Reading Guides

The China Lover
Ian Buruma
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No matter which name she used—Li Xianglan, Ri Koran, Shirley Yamaguchi—the little Japanese girl born Yamaguchi Yoshiko in Manchuria was destined to become a star. The China Lover is Ian Buruma’s sweeping story of her career as seen through the eyes of three men who found themselves in that star’s tumultuous orbit.

The first part of the novel is told from the perspective of Sato Daisuke, a man associated with the corrupt Japanese military police in Manchuria. Sato hand-picks Yoshiko to act, under the name Ri Koran, in a number of melodramatic Manchurian films meant to sway the Chinese in favor of their Japanese occupiers. But the films’ success is short-lived. China descends into chaos as the Japanese stronghold begins to crumble into horror.

We next encounter our starlet in Tokyo—having abandoned Sato to his fate at the hands of the Chinese military and the name Ri Koran to the past. But her career is very much alive, still in propaganda, and this time overseen by American censors, one of whom she befriends. Sidney Vanoven is a gay American soldier fascinated by film and by all things Japanese, particularly young Japanese men. It is through Sid’s eyes that we watch Japan desperately try to forge a new identity after a crushing defeat—just as Yoshiko is trying to pick up the pieces after a failed marriage and lackluster American debut.

Once she severs ties with Sid, Yoshiko enters a more serious phase of her life as a television journalist. Our guide to this reinvention is Sato Kenkichi, a disillusioned college student who suddenly finds himself writing Yoshiko’s scripts. During his travels with Yoshiko through the Middle East, Sato becomes enraged at human rights violations and decides to take action. When he commits a horrific act of violence Yoshiko must once again end a friendship for the good of her career—this time, as a politician.

Throughout The China Lover, Yoshiko finds herself manipulated by governments and courting public opinion, yet never quite coming to terms with the part she played in the virtual destruction of two nations. But as each incarnation of Yoshiko disappears like a flickering image on a movie screen, it is the men left behind who find themselves devastated. Without her, they are merely faces in the dark.


Ian Buruma

Ian Buruma is the Luce Professor at Bard College. His previous books include God’s Dust, Behind the Mask, The Missionary & The Libertine, Playing the Game, The Wages of Guilt, Anglomania, and Bad Elements. He writes frequently for The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and the Financial Times.


Q. For those who might not be so familiar with the history at the heart of your novel, would you mind explaining the significance of some of the key historical figures who make an appearance? In essence, who is fact and who is fiction?

The main character, Yamaguchi Yoshiko, alias Li Xianglan or Ree Koran, or Shirley Yamaguchi, is entirely real. The three men who tell the story of her life in the novel are fictional. There are, however, historical figures that appear in the story, some in disguised form, and some in more factual versions. It is best to treat them all as part of a fiction, however.

Q. How did you become interested in Asian history?

I studied Chinese in Holland in the early 1970s, a time when China was almost inaccessible except for official “Friends of the Chinese People.” Mao’s China never held much appeal for me anyway. Early exposure in Amsterdam and Paris to Japanese cinema and theater led to a lifelong fascination with Japan. I received a scholarship to study cinema in Tokyo in 1975. That is when I first saw Yamaguchi Yoshiko, in a wartime movie.

Q. Is the picture we get of Manchuria during the occupation an accurate one?

I have tried to make it accurate, even though some details are made up. The zaniest stories, however, such as friendship dinners given by the Harbin Jewish community for the Japanese military, are true.

Q. How did you get the idea to use Yoshiko as your narrative thread? Is she aware of the book?

I have wanted to write something about her almost ever since I saw her on the screen. The idea of a “double-act,” in art and in life—a Japanese woman posing as a Chinese actress playing Chinese girls in Japanese films, interested me. I have interviewed her several times. She was sent a copy of the book.

Q. Why did you choose to structure the book the way you did, with three different narrators?

I was especially interested in the way others, mostly men, projected their fantasies on her. One of my favorite stories is “Lulu” by Wedekind, about a young woman who goes through many lovers and ends up being murdered by Jack the Ripper. That too is a story about fantasies, and a woman who lives through the imagination of men. You never know quite who is exploiting whom.

Q. For readers who wish to know more about her work, which of Yoshiko’s film’s would you recommend seeing and why?

Her best film remains China Nights (Shina no Yoru), shot in 1940. It is a propaganda movie about the love of a Chinese girl in Shanghai for a Japanese merchant navy officer. But it is very well made, like many Japanese propaganda pictures, and became a legendary film for American intelligence officers during the war. They used it to polish their Japanese.

Q. What do you most hope readers will take away from your novel?

I hope they enjoy the story, the characters, and perhaps learn something about history too.


  1. Yamaguchi Yoshiko, the protagonist of The China Lover, is based a real person, actress Yoshiko Otaka, who is incidentally very much alive at the time of this book’s publication. Do you believe The China Lover to be a flattering portrayal of Yoshiko? Would you be pleased or upset at being characterized in such a way if you were in her place? Why?

  2. Propaganda films have existed for as long as filmmaking in nearly every country. What are some films that could be considered American propaganda? Have you seen any of the films the author references?

  3. Overall, how are Americans portrayed in this novel? Do you think the depictions are accurate or fair? Why or why not? Compare to how the Chinese and Japanese are portrayed.

  4. What evidence is there that Yoshiko knew she was being manipulated? Do you think she was remorseful over her part in the war machine?

  5. In what ways did the Americans under General MacArthur miserably fail in rebuilding both Japan and Japanese culture? What are some ways that their attempts were successful?

  6. In Part I, we meet a Jewish businessman whose fatal flaw was said to be his love of his son. What are some of the other characters’ fatal flaws?

  7. Sid’s sexual conquests saw him subjected to some less than savory and even dangerous situations. Was his recklessness the product or the cause of his own self-loathing? How would his life as a gay man been different had he not left America?

  8. One cringe-inducing moment in the novel is Ed Sullivan’s conversation with Yoshiko: “The Japanese are velly velly porite people.” In recent years, several prominent American television personalities have been castigated for making similar jokes about Asians and people of other ethnicities. Discuss how our society has become more accepting and inclusionary of those of other backgrounds. In your opinion, is this progression truly under way, or do we use the help of the media to portray ourselves as more tolerant than we may be?

  9. A Palestinian freedom fighter says, “Without guns, we can’t have real democracy” (p. 346). What does she mean by this statement? What are the merits of her argument?

  10. Isamu’s Hiroshima memorial doesn’t include the thousands of Koreans who died in the nuclear blast. There are other examples of this practice around the world—gay and lesbian people omitted from Holocaust memorials, firefighters and police officers excluded from memorials dedicated to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. What are some other examples? Why do you think this argument comes up again and again?