A Manchu princess-turned-Japanese operative who often wore men’s clothes—Kawashima Yoshiko’s life gave a whole new meaning to “identity crisis.”
Contradictorily dubbed both an Eastern Mata Hari and a Manchu Joan of Arc, Yoshiko began her life in Beijing in 1907 as Aisin Gioro Xianyu, the 14th daughter of one of the princes in the Qing dynasty’s Manchu imperial family. Her dizzying life story, from being pawned off to a Japanese zealot to leading an army in China, culminating in her execution by the Chinese government, is the subject of a new biography by Phyllis Birnbaum, Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy.
After the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912, Yoshiko joined her father and his retinue as they went into exile in Lushun, Manchuria. Her father nursed ambitions of reestablishing the Qing dynasty, and his allies in that cause became the Japanese. In 1915, the 8-year-old girl was given by her father to his Japanese friend Kawashima Naniwa, and she would become his adopted daughter of sorts.
Yoshiko’s tale is a difficult one to sift through, and the book is burdened in part by Birnbaum’s refusal to stray outside of the definitive evidence about her subject’s life. Readers will definitely judge this book by its cover and pick it up, only to have the juicy story consistently undercut by chapters devoted to handwringing about whose version of history is correct. What is clear, however, is that Yoshiko’s story is entangled with the rapacious, complicated maneuverings by Japan in China in the first half of the 20th century.
As Birnbaum notes, attitudes toward China shifted dramatically in Japan in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the widespread viewpoint became one of disdain for what the Japanese saw as a disorganized, opium-addicted, weak neighbor. Emboldened by military success in the Russo-Japanese War and war-mongers like the tairuku ronin (Japanese adventurers in China who supported pan-Asianism and Japanese expansion, and later became involved in paramilitary and espionage activities), Japan saw Manchuria as an excellent foothold into China, and the Qing royal family as the ideal puppet rulers. “In order to achieve their goals, the Japanese were eager to convince the rest of the world that Manchuria, along with Inner Mongolia, was a distinct region, with its own culture and peoples, and certainly not part of China, with its mainly Han Chinese population,” explains Birnbaum. For both internal and external reasons, the exiled Qing dynasty made the perfect front, giving legitimacy to Japanese claims that they were only interested in “saving” the Chinese empire, both from itself and from Western powers.
Kawashima Naniwa, a former tairuku ronin and close friend to Yoshiko’s father, was one of many Japanese individuals at the center of this thinly-veiled plot to take a chunk out of China. What is interesting is how blind to Japanese ambitions the imperial family seemed to be, or at least, later professed to be.
Yoshiko’s life under Naniwa’s tutelage was no easy task. He was by all accounts a terrible father, which probably stemmed in part from the fact that he never really had his own life together. He never legally adopted his daughter, leaving her in a sort of identity limbo wherein she grew up dressing and speaking Japanese, but was reminded of her origins every day when other students called her a “chink.” His house was a veritable crash pad for a variety of political pot-stirrers. Most biographers contend that he raped Yoshiko and then carried on an affair with her. It was also while she was with Naniwa that she adopted her style of dressing in male clothes.
When Yoshiko left Japan for Shanghai, she started to live her life in three ways for which she would be famous. The first was her dancing. Birnbaum has collected account after account of Yoshiko’s unforgettable dancing at the various nightclubs that scandalized, but also enthralled, Chinese society. Here was this Qing princess dressed in male clothes, taking part in lurid dances at houses of ill repute. The second was her penchant for toxic relationships. Throughout her life, Yoshiko would have relationships with less than savory men, from General Tanaka Ryukichi—Birnbaum hints that they seemed to be involved in some sort of master-slave relationship (Yoshiko was the master)—to General Tada Hayao, who was in charge of setting up the Japanese puppet state.
The third was her involvement in the Shanghai Incident, in which Japan attacked the city in the first few months of 1932. After acquiring Manchuria, Japan had been looking to increase its influence in Shanghai, and Yoshiko played a major role. The justification for the attack was supposedly to protect Japanese citizens under assault in the city, but it turns out that Yoshiko had actually been the one who paid Chinese factory workers to attack Japanese monks, causing trouble outside the Sanyou Towel Company.
When Yoshiko was later executed by Chiang Kai-Shek’s government, the Shanghai Incident was just a number of ways in which she had “betrayed” the Chinese. Yoshiko argued she was doing it all for China, or at least the imperial China she wanted restored.
She was also involved in convincing Empress Wanrong to leave the Forbidden City and join her husband in Lushan so that the Japanese could promote the image of the happy imperial couple ruling over their home region of Manchuria. When the Japanese wanted the Rehe region—and took it—they claimed Yoshiko led one of the armies against the Chinese “bandits.” But perhaps most damning was that she was accused quite often of using sex to get secrets out of Chinese military officials and give them to the Japanese.
The peak of her fame came in April 1933 with the publication of Muramatsu Shofu’s The Beauty in Men’s Clothing—while fictional, it was generally believed to be the true tale of Yoshiko’s life (so much so that it was used by the Chinese when they put her on trial). Just a few months before, she had been photographed for the newspaper Asahi in Japanese military uniform—an image that would become iconic.
From there, it was almost immediately all downhill. Her health deteriorated rapidly, and most descriptions of her from then on would note her missing teeth and search for signs of her former beauty. She would grow increasingly critical of Japanese policy, which put her life in danger. After the war, she was put on trial for betraying her country. While many others who had committed grave offenses against China were able to make arrangements to get out (Chiang Kai-Shek’s nickname was General Cash My Check), Yoshiko’s fame ensured she would be made an example of. In March of 1948 she was shot in the back of the head in a Beijing prison yard. While a photo was released of her bloodied deceased body, rumors started immediately that she was in fact still alive.
It was a fitting end for her larger-than-life story. Who knows if all the rumors about Yoshiko are true, including this last one—but they’re really too interesting to matter.