MCLC logo

Night Thoughts of a Hungry Ghost Writer:
Chen Bulei and the Life of Service in Republican China

by Dahpon Ho

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 19, no. 1 (Spring 2007), pp. 1-59


Let us step, for a moment, into the world of a ghostwriter and secretary in Republican China. What will we see? Ambition, resignation, alienation, and small contributions mixed in with great expectations? Indeed. Most of all, we can see a search for identity (personal, professional, and political) in a time of rapid change that resonates with the China of the present day. This is a portrait of Chen Bulei, a journalist who joined the Nationalist Party in 1927 and became Chiang Kai-shek's long-term secretary and ghostwriter. On the night of November 12, 1948, Chen Bulei killed himself with an overdose of sleeping pills and left a fragmented last testament of eleven different suicide notes. This paper reconstructs Chen's career, seen through his documented memories, as a window on the profound transformations of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s in China and the changing dynamic between professionals and the state. Furthermore, this is a call for the study of ghostwriting and ghostwriters, a topic that remains all but neglected, but one which has much to offer to our understanding of modern Chinese political culture. No portrait, no matter how intimate, can capture all of the human complexities of a subject. But by exploring a moment of fissure, a slice of time, the author seeks to open up insights on a historical period and the men and women who lived it.