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BOOK REVIEW : A Princess as Pawn in Asian Power Play : THE LAST PRINCESS OF MANCHURIA, by Lilian Lee, William Morrow, $15; 288 pages

August 24, 1992|CAROLYN SEE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

This short, elegant historical novel depicts the life of the female cousin of the last emperor of China. She is a Manchu princess, 14th daughter of Prince Su of the Ching Dynasty. But the history here is the sticking point. It may be a disgrace to America, but we're still very much a Eurocentric country; most of us draw a blank when we are asked to consider what has been going on in Asia during the early part of the century. Aside from Pearl Harbor, what else were the Japanese up to?

When we hear that one of Japan's plans was to rule Asia by using members of the recently deposed Ching Dynasty to go north to rule as puppets in the country of Manchuria, there's kind of a dumb spot in many of us that might react: Manchuria? Who'd want to go to Manchuria? Black Dragon society? What's that? (Or even more disgracefully, Chinese civil war? When was that?)

Of course, one way to improve our sense of Asian history would be to read "The Last Princess of Manchuria," which lays out this story date by date. By pulling out an atlas and keeping your mind in gear, you can more or less follow along.

But even the basic personal premise seems strange to the Western mind. Prince Su, who is bent out of shape by the ignominious end of the Ching Dynasty, decides--doing some very long-term thinking--to send his fourth concubine's prettiest daughter to Japan, to be raised to be a pawn in a possible power play to marry a prominent Manchurian way down the line.

Naniwa Kawashima is a Japanese adventurer and a member of the Black Dragon society, who plans for Japan to eventually rule the world. Kawashima has, evidently, hoodwinked Prince Su into believing that this is the only way the Ching Dynasty can survive.

The princess, now going by the Japanese name of Yoshiko, learns Japanese, believes that Manchuria will soon become her homeland, and never sees her own Chinese parents again. In fact, China becomes an academic question in her own life.

This is a historical novel. We can take these public events as facts, but is it a fact that her lustful godfather raped her before he turned her over to her Manchurian husband?

We can probably be sure that Yoshiko dressed like a man much of the time. But can we be sure she had a tubal ligation so that she would never be burdened by children? (Did they even have tubal ligations before World War II?)

Yoshiko, within months, gets bored with her Manchurian husband, so there goes that plan. She leaves him and embarks on a series of strange adventures: She finds her first true love in the arms of a geisha; she attains revenge on her foster father-rapist by strangling his favorite kitten. She journeys to "legendary Shanghai" where "behind this glittering facade were stinking alleys lined with hovels and the corpses of the starved . . . anything was possible in this city of vice and enchantment."

Because anything is possible, Yoshiko signs up to be a Japanese spy in Shanghai. At one time she becomes a commander with a private army numbering in the thousands. She gets raped a time or two more and is responsible for any amount of torture and death.

Then comes the Japanese bombing of Shanghai, the rape of Nanking, the prolonged clash between Japanese and Chinese and also between Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Tse-tung, and suddenly Yoshiko is little more than an out-of-work spy.

She's had a flashy youth, dressing as both man and woman, staying out all night and sleeping all day, and by the time she's 36 she's totally lost her looks and much of her grip on reality.

At a social level, Lilian Lee makes the point here that even a princess doesn't have a chance in the vast, brutal world of history that for so long has been run by men.

Yoshiko is literally used, abused, wronged repeatedly and then thrown out like trash. And, as for the larger social question of Japan's century-long plan, the author gently reminds us that whether or not that estimable country lost the war, it seems to have carried out its larger ambitions in Asia and throughout the world with dizzying success.

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