Tang Wei plays Wong Chia Chi, a character based on the spy Zheng Pingru, in Lust, Caution
There’s something enduringly fascinating about female spies, even more so when there’s an element of Hollywood-like glamour. Think Marlene Dietrich and Josephine Baker, both of whom reported back to the FBI from Europe, where they were touring, entertaining Allied troops (Baker famously pinned notes inside her underwear), French fashion icon Coco Chanel (Nazi collaborator), and the lovely Virginia Hall, a.k.a. WWII’s “most dangerous Allied spy” (despite a wooden leg and limp, the result of a freak hunting accident).
While physical attractiveness isn’t always a requisite, or even an advantage, its value was evident long before the betrayal of Samson by Delilah, who reputedly earned 1,100 silver shekels (rough estimate: $90,000) for her trouble.
Among the techniques outlined in “The 36 Stratagems,” a manual on politics and war compiled some 300 years ago by an unknown Chinese scholar, is “the beauty trap” – sending desirable women into enemy camps to create chaos.
First, the ruler becomes so enamored with the beauty that he neglects his duties and relaxes his vigilance. Second, other males at court will begin to display aggressive behavior that enflames minor differences, hindering cooperation and destroying morale. Third, other females, motivated by jealousy, will plot subversions that further exacerbate the situation.
Among the techniques outlined in “The 36 Stratagems” is “the beauty trap” – sending desirable women into enemy camps to create chaos.
“You’ve got to be careful about these girls,” Robert Kennedy told his brother, President John F. Kennedy, who, in 1963, was “seeing” Ellen Rometsch, a striking, East German “escort” 19 years his junior. “A couple of them might be spies.” (Two years prior, a sex scandal known as “the Profumo Affair”— it turned out that the British Secretary of State for War and a Soviet naval attaché were sharing the same young mistress, Christine Keeler, thus risking leaks of confidential information – helped topple England’s Conservative government.)
The term “honeytrap” – the use of sex to elicit information about, or compromise, someone, reputedly first entered the English language in John Le Carre’s 1974 novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Its near-cousin, “honeypot,” is defined in The Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English as a euphemism for the female pudenda.
As in the West, Asia has had its share of female undercover operatives whose lives were often as extraordinary as they were dangerous.
The story of Zheng Pingru (1918-1940), or a version of it, became known in the West thanks to Ang Lee’s award-winning erotic spy thriller Lust, Caution. During the Second Sino-Japanese War, Zheng, whose mother was Japanese, worked undercover for China’s Kuomintang, gathering information during Japan’s occupation of Shanghai. In Ang Lee’s version, a patriotic young Hong Kong acting troupe concocts a plot to assassinate the treacherous head of the local Japanese secret police (in real life, Ding Mocun). Zheng is portrayed as the naïve virgin chosen as bait. After being “broken in,” she’s sent to gain the trust of her quarry. In the end, having fallen in love with Ding (thanks, in large part, to their passionate sex life), she sabotages the assassination plot at the last minute, and in so doing reveals her complicity. The film ends with her execution by Ding’s henchmen. (According to Kuomintang files, the plot failed because Zheng’s gun jammed.)
Zheng’s countrywoman Jiang Zhuyun (1920-1949) was a Communist resistance fighter. As an undercover agent, she was ordered to impersonate the wife of CCP (Chinese Communist Party) agent Peng Pongwu (who was himself undercover, leading a group of guerillas). Though Peng was already married, the two had a son together.
Eventually apprehended by the Kuomintang, Jiang endured 18 months of privation and torture that included beatings with a thorn-covered steel whip, electric shocks, and having bamboo sticks wedged under her fingernails. Through it all, she never surrendered any names to her Nationalist captors.
Although Mao Zedong declared the formation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on October 1, 1949, the Nationalists still held pockets of the country, including the site of Jiang’s incarceration. On November 14, 1949, only days before Communist troops took over Shanghai, the Nationalists executed her. She was 29.
The honeytrap took an interesting turn in the case of Shi Pei Pu (1938-2009), a male Chinese opera singer adept at playing female roles – both onstage and off. Over the course of a 20-year, ostensibly heterosexual liaison, he managed to obtain state secrets from a stunningly naïve French embassy accountant, Bernard Boursicot, even convincing Boursicot that they’d conceived a son together – Shi Du Du, a.k.a. Bertrand. Between 1969 and 1972, more than 500 French embassy documents fell into Chinese hands. Both men ultimately received prison sentences, though they were later pardoned by French President Francois Mitterrand and went their separate ways.
The unlikely affair inspired American David Henry Hwang’s play M. Butterfly (1988), which was produced on Broadway and adapted as a 1993 film.
Oleg Danilovich Kalugin was the youngest senior general in the KGB’s history. Discussing sexual entrapment as a political tactic in his 1994 autobiography, The First Chief Directorate: My 32 Years in Intelligence and Espionage Against the West, he wrote:
There’s very little difference between America asking its young men to stand up for their country and Russia ask[ing] its young women to lie down…Catching people with their pants down was a prime way of compromising and recruiting them.
The KGB, he added, “usually got the better of the CIA and hostile intelligence agencies…for the simple reason that we generally had fewer scruples and were more willing to use sex as a weapon.” (Legend has it that Indonesian President Sukarno proved immune to such methods. Presented with KGB videotapes of him in flagrante with Russian women dressed as air stewardesses, he reputedly asked for extra copies to show to friends back home.)
The KGB “usually got the better of the CIA…for the simple reason that we generally had fewer scruples and were more willing to use sex as a weapon.”
But when Asian females, Chinese in particular, have been called upon to use their wiles in their country’s service, it opens up a complex can of worms once the fighting ends. Asserting the legitimacy, and by extension the stability, of a government’s rule in the face of evidence that they deployed women as sex spies turns out to be a messy business. It’s understood that spying in wartime requires lying and duplicity, but compromised virtue is viewed more harshly.
Bai Ling plays Miss Mae Lee East, who tries to lure the protagonist, Jim T. West, played by Will Smith, to his death in Wild Wild West
“To starve to death is trivial, to lose one’s chastity is serious” (esi shi jixiao, shijie shi jia) goes a Chinese maxim with a clear gender bias. “Female chastity has been, and continues to be, an important commodity in establishing and sustaining popular perceptions of the moral virtue of the PRC as a nation, and the CCP as its legitimate government,” explained Louise Edwards, Professor of Chinese History at the University of New South Wales. War-time governments motivate soldiers to defend the chastity of “women at home” against enemy violation. After a war, reaffirmations of courageous men and morally upright women help pave the way back to “normalcy.” To that end, memories need to be “corrected,” often by the same propagandists who worked to inspire public participation in the war in the first place.
Shi Pei Pu’s crossdressing promiscuity, though ultimately humiliating to his victim, was never treated as a serious moral offense by authorities. Zheng Pingru and Jiang Zhuyun were held to a different standard. Sexual fidelity, Edwards asserts, is crucial to the recognition of women’s war service as it reflects on the very notion of womanhood within Chinese culture.
Martyrs are perfect fodder for revisionist commemoration, their biographies no longer “complicated” by reality. Young martyrs (bonus points for pretty and female) allow proponents of militarization to idealize youthful passion and the tragedy of early death – emotional hooks for gaining public sympathy.
Whitewashing any inconvenient details, Taiwan’s Kuomintang government eventually granted Zheng “martyr” status. In 2009, the 95th anniversary of Zheng’s birth, the CCP unveiled a life-sized bronze statue depicting their “anti-Japanese heroine” at the moment of her execution – hands bound, head turned away, her body just beginning to fall to one side.
More subtle are the many portraits of her that still appear in China, on magazine covers and billboards, depicting a woman of at least 35 (Zheng was 22 when she was executed) – suggesting that, rather than being a political pawn barely out of her teens, she was old enough to make informed decisions about her life.
Jiang’s story, subjected to convoluted makeovers that minimized or explained away the “conjugal irregularity” (i.e. adultery) at the heart of her war service, has been promoted extensively – the subject of posters, comics, paintings, poems, plays, opera, fiction, movies, and documentaries, as well as numerous scholarly histories – celebrating her as a loyal wife (she and Peng Pongwu eventually married) and sacrificing mother, staunch party member, and “elder sister” of the revolution. A novel based on her life, Hongyan (Red Crag), which includes graphic details of her torture in prison, was released in 1961; three years later, playwright Yan Su composed a seven-act operatic play, Jiang Jie (Sister Jiang), based on it.
A very different fate awaited Chinese celebrity author and spy Guan Lu (1907–1982).
Prior to the War of Resistance, she was considered one of Shanghai’s eminent Three Female Talents (along with Eileen Chang and Ding Ling), renowned for her left-wing poetry, fiction, a bestselling autobiography, and even the lyrics for the theme song of a popular left-wing patriotic film Crossroads (Shizi jietou).
When the Japanese took over Shanghai, the Communist Party assigned her to work undercover – as editor of Shanghai’s leading collaborationist women’s magazine, Nüsheng (Women’s Voice). In that role, she managed to infiltrate the city’s upper echelons of Japanese power brokers as well as its secret police.
But at war’s end, Guan Lu’s high profile (and inconvenient survival) – unlike the relative anonymity (and early demise) of Zheng and Jiang – proved her undoing; her patriotism would never be recognized during her lifetime. Rather than acknowledging her work, and considerable bravery, on their behalf, the CCP either instigated or turned a blind eye to widely published smears branding her “a cultural traitor” – a beautiful celebrity who’d enjoyed a glamorous lifestyle, consorting with Japanese higher-ups while the rest of the population suffered wartime privations. One magazine article pointedly asked its readers whether there was any difference between fraternizing with the enemy and “sleeping around” with men.
Later, in 1947, even once her CCP spy status had been confirmed, a Shanghai newspaper insisted that the intelligence she’d gathered was worthless, since her experience revolved around writing love poems, flirting, and acquiring fashionable clothes, adding, “She didn’t even know how to use a rifle.”
Relentless criticism led publishers, who’d previously admired Guan Lu’s writing, to reject it. The Party also forced her to remain single by forbidding marriage to her boyfriend (a prominent CCP member). In 1955, she was imprisoned for two years as a counter-revolutionary, then again in 1966, only to be released – 10 years later – for lack of evidence.
The direct descendant of an 18th-century ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore, in southwest India, Noor-un-Nissa Inayat Khan (1914-1944) was, technically, a princess, as well as a committed pacifist (her father was responsible for bringing Sufism, which promotes tolerance and peace, to the West; her mother was American). Growing up in Paris and London, she became a short story writer adept at playing harp and piano. When WWII broke out, she trained as one of the first-ever female radio operators. “Not overburdened with brains,” an officer wrote in her personnel file, “but has worked hard and shown keenness.” Despite her youth, her radio and language skills were desperately needed. British high command sent her into occupied France – posing as a children’s nurse, code name Madeleine – as part of a Special Operations force to support Allied resistance against the Germans.
Noor-un-Nissa Inayat Khan
Within 10 days of her arrival, all the operatives in her network had been arrested. Directed to return to England, Noor refused, intent on rebuilding the network on her own. To avoid being recognized, she dyed her hair and donned disguises. Taking on the work of six, she carried a wireless set around in a bulky suitcase, broadcasting messages from the homes of old Parisian friends.
Those transmissions became the sole link between agents in London and Paris, so important to resistance activities that the Gestapo placed a 100,000-franc bounty (approximately $18,000 today) on her head. In 1943, just as she was about to return to London, they caught her. According to a recently discovered manuscript by a fellow resistance fighter, it was Noor’s passion for blue clothing, something the Nazis knew, that helped them apprehend her. After an unsuccessful prison escape, she was beaten, starved, and interrogated for 10 months, then sent to Dachau where, an anonymous witness later told a Canadian intelligence officer, she was singled out for “special treatment” – a near-fatal beating by a SS officer, who finally shot her. She was 30.
Britain posthumously awarded her the George Cross, France the Croix de Guerre with gold star. In 2018, the Bank of England considered putting her face on the £50 note. In 2020, a blue memorial plaque was installed at 4 Taviton Street in Bloomsbury, where she’d lived before leaving for France. A bronze bust, mounted on a pedestal in nearby Gordon Square, was unveiled by Princess Anne in 2012 – the first memorial in Britain to either a Muslim or an Asian woman.
It’s unlikely that either Noor Khan, girl warrior Liu Hulan (1932-1947), who was beheaded at the age of 14 (Mao Zedong praised her “glorious death”), or Filipina Josephina Guerrero engaged in honeytrap ruses as part of their missions.
Guerrero (1917-1996) initially resorted to spying when the Japanese occupation of the Philippines cut off access to the medicine she needed to help combat Hansen’s disease, otherwise known as leprosy. After being diagnosed at 55, her two-year-old daughter was removed from her care and her husband moved out.
Determined to avoid a slow, painful death, Guerrero contacted Philippine guerillas operating in Manila. Japanese forces had taken over the news outlets; the guerillas connected her to the Allies, who hired her to deliver war news to her fellow Filipinos. Her lesions, it turned out, dissuaded Japanese soldiers from their customary body searches. Soon, she was mapping enemy fortifications and gun placements on Manila’s waterfront, maps that became essential in 1944 to American bombers.
More dangerous still, she was ordered to carry a map of the minefields installed around Manila to American headquarters 35 miles to the north. Despite the fatigue and paralyzing headaches brought on by her malady, she taped the map to her back, walked 25 miles to the town of Malolos, took a boat around an active combat zone, then walked the remaining eight miles, only to discover that the American troops had already advanced to Malolos. Retracing her steps, she eventually placed the map in the hands of the 17th Infantry’s captain.
Minefield map in hand, American troops rode safely into Manila; Guerrero followed behind, tending to the wounded and carrying children to safety. A guerrilla heroine in her own right, Guerrero was eventually awarded the US Medal of Freedom with Silver Palm, the highest honor given to a civilian by the American government and, eventually, American citizenship.
Arguably the most swashbuckling spy biography of all belongs to Aisin Gioro Xianyu, a.k.a. Yoshiko Kawashima a.k.a. Dongzhen (“Eastern jewel”), “Joan of Arc of the Manchus,” and “The Mata Hari of the Far East” (the latter a misnomer, as Yoshiko was far more intelligent and effective than the WWI-era Dutch dancer, an alleged German spy executed by the British).
Like Noor Khan, Yoshiko (1907-1948) – a favorite daughter of the Manchu Prince Shanqi, heir to the Shu peerage of the Qing Dynasty – had a legitimate claim to royalty; her family had held absolute power over China for 300 years. But when she was four, the Manchus were overthrown (the Japanese claimed they were liberating China from various imperialist Western nations). Though shorn of all power, family members were allowed to remain in the Forbidden City, along with a few thousand palace guards and domestics, subsidized by pensions from the revolutionary government. But some, like Yoshiko’s father, went into exile, convinced that their birthright could be restored with Japan’s help.
At the age of 10, following the death of both parents (possibly by suicide), Yoshiko was adopted by a Japanese family friend and forced to leave behind everything she knew, including her Chinese name. A strikingly attractive adolescent, Yoshiko took to wearing men’s clothes and made several suicide attempts, actions believed to be the result of having suffered years of sexual abuse at the hands of her adopted father, who married her off at 20 to a member of the Mongolian military. Miserable, she made a nighttime escape (reputedly dressed in scarlet) on horseback across mountain paths and into Japan, where she was recruited as a spy for Japan’s Kwantung Army.
With the Second Sino-Japanese War underway, Yoshiko began frequenting opium and morphine dens (disguised as a Chinese prostitute) in order to mix with petty officials and officers. Other assignments led to Siberia, Shanghai, and Tianjin where, dressed as a socialite, she eavesdropped in ballrooms, when she wasn’t busy opening a highly successful restaurant, working as a radio commentator and newspaper journalist, tending to a quartet of pet monkeys, impersonating a Chinese soldier or, in her spare time, a Manchu nobleman, complete with cape and satin boots. She is, wrote a reporter in 1931, the “very incarnation of eroticism and the grotesque.”
She is, wrote a reporter in 1931, the “very incarnation of eroticism and the grotesque.”
In 1932, she formed an independent counter-insurgency cavalry force, made up of several thousand former bandits, to hunt down anti-Japanese guerrilla bands. Through it all, she gained a reputation for entertaining numerous lovers, of both sexes, including many influential Japanese officials.
In October, 1945, the “long sought-for beauty in male costume” was arrested by Chinese secret police, charged with aiding the enemy and trying to re-establish Manchu rule. Hundreds of spectators jostled to watch her trial.
In March, 1948, she was executed in a frost-covered prison yard, after which her body, its face covered with blood, was put on public display.
Rumors persist to this day, however, that the body wasn’t hers, that she somehow managed to escape, like Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov, living on in anonymity into her eighties.
Kawashima’s life remains a subject of controversy between China and Japan. In some circles, her name has become synonymous with the idea of an enemy collaborator.
A Japanese film about her appeared in 1957, an award-winning Hong Kong film in 1990 (The Last Princess of Manchuria), and in Bernard Bertolucci’s 1987 The Last Emperor, she appears in dashing aviatrix leathers, as the exiled emperor’s distant cousin, who goes on to become the royal family’s opium supplier. “Oh, I know everything,” she tells the empress. “I know Chiang Kai-shek has false teeth. I know his nickname, ‘Cash My Check.’ I’m a spy and I don’t care who knows it.”
Maggie Han as Yoshiko Kawashima (center) in The Last Emperor
Her insouciance in the face of considerable danger, suggests biographer Phyliss Birnbaum, was the result of either immense courage or an utter misunderstanding of current events. Liberator or traitor, her actions played a unique role in the conflicts that transformed East Asia.
“If I go down in espionage history,” wrote East German intelligence chief Marcus Wolf in his autobiography,“ it may well be for perfecting the use of sex in spying.” During the Cold War, Wolf sent Stasi “Romeo spies,” good-looking males trained to “honey trap” females, into West Germany. With more and more women joining the workforce, and so many of the country’s men having been killed in WWII, Wolf reasoned that the higher echelons of West German government, commerce and industry were stocked with lonely single women ripe for exploitation. According to Marianne Quoirin’s The Spies Who Did It For Love, one West German woman, a former nun, refused to have sex with her “Romeo” until they were married. The Stasi, convinced of her importance as an information source, staged a wedding, providing both priest and mother-in-law.
“I was fulfilling my patriotic duty,” noted Gerard Beier, a 20-year Romeo veteran whose career ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall. “And it wasn’t unpleasant.” CNN reported that some 40 women, over the course of four decades, were prosecuted for espionage entanglements with Romeos.
Russia’s Romeo equivalents were known as Ravens. They were rigorously trained in State School 4, outside of Moscow, along with counterpart female “Sparrows,” in everything from firearms, martial arts, and languages to Kama Sutra positions, sexual perversity, and the proper way to uncork champagne.
In 2016, Beijing mounted a campaign warning Chinese women against seduction by “foreign” male spies. A full-color, 16-panel cartoon poster entitled “Dangerous Love” was mounted on walls, in subways, on street corners and buildings, though it was unclear what national security secrets young Chinese working women are thought to have access to.
Chinese cartoon warning Chinese women against being seduced by Western spies
In 2009, London Deputy Mayor Ian Clement was drugged, in Beijing, by “a gorgeous girl” he’d meet at a party and taken back to his hotel room, only to wake to find his BlackBerry phone had “gone missing.” Shortly after, Britain’s MI5 circulated a 14-page report entitled “The Threat from Chinese Espionage.” Using phrases like “long haul connections” and “abuse vulnerabilities,” it cautioned that Chinese agents are operating with alarming efficiency and sophistication, and that hotel rooms in Beijing and Shanghai frequented by foreigners are likely to be bugged.
Mie Hama plays Japanese spy Kissy Suzuki alongside Sean Connery as James Bond in You Only Live Twice
But unlike Clement’s one-off encounter, many honey traps are designed to cultivate informants over long stretches of time. In the late 1980s, Richard W. Miller, an FBI veteran specializing in counterintelligence, was convicted of passing 20-years’ worth of classified documents to his Russian lover, a KGB operative. In 2004, James J. Smith, army veteran and highly respected supervisor in the FBI’s Counter-Chinese Espionage division, was brought to trial for having allowed access to more than a decade’s worth of top-secret files by Katrina Leung, a Chinese double agent Smith had put on the payroll, and with whom he enjoyed a protracted liaison.
Many honey traps are designed to cultivate informants over long stretches of time.
In 2020, US Democratic Congressman from California Eric Swalwell was summoned before the US House Judiciary Committee, where he refused to either confirm or deny allegations of a 14-year sexual relationship with Christine Fang, a.k.a. Fang Fang, a Communist Party agent posing as an undergraduate and translator. She fled the US in 2015, having been exposed by the FBI.
Eric Swalwell with Christina Fang
According to retired CIA Senior Clandestine Services Officer Daniel Hoffman, there may be hundreds, if not thousands, of young, attractive Chinese females – university educated and speaking flawless English – currently assigned to entrap US officials. “China’s MO,” Hoffman added, “is to flood the zone.” Government, military, corporate, and bank personnel in France, the Netherlands and India are also believed to be on China’s radar.
Another former official noted, “The honey trap technique has been glamorized by the Russians over the years, but the Chinese are the ones who have been really stepping up their game.” Junior-rank officers are considered particularly vulnerable, though academics, nuclear engineers, and chemists – think: COVID vaccine – can also be at risk.
“The honey trap technique has been glamorized by the Russians over the years, but the Chinese are the ones who have been really stepping up their game.”
North Korea also makes regular use of highly trained females to carry out some of its most covert operations. (The 1987 bombing of a South Korean airliner – an attempt to discourage international athletes from attending the 1988 Seoul Olympics – is a vivid example. In an exclusive, 2013 interview with ABC News, Kim Hyun-Lee described how she was recruited as a teenager and trained for eight years at an elite North Korean spy school before being ordered to place the bomb, which killed 115 people.)
Asked how often the Russians and Chinese use honey traps today, Mark Ruskin, author of The Pretender: My Life Undercover in the FBI, replied, “Hard to say. We only know after they’re caught.” Adding that, unlike Russian intelligence officers like Kalugin, who “lift the curtain” by publishing their memoirs in retirement, their Chinese equivalents never do, under threat of severe reprisal.
Both the United States and Britain claim that, while they may have employed sexpionage as recently as the 1950s, during the Cold War, it’s no longer considered viable.
Sexpionage “really doesn’t work,” insisted former covert CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson, “because there are too many emotions involved.”
Many non-Western intelligence agencies, China’s in particular, apparently disagree.