Once upon a time, the only alternative for a woman who wouldn’t conform to the good wife/ good mother paradigm was to recast herself as a patriot willing to sacrifice her life for her country in the mould of Joan of Arc.

If she wouldn’t serve the patriarchy the conventional way, she would have to do so the unconventional way. Of course, she could also join a convent, thus neutralising any threat she might pose altogether.

But what about the woman who would not serve the patriarchy and would not go quietly into the night?

That woman was Yoshiko Kawashima.

Born to a Manchu prince a few years before the fall of the Qing dynasty, the six-year old Yoshiko was “gifted” as a token of thanks to an abusive and volatile Japanese adventurer who had convinced her father he could help restore the fortunes of the Manchus. In Japan, Yoshiko was ostracised as a foreigner (ironically her Japanese was always better than her Chinese) and neglected by her adoptive family. Unsurprisingly, she turned to attention-seeking behaviour, learning at a young age to tell a story for sensational effect.

As a beautiful young woman, Yoshiko attracted many suitors among the acolytes of her ultra-nationalist Japanese father, but she rejected them all. In a radical move, she shaved off her hair and started dressing as a man, an act that brought her much media attention. Breaking with her Japanese family, she returned to China, where she entered into marriage with a Mongolian noble, but the union didn’t last long.

With no allegiance to any nation or man, with a princess’s tastes but desperate for money, Yoshiko moved to where else but Shanghai. Here she became an habitué of the city’s demimonde. Newspapers carried salacious stories of the cross-dressing princess who was “the very incarnation of eroticism.”

It was around this time that Yoshiko, who had several lovers among the upper echelons of Japanese military leadership, began to carry out the first of many assignments that would help the Japanese cement their control over Manchuria. Useful primarily for her propaganda value as a Manchu princess, Yoshiko’s fame reached its peak when she was briefly made commander over her own troops in battle. The image of an unsmiling Yoshiko dressed in Japanese military uniform was splashed all over the Japanese media, who extolled this “Joan of Arc” of Manchuria.

 

But Yoshiko’s narrative could not be controlled that easily. All of a sudden, the woman who, until then, had been willing to be a stooge for the Japanese, began to speak out against Japanese atrocities in her homeland.

 

But when what she had to say truly mattered, nobody paid attention. Always psychologically fragile, Yoshiko took her increasing irrelevance hard. Aided by a morphine addiction, she slid into dissipation. By the time Japan declared defeat, she was a shell of her former self.

Still she hadn’t outlived her usefulness.

On a March morning in 1948, the Chinese government, eager to whip up public support in their fight against the Communists, executed this symbol of the Japanese occupation with a single shot to the head.1