Biographies & Memoirs


Reorganizing the Household Department

MY EXPULSION OF THE EUNUCHS WAS VERY WELL RECEIVED by public opinion, and, under Johnston’s guidance, I made the reform of the Household Department the next item on my list.

It will suffice to cite only two examples of the Department’s graft and embezzlement. One was the alarming size of the annual expenditures which could not have been met by income even if the $4,000,000 annuity under the Articles of Favorable Treatment had been paid. The other was the way in which the Department sold large amounts of gold and jewelry at a fraction of their real value.

Although I did not have detailed evidence of the Department’s corruption while I was still living in the palace, I knew one thing from the rate of annual expenditures: they were far higher than they had been under the Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi. In obedience to an edict of mine ordering that the finances be put in order, the Household Department had prepared a comparison, and according to it, the annual expenditures at the beginning of Tzu Hsi’s rule had only been about 300,000 taels and, even in the year in which her seventieth birthday was celebrated, they had only gone up to 700,000 taels. In contrast to this, mine had been 2,640,000 in 1915; 2,380,000 in 1919; 1,890,000 in 1920 and 1,710,000 in 1921.

At the same time I saw reports in the public press that some members of the noble families and the families of former high officials had become very poor and that a few had died of starvation. It was also reported that princesses and daughters of noble families had become prostitutes. Meanwhile, many of the Household Department people were opening antique shops, banks, pawnshops, construction firms, and other businesses. Even my tutors, though they had joined the Household Department in opposing my purchase of a car and installing a telephone, had nothing good to say for the Household Department.

My Manchu tutor, Yi Ko Tan, a year before my wedding, claimed that my tutor Chen Pao-shen had been guilty of “deceiving the sovereign” because he had not been willing to expose the corruption of the Household Department to me and for this reason argued that he was not worthy of receiving the title of Grand Tutor. Needless to say, Johnston regarded the Household Department as a “bloodsucking monster.”

“The Household Department and the servants of the royal princes are all rich,” Johnston told me. “Their masters know nothing about finance so that they are completely dependent on them. Without them they cannot even lay their hands on a farthing. Quite apart from getting back what is already lost, if their masters don’t put their financial affairs in order, they won’t be rich for long!”

“The motto of the Household Department,” Johnston said on another occasion, “is to preserve the status quo at all costs. It makes no difference whether the change involved is a minor reform or a major overhaul. Whatever runs into this obstacle has to stop.” He emphasized the last word by putting it in English.

After my wedding, I utilized my new power as head of the family to choose several retired officials who came to the wedding and were known for their capability and loyalty to advise me in this undertaking. They in turn recommended their friends, and in this way, a total of twelve or thirteen new officials were added to the Forbidden City. I made each of them either a Companion of the Southern Study or a Companion of the Great Diligence Hall.

The specific recommendations of these people are no longer in existence, but I do have a general recommendation of one of them which can be summarized as follows:

“In your servant’s opinion, the important thing today is secretly to plan a restoration of your dynasty. In order to restore your regime and gain control of the whole country, priority must be given to the consolidation of your base and the protection of your court. The next most important thing is to put your property in order so as to secure your finances. For it is necessary to have the wherewithal in order both to protect your present position and to plan a restoration.” He went on to suggest in more detail how these principles could be carried out, and one of his proposals with which I thoroughly agreed was that we should begin by reforming the Household Department.

Even the most apathetic retired officials were not opposed to the protection of the court by means of administrative reforms. There was, however, a small minority, led by my tutor, Chen Pao-shen, who would shake their heads over the suggestion of reform. Although this group acknowledged the corruption and weaknesses of the Department, they felt it had become so deep-rooted as to be impossible to clean up and pointed out that Emperor Chia Ching’s previous attempts at reform, as far back as 1800, had ended in failure. They thought it would be better to leave the Department alone and argued that the time was not opportune. But even they, including tutor Chen, had nothing good to say for it.

At the urging of Johnston I had tried unsuccessfully, even before my wedding, to put my property in order and had chosen a veteran diplomat and friend of his to take charge of the task. But he had proven unwilling to take up the job and had recommended a relative. At that time the Household Department had tried to get my father to block this appointment, but I had insisted. However, after he had been at work less than three months, he asked for a long leave of absence and returned to Shanghai.

Notwithstanding this incident, I did not detect the supernatural power of the Household Department and only blamed my failure on the selection of the wrong man and on the fact that I had not yet come of age and had thus not personally assumed power. I now felt that the situation was different. First, I had come of age and was master of my family and no one else could stop me. I now had a group of my own people around me and I felt that my strength was greatly augmented. With high spirits and keen interest I selected Cheng Hsiao-hsu to take charge of the reform.

Cheng Hsiao-hsu came from the same province as my tutor, Chen Pao-shen. He had served as consul in Japan and later as a border commissioner in Kwangsi Province. Chen Pao-shen and Johnston both recommended him to me, especially Johnston, who said that he was the one he admired most in all his twenty years in China and that his character and learning were without equal in the whole country. My tutor Chen further stated that Cheng had refused many times to serve the President of the Republic, that he was one of the best poets in the country and that his calligraphy was superb. His income from his calligraphy was said to be very large and since he was willing to give this income up to volunteer to work for me, I felt sure he would be loyal.

As a first step, Cheng Hsiao-hsu was named a Companion of the Great Diligence Hall in order to study the problem of the Household Department. Later, he came to see me several times to explain his ideas. He thought that four sections would be quite enough to do the work and believed that great numbers of its staff could be dismissed and enormous economies made. In this way the drain on my resources could be stopped and my financial position strengthened. He felt that if his plan were carried out, the financial basis for a restoration would be assured. I was so struck by his plan that I broke all precedent and appointed him Comptroller of the Household Department and Keeper of the Keys and Seals even though he was a Han and not a Manchu. He became the leading official of the Household (in place of its former comptroller, Shao Ying) and was so pleased with his appointment that he composed two poems to celebrate the occasion.

But to suppose that the uneducated and ignorant Household Department could be defeated by Cheng Hsiao-hsu was to underestimate this organization which had over 200 years of running the palace behind it. For all Cheng’s eloquence which was “like flowers falling from the heavens” and the support and confidence I gave him, he lasted only three months.

I have never fully understood how the Department got rid of him.

The first thing that Cheng encountered on entering office was a backlog of files dating back to the Revolution of 1911. His method of coping with this problem was to dismiss the holder of a key job and give it to a friend. The Household’s response to this was to behave as if it had been paralyzed. If Cheng asked for money, there was no money and there were accounts to prove it. If he wanted some object or file, no one knew where it was, and this too was clearly stated in the records.

In order to win over his subordinates, Cheng made a great show of listening to their opinions and holding weekly staff meetings at which he asked for suggestions. One of the staff suggested that the expenditures on fresh fruits and cakes used for offerings at the various shrines in the palace were too high. He explained that since these offerings were only symbolic, it would be better to use wooden or clay replicas. Cheng agreed with the proposal, ordered it into effect and promoted the man who had made the suggestion one grade. The eunuchs, however (there were only 100 left after the dispersal), felt that these offerings were a source of legitimate income for them and hated Cheng bitterly for his decision. Within a few days of taking office, Cheng became the most hated man in the Forbidden City.

Because Cheng would not retreat, he immediately received a number of threatening letters. One accused him of starving people to death and warned that he had better watch out if he wished to stay alive. Johnston, who had been commissioned by me to reorganize the Summer Palace outside Peking, also received threatening letters. Later Johnston proudly told me that he did not ride to the Summer Palace in an automobile, but went out on horseback for the express purpose of daring his enemies to kill him. As a result, he explained, “I am still alive and I look through them.”

The final act in all this reform program was really performed by me. Soon after I had appointed Cheng to office, I received some painful news: two members of the Republic’s congress were going to introduce a bill asking for the abolition of the Articles of Favorable Treatment. A similar bill had been presented two years previously both because of the brief restoration of 1917 and on the grounds that the Ch’ing House was bestowing titles and posthumous awards on Republican officials, but this had been tabled. Now it was being revived and to the old charges had been added the accusation that I had acted illegally in appointing a Han, Cheng Hsiao-hsu, Comptroller of the Household Department and extending to him the privilege of riding a horse in the Forbidden City.

The appearance of this news in the press was a signal for a series of attacks on the Household Department; various forms of corruption that had previously gone unnoticed came up for public criticism. In the meantime the inventory of the scrolls and paintings and other objects of art that my new advisers were making came under attack. Who would have thought that this inventory would have created a veritable wind of gossip that blew through the entire Forbidden City? I had never anticipated that it would have been better not to have asked for an inventory at all since the photographic prints of the treasures, painting and calligraphy (which formed the inventory and copies of which were sold) attracted attention both in China and abroad. But what concerned me most was that the Republic’s Ministry of Interior suddenly promulgated a Provisional Bill for the Preservation of Ancient Scrolls, Ancient Treasures and Ancient Objects which appeared to be designed to prevent the sale of palace objects of art.

Shortly afterward, Cheng, as a fund-raising measure, proposed that the encyclopedia of China, which included the four divisions of all the important literature, be shipped to Shanghai for photographing and publication by the commercial press. Transport for this project was stopped by order of the Republic. At this time my father came to see me, and in a very roundabout way said that the measures of Cheng Hsiao-hsu should be carefully reconsidered and explained that if the Republic did not approve of what he had already done, there might be worse trouble later on.

Soon after this Shao Ying, the former Household Comptroller, appeared before me to say that the Commander of the Republican Army was deeply dissatisfied with Cheng Hsiao-hsu’s actions and that if Cheng persisted with his measures and the Republic took action, he would be able to do nothing to help me. I became frightened by this news and then on top of it Cheng memoralized me asking to be relieved of his duties. The result of it all was that Cheng reverted to being a Companion of the Great Diligence Hall and Shao Ying resumed control of the Household Department.

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