The True Story of Zheng Pingru, Protagonist of the Movie ‘Lust, Caution’ – Part 1

Zheng Pingru, a young socialite who worked as a spy in Shanghai during the Second Sino-Japanese war.

The true story of Zheng Pingru, a young Chinese socialite and spy in Shanghai in the 1930s, served as inspiration for Ang Lee's 2007 movie, 'Lust, Caution.' (Image: via Public Domain)

This is a two-part story; please go here for part 2.

People have passed down stories of heroes and beauties since ancient times. This is one such story. It is about two sweethearts, Wang Hanxun and Zheng Pingru. He was handsome, she was a beauty, and both were talented. Despite their plans to achieve a happy marriage, they were separated due to war and both died for their country, leaving a story of loyalty and love. This story was the basis for the 2007 movie Lust, Caution directed by Ang Lee.

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Zheng Pingru’s background

Zheng Pingru was born in Nagoya, Japan, in 1914. Her father, Zheng Yue, was Chinese, and her mother, Hanako Kimura, was Japanese. When Zheng Yue finished his studies at the Japanese University of Political Science and Law, he returned to China where he taught in the law department of Fudan University in Shanghai. He also served as a chief prosecutor, Secretary General, Director of Military Justice of the General Command of the Jingguo Army, and other positions.

Zheng Pingru spent her childhood in Japan and returned to Shanghai with her mother when she was 11. She was beautiful, intelligent, and generous, and often accompanied her father to social gatherings with influential people. All her father’s friends loved her.

An old black and white photo of Chinese socialite and spy, Zheng Pingru, with her Japanese mother.
Zheng Pingru with her mother, Hanako Kimura. (Image: Public Domain)

Zheng Pingru was interested in judo and acting. A picture of her was published in 1931 on the cover of a local magazine, making her a local celebrity. She wanted to go on to become an actress, but her father’s traditional views prevented her from following her dreams. Instead, she became interested in having photos made in which she mimicked the poses of celebrities. One of them was even selected to appear on the cover of the 1937 edition of a magazine called The Young Companion.

Wang Hanxun, a talented pilot

Wang Hanxun, born in 1912, was two years older than Zheng Pingru and studied at Shanghai Datong University’s School of Science and Technology. Datong University was a famous private comprehensive university in Shanghai during this time founded by the pioneer in higher education Hu Dunfu.

Originally, Wang Hanxun planned to study abroad, but after the Japanese invaded Manchuria in 1931, he decided to enroll in the Central Aviation School instead. After graduating in 1934, he was sent to Italy by the National Government to study low-altitude attack and then to the United States to continue his studies, finally becoming a pilot with comprehensive flying skills.

On his return to China, he became one of the few all-weather pilots. With his flying skills, combat ability, and excellent management skills, he served as an instructor in the Training Division of the Air Force, a brigade commander of the 11th Air Force Brigade, and, a captain of the Air Transport Corps. Wang Hanxun was highly trusted and respected by Chiang Kai‐shek and Madam Chiang.

The beginnings of romance

Wang Hanxun and Zheng Pingru met at a class reunion when he was invited to a banquet by the daughter of the headmaster, Hu Dunfu. At the party, he met the best friend of the headmaster’s daughter who happened to be Zheng Pingru. They both instantly fell in love with each other and exchanged photos. On the photos, Wang wrote: “To my dearest person, Pingru” while Zheng wrote: “To my dearest Hanxun — your Pingru.”

Zheng Pingru, Chinese socialite and spy, posing for a photo.
Wang Hanxun and Zheng Pingru instantly fell in love with each other when they met at a class reunion. (Image: via Public Domain)

Their romance blossomed in the spring of 1937. They were planning to get married in the autumn, but the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out on July 7, 1937. Wang Hanxun joined the air force to fight the Japanese and Zheng Pingru supported the war by donating money and goods. Before Wang Hanxun had to leave for battle, he came to say goodbye to Zheng Pingru. He gave her a photograph of them with a message that said: “Dear Pingru, keep this as a souvenir. I will always love you.” They promised to get married once the war was over.

They were separated from each other, but both dedicated themselves to resisting the Japanese invasion. Wang Hanxun fought gallantly in the Battle of Wuhan from June to October 1938, and he successfully shot down an enemy aircraft. At the same time, Zheng Pingru also actively participated in anti-Japanese activities in Shanghai.

In the spring of 1939, Wang Hanxun wrote twice to Zheng Pingru, asking her to marry him in Hong Kong, yet the devoted Zheng Pingru replied that they should wait to get married until after the war had been won.

Zheng Pingru becomes a spy

Zheng Pingru was young and elegant and her family routinely had dealings with senior Japanese figures. Having grown up in Japan, she was also fluent in Japanese. All these factors made her an excellent candidate for intelligence work for China’s new Nationalist government. Her father was approached by one of his old friends, Chen Guofu, who was then the Minister of Organization of the KMT Central Committee, to discuss the possibility. Everything was arranged and Zheng Pingru soon mastered the professional skills of an agent.

Growing up in Japan, Zheng Pingru was able to establish close relationships with the Japanese invaders, growing her network to over a hundred people, including officers, civil servants, and senior figures. Her warm, personable nature meant that she had access to many key locations within the Japanese military in Shanghai.

Zheng Pingru, Chinese socialite and spy, posing outdoors for a photo.
Zheng Pingru’s warm, personable nature meant that she had access to many key locations within the Japanese military in Shanghai. (Image: via Public Domain)

Zheng Pingru was invited by the head of Japanese naval intelligence, who had access to confidential information, to be his interpreter, and was also a translator for the Japanese military radio station. During this time, she successfully kidnapped the son of the Japanese Prime Minister, but the Chinese government released him out of fear that it would lead to a wider search and possibly cause Shanghai to face a similar situation to that of Nanjing, where Japanese soldiers were burning, killing, and looting as they pleased, committing countless crimes and atrocities.

In late August 1939, at a small, high-profile ball hosted by Japanese political and military dignitaries in Shanghai, one of the Japanese military officers shared a secret with Zheng Pingru: The number two man with the KMT in China’s Nationalist government, Wang Jingwei, had expressed his willingness to cooperate with the Japanese. The following day, Zheng reported the information to her superiors.

Then, in early December, Zheng sent another top-secret urgent telegram: Wang Jingwei had made a deal with Japan and was about to defect. A few days after Zheng’s secret telegram, Wang suddenly disappeared and on December 29, Wang sent a telegram from Hanoi, Vietnam, announcing his support for a negotiated settlement with the Japanese. Only then did Zheng Pingru’s superiors realize the information she had passed to them was indeed true.

Taiwan’s Military Intelligence Bureau once published a book called Model Intelligence Personnel, in which Zheng Pingru is the only female agent mentioned. It praises her for sacrificing her own dreams and goals in life to acquire information for the state, having no personal gain from doing so. Despite the shame brought upon her family and the scorn of the people of her hometown because of her dealings with Japanese traitors, she blamed no one and disregarded any criticism, displaying a sense of morality that ordinary people cannot achieve.

Translated from Kan Zhong Guo by Chew B

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