China Nights: Li Xianglan and Japanese Propaganda Films

Before Will Smith and Chris Rock at the Oscars, the “slap heard round the world” occurred in a 1940 Japanese propaganda film, China Nights, meant to evoke goodwill between Japan and China. The recipient of the slap, actress Li Xianglan, played a Chinese orphan rescued by a Japanese sailor in one of three “friendship films” released by Japanese propaganda film company Man’ei. Li Xianglan herself operated under a pseudonym since her real name, Yoshiko Yamaguchi, would belie her constructed Chinese identity. 

A favorite headshot of Yoshiko Yamaguchi, from a photoshoot of Li Xianglan in 1942.

Born in 1920 to Japanese parents who settled in Manchuria, Yoshiko Yamaguchi grew up equally Chinese and Japanese, becoming culturally and linguistically fluent in both (Luke, 12). Her parents’ Chinese friends even adopted her into their family under the name “Li Xianglan.” After a bout of tuberculosis in her adolescence, Yoshiko began taking singing lessons with opera singer Madame Podresov to aid her recovery (Tanaka, 1–2). Shortly after, Man’ei recruited her to star in their propaganda films as Li Xianglan, capitalizing on her singing skill and cross-cultural upbringing. She initially agreed to her contract, which her parents signed without her input, under the false impression that she would only sing in films, not act. Somewhat naively, Yoshiko believed participating in these films would foster goodwill between the two nations amidst ongoing warfare, bringing her “motherland” China into harmony with her “fatherland” Japan (Luke, 13–14).

Within a few years of her employment, Yoshiko acted in China Nights (Shina no yoru). The film, which romanticizes the story of a Chinese orphan meeting a Japanese man who slaps her and then marries her, branded her a hanjian, or traitor to her country (Yamaguchi, 98). To Chinese audiences, watching a Japanese man strike a Chinese woman and then fall in love doubly humiliated China. They could see the overt similarities between the plot and current events: Japan colonizing China with goals to bring the Chinese people under their rule, somewhat like “getting the girl.”

With the overwhelming negative reactions to China Nights, Li Xianglan became synonymous with hanjian, and Yoshiko began to doubt the impact of her career. At a press conference several years later, she apologized profusely for her role in the friendship films, blaming it on her youthful naiveté and ignorance (Yamaguchi, 201). By that point, she was a cultural icon in China, a huge star with legions of fans and unshakeable popularity. This success came from a movie released in 1943, Eternity (Wangshi liufang),co-produced by Japanese and Chinese film companies in Shanghai. Eternity told the story of the First Opium War against Britain, centering around Qing Imperial Commissioner Lin Zexu’s 1839 anti-opium and anti-Western campaign. Japan intended for Eternity to turn Chinese audiences against Western influences and welcome the virtuous Japanese instead (Fu, 191–92).

Movie poster for the film Eternity or Wanshi liufang, 1943.

In Eternity, Yoshiko played a young woman trying to save her fiancé from his addiction to opium. Her two songs in the film, “Maitang ge” (Candy Selling Song) and “Jieyan ge” (Quit Smoking Song), instantly propelled her to celebrity status in China. The second of these, “Jieyan ge,” begins with a lilting clarinet melody amidst floaty strings, evoking a dream-like, hazy landscape. She sings plaintively and pleadingly while ministering to her beloved. Each line pins opium as the instigator of all her fiancé’s troubles, the source of his struggle, and a substance not worth the sacrifice. Her voice swoops from note to note seamlessly, the vocal style bel canto but tinged with a nasality common in Chinese operatic singing. Two lines toward the end of the song are spoken: “If you really love me, you must listen to me.” Her spoken request invokes a certain level of seriousness within an effervescent love song.

A recording of Yoshiko Yamaguchi singing “Jieyan ge.”
Chinese (Simplified)Chinese (Pinyin)English
达呀达,你醒醒吧,你为什还想着它,
它耗尽了你的精神,
断送了你的年华,
你把一生事业作烟霞,
这牺牲未免可怕,
你把一生心血换泥沙,
这代价未免太大。
它就是你的情人,你也该把它放下,
何况是你的冤家,也是我的冤家。

达呀达,达呀达,
你为什还想着它,
你要真爱我,
要听我的话,从今以后别再想着它。
Dá ya dá, nǐ xǐng xǐng ba, nǐ wèi shé hái xiǎngzhe tā?
Tā hào jìn le nǐ de jīngshén,
duànsòngle nǐ de niánhuá.
Nǐ bǎ yīshēng shìyè zuò yānxiá,
zhè xīshēng wèimiǎn kěpà, nǐ bǎ
yīshēng xīnxuè huàn ní shā,
zhè dàijià wèimiǎn tài dà. Tā
jiùshì nǐ de qíngrén,
nǐ yě gāi bǎ tā fàngxià, hékuàng
shì nǐ de yuānjiā, yěshì wǒ de yuānjiā.
Dá ya dá, dá ya dá, nǐ wèi shé
hái xiǎngzhe tā.
Nǐ yào zhēn’ài wǒ, yào tīng wǒ
dehuà, cóng jīn yǐhòu bié zài xiǎngzhe tā.
Dayada, wake up, why do you still think about it?
It exhausts your spirit,
it has ruined years of your life.
You made your career a haze,
this sacrifice is terrifying,
you have turned your blood into mud,
this price is far too high.
It is your lover now, you should put it down,
not to mention it is your enemy, as it is my enemy.

Dayada, dayada.
Why do you still think about it?
If you really love me,
you must listen to me:
from now on don’t think of it anymore.
Lyrics in Chinese, pinyin, and English for “Jieyan ge.”

Even with the Japanese producers’ best efforts, Eternity backfired. Chinese audiences loved the film’s anti-Western message, interpreting it as a generally anti-imperialist call to action. Rather than a film that reduced friction between the Chinese and Japanese, it incited greater opposition. In a troubling time for Chinese people, the film became an escapist form of entertainment that also unified them under a national cause (Smith, 1). Yoshiko’s songs from her films became widely disseminated on the radio and performed in nightclubs; her musical and physical allure became a catalyst for resistance. She received critical acclaim for her performance in the film, a sort of a redemption compared to the conflicting early years of her career.

But with that critical acclaim came greater internal struggles for Yoshiko. After learning about the film’s popular reception and becoming more acquainted with the other actors in Eternity, primarily Chinese actors with anti-Japanese sentiments, she expressed her desire to reveal her Japanese identity, but her agents forbade her. In 1944, she resigned from Man’ei, though she continued her performing career in Shanghai until 1945 (Yamaguchi, 200). After the Japanese left China, the Kuomintang arrested her for her wartime propaganda involvement, only releasing her once she proved her Japanese citizenship (M, “The History”). Her expulsion from China led her to continue her acting career in Japan and Hollywood. She ultimately worked in politics, serving in Japan’s Parliament and participating in various activist projects until her death in 2014. Yoshiko openly acknowledged her collusion with Japan during the war and publicly apologized for Japanese imperialism in China, one of the first Japanese public figures to do so (Luke, 15–19).

Yoshiko did not return to China for decades; her guilt and shame for her role during the war kept her away. Even when her Japanese identity was revealed, her adoring fans remained fond of her and longed for her return to China (Stephenson, 10). Yoshiko’s ensuing careers in Japan and the US never achieved her the same level of celebrity as her career as Li Xianglan. Her cross-cultural capital and prominent role in films provided her with the platform for immense success and idolization.

Today, many older Japanese and Chinese fondly remember her music and rewatch her films with a sense of nostalgia; she is often referred to as Japan’s Judy Garland. Some of her most famous songs, such as “Yelaixiang” (Evening Jasmine), are often covered by popular Chinese singers even today. Her wartime stardom and successive careers have left an indelible mark on history, music, film, and feminism through her sustained popularity and the political, ideological, and aesthetic roles her music continues to play.


Notes

Fu, Poshek. “Resistance in Collaboration: Chinese Cinema in Occupied Shanghai, 1941–1945.” In Chinese Collaboration with Japan, 1932–1945: The Limits of Accommodation, ed. David P. Barrett and Larry N. Shuyu, 180–200. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001. 

Tanaka, Hiroshi, Utsumi Aiko, and Onuma Yasuaki. “Looking Back on My Days as Ri Koran (Li Xianglan).” Trans. Melissa Wender. The Asia-Pacific Journal 2/10 (2004): 1–5. 

Luke, Alison. “Resilience, Agency, and Activism: Viewing Yoshiko Yamaguchi Through the Feminist Life Course Perspective.” Women’s Studies International Forum 57 (2016): 11–21. 

Schubert, John. “The History of Yamaguchi Yoshiko also known as Li Xiang Lan (Ri-Koran).” Accessed 27 Nov. 2022. https://yoshikoyamaguchi.blogspot.com/ 

Smith, Norman. Intoxicating Manchuria: Alcohol, Opium, and Culture in China’s Northeast. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012. 

Stephenson, Shelley. “A Star by Any Other Name: The (After) Lives of Li Xianglan.” Quarterly Review of Film & Video 19 (2002): 1–13. 

Yamaguchi, Yoshiko and Fujiwara Sakuya. Fragant Orchid: The Story of My Early Life. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2015. 

Guest Blogger: Annie Liu

I am a graduate student at the University of Oregon completing master’s degrees in musicology and bassoon performance. I am an inaugural Cykler Song Scholar and Member-at-Large for SysMus, a conference for systematic musicology. My research interests include new media, music cognition, timbre, and Chinese music.

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