In the author’s note of The Private Papers of Eastern Jewel (Bloomsbury, 2008), Maureen Lindley writes:
...a novel based on the extraordinary life of a Manchu princess whose striking image, that of a beautiful girl in men’s clothes, caught my attention when she appeared momentarily on screen in Bertolucci’s film, The Last Emperor.
Really? The same thing happened to me when I saw The Last Emperor in high school. I’ve always remembered the jodhpur-clad woman who visited the empress in one scene.
When Lilian Lee’s translation of The Last Princess of Manchuria (William Morrow) was published in 1992, I was thrilled to learn it centered around this minor character in The Last Emperor. Wanting to learn more about her, I devoured the book on my morning commute to Dupont Circle. I’ve also watched–more than once–the Hong Kong film depicting the same story. If one historical character has stuck with me over the decades, it’s been Yoshiko Kawashima.
This week I read The Private Papers of Eastern Jewel and revisited this story. Eastern Jewel was born in Beijing in the early 1900s and was a distant relative of the Chinese Emperor, Pu Yi. At the age of 8, Eastern Jewel was sold to a rich man in Tokyo. She never saw her birth family again.
The Japanese family had great plans for Eastern Jewel and renamed her Yoshiko Kawashima. She became a sex slave to the men in her adopted family before they sold her to a Mongolian prince. Yoshiko felt stifled by the vastness of Mongolia and plotted her escape. And from there she drifted between China and Japan.
To me, what sets Yoshiko Kawashima apart from other historical figures in China is that above everything else (call her a spy, a prostitute, a manipulator), she was feminist. She did what she wanted and didn’t think twice about it, at least not in the context of her gender. Whether she flew an airplane, rode horses, dressed in men’s clothing, drank, smoked (tobacco and opium), or slept around (with men and women of all nationalities), she didn’t let her gender define who she was.
Yoshiko Kawashima became multi-lingual, floating between Chinese, Japanese, and Western communities in Shanghai and Beijing during WWII, all while spying for the Japanese–in hopes of finding acceptance in her adopted homeland. In her view, China abandoned her at an early age and while she wasn’t treated much better in Japan, she did spend her formative years in Tokyo and it represented her adopted mother, with whom she had a love-hate relationship (and as Lindley writes in the book, love and hate are not all that different).
The Private Papers of Eastern Jewel is written in a heavy narrative style, without much dialogue. But the story is so strong it continues to capture my interest after all these years.