57 pages 1 hour read

R. F. Kuang


Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2023

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


Yellowface by R. F. Kuang is a New York Times bestselling novel originally published on May 16, 2023. It is R. F. Kuang’s fifth published novel and a stark departure from earlier work. Her first four novels, The Poppy War trilogy and Babel, or the Necessity of Violence, are fantasy books, while Yellowface is a contemporary novel that Kuang considers, “a horror story about loneliness in a fiercely competitive industry” (321). The novel’s title references the film industry’s practice of using white actors to portray Asian characters, a fitting description of the protagonist’s actions throughout the book.

R. F. Kuang was born in Guangzhou, China, and immigrated to the US when she was a child. Her books incorporate Chinese history, language, and culture. In The Poppy War and Babel, these elements are blended into fantasy and historical fiction; in Yellowface, they are used to examine contemporary issues of racism and discrimination in the publishing industry. Kuang’s works have won numerous awards, including a Nebula Award for Best Novel for Babel.

This guide refers to the first edition of the novel published by HarperCollins in 2023.

Content Warning: The source material contains depictions of racist stereotypes, violence, and sexual assault.

Plot Summary

June Hayward is an aspiring author with a mediocre debut, Over the Sycamore, and no new projects in the works. Her friend Athena Liu, however, is a literary darling, constantly earning new book deals and basking in the never-ending wave of public admiration. The two attended college together, and although they still spend time with each other, Athena’s success fosters an intense sense of jealousy in June. June, who confided in Athena about her sexual assault at Yale, is resentful that Athena used her account in a short story that helped launch her onto the literary scene.

June still sees Athena semi-regularly, and one night, the two are out drinking at a bar to celebrate Athena’s new Netflix deal. When they return to Athena’s apartment, Athena shows June her recently finished novel, The Last Stand. The novel is about the Chinese Labour Corps and their forgotten role in World War I. June is awestruck by the novel and is the first person to read it, as Athena is very secretive with her writing process. When Athena later chokes and dies during a drunken pancake-eating contest, June returns home with the manuscript of The Last Front and notes she found on Athena’s desk. In the aftermath of Athena’s death, June presents herself as Athena’s grieving best friend, an inaccurate depiction of their relationship.

At first, June insists that she is only completing and editing The Last Front as a writing exercise, but as she becomes more engrossed in the novel, she convinces herself that it is her purpose to publish it. She finishes the novel and gives it to her agent. Her current publisher passes on it, not bothering to read it, but she lands a substantial deal with Eden Press. She works closely with her new editor, Daniella, to edit the book, removing much of Athena’s personal touch and message. They soften the white characters and take out much of the cultural specificity of the Chinese Labour Corps. In making the book more marketable to white audiences, they fundamentally change the novel. To keep her plagiarism secret, June convinces Athena’s mother to not only keep Athena’s notes instead of gifting them to Yale but to never read them herself.

Concerns about June’s identity as a white woman clashing with the subject matter of the novel prompt Eden’s marketing team to suggest that she publish under the racially ambiguous name Juniper Song, her actual first and middle name, and have her take an equally ambiguous author photo. June, intent on keeping the origins of The Last Front secret, clashes with Candice Lee, an editorial assistant at Eden who suggests that they use a sensitivity reader to fact-check The Last Front. June adamantly refuses and uses her status as the author to have Candice removed from the project. Candice gives June a one-star review on Goodreads, and June expresses her disapproval to Daniella. Candice is fired from Eden Press and banned in the publishing world.

Publication day arrives, and The Last Front is a hit. June enjoys success and attends her first public reading of the novel. She sees Athena in the audience, throwing her off and prompting a panic attack. After initial popularity, The Last Front begins receiving criticism for its stereotypical portrayal of Chinese laborers and the novel’s sympathetic treatment of its racist white characters. June struggles with the constant influx of online comments, and her anxiety worsens when she attends a community event to read the book and sees the host’s disappointment when she realizes June is not Chinese American.

Despite the wave of criticism, The Last Front is popular enough to grab Hollywood’s attention. June meets with producers who would like to option the book to studios and finds that their plans for the film are not necessarily faithful to the source material. They want to expand the white characters’ roles, remove any Chinese language from the film, and have the Chinese Laborers be accentless. June convinces herself that this is to make the movie marketable to a larger audience. She agrees to the changes, hoping that the movie will be a big hit.

Criticisms of The Last Front pour in, and soon, there are accusations that June stole the work from Athena. A Twitter account called @AthenaLiusGhost is June’s most vocal detractor and gains momentum. June devises a plan to detect the account’s IP address and have her brother-in-law track it. She discovers that the account’s holder is Geoffrey Carlino, Athena’s ex-boyfriend. She meets with Geoff, a man whose own literary career crumbled because of the racist themes in his work, and he attempts to extort June. She stops him by threatening him with a recording of the meeting, and he shuts down the account, effectively stopping the movement against The Last Front.

After a year, The Last Front falls out of the spotlight. Unable to write originally, June uses a paragraph from Athena’s notes to write a novella, Mother Witch, that enjoys moderate success. Its publication, however, begins a new scandal, as Athena had workshopped the stolen paragraph at a writer’s workshop years prior. June becomes reclusive during the fallout, and when she finally meets with Eden Press, she is surprised to learn that her sales are up among right-wing readers. The publisher won’t abandon her so long as she writes a new, original project.

After a failed visit to DC’s Chinatown to find inspiration, June takes a break to teach at a youth Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) workshop in Boston. While she enjoys her first class, the students soon find out about her plagiarism. In retaliation, she bullies them. June leaves the workshop and visits her mother in Philadelphia, where she clashes with her mother’s lack of confidence in her career. As June becomes hopeless, she stumbles on a review that inspires her. She will write a pseudo-autobiographical account of her relationship with Athena. to assuage her guilt and rocket her back into the spotlight.

As the novel comes together, Athena’s Instagram account reactivates and begins haunting June. June cannot focus on writing and becomes obsessed with freeing herself from Athena’s spirit. She once again meets with Geoff, who insists she just ignore it. The two sympathize with each other, both feeling as though Athena used them to craft her narratives. June tries to take his advice, but after seeing Athena’s ghost again, she messages the account and agrees to meet.

At the meeting, Candice comes forward as the holder of Athena’s account and gets a confession from June. She plans to use that confession to launch her own career. June attacks her, hoping to destroy the evidence and possibly kill Candice, but Candice pushes June down the stairs. June awakes in the hospital with multiple broken bones and is told that she fell down the stairs. Days later, Candice publicly announces June’s confession and her impending tell-all. June schemes to write a counter tell-all that will frame herself as a hero, knowing that her white privilege will give her endless chances to redeem herself in the public eye.

Related Titles

By R. F. Kuang

Study Guide


Babel, or The Necessity of Violence

R. F. Kuang

Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of The Oxford Translators' Revolution

R. F. Kuang

Study Guide


The Poppy War

R. F. Kuang

The Poppy War

R. F. Kuang