The life of the 'Eastern Mata Hari'

22:33, Jul 17 2013
MATA HARI: The restored Qingyuan mansion in Tianjin, China, originally completed in 1921, was home to Puyi, the last emperor of the Qing dynasty.

In the bustling coastal metropolis of Tianjin sits an opulent mansion in the former Japanese concession that from 1929 to 1931 was home to Puyi, the last emperor of the Qing dynasty, and also where Yoshiko Kawashima - the mysterious "Eastern Mata Hari" - is said to have had one of her biggest successes.

Born Aisin Gioro Xianyu, Kawashima was the 14th daughter of Shanqi, the 10th son of Prince Su of the Qing imperial family.

Around age 6 or 7, she was adopted by family friend Naniwa Kawashima and sent to Japan.

Known by the name Jin Bihui in China, Kawashima performed espionage for the Kwantung Army. Her life has been the subject of many books, plays and movies, but many anecdotes associated with her are said to be fictional.

Her grave is in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, Japan, where she lived during her teens.

In Tianjin, a city of 14 million people, the 3,000-square-metre estate of the Jingyuan mansion is surprisingly quiet.


Kawashima arrived in Jingyuan in November 1931, right after the Manchurian Incident. The Kwantung Army had already secretly removed Puyi to Lushun, intending to make him head of Manchukuo, the Japanese puppet state it was plotting to create in northwest China.

Kawashima, the daughter of a Chinese prince, was brought in to help with the removal of Puyi's wife, Empress Wanrong.

Kawashima, who grew up in Japan, was fluent in Chinese and Japanese and was acquainted with the empress.

Despite strict Chinese surveillance, the operation to spirit Wanrong out of Tianjin succeeded, but exactly how remains a mystery. There are no official documents on the operation, but theories abound.

One says they slipped out dressed as mourners for a servant's funeral, another says Wanrong hid in the trunk of a car with Kawashima driving, dressed as a man.

The success in the plot won Kawashima the trust of the Kwantung Army.

Records show she played a role in the Shanghai Incident of January 1932 by helping incite violence between the Japanese and Chinese to create a pretext for the armed intervention by the Imperial Japanese Army.

The Jingyuan mansion was restored in 2007. Its exterior is Spanish, with earthen walls, reddish-brown tile roofs and arches supported by pillars. The interior is Japanese, with generous amounts of unadorned wood.

The site is open to the public, and items related to China's last emperor are on display, including one of Puyi's suits and Wanrong's piano.

But there is nothing on Kawashima. When asked about the spy, a guide said: "Wanrong and Puyi are supposed to have travelled to Lushun together. I've never heard anything about Yoshiko Kawashima being involved."

Kawashima was arrested by Chinese authorities after the war in October 1945 and executed on the outskirts of Beijing in March 1948 for "cooperating with the Japanese and betraying her country."

She has a negative image in China, but according to Aisin Gioro Dechong, a descendant of the Qing imperial family who works to preserve Manchurian culture in Shenyang, Liaoning Province: "Her goal was always to restore the Qing dynasty. Her work as a spy was not to help Japan."

Whatever the truth, Kawashima remains a fascinating figure for Chinese and Japanese alike. There are even rumours that the person executed in 1948 was not really Kawashima.

"The theory that it wasn't her that was executed - there's lots of mysteries about her that arouse people's interest," said Wang Qingxiang, who researches Kawashima at the Jilin Social l Science Institute.

Kawashima's childhood home in Lushun, the former residence of Prince Su, is being restored, and items related to her life are expected to be on display when it opens to the public.

While listening to the fountain in Qingyuan, two verses of Kawashima's death poem came to mind: "I have a home but cannot return, I have tears but cannot speak of them."

The spy, who lived between two worlds and eventually vanished in the currents of history, must have been incredibly sad.

- The Yomiuri Shimbun/Bloomberg News