ON THE SURFACE, THE FORBIDDEN CITY APPEARED TO BE calm and peaceful, yet underneath, it was in complete confusion. From my earliest years I had heard stories of burglary, arson and criminal assault, not to mention opium smoking and gambling. At the time of my wedding, theft had developed to such an extent, for example, that right after the ceremony it was discovered that fakes had been substituted for the pearls and jade in the Empress’s crown.
From my tutors I learned that the treasures of the Ch’ing House were known throughout the world and that the amount and value of the antiques, the calligraphy and paintings were tremendous. The treasure collected by the Ming and Ch’ing Dynasties for several hundred years, with the exception of the items taken by foreign troops in 1860 and 1900, were still in the palaces in the Forbidden City. But since most of these items were uncatalogued it was impossible to tell if anything was missing. This made it easy for thieves.
When I was sixteen, out of curiosity, I asked the eunuchs one day to open up a storeroom adjacent to the Palace of Established Happiness. The doors were sealed with tape and had clearly not been used in several decades. Inside were a large number of chests piled to the ceiling. Each chest was also sealed with tape from the reign of Chia Ching (1760— 1820). I had a eunuch open one of them. Inside were famous calligraphy and paintings, scrolls and many beautifully carved antique jade pieces. Later on, it became clear to me that these items were those especially enjoyed by the Emperor Chien Lung (1707—1799) and after his death, Chia Ching, who had succeeded him on the throne, had decreed that they should be sealed and stored. The treasures I had discovered were in but one of the many storage rooms set aside for this purpose.
Some of the storage rooms were for bronze pieces, some for porcelains, some for famous paintings, including many done by an Italian painter especially for the Emperor. In the rooms behind the Mind Nurture Palace I also found many “hundred treasure boxes” that were also said to be part of the art treasury of Chien Lung.
These “hundred treasure boxes” were made of beautiful purple teakwood. Outside they looked like a book box, but when opened there were a series of partitions on ascending levels and each level contained several compartments within which was an art treasure, such as Sung porcelain, a handwritten book 1½ inches in size, a beautifully carved ivory ball, several ivories the size of watermelon seeds with carvings of poetry or paintings, an old Egyptian coin, and so on. In any one of the “hundred treasure boxes” there were paintings, calligraphy, gold, gems, jade work, bronze work, porcelains, carvings of ivory. Even the smallest boxes contained more than several hundred items, and the larger ones contained more than a thousand. I found over 40 or 50 of these boxes and I took them all to the Palace of the Cultivation of Happiness.
The discovery of all this art, stored away and not used, made me wonder how many treasures I owned. Those I found stored away I had taken to the palace where I did my studies. But how many were there that I had not seen? What should I do about all the storage rooms scattered about the Forbidden City? How many items had been stolen from them? How could I prevent theft?
My tutor Johnston had told me that many new antique shops had been opened in Ti An Men Street in Peking. According to Johnston some of them were run by eunuchs and by relatives of high officials of the Household Department. My Manchu tutors as well as Johnston felt I should take adequate measures to prevent further theft. Eventually I received a recommendation from them suggesting that I should order an inventory. But this led to even more trouble.
First of all the number of thefts increased. The lock to the storeroom in the Yu Ching Palace was broken and one of the windows in the Cloudless Heaven Palace was smashed. Later, a big diamond that I had recently purchased disappeared. In order to trace its theft the High Consorts ordered the head of the Administrative Bureau to form a committee to question the eunuchs on duty and to use beatings and third-degree methods if necessary, but neither this nor the offer of big rewards produced any results. And this was not all. On the night of June 27, 1923, soon after starting an inventory of the storerooms behind the Palace of Established Happiness, a fire broke out and everything, whether it had been inventoried or not, was destroyed.
This fire, which was fought all night by fire brigades of all sorts, from both within and without the Forbidden City, reduced the whole area around the palace to ashes. This was the location where most of the treasures of the Ch’ing House were stored. What was lost in the fire remains a mystery. Later the Household Department drew up a makeshift inventory which estimated that 2,665 gold Buddhas were lost, 1,157 scrolls, 435 curios, and also several thousand ancient books. But heaven only knows what these figures were based on.
The best way to describe the damage done by this fire is to tell the story of the disposal of the heap of ashes that remained. At that time I had been looking for a cleared space for a tennis court where Johnston could teach me to play. According to him it was a game played by all British aristocrats. The space left by the fire would, I thought, suit this purpose perfectly, so I ordered the Household Department to clean it up. Although there were no scrolls, porcelain, or art objects in the ashes, there was plenty of melted metal including gold, silver, bronze, and pewter. The Household Department asked the various bullion dealers in Peking to submit bids for the ashes and the successful bidder paid $500,000 for the right of disposal. He gathered 17,000 ounces of melted gold from them. After this was done the Household Department had the remaining ashes put in burlap sacks for distribution among its members. Later, an employee of the Department told me that his uncle contributed two gold altars, each one foot in height, to the Peking Lama Temple and the Cypress Grove Temple from the ashes he had received.
There was no real way of investigating the cause of the fire. I suspected that it had been set by thieves in order to cover up evidence, for a few days later another fire broke out above one of the windows of the No Idleness Study in the eastern wing of the Mind Nurture Palace. Fortunately, this one was discovered early and extinguished right away. The fact that someone had started it with a wad of kerosenesoaked cotton aroused my suspicions even more. I came to feel that there were not only arsonists about but that there were also people who were trying to murder me.
That there had been thefts and fires set to destroy evidence was proved. My tutors talked about it openly. But my fears of being murdered may well have been derived from my supersensitivity. My suspicious nature had already become apparent. According to the ancestral regulations of the Ch’ing House, the Emperor, no matter how busy with his daily duties, had to read a page from the sacred scripts of his ancestors which were placed in his bedroom every day. I especially admired the “Vermilion rescripts, edicts and decrees” of Emperor Yung Cheng (1678—1733) who once wrote:
Man is to be trusted, and yet never to be trusted completely.
If this is not understood it is impossible to make use of the right people correctly.
Emperor Yung Cheng also once made a notation on a memorial submitted by his most trusted official:
One can only have faith in the deeds of the past.
One must watch out for the future.
These impressed me deeply and made me recall the sayings of Kang Hsi (1654—1722), who had especially warned against eunuchs.
“I have observed,” he wrote, “that from ancient times to the present there have been very few good eunuchs. It is up to the Emperor to avoid any errors in judgment from the beginning so that one can guard against the future.”
I decided that in order to disperse the eunuchs from the Forbidden City, one supreme effort to win “eternal ease” was required. I knew that my decision would arouse a storm of opposition and that if I could not cope with the inevitable objections of my father it would never be carried out. I felt that it was essential not to give him time to negotiate or to discuss this issue with the officials of the Household Department and my tutors, and so I went to see him, unannounced, in his mansion outside the Forbidden City.
When he was confronted with the problem so suddenly it made him stutter even more than ever. He spoke with great effort and stammered out many unconnected and miscellaneous reasons why the eunuchs should be retained. He begged me to reconsider.
“You . . . Your Highness, Emperor should go . . . back . . . to the palace first. After a couple of days . . .”
I ignored his pleas and used only one phrase in reply. “If the Prince does not agree, I shall not return to the palace from this moment on.”
When he heard this he became so excited that he didn’t know whether to sit or to stand. He scratched his head and cheeks and began to whirl about the room in his excitement. In doing so he knocked over a bottle of soda water with his sleeve and it made a big crash as it struck the floor. As I looked at his face and saw his anxiety I could not help but laugh out loud. Then I opened a book on his desk and pretended to read in order to demonstrate my intention of not returning to the palace unless he acceded to my demand.
My father was finally convinced and it was decided that, except for a few attendants on the High Consorts, all the eunuchs were to leave the Forbidden City.