Friday, 15 May 2015

Book Review: Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy by Phyllis Birnbaum

It's time for a very rare book review! Anyway, I requested this book from NetGalley because it's an aspect of World War II that I haven't heard about before, I mean, I don't know about you, but I've never heard of a Kawashima Yoshiko in any of my textbooks.

Kawashima Yoshiko (born Aisin Gioro Xian Yu; 愛新覺羅·顯玗) was the daughter of a Manchu Prince. When she was very young, she was sent to live in the home of one of his Japanese supporters  - Kawashima Naniwa. And then things get very, very murky. Kawashima Yoshiko wasn't averse to embellishing her life story, and it's hard to tell which of her exploits are true, and which are just tall tales. And yes, she had a lot of exploits - at one time, she was called "Commander Jin" and led her own troops. She also had an espionage career, although it's hard to tell what she actually did. And sadly, after World War II, she was tried as a traitor and executed by the Nationalist Government.

This book was a bit vague about timelines. While it does loosely follow chronological order, for the first few chapters, at least, the author looks at the different people who were in Kawashima Yoshiko's life to figure out what she was like, and what she did. So if you're not familiar with events of WWII in the Asia Pacific, you may get very confused by references to certain incidents.

While I would have preferred a more chronological account of her life, and a bit more explanation about that period of time, I can see why the author chose this method. Kawashima Yoshiko may have courted media attention, but her story changed to suit her needs. By talking to various people (or their descendants), the author managed to come somewhat close to to truth.

For me, the interesting part of this story was in the discrepancy between how Kawashima Yoshiko saw herself and how others saw her. She was brought up to think her destiny involved restoring the Qing Dynasty to power, but to others, she was just a pawn for the Japanese (and indeed, she seemed to be very Japanese in certain aspects). She may have thought herself a Joan of Arc, but others saw her as a nuisance that should be eliminated. And in the end, she was done in by sensationalist novels about her. I find that tragic, that your life be ended by what the creative fiction that someone created about you. It just shows how hard it is to discover who the real Kawashima Yoshiko was.

I would definitely recommend this book to people who are interested in WWII in the Asia Pacific. To avoid getting confused, you should have a basic knowledge about how the war broke up, how it went on, and how it ended, that way, you can focus on Kawashima Yoshiko instead of having to constantly look at timelines to see what was going on when and where.

Disclaimer: I got this book from the publisher via NetGalley for free in exchange for a free and honest review.

If you want to get it from Amazon, here's the (affiliated) link: Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy