Buruma's Fiction

not Li Xianglan; not even close:


the words jump out at you, as if you were some child arguing in a playground and the other child shouts "well, you're nothing but a no-good China lover!"
Welcome to Mr. Buruma's playground.

First impressions of Ian Buruma's fiction novel "The China Lover" (Penguin Books, 2008). 

He states on the (un-numbered) last page of this 392 page book:

"This is a work of fiction based on historical events. Some were invented, others took place, though not always quite in the way they appear in this book. I owe a great debt to Otaka Yoshiko, formerly known as Yoshiko Yamaguchi, who graciously allowed me to interview her on several occasions in Tokyo. Her memoir, Ri Koran, Watashi no Hansei (Half My Life as Ri Koran), (Shincho Bunka, Tokyo, 1987) was an invaluable source of information on her extraordinary life in China."

The fact that this page is where it is, indicates that it too is part of the fiction and should be read as such.

My advice to anyone reading this book is to cut the above page out and paste it behind the title page where it should have been in the first place. It's not only an ungrammatical gordian knot: Some were invented, others took place, though not always quite in the way they appear in this book. What exactly does this mean?

It's a sweeping admission that clearly admits: I made this up out of some historical facts and a lot of 'whole cloth'. Even though he claims that most of the novel depiction is true, I have no faith he's speaking honestly, merely being sardonic, or how he interprets the concept of "truth".

Here's the interview where he makes his bald claim:


 As I begin reading this book, the word that comes to mind is disingenuous (ie, not truly honest or sincere). In addition, the feeling I have is that the author has used his relationship (if there even was one) with Yamaguchi (and the information which she allegedly conveyed to him and which only he and her, now deceased, know) to write an intellectually deceitful account of her life. There is absolutely no way to tell which details of this book are true and which details are fabricated. As for the motives behind Mr. Buruma's usage of Ms. Yamaguchi, all the usual suspects can be in that line-up, from the tawdry to the high-minded.

I have seen no reference to any scholarly publication or otherwise which presents Buruma's discussions with her (or if, in fact they even took place) in a forum of which Yamaguchi gave her approval. Until I find such a reference, or photos, or anything at all, I will believe Mr. Buruma may have taken advantage of someone in advanced age and poor health who may have entrusted him with valuable and intimate details concerning her life. His whole project to use her for his own gain is suspect (and fairly obvious to those of us who've been 'sleuthing' and looking for genuine information). 

I can only wonder at this point if this work of fiction (which sadly uses many real names of people and has them act and say fabrications) added to the burdens which drove Yamaguchi to become a recluse in the year 2010. Mr Buruma may indeed be a fan of hers, but he has severely wounded her reputation and the memory of her good name by mixing fact and fiction, his own sexual fantasies regarding Chinese women (and god knows what else) in putting together this book. It may transpire in time that we find some communication or information from Yoshiko regarding what she thought of "The China Lover";  if so, I will eat my words and apologize to Mr. Buruma when and if the situation calls for it. That's it for today, and in future posts, I intend to expand on the above ideas. 

It's strange, but I get the distinct feeling from phrases he uses that Mr. Buruma is looking at the same photographs I am looking at, and dreamed up likely scenarios that carry a whiff of authenticity. It was uncanny how I wrote about the young Yoshiko's eyes, and then opened The China Lover to read what Buruma's active imagination thought of them. It doesn't seem to me that Buruma has anything other than the old photos (which thankfully are all over the internet) and an active imagination.

Another reason that I doubt Yamaguchi gave any such private information to Buruma about her family or life, was the pattern, number, and style of interviews she previously granted to well-known and certainly not negatively motivated writers. By the time Buruma claims to have met Yamaguchi, she had said all she had to say about her early life, and this was done in reputable publications. The very idea that she would sit down with someone intending to write a fictionalized account of her life and tell him derogatory things about her own father (for example) is preposterous. Her previous interviews are notable for the diplomatic way in which she handles all kinds of questions about the big and the small details of her life. Buruma makes her look like a bubble-brain.

Buruma also has the annoying habit of mixing his usage of real names and imaginery names. Perhaps this ruse appeals to a certain segment of the reading population, who enjoy going off into other worlds of the imagination where, say, a small bunch of inglorius bastards are capable of changing history. People who know little about the real events of Yamaguchi's life will unfortunately tend to swallow Buruma's fictions whole, as many reviewers have. 


After reading more of the book (parts 1 and 2), it seems to me that Buruma is a literary 'hit-man'. He portrays Yamaguchi as a simpleton and has her saying one inanity after another. What a disappointment to read this trashing of her life-story! 

What I fail to understand is how someone can make passable and even interesting comments about other cultures and historical events, yet write such execrable fiction when it comes to interaction between people - this author seems tone-deaf as to how real people relate and talk to one another.  

One thing which Buruma got right was the fact that Yamaguchi's life had so many different phases and events, that it took 3 mere mortal people to encompass it! (even fictionally as he has done).

Closely reading the first few chapters of the new translation of Yamaguchi's memoirs from University of Hawaii Press (see Books link for further details on this book). It appears that Buruma has indeed (as he states in his Acknowledgements noted above) used many of the details from her memoir to create his book. Apparently, he has also embellished these details with other details, the truthfulness of which we have no way of knowing. But I must admit that Yamaguchi has been very revealing in her memoir, confirming the basic veracity, but not every detail of, certain scenes which Buruma gives us in "The China Lover".

As an example of the above, Yamaguchi's memoir confirms the scene where she meets Kawashima (YK) in Tianjin in the summer of 1937 at a classy restaurant which was YK's base of operations. However, in no place in the memoir have I found any confirmation from Yamaguchi that she ever danced with Kawashima, as Buruma's novel claims. It may have actually happened. 

The following links are presented to give background information on the comments of Z. Peter Mitchell below addressed to Ian Buruma. This first link is to the Rotten Tomatoes review of House of Bamboo (which contains many reviews by different people):

this link is to the Keith Uhlich review itself:

this link is to the NY Times review of Japanese War Bride:

and lastly, the artforum.com link:

Needless to say, I am in complete agreement with Peter Mitchell's comments below. 
Ian Buruma's answer to Peter confirms his position: a non-response to all the major points and an attempt to belittle anyone who questions his fiction about Yamaguchi. 

I suppose this is as good a place as any to mention what the prejudicial title itself The China Lover reveals about Buruma's thought process: it is dismissive and it perfectly expresses his disrespect and disdain. Someone who is born, bred, raised and schooled in another country is not merely "a China lover" unless your basic intention is negative to begin with.    

to be continued:


  1. Sir,

    I was very gratified to read your comments about The China Lover. As a great admirer of the Divine YY, I was similarly repelled by Buruma's portrait as it made her appear ignorant, self-involved, manipulative, and almost trivial as a human being. The idea of having 3 individuals not really central to her life narrate her "story" relegates her to being a minor character compared to them. Moreover, Buruma appears obsessed with sex, as reflected by the narrators' comments, and this spills over to an extent to their impressions of YY. You were the only reviewer to pick up on these concepts.

    I have also some of your other pages and learned much new information about her. Quite fascinating, especially about her early years. I have several of her movies on DVD and am constantly looking for more. By any chance, can you help me locate more? Your assistance would be greatly appreciated.


    Z. Peter Mitchell

  2. Peter, Thanks very much for your vote of confidence in what I've tried to accomplish in this blog. We are in complete agreement regarding Buruma's fiction.
    As to YY's movies, I'm interested in knowing which movies you have, how you obtained them, etc. Unfortunately I don't have any movie sources outside of YouTube to view her movies. The standard list of her movies which one finds on Wikipedia for instance is a good source of the 'Kanji' characters which one can then use to search the web. Another good source is Chris Roughan's website: http://chrisroughan.webs.com/lixianglan.htm

    Good luck and Thanks again!
    John M.

  3. I am in the process of writing an email to Buruma protesting his comments at the April 4th screening of House of Bamboo. As in his novel, he portrayed her in a decidedly negative light and I feel this is extremely unfair to a remarkably talented individual who is no longer alive to defend herself. Even worse, this man is making money off her by publishing a book based on her life. How cynical can anyone get?

  4. Part 1 of my email to Buruma:

    Dear Prof. Buruma,

    I attended the Japan Society's screening of House of Bamboo on April 4th and heard your introduction to the movie. I am aware that you are an expert on Japanese cinema, a speaker of Japanese, and have interviewed Yoshiko Yamaguchi in person. In contrast, I am simply a fan of the lady, with no special qualifications of any kind. Accordingly, it is not lightly that I undertake the following comments.

    As an academic, you are also surely aware of the importance of being objective with respect to the topic about which one is writing. Quite frankly, I, as well as some other members of the audience, found your remarks subjective, excessively negative, and extraneous.

    Most directly, you referred to YY as "not a great beauty" and "not a great actress". Like anyone else, you are entitled to your opinion, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Rather interestingly, however, the Japan Society entitled its exhibition "The Most Beautiful: War Films of Yoshiko Yamaguchi and Setsuko Hara." Apparently, the organizers did regard YY and Ms. Hara as quite beautiful.

    Film critic Keith Uhlich wrote about House of Bamboo in 2005 (quoted in Rotten Tomatoes):


    Stunning is an excellent word to describe her, in that movie and everywhere else.

    At age 13, without the benefit of studio make-up, she looked like this:

    Photo provided, does not copy here.

    Some of your other remarks were not as obviously negative, but had a decidedly condescending tone. At one point, you spoke of one of her many names as "whatever she was calling herself at that time." It seemed to imply that she was a phony or manipulator who changed her name frequently to fulfill her own goals. My impression has been that she was more or less forced to change her name because of circumstances only partly within her control. Li Xiang Lan was the real Chinese name given her by her adoptive Chinese father and it was understandable to continue its usage when she began her career in films under the authority and pressure of the Manchuria Film Company. In Japanese films in the late 40s she used her given birth name --- nothing artificial there. And it was reasonable for a Japanese woman to adopt a short, English name like Shirley when attempting to make her mark in the US, rather than staying with the relatively long and unfamiliar Yoshiko that would have been troublesome for Americans unaccustomed to Japanese names in the early 50s.

    You referred to your interview with her. You said that, in your novel, it was not clear what was fact and what was fiction. You have the right to say that about your own work, I suppose, but you then said that YY herself didn't seem to know what was true and what wasn't. After all, her whole life seemed to be almost a kind of myth because of all her roles, or words to that effect. I believe she was in her mid to late 80s by the time of the interview and she may not have been completely lucid any more. Surely she could have been forgiven for memory slippage at that age.

  5. Part 2 (the first portion should have come after the photo --- my apologies for the omission) :

    You are entitled to your opinion, as noted above, but you certainly have high standards to deem her less than a great beauty.

    Not a great actress?

    Variety's review of House of Bamboo says, in part:


    In other words, Ms. Yamaguchi's acting was regarded as excellent.

    The NY Times review of Japanese War Bride on Jan. 30, 1952 stated:


    Kind of kills 2 birds with one stone as it praises both her appearance and acting. Oh, and it also credits the quality of her English, a language she went to considerable lengths to sharpen to its high level, as noted in her 1987 autobiography.

    I should note that your comments were similar in tone to how you projected her in The China Lover. Many of the quotes you attributed to her made her appear ignorant and/or self-involved. They seemed quite different in tone from her own words in her autobiography, wherein she seemed realistic and humble, almost to a fault.

    Ms. Yamaguchi can no longer defend herself for obvious reasons. On behalf of her reputation, I'd like to state that I, along with countless other fans, admire her enormously not just for her acting skill and physical beauty, but also for her angelic singing voice in several languages, her efforts as a legislator, her advocacy for the comfort women, and the general strength of character she displayed throughout her long life and near execution at an extremely young age. To demean her obvious talents and positive attributes, as I believe you have done, seems petty and reflects almost a personal grudge against her. Perhaps you do admire her, but that is by no means evident from your comments.

    For a fair and objective summary of her career, you may wish to consult:


    Just one fan's opinion, Professor.


    Z. Peter Mitchell, Ph.D.

    Buruma's answer:

    I tried to inject some humor into the introduction. This clearly fell on deaf ears in your case. I’m sorry about that. best wishes, Ian Buruma

  6. I picked up Buruma's book at a dollar store. It is not even worth that. The novel says more about Buruma than it does about YY. Thanks for your efforts to present YY in her true light during this period - one of the most beautiful women to grace the 20th century. I look forward to any guidance from you on obtaining subtitled films from her Manchukuo period - I do have an outstanding 2008 subtitled operetta about YY and her postwar trial in China which we will project for some music buffs this week.

  7. Many thanks Diacad! I really appreciate your comments.