Fragrant Orchid: The Story of My Early Life
424pp. February 2015
Fragrant Orchid: The Story of My Early Life
Author: Yamaguchi, Yoshiko; Sakuya, Fujiwara; Translator: Chang, Chia-ning;
The acclaimed actress and legendary singer, Yamaguchi Yoshiko (aka Li Xianglan, 1920-2014), emerged from Japan-occupied Manchuria to become a transnational star during the Second Sino-Japanese war. Born to Japanese parents, raised in Manchuria, and educated in Beijing, the young Yamaguchi learned to speak impeccable Mandarin Chinese and received professional training in operatic singing. When recruited by the Manchurian Film Association in 1939 to act in "national policy" films in the service of Japanese imperialism in China, she allowed herself to be presented as a Chinese, effectively masking her Japanese identity in both her professional and private lives. Yamaguchi soon became an unprecedented transnational phenomenon in Manchuria, Shanghai, and Japan itself as the glamorous female lead in such well-known films as Song of the White Orchid (1939), China Nights (1940), Pledge in the Desert (1940), and Glory to Eternity (1943). Her signature songs, including "When Will You Return?" and "The Evening Primrose," swept East Asia in the waning years of the war and remained popular well into the postwar decades.

Ironically, although her celebrated international stardom was without parallel in wartime East Asia, she remained a puppet within a puppet state, choreographed at every turn by Japanese film studios in accordance with the expediencies of Japan's continental policy. In a dramatic turn of events after Japan's defeat, she was placed under house arrest in Shanghai by the Chinese Nationalist forces and barely escaped execution as a traitor to China. Her complex and intriguing life story as a convenient pawn, willing instrument, and tormented victim of Japan's imperialist ideology is told in her bestselling autobiography, translated here in full for the first time in English. An addendum reveals her postwar career in Hollywood and Broadway in the 1950s, her friendship with Charlie Chaplin, her first marriage to Isamu Noguchi, and her postwar life as singer, actress, political figure, television celebrity, and private citizen. 

A substantial introduction by Chia-ning Chang contextualizes Yamaguchi's life and career within the historical and cultural zeitgeist of wartime Manchuria, Japan, and China and the postwar controversies surrounding her life in East Asia.

Critical Interventions Series
“Li Xianglan or Ri Kōran is a myth-shrouded figure whose remarkable career embodied the ambiguity of national identity and popular culture in wartime East Asia. Was she a tool of Japanese militarism in China? Did she see herself as a Japanese advancing her country’s expansionist policy or as a ‘Chinese’ trying to cooperate with the enemy in building a New Order in East Asia? Or was she just struggling to survive the difficult times? Her poignant, deeply reflective autobiography gives us some insight into these intriguing questions. We are grateful to Chang Chia-ning for this passionate, well-crafted translation, which should find a place on the bookshelf of anyone interested in the violently intertwined histories of twentieth-century China and Japan.” —Poshek Fu, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

“Absorbing memoirs of a fascinating woman! This book presents a vivid recreation of a time and a place, mostly China in the late 1930s and early 1940s, but also of the postwar United States and Japan. The tone is by turns nostalgic, contemplative, gossipy, and remorseful. Ms. Yamaguchi is an impressive raconteur of a life whose boundaries between fact and fiction are tantalizingly - and almost seductively - blurred. Professor Chang’s translation is accomplished, smooth, and flowing, with an extensive, sophisticated, and extremely informative introduction.” —Zeljko Cipris, University of the Pacific
Author: Yamaguchi, Yoshiko; Sakuya, Fujiwara; Translator: Chang, Chia-ning;
Chia-ning Chang is professor of Japanese literature at the University of California, Davis.