Written by Ming-Yeh T. Rawnsley.

Japanese actress Yoshiko Yamaguchi (aka Li Xianglan or Ri Koran李香蘭) passed away on 7 September 2014 at the age of 94. The media coverage in Taiwan was subdued. Prior to the news about her death, the last time the Taiwanese media mentioned Li was in 1990 when Hong Kong pop star Jacky Cheung Hok-yau (Zhang Xueyou 張學友) produced a nostalgic song based on old photographs of her. Indeed as one commentator has pointed out, the public in Taiwan has almost completely forgotten about Li Xianglan.

As far as Taiwan is concerned, Li Xianglan is closely associated with Japanese colonialism and the Sino-Japanese War. Although she was born in 1920 to Japanese parents in Manchuria, she was brought up by a Chinese family, adopted a Chinese name and acquired all the mannerisms of ordinary Chinese girls. Her musical talent was spotted by Manchuria Film Productions when she was 18 years old and enjoyed a meteoric rise to stardom by playing Chinese characters on screen. She was the quintessential leading lady in many Japanese propaganda films aimed at Chinese and Taiwanese audiences during the war.

Taiwanese involvement in film production was limited during the colonial period. The most established cinema-related activities were exhibitions and the Taiwanese viewers preferred the Chinese films imported from Shanghai, Hong Kong and other inland Chinese cities because of cultural proximity. When the colonial government banned Chinese films in 1934 and replaced them with imports from the Japanese-backed Manchurian Motion Picture, cinema became less popular among the locals. Nevertheless Sayon’s Bell (莎韻之鐘, 1943), in which Li plays Sayon, was a huge success. The film was a fictional account of a true story about a girl from the Atayal tribe in Taiwan, who helped Japanese personnel to cross a river but was drowned herself. Like many other Manchurian productions at the time, Sayon’s Bell was to promote imperialisation of colonial subjects and to encourage young Taiwanese men to enlist as volunteers to serve in the Japanese armed forces.

When Japan surrendered in 1945, Li Xianglan had a dramatic escape from prosecution for treason by the Chinese Nationalists. She was saved in time when the birth document which proves Li’s identity as Japanese, not Chinese, was finally smuggled into the country inside a doll. After being sent back to Japan in 1946, Li reassumed her birth name and continued to pursue an acting career with Akira Kurosawa and Charlie Chaplin, Hollywood and Hong Kong cinema. She later married a diplomat in the US, became a television journalist in the 1960s and was then elected to the Japanese Diet in 1974 where she served for 18 years. In 2005, she publicly requested Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi not to visit Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. Thereafter the media in mainland China described her as someone who ‘transformed herself from an abettor in Japan’s aggression towards China to a messenger of peace’.

I am not sure if the people of Taiwan have really forgotten about Li Xianglan. I have never seen her films or listened to her music as it was long before I was born, but I am aware of her existence especially when I research the history of Taiwan cinema. It seems to me that there is always a degree of uneasiness for Taiwan to (re)assess its colonial past. For example, there has been a long history of negative stereotypical representation of the Japanese in Taiwan’s cultural discourse. Novelist Yang Kui wrote many moving stories about the hardship and struggle of colonial life. A significant number of films made in Taiwan in the 1960s and the 1970s about the Sino-Japanese War also portray Japan as a ruthless aggressor.

The Sino-Japanese War created very complicated memories in Taiwan since Japan was the enemy of China between 1938 and 1945, yet Taiwan was a Japanese colony during this war. Taiwan’s cultural arena was torn by fierce literary debate during the 1970s as a result of this deep-rooted dilemma. While some Taiwanese authors supported nativist literature and advocated to focus on the local people and the island, others insisted on celebrating Taiwan’s Chineseness.

By the early 1980s, nativist literature had gained sympathy among the reading public, which later influenced the rise of Taiwan New Cinema. Throughout the 1980s and the 1990s, we began to witness a more intricate evaluation of Japanese colonial history onscreen because of democratisation. Yet in cases where the Taiwanese are shown to entertain fond memories of the Japanese legacies, such a positive view is often balanced by a counter narrative that present the darker side of colonialism.

A purely positive portrayal of the Japanese era is a new phenomenon in Taiwan in the 21st century. For example, a popular documentary that traces the history of Taiwanese pop songs in the 1930s, Viva Tonal: The Dance Age (跳舞時代, 2004), depicts the chairman of Columbia Records at the time, Shojiro Kashiwano, as the ultimate positive figure — visionary, decent in nature and creator of one of the most remarkable Taiwanese cultural industries in the early 20th century. More recently, Wei Te-sheng’s (魏德聖) box-office hit Cape No.7 (海角七號, 2008) provoked heated debate in Taiwan for romanticising the island’s colonial past. Subsequently more nuanced assessment of the colonial history has re-emerged. Wei’s Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale (賽德克巴萊, 2011) recounts the Wushe Incident of 1930 when indigenous tribes battled against the colonial Japanese forces in Taiwan. Wei also produced Kano (嘉農棒球隊, 2014), which tells the story of how a multiracial baseball team from southern Taiwan in 1931, against all odds, advanced to the championship game in the tournament and gained respect from their Japanese rivals, critics and baseball fans.

How do we explain the changes in film representation of the same history? As Kuei-fen Chiu (2007) has stated, Taiwan had been a colony subjected to the rules of the Dutch, Spanish, Chinese, and Japanese before it was taken over by the KMT. How to interpret encounters with others has always been an important theme in Taiwanese historiography. Therefore, ‘in the decades after the war the Taiwanese enacted a negation of their association with the Japanese culture so as to have their Chinese identity validated’ (p.29). During post-democratisation, the move to reclaim the island’s Japanese colonial heritages can be viewed as ‘an attempt to distinguish the Taiwanese identity from the Chinese identity. It effects a dilution of the Chineseness that many Taiwanese had to affirm in the martial law period’ (p.30). The resurrection of suppressed colonial memories and the recasting of the Japanese figures in more positive light point tellingly to the cultural workers’ active participation in the revision of Taiwanese historiography (p.30).

However one question remains: upon closer analysis of the aforementioned productions in the new millennium, one discovers that — regardless whether the Japanese period was portrayed positively or negatively — there is an absence of the Chinese dimension in the filmmakers’ configuration. Is it really possible to create a Taiwanese historiography to be embraced by the majority (if not all) of the island’s population which deletes China from its discourse?

Some may argue that during the colonial period, China was not a factor in ordinary Taiwanese people’s daily lives. Thus it is only natural for a movie about Taiwan under the Japanese rule not to deal with China at all.

This may be true to some extent. Nonetheless, contemporary scholarship has asserted that public memory is activated by present concerns and issues. Groups tell their pasts to themselves and others as ways of understanding, justifying, excusing, or subverting conditions of their current moment (Dickson, Blair and Ott 2010: 6). If this assumption is correct, then perhaps the omission of China from the historical equation is a sign of Taiwan’s anxiety that the island is yet to find a consensus regarding her position in relation to China. Hence instead of confronting the hard question, the avoidance in popular cinema has provided the viewers with temporary relief from current angst.

From this perspective, it may be argued that Li Xianglan as a signifier evokes on the island one of the trickiest triangular memories between China, Taiwan and Japan. Public memory scholars have told us that memory is operationalised by forgetting. Memory and forgetting are two sides of the same coin; memory is another form of forgetting, and forgetting a form of hidden memory (Dickson, Blair and Ott 2010: 9). Perhaps the people on Taiwan have chosen to forget Li Xianglan today. Yet when new valuations toward China and Japan are eventually re-established to reconcile the painful history and the difficult present, the forgotten may be reawakened for a more in-depth reflection without rekindling the divisive passions of the past. Taiwan may then also be able to move on to a future of true dignity and equality.

Dr Ming-yeh T. Rawnsley is an Associate Fellow in the China Policy Institute. Image credit: CC by 


Chiu, K.F. (2007) ‘The vision of Taiwan new documentary’, in D.W. Davis and R.S.R. Chen (eds) Cinema Taiwan. London: Routledge, 17–32.

Dickson, G.; Blair, C. and Ott, B.L. (eds) (2010) Places of Public Memory, Alabama: University of Alabama Press.


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