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The China Lover: A Novel Hardcover – September 18, 2008

4.2 out of 5 stars 13 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The second novel (following 1991's Playing the Game) from nonfiction specialist Buruma (Behind the Mask, etc.) is based with biographical diligence on the life of the Japanese actress known variously as Ri Koran, Yoshiko Yamaguchi and (in American films) Shirley Yamaguchi. Narrated by gay cinephile Sidney Vanoven, part one is driven by his cultural and sexual fascination with Japan, fired from the moment he arrives during America's postwar occupation. Buruma's colorful evocation of young Sidney's obsessions, which include Ri Koran, is further enlivened by Sidney's fanciful encounters with clueless visiting Americans (including a libidinous Truman Capote). Part two, set before WWII, is narrated by Sato Daisuke, whose shadowy connection to the film industry intersects over the years with Ri Koran's rise to stardom, but their story gets overwhelmed by Buruma's meticulous attention to Japan's invasion of China. Part three, set in more contemporary times, is narrated by a Japanese scriptwriter caught up in the Palestinian struggle—a story reported by an elderly Yoshiko, now host of a Japanese TV talk show. Less would have been more in this competent but overstuffed story. (Sept.)
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From Booklist

*Starred Review* Given the complexity of his award-winning journalism and penetrating books of cultural analysis, Buruma is bound to write novels of similar gravitas, although he can also be witty and provocative. Drawing on his deep knowledge of Asia and a passion for Japanese cinema, Buruma found his perfect subject in Yoshiko Yamaguchi, the nearly forgotten, once controversial Japanese singer and actress turned journalist and politician. It takes three male narrators in three different eras to convey the full drama of Yoshiko’s life of transformations, from her posing as the Chinese performer Ri Koran to her roles in U.S.-directed Japanese propaganda films, her marriage to the artist Isamu Noguchi, and her courageous reporting in Saigon and Beirut. As Buruma bends the beam of history through the prism of his imagination and spotlights the many contradictory roles Yoshiko played, she becomes our shimmering guide through the shadowy realm where art, eroticism, and politics collide. The dark deeds of Tokyo gangsters, the endless horror of Hiroshima, the deep wounds of occupation, the sensuous power of film, and the strange circumstances that induced three Japanese gunmen to launch a terrorist attack on the Tel Aviv airport––all are facets in Buruma’s magnificent saga of war and prejudice, beauty and tyranny, sacrifice and survival. --Donna Seaman

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 392 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The (September 18, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594201943
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594201943
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.3 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,497,041 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
An engrossing, wonderfully-written historical novel. Here's the premise: In 1940, at the height of Japan's military aggression during World War II, a movie called "China Nights" won the hearts of countless Japanese soldiers and patriots who were riveted by the stirring singing voice of the young girl who plays a Chinese orphan rescued by a Japanese officer who both loves and beats her. The singer became enormously popular, a symbol of subservience to Japan's self-image of benevolent but iron rule over Asia.

After Japan lost the war, the singer was accused of treason for helping her wartime captors. To escape execution, she revealed a secret -- that she was actually Japanese and had followed orders to pretend to be Chinese. She escaped to Japan and reinvented herself as a successful film actress, Yoshiko Yamaguchi, though she used the first name Shirley when she made it to Hollywood and Broadway.

Ian Buruma, a film buff and an accomplished writer of nonfiction about Asia, delivers a lushly rendered piece of historical fiction. Buruma conveys the exhilaration and devastation of Japan's military folly and its resulting moral hangover through the lens of the film world at the time. With a sharp yet generous eye, Buruma explores the moods and sensibilities of the movie business in wartime Shanghai and postwar Tokyo.

His novel seems to revel in and see through the filmmaking and its role in shaping memory and history. It's a cinematic story, in topic and form, made richer by the fertile emotional terrain of its fallible protagonists.
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Format: Hardcover
If you like intricate plots, interesting characters, foreign settings, and historical accuracy, this is a book for you. I knew absolutely nothing about Japanese/Chinese relations or Manchuria during the war and I must admit I had to reread chapters in the first part of the book to gather an understanding of the history of the times, but after that I was totally pulled in.

The first chapter is so compelling and demonstrates the effect stories and imagination can have on the human condition. And then as the book unfolds, one begins to see how stories (movies) can have an effect on an entire nation; are they stories for the imagination or propaganda or both.

Although Ri Koran (or Shirley Yamaguchi or whatever her name could be) is the center of the story, the three men that tell her story at three different times in her life are the most interesting. They provide perfect foils to her personality as she evolves from someone who is knowingly manipulated to someone who manipulates those around her. All of this set in three different parts of the world in vastly different circumstances.

I loved this book. I loved the fact that real historical characters play a part (Truman Capote comes to mind), and the authenticity of the historical events as they unfolded in China, Japan, United States, and Lebanon. There are so many characters in this book and so many little unique connections between them, it was a fascinating read.
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Format: Paperback
With few exceptions, people who write great fiction do not write good non-fiction. And the converse is also true: people who write great non-fiction do not usually write good novels. As Ian Buruma is a great writer of non-fiction with a special talent for imposing order on extremely complex subjects, one turns to his fiction with a certain amount of hesitation. Will he be able to pull it off?

The China Lover is set in the familiar territory of China and Japan. Since Buruma knows both places well and, as always, has done his research, the doubts that arise are largely technical ones: Will the characters come off as editorial mouthpieces or human beings? Will Buruma try to recreate the past as accurately as possible or just tell a good story?

The first problem that becomes apparent is the limitation of the first-person narrator. The guy that Buruma has chosen to open the novel can't write as well as Buruma can. This sounds like a logical impossibility, but it isn't. And although the use of a limited narrator does help to flesh out the character of impresario Sato Daisuke, it hardly compensates for the loss of Buruma.

The China Lover is a fictionalized account of the life of actress and singer Yamaguchi Yoshiko. Although Yamaguchi was born to Japanese parents in Manchuria in 1920, she went by the name Li Xianglan (pronounced Ri Koran in Japanese) and many people both in China and abroad assumed that she was Chinese. Her early films were mostly propaganda vehicles to promote the virtues of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Ri Koran soon became the poster girl for Japan-Manchuria friendship and her films and songs were immensely popular in China and Japan.
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Format: Paperback
A work of fiction, this interesting novel follows the real-life Japanese star Yoshiko Yamaguchi through the eyes of three men who are all captivated by her. The first part of the book takes place in China during the Japanese occupation before and during the Pacific War. Born in 1920 in the Japanese puppet state, Manchukuo, Yamaguchi is fluent in both her native language and Chinese. Blessed with exotic beauty and a lovely singing voice, she is soon to be used by the Japanese military propaganda machinery as a singer and actor in movies propagating the benevolence of the occupation to the occupied lands. By design of her militaristic masters she is required to hide her Japanese origins and ends up playing the part of a Chinese woman falling in love with handsome and good Japanese officers over and over again. Her rising star and success in Mukden and Shanghai under the name Ri Koran is witnessed by a kindly Japanese man working as producer in the film industry who knows her real identity. Highly critical of his militaristic compatriots, Mr. Sato's fortunes wax and wane in the treacherous wartime China but he remains always protective of Ri Koran who herself grows used to her own power over men of many walks of life.

Once the war is over, the heroine returns to Japan with dreams of hitting the big time in USA. She reinvents herself as Shirley Yamaguchi, playing the role of a beautiful Japanese woman this time falling in love with American soldiers in the movies. Her transformation is observed by a young homosexual fan from Ohio serving in the film censorship department of General MacArthur's occupation forces. He watches Shirley's debut on the Ed Sullivan show in a New York apartment in a party where the famous Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi is present.
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