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Join us for an online book club session on Zoom with Phyllis Birnbaum, the author of Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy.

Aisin Gioro Xianyu (1907–1948) was the fourteenth daughter of a Manchu prince and a legendary figure in China's bloody struggle with Japan. After the fall of the Manchu dynasty in 1912, Xianyu's father gave his daughter to a Japanese friend who was sympathetic to his efforts to reclaim power. This man raised Xianyu, now known as Kawashima Yoshiko, to restore the Manchus to their former glory. Her fearsome dedication to this cause ultimately got her killed.

Yoshiko had a fiery personality and loved the limelight. She shocked Japanese society by dressing in men's clothes and rose to prominence as Commander Jin, touted in Japan's media as a new Joan of Arc. Boasting a short, handsome haircut and a genuine military uniform, Commander Jin was credited with many daring exploits, among them riding horseback as leader of her own army during the Japanese occupation of China.

While trying to promote the Manchus, Yoshiko supported the puppet Manchu state established by the Japanese in 1932 – one reason she was executed for treason after Japan's 1945 defeat. The truth of Yoshiko's life is still a source of contention between China and Japan: some believe she was exploited by powerful men, others claim she relished her role as political provocateur. China holds her responsible for unspeakable crimes, while Japan has forgiven her transgressions. This biography presents the richest and most accurate portrait to date of the controversial princess spy, recognizing her truly novel role in conflicts that transformed East Asia.

About the speaker:

Phyllis Birnbaum is a translator, novelist, biographer and journalist. Her works have appeared in the New Yorker, Times Literary Supplement, and numerous other publications. Her works include Modern Girls, Shining Stars, the Skies of Tokyo: Five Japanese Women as well as the biographies Glory in a Line: A Life of Foujita – the Artist Caught Between East and West and Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy: The Story of Kawashima Yoshiko, the Cross-Dressing Spy Who Commanded Her Own Army.

Further reading

In addition to her book, Phyllis Birnbaum has suggested a few other resources that may be useful for those who would like to go deeper into the subject:

Japan's Total Empire: Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism, by Louise Young [this is the best history of the period, I think]

Crossed Histories: Manchuria in the Age of Empire, Mariko Tamanoi, ed. [there is a chapter about Kawashima Yoshiko: "Princess, Traitor, Soldier, Spy: Aisin Gioro Xianyu and the Dilemma of Manchu Identity" by Dan Shao]

Manchuria under Japanese Dominion, Yamamuro Shinʼichi [Japanese scholar's view]

From Emperor to Citizen: The Autobiography of Aisin Gioro Puyi, Aisin Gioro Puyi

The Last Emperor, Bernardo Bertolucci film, available on Amazon Prime etc [Kawashima Yoshiko makes a cameo appearance!]

The Manchu Way by Mark C. Elliott [thorough history of the Manchus]

My Thirty-three Years' Dream, by Miyazaki Toten [rollicking memoir of a "China adventurer"—Yoshiko's father was also a "China adventurer"]

Heaven and Hell, Takarabe Toriko [novel about a Japanese girl who grows up in Manchukuo and must escape after the war—translated by me!]

In addition, you can find two Podcasts about Kawashima Yoshiko online:

  1. Laszlo Montgomery did a 3-part podcast on Kawashima on his "China History Podcast" here beginning here:
  2. Isaac Meyer also did an episode on his podcast, "History of Japan," accessible through this link: