In The Diplomat, Stephen Joyce reviews Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy: The Story of Kawashima Yoshiko, the Cross-Dressing Spy Who Commanded Her Own Army, a recent book by Phyllis Birnbaum:
Divisive figures often make the most compelling biographical subjects; and Kawashima Yoshiko is no exception. During her life and in death opinions have varied markedly. Loathed by the Chinese as a traitor, extolled by the Japanese for her talents as a spy, more recently she has even become a heroine to the LGBT community.
In Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy: The Story of Kawashima Yoshiko, the Cross-Dressing Spy Who Commanded Her Own Army, Phyllis Birnbaum provides a measured assessment of the fascinating rise and fall of this erratic, narcissistic, cross-dressing, bisexual princess.
Born in 1907 as Aisin Gioro Xianyu, Kawashima Yoshiko was the 14th daughter of Prince Su of the Qing imperial family. Soon after the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912, she was unwillingly sent to Japan to be adopted by family friend Kawashima Naniwa.
Her formative teenage years were spent in Matsumoto being educated in Japanese language and culture. It was not the happiest of upbringings. An attempted suicide and sexual assault by her new father are noted as potentially life-defining events but are hard to verify. Whatever the root cause of her discontent, in 1925 she shaved her head and started wearing men’s clothes.
In 1927 she married a Mongolian prince in a politically convenient union that quickly failed and Yoshiko soon travelled to China to pursue her dream of a honorable return to power for the Qing dynasty, beginning with Manchuria and Outer Mongolia.
With Japan increasingly active in China she soon found herself a raison d’etre: a spy in the service of the Japanese. Several incidents define her status as a spy; all are shrouded in mystery.
Although it would be hard to argue that she had a major influence over the key events of her time, Kawashima Yoshiko is a superb subject for biography and should interest all lovers of Asian history. And despite living her life in the public and media glare her essential mysteriousness remains—even in death. Did the Chinese Nationalist government execute her (as Kim Bai Fai) in 1948 or, as some would have it, did she escape and live out her last days quiet obscurity? Birnbaum concludes that the latter outcome is questionable, to say the least. Assuming she was indeed executed, her memoirs reveal a wry acceptance of her ultimate fate, despite her life aims lying in tatters.
The sheer wealth of material — autobiographies, Yoshiko’s letters, interviews, press reports, sensationalist magazine articles and official documents — with which to write a biography to some extent serves to cloud rather than illuminate the life of Yoshiko Kawashima. Much like her futile efforts to restore the Qing dynasty in China, any attempt to firmly pin down her real life story and true character seems destined to fail.