisoned former emperor, and once enemy combantant, can become a communist, the external forces of western imperialism presenting support for anti-communist movements in China would lose legitimacy.

Earlier in his life, Puyi had been, first, made emperor as a two year old, desposed in a republican revolution a few short years later, but allowed to remain in the Forbidden City, and keep his title, many of his entitlements. Following an attempt by a republican government president to name himself emperor, one that ultimately failed politically, Puyi came to understand, for the first but not last time, that it wasn’t he who was being attacked, but his position, the inference of power, whether or not he really had any, which didn’t stop him from taking it personally anyway; for his part, his belief was in that of his divine right to rule, not merely as a monarch, but as a god— hard not to take personally, it would seem. He grows resentful, and after finally being exiled from the Forbidden City by insurrection led by a warlord, he formally begins his relationship with the empire in Japan, moving into, first, a diplomatic building, and then simply into Japanese controlled terrority in Tianjin. He explicitly requests to be restored, by the Japanese government, not by his own would-be subjects— a pattern that will reoccur.

Manchukuo is established in 1932, with Puyi as the nominal head of the government; he is a puppet for the Japanese, which bristles him, but what is untenable is that he is simply a monarch, with specifically no standing as the god-king he desired. He persists in pleasing the Japanese— during an investigation by the League of Nations, despite privately believing himself imprisoned in Manchukuo, he asserts that the kingdom is a testament to Pan-Asian unification (a dubious concept, but one consumed wholecloth by the west, and in this concept, a purely propagandic construction to legitimize an imperial holding in Manchuria, therby absolving Japan of aggression in this pre-war matter).

As tensions escalate, and first war with China and then the United States (which, despite having had war declared against them by Manchukuo, never acknowledges Manchukuo formally for as long as it exists), Puyi believes he’s been effectively deployed as a tool so well by the Japanese that he would not survive a defeat by the Americans (something he only finds out is possible shortly before the use of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the subsequent surrender), but privately desires for an end to this that disempowers Japan.

Without going into detail over the rest of the time after the war—this is largely immaterial-, he is tried and serves in prison in China; he is exposed to the victims of, both, the empire and that of Manchuckuo’s regime, and shielded from the reality of the CCP to perpetuate his newfound faith in communism. He, ultimately, is released, a supporter of Mao, becomes staunchly against anything approaching the criticism he levied against China in the service of Japan (at this point relations with Japan are normalizing and he is seen as overreacting, projecting his developed sense of guilt), marries a commoner, and ultimately is laid to rest in a commercial cemetary not far from that of the rest of the Qing Dynasty. Before the war, a commentator said of him, that he “made emperor three times without knowing why and apparently without relishing it.”— he sought something personal, which enabled him to be very cruel, and in exchange, validated the cruelty of the war crimes by his co-defendents in the Far East trials a few years later, but none of it satisfied, because none of it was real. He believed he was using, first, the republican government of China, then the Japanese, then even the Soviets (who afforded him relative comfort during his time in Siberia) and Mao’s regime by asking for prestige of little practical quotidian importance— this is why he was so resentful, and why this resentment ultimately turned him into a tool for whatever he was politically expedient to keep alive for, having been spared even as a young child for reasons of propaganda.

The flip side of this, as the post-war century moved along was the Western influence in Asia: They fancied themselves liberators, allies, and ultimately, the reverse entropist of what western propaganda cast the region as being like without their influence. Similar to British colonial assets in India in the 1800’s—locals being used to produce historiography describing the immediate pre-colonial empire as crime ridden and corrupt (little evidence supports this in any way not mirrored in western imperial culture, if at all) compared to the civility of the occupation (which introduced more oppressive and weaponized versions of the sort of class stratifications that might’ve already existed, in order to perpetuate the colonial mandate)- in the form of puppet regimes in Korea, Vietnam, and to a lesser extent Japan, amongst explicit coups that didn’t require the subterfuge of diplomatic (what I call “nerd warfare”) sheen of institutions like the RAND corporation’s approach to war crime.

The framework I am describing definitely didn’t originate with the Americans— these were incursions made possible by ceded French and British colonial holdings following WWII, which on the one hand lended credence to the myth of this being a liberative effort, rather than simply a capitalistic approach to colonialism- and one need not look further than France itself to find an example of the sort of stereotyping used to create pro-colonial or imperialist propaganda being weaponized by the occupied. The story of Bernard Boursicot, a French diplomat, and Shi Pei Pu, an opera singer and eventually uncovered to be a spy, dramatized in David Cronenberg’s M. Butterfly to great effect, was about Boursicot and Shi Pei Pu’s decades long relationship, and one that Bouriscot was led (falsely) to believe had produced a son, a lie which Shi Pei Pu perpetuated until uncovered to be a man, dressed as a woman, in order to extract secrets from Bouriscot from his dispatch in Beijing and Mongolia.

In the film, this is depicted as taking place immediate preceding, and during the heating up of China’s Cultural Revolution— their fictional counterparts, René Gallimard and Song Liling, representing the modern awareness of what role France was attempting to play in China, while acknowledging its failures, but the internalization of stereotypes blind Gallimard to the truth about what his going on, that he’s being manipulated, while believing that he his simply the voice of reason among diplomats. He is posed a question by Liling early in the film, after an abridged performance of Madame Butterfly that amounts to “would you have found it so romantic and tragic if the sacrifice had been by, not for, the Westerner?” which sets off the meta-narrative of the film:

In recounting this exchange, Gallimard is asked, “Why can't they just see it as a piece of beautiful music?"

It's the core question of this film, amongst the familiar territory of the Madame Butterfly parallel meta-narrative-- Jeremy Irons as Gallimard is posed with this question multiple times, would Madame Butterfly have been as beautiful if the sacrifice wasn't to the Westerner, would the colonized be better off, more enlightened if they would simply choose to see things through the eyes of the west (which asks them to submit, allow for erasure of cultural critical tradition), and he concludes that the core principles of western imperialism are at fault: "We failed to learn anything about the people". You're kept nervous and disatisfied by every scene in this film, between Irons' acting and the pacing of Cronenberg’s direction, and I think it works, truly-- you're supposed to understand you're watching something gross play out on a sociopolitical level, the entitlement of westerners to the mindshare of everyone else, even if, ostensibly, this film is about Gallimard being exploited. "Correct, even, that they should resent us, when we don't treat them as fellow human beings", he explains.

In the film adaptation of Puyi’s life The Last Emperor, there is a scene, while imprisoned as a war criminal, where the prison governor addresses the assembled prisoners, “We believe that all men are born good” underscoring that they have violated this belief; this mirrors a scene earlier in the film, shortly following the formation of China’s first Republic, and the tutor, played by Victor Wong, demonstrates the character for essentially this same sentiment. Noted by the governor is the reality of the necessity of the coming revolution; the republic became as corrupt as the old empire, and yet, this belief shared by all three prevailing government forms persists. The republican government, itself, toying with the idea of restoration, and China today with a mixed economic system while remaining solidly under the leadership of the CCP shares some of these kinds of similarities (“Leninist capitalism” as Orville Schell calls it) as well of consolidating (or at least asserting) regional controls and centralization, is another vector of how messaging around the same cast of characters in the narratives communicated in historiography and contemporary political analysis are to be perceived. We see it in, both, apologia for and lambastment of figures like Mao (was he, or what he not, of humble origins seems to be a popular one, and why this does, or does not, matter to a supporter or detractor)—some apologia blames the republic for being too willing to favor the emperor, while criticisms, if they don’t wish to litigiate the cultural revolution, defend the late Qing dynastic rulers as being effective and sufficient for modernizing China (an argument that has some merit, but not as a criticism of Mao, who was not yet born at the time Empress Dowager Cixi and her court, for example, enacted most reforms that led to modernization but also solidifying increased concessions to the west).

The point in identifying these similarities is that, if we look at M. Butterfly as not just a fiction set in 1960’s China, but as a parable for the presence of Western diplomats from the 1700’s onwards, and the position they and China have taken up (with various levels of isolationism, willingness to make concessiosn in the interest of trade, etc.), how much the role of propagandizing plays on the ability of European powers to homogenize an entire region through colonial impact (while creating an ersatz expectation of experience between heterogenous cultural and geographical groups). Basically, these two stories, one fiction (albeit based on a true stroy) and one historical, both emblemize the two possible paths back from colonial subjugation, or at the very least the impact of western imperialist expeditionism:

Consider the example of the beginning of the deline of the Qing Dynasty— the flashpoint for both of these narratives’ relevant historical context. In a letter from Lin Zexu, an important official in the Qing Dynasty, to Queen Victoria of Britain explained not only the ravages of the (illegal) opium trade that spawned from British conquest of India on Chinese public health, but that it could be perceived as an undermining of the Chinese state (the British had been rebuffed when seeking to expand trade with the Qing, limited only to trade through the port in Canton). The letter touches on things such as the reality that Britain acknowledged about the harm of opium in making it illegal in Britain itself while profiteering in China, even using the rights of their missionaries to distribute opium with Bibles distributed to Chinese villagers, and a direct accusation:

“Suppose the subject of another country were to come to England to trade, he would certainly be required to comply with the laws of England, then how much more does this apply to us of the celestial empire! Now it is a fixed statute of this empire, that any native Chinese who sells opium is punishable with death, and even he who merely smokes it, must not less die. Pause and reflect for a moment…”

Ultimately, the resulting Opium Wars only created more rampant trade as the rights of the British to Chinese ports (and, as a result, the opium trade) expanded, and British hegemonic influence over state affairs and culture. Much like any cultural relationship that is produced by colonial rule, and imperialist incursion, the prevailing power dictates a narrative of what life is like for the besieged, characterizing themselves as liberators, or at the very least, an aspirational presence in what they are calling a regressive society; concurrently, this is what was done by the British in their colonial rule of India, from which their trade with China had, until this point, suffered. Racial and cultural and religious cariacture emerge, and normalized later into stereotypes, and then simply what the layperson believes about people they do not know and do not care to understand (often at their own peril)—this is the core conflict of, both, these two stories, but also the arc of history of European colonial conquest.

The pair of responses from these stories is, either, to leverage what standing is left into restoration (and failing that, as Puyi learns repeatedly does not work, respectable prominence as a heritage figure), or psychological warfare that is produced by propaganda informed by stereotyping projected onto the combantant, in a reversal of the prevailing power dynamic. The conflicts of the past present themselves in a sense of harmonious, successful cultural subsumation in M. Butterfly only for Gallimard to realize his sensitivity to the culture without ever questioning what he was doing there in the first place (regardless of his overtures to his peers about their role in peace); Puyi is doomed to rule a China that his predecessors debateably ceded to Western interests a generation prior, while also failing to do so in the service of governance (the same dynamic as late-Imperial Russia; an empire with tenuous legitimacy perpetuating itself through foreign alliance, rather than popular, or even enthusiastic support), despite the competing interests arguably had similar motives, at least whose motives they were (the republican government, the deposed Qing, later on the Maoists, whomever) seemed to matter enough. Puyi’s pro-Japanese tendencies were neither unprecedented (immediate predecessors accused of aligning with various interests in previous rebellions in an act of self-preservation), nor particularly effective (he became emperor 3 times, as I mentioned, and ultimately still lost, while actively cooperating believing it would save his life, and not that of his empire, just the continuity of his rule).

One of these tactics worked, and the other did not, and historically has not; the irony is that both of these stories find their influences in Confucius, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”— Shi Pei Pu (or his avatar in the film, Song Liling) was prepared to go down with the ship (in this case, imprisoned for espionage—after 20 years of cooperation from the French diplomatic corps) if it meant a successful psychological operation, and this can be attributed to successfully decontructing the metaphysics of colonialist mentality, even among the reticent and sympathetic to the colonized; this is the weakness, in this case, Ian Richardson’s Ambassador Toulon hopes to be fodder for reactionary defenses of colonial influence within the diplomatic corps, rather than a vector for exploitation by the colonized to defeat it. Like the British during the later Qing-era Opium Wars, the Japanese during WWII relied on exploiting opium addiction as a means of warfare in China, something of note during Puyi’s own war crime trial (Tianjin concession and later ports in Manchukuo being effective entrypoints for this illicit trade).

These things are all indicative, perhaps even rationalizing, of that path of psychological operation, and is by no means unprecedented— the propaganda around Mao’s cultural revolution (swimming in the Yangtze, for example, as a call for solidarity in a new revolution) took old iconography from Imperial China to turn a not-so-decisive victory in a civil war against the republican government into the prevailing political system that, at least nominally, belongs to the people (that it doesn’t function as such is less the point compared to the notion that the same tactics were used to enable effectively fundamentally incompatible political philosophies in the same state).

This phenomenon plays out in history repeatedly, with Russia being another example of the same dynamic; a culture that doesn’t find a strongman figure incompatible with any number of political systems, from the Tsar, to Lenin, to Stalin, to Putin with intermediate figures like Khruschev and Yeltsin being powerful presences in their own right, but failed to solidify their iconography in the same way. This is a function of propagandization that is usually written off as a cult of personality, something Khruschev (correctly) identified as being incompatible with Marxism, citing Marx himself on hero worship:

From my antipathy to any cult of the individual, I never made public during the existence of the International the numerous addresses from various countries which recognized my merits and which annoyed me. I did not even reply to them, except sometimes to rebuke their authors. Engels and I first joined the secret society of Communists on the condition that everything making for superstitious worship of authority would be deleted from its statute. . . .The great modesty of the genius of the revolution, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, is known.

In a revolutionary context, this is also absolutely correct; a century of Latin American revolts (prior to the routine invasiveness of the US in regime change, but creating the pretext for it decades later) taught these states that personality is useful creating a state, but not necessarily in administrating it— the caudillo being a concept of an effective military leader in a liberative effort becoming an oppressive dictator once the state is established. Fidel Castro is an example of this as well in modern history— his necessity, as he saw it, to the revolution was clear (“When have you seen a revolution [won] by committee? Never.”)— some have argued his leadership after the revolution was dictatorial (ostensibly, but only superficially, similar to the regime ousted by the revolution—the outcomes speak to why this isn’t true), but a case could be made that in the face of ongoing sanctions, etc. the revolution is not over, and the propagandist’s task is never complete until then, so he remains in the pantheon of Cuban political thought.

In all of these cases, why a blanket statement on dictators, personality cults, or really anything framed one way by western (imperialist) thought may be more incidental than it is explanatory or clarifying for external audiences; this is part of the long history of propaganda as a tool for whatever cause needs a narrative, the US involvement in WWI being one such example where popular support was lobbied by both sides, hoping to win an ally, and the outcome of that decision was popularly understood to be crucial to the success of the war. The examples I’ve discussed here like this one, I believe, take this to the extreme— at what point is it effective enough weaponry to enact this kind of state violence, and have propaganda work against you, to have it mastered more effectively than it was employed itself, by reactionaries and revolutionaries alike against the power structure? History suggests that, yes, tactics and strategy and ideology are extricable, and can manifest more superficial similarites than internal incompatibilities— this should be the basis of all critical analysis of current affairs ever bit as much as historical review.



Some things I’m reading, watching, or listening to that I am now recommending:

Long Live the Microcinema

Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties

A Last Look at the Last Emperor of China


How Phoebe Bridgers Got Famous without Leaving Her Room

Swarming Solidarity: How Contract Negotiations in 2021 Could Be Flashpoints in the U.S. Class Struggle

As always, feel free to reach out to me on Twitter (@jmarhee), Mastodon (@jmarhee@cybre.space), or via email at strangeattractors@krebstar.biz.