AT II A.M. ON THE MORNING OF JULY 25, 1901, A BLUEeyed, prematurely graying young Scot, three years out of Magdalen College, Oxford, stood on a pier at. Hong Kong. From the German ship Bayern which had just docked, a shy, boyish-looking man descended the gangplank. He stuttered badly and was dressed in the rich silk costume of a Chinese noble with the ruby button of a mandarin of the highest rank on his hat.
It was the first time a Chinese prince had ever set foot on British territory. Nevertheless, the reception, which had been held to a minimum at the request of the prince, went well. Within fifteen minutes of his welcome by the young official, the prince was carried by four red-coated chairbearers from the pier to the entrance to Government House where he was greeted by the Governor.
This nobleman, who had preferred to receive none of the honors due him as a Manchu of the blood royal of China, was Prince Chun and he was on his way to Germany to lay the humble regrets and apologies of his brother, the Emperor, before the Kaiser for the murder in Peking on June 20, 1900, of the German minister during the Boxer Rebellion. The young Scot who was at the pier to meet him was a British civil servant named Reginald Johnston. These two men were to have a profound influence on the events related in this autobiography, for one was to become the father of the author and the other his tutor and intimate friend. Within the forces that led to this chance meeting are many of the strange, complex and fantastic elements that have resulted in the author becoming three times an Emperor, once a Chief Executive, an exile for eight years, a prisoner for fourteen years, a gardener, a scholar, a Communist propagandist, a member of the People’s National Congress. And the tale is yet to be completed. For the man still lives. He is Henry Pu Yi—the last Manchu.
The first Manchus were a pastoral people who lived in the woodlands of Manchuria near what is now the city of Mukden. Through centuries of unrecorded history, their strength increased to the point where their leader, Nurhachi (1559-1626), while paying tribute to the Ming Dynasty rulers of China in Peking, began secretly to prepare his tribe for “the great deed” of piercing the Wall and conquering China itself. These preparations were continued by his son, Abahai (1592-1643), who made his rear safe for the venture by subjugating Korea, a Ming protectorate, and completing the conquest of Inner Mongolia.
When Abahai died in 1643, his brother Dorgon completed “the great deed” on behalf of his young nephew Shun-chih. He conquered China, overthrew the ruling Ming Dynasty and made Shun-chih Emperor, not of China, for that term no longer existed except in the minds of the barbarians (foreigners), but of the Great Ch’ing Country-Ch’ing being the dynastic name adopted by these new rulers who were not Chinese, but Manchus, people of Manchuria.
In contrast to other foreigners who had previously conquered and ruled China through naked military force, the Manchus based their rule on some form of popular support. In their administration of the area we call China, they also gave power and responsibility to the other four races of the land, the Hans (Chinese), the Mongols, the Tibetans and the Mohammedans. The Manchus also actively supported Chinese culture and the arts to the extent that their own written language became little more than a formality. Chinese scholars were invited to staff the Ch’ing bureaucracy and Chinese generals, once they had surrendered, were often given higher and better positions in the new government than they had held under the Mings. In fact, the Manchus became Sinicized. The rural-gentry class of the Great Ch’ing Country continued with the basic administration as it had under the Mings, and the population grew from 19,138,000 in 1661 to 438,425,000 in 1910.
The exception to this policy of Sinicization was the blood royal of the ruling family, which remained pure Manchu. The Emperor, who was absolute ruler, was thus a man who enjoyed consanguinity with less than 2 percent of the total population over which he ruled. Through the centuries, strange customs, traditions and forms developed within the Forbidden City in which the rulers of the five races of China lived and from which they governed not only their original motherland of Manchuria (the Northeast, which they regarded as crown property and into which they forbade Chinese, or Han, immigration), but the rest of the country as well.
Meanwhile, the dynastic succession of the Great Ch’ing continued from father to son much as it did among Western royalties until the reign of the seventh Emperor in dynastic succession, Hsien Feng, who lived from 1831 to 1861.
Hsien Feng, before his death at the age of thirty, had no sons until a Manchu palace concubine named Lady Yehonala gave birth to one in 1856. Originally promoted to the rank of Secondary Consort when her pregnancy was established, she became the Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi when her husband died and her son succeeded his father on the Dragon Throne at the age of five in 1861.
Although she was ostensibly the ruler of China on behalf of her young son, Tung Chih, who was yet a minor, power eluded her. For on his deathbed her husband, the Emperor, had created a Council of Regents headed by Su Shun, an Assistant Grand Secretary and President of the Board of Revenue. It was this Council that the Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi was determined to subvert so that she could rule in its place.
The true and detailed story of how the young Dowager Empress managed to defeat the Regency Council in her struggle for power is unknown to us. We do, however, know the result. Tzu Hsi won and one of her first edicts which ushered in her 47-year rule of China read:
As to Su Shun, his treasonable guilt far exceeds that of his accomplices and he fully deserves the punishment of dismemberment and the slicing process. But we cannot make up our mind to impose this extreme penalty and therefore, in our clemency, we sentence him to immediate decapitation.
While the dynasty was traversing the difficult course of this minority succession, the country was convulsed by disturbances from within and without. From 1856 to 1860, Britain and France fought the Second Opium War against China. Meanwhile, there was an internal revolt led by the Taipings which was suppressed with great difficulty. The Taiping Rebellion was the greatest social upheaval of nineteenth-century China. Led by a small farmer who claimed to be a son of God and Jesus’ brother, the movement spread rapidly and its leader called for the overthrow of the Manchus, land reform, equality for women, and extermination of Buddhist and Taoist priests for worshipping “idols.” Nanking was taken by the rebels in 1853 and not recaptured by the government until 1864.
The Emperor Hsien Feng had not done enough to secure his country against foreign invasion and domestic disorder. The mother of his son, however, with her lust for and skill in the use of power triumphed over every danger and, with her son, was able to return from Jehol Province, to which the court had fled because of the disturbances, and witness the elevation of her child to the Dragon Throne within the Forbidden City in Peking.
From this point on, Tzu Hsi lived in a world whose outward unrealities are only surpassed by the realities which surrounded her and which, to the present world, defeat the imagination. There can be no doubt, however, that she liked power and did not hesitate to murder and debauch people to keep it.
The death of the Dowager’s son, in whose name she ruled from 1861 to 1874, has always been something of a mystery. Western historians have supposed he died of syphilis. Others, however, believe that the Empress Dowager, if she did not cause his death, most certainly hastened it along because of her violent temper.
One day, when the Emperor was ill with smallpox, his favorite wife went to visit him and burst into tears as she asked why her mother-in-law was always scolding her. The Emperor, Tung Chih, begged her to put up with it, saying that some time in the future she would have her day. When Tzu Hsi, who had never liked her daughter-in-law, heard that she had gone to visit her son, she stood outside his room to eavesdrop. Unaware of the disaster their few words of private conversation were to bring about, they saw Tzu Hsi rush into the room in a rage. She grabbed the Empress by the hair and started to beat her, shouting instructions to the palace eunuchs to prepare rods. In his weakened condition her son collapsed and died. Thus Tzu Hsi did not have to carry out the beating with rods. For once her son was dead, the Dowager put all the blame for his death on his wife and gave orders that her consumption of food and drink should be restricted. Two months later the Empress perished of starvation.
After the death of her son, the Dowager Empress was faced with the problem of preserving her own position. According to dynastic tradition, a close relation of the generation below the last Emperor should have been his heir. But this would have ended Tzu Hsi’s regency since she would no longer have been the “Emperor’s mother.” She thus waived all precedent and appointed her nephew Kuang Hsu Emperor, although he was of the same generation as her son. He “reigned” from 1874 until 1908 and was succeeded by Pu Yi.
As the Empress Dowager grew older her temper became even more unpredictable. Once a palace eunuch, who was playing chess with her, forgot himself to the point of boasting about a particularly clever move he had just completed on the chessboard. The Empress Dowager new into a rage, and, announcing that she would kill his whole family, had him dragged out and beaten to death.
She was very proud of her long hair. A eunuch who was combing it for her found a strand in the comb. In his panic the eunuch tried to conceal it but Tzu Hsi saw what he was doing in a mirror and he too was beaten. In later life she developed a facial tic and hated people to notice it. One day she asked a eunuch what he was staring at. When he could give no answer she had him given several dozen strokes of the heavy rod. Another eunuch who had heard about this did not dare so much as to took up when he was on duty, but she flared up at this too. “Why are you keeping your head down?” she asked.
When he could think of nothing to say he was also punished. The palace women were often beaten as well.
Apologists of the Empress Dowager have claimed that her excesses were the outbursts of a proud and patriotic woman suffering from the frustrations of a ruler who was witnessing the dismemberment of her kingdom by her enemies as well as attempts by foreign powers to tamper with the dynasty. And indeed it is true that during Tzu Hsi’s lifetime China was subject to continuing humiliations at the hands of the Western powers and Japan. To list a few, in 1858 Russia took all Chinese territory north of the Amur River and in 1860 the present Maritime Territory of Siberia. In the same year, Britain obtained a lease of Kowloon on the mainland opposite Hong Kong. In 1862 Portugal was confirmed in her occupation of Macao. In 1879 Japan took the Liuchiu Islands. In 1885 France was confirmed in the possession of all of Indochina. In 1886 China recognized the British conquest of Burma. And this was only the beginning.
But the Empress Dowager’s courtiers were so frightened of her and the continuing menace to their own lives that it was difficult for them to give effect to sensible policies if they thought such policies might, even in an indirect way, remotely arouse the Dowager Empress’s particular displeasure. Henry Pu Yi’s grandfather, for example, was made responsible for the founding of the Chinese Navy but felt constrained to use a large part of the funds to build the Summer Palace instead as a pleasure park for his sister-in-law Tzu Hsi. It was therefore no surprise to him that four years later the Navy came to a disastrous end in the Sino-Japanese War and the marble boat in the Summer Palace was the only one left of all the vessels on which so many tens of millions of ounces of silver had been appropriated.
One of Tzu Hsi’s most spectacular deeds was the destruction of the woman known to the West as the Pearl Concubine, who was, in fact, a wife of her nephew, the Emperor, and thus Pu Yi’s own aunt. It was the summer of 1900, just six years before Pu Yi was born. The Empress Dowager was preparing to flee the Forbidden City because her armies, in cooperation with the Boxers, had failed to exterminate the foreign diplomatic corps assigned to her court. The Princess Pearl suggested that she and her husband, the Emperor, should not flee but remain in Peking to treat with the Western armies who at that moment were hammering at the gates of the city.
This suggestion made the Empress Dowager angry, for she saw in it a plot to tamper with her power and the succession to the throne itself once she was out of Peking. Indeed the Empress Dowager’s decision to associate with the Boxers in the first place was derived from her suspicion that the Foreign Legations had been plotting to force her to hand real ruling power over to her nephew, the Emperor. Because of these fears money from the imperial treasury had been given to the Boxers, rewards were offered for the heads of foreigners, and those of her courtiers who had advocated an anti-Boxer policy were decapitated.
Thus, when the Princess Pearl had the temerity to suggest that she remain behind in Peking to deal with the foreigners, Tzu Hsi, despite the frantic pleas of her nephew, had the princess wrapped in a beautiful carpet by two eunuchs and slipped down a well within the Forbidden City. Immediately thereafter, disguised as a coolie, Tzu Hsi and her nephew, the Emperor, whom she had previously imprisoned because of his liberal views, fled in a horse cart. And yet it is a testimony to the resiliency of the Chinese, the cohesiveness and symbolism of the Manchu Court, the iron will of the Empress Dowager herself, that her power survived this flight. Months later, Tzu Hsi and her nephew returned to Peking with all the panoply and ceremony required of the Manchus on their return from a state visit to the provinces. During her flight to the Western part of her kingdom, her power and the glittering trappings of her office had survived.
Upon her return, the Empress Dowager ordered an accommodation with the West. This entailed the payment of an indemnity and the expiation, for their crimes, of many of her close advisers and relatives who had conspired with her to use the Boxers to drive the foreigners out of China. Some of these men were exiled by her orders. Others were beheaded or were commanded to commit suicide. Not one of all the leading statesmen who could have slipped away to a distant province and escape their fate did so. Chao Shu-chiao, for example, took poison when the Empress’s edict was read to him. But he was strong and vigorous and the effect was negligible. He then swallowed arsenic, but this too failed, and it was only after his mouth and nose were stuffed with paper that he succumbed. Ying Nien choked himself to death by swallowing mud.
A short time after these events, Henry Pu Yi was born in Peking in the mansion of his paternal grandfather, Prince Chun, who was a brother of the Emperor Hsien Feng, Tzu Hsi’s husband. Prince Chun’s wife was Tzu Hsi’s sister, so that the relationship was a double one. Prince Chun devoted his entire life to the service of Tzu Hsi and was one of her favorites.
Pu Yi’s maternal grandfather, Jung Lu, was also devoted to the interests of Tzu Hsi. He was a close friend of her favorite eunuch and his wife ingratiated herself with the Dowager so successfully that she was often called to the palace to keep her company and chat with her. He and his wife were professional courtiers par excellence.
When the young Emperor had defied his aunt, the Dowager, and issued a series of liberal edicts in 1898 ordering political reforms, it was Jung Lu who worked out a plan for Tzu Hsi to defeat them. In the struggle against these reforms Jung Lu became head of the group known as the “Dowager’s party” and the Emperor’s former tutor headed the “Emperor’s party,” for it was through the tutor’s privileged position that the reformers had been able to make contact with the Emperor in the first place. Following Jung Lu’s advice, the Dowager forced the Emperor to send his tutor into retirement, and within a few days of his departure from Peking she gave the loyal Jung Lu a Grand Secretaryship and made him viceroy of the metropolitan province of Chihli with command over the armies around the capital.
The reformers and the Emperor had put their trust in a Han subordinate of Jung Lu named Yuan Shih-kai who was in control of the new modernized Imperial Army. They had told him of their plan to imprison the Dowager and execute Jung Lu. Yuan Shih-kai, who was later to become President of China, agreed to cooperate but then betrayed them by going straight to Jung Lu and revealing the whole plot. On hearing the news Jung Lu hastened to the Summer Palace to tell Tzu Hsi. The result was that the Emperor was “imprisoned,” the leader of the plot fled to Japan, several other reformers were executed and the brief hundred days of liberalism were over. Jung Lu emerged from this crisis more powerful than ever.
During the calamitous events of the Boxer Rebellion, Jung Lu had followed a masterful policy of avoiding commitment. Taking his cue from Tzu Hsi’s behavior, he never went against her wishes but at the same time he prepared a line of retreat for her. When obeying her command to send soldiers to attack the Foreign Legations in Peking he did not issue them artillery shells, and during the midst of the siege, he even discreetly sent fruit and melons to the Legations as a token of his concern, much to the surprise of the besieged diplomats who were subsisting on horse meat. After the troops of the foreign powers had entered Peking and relieved the Legations, Tzu Hsi fled, but it was Jung Lu who proposed the single principle to which officials responsible for negotiating the peace were to hold: any conditions from the West could be accepted provided Tzu Hsi was not held responsible for the affair and the Emperor, her nephew, was not returned to real power.
As a reward for this tortuous, but successful policy, the Dowager arranged the marriage between Jung Lu’s daughter and Prince Chun’s son, and it was they who became the parents of Henry Pu Yi.
The ultimate reasons for the selection of Henry Pu Yi by the Empress Dowager to rule China as the tenth Emperor of the Ch’ing House are derived from this affair and from the fact that her previous choice, Prince Tuan’s son, became unacceptable as a result of the father’s involvement with the Boxers and commitment to the policy of exterminating all foreigners living in China. In addition, she felt that Pu Yi’s father, who was named Prince Regent until Pu Yi should become of age, was docile. And since she did not really expect to die she could thus continue to rule through him.
The Empress Dowager also seems to have felt that of all the princes of the blood royal Pu Yi’s father was the best suited to deal with the growing threats to the throne within the country. For at the time of Tzu Hsi’s and her nephew’s death in 1908, Yuan Shih-kai was head of the Army and the Dowager Empress was most certainly aware of his questionable loyalty. It was common knowledge within the Forbidden City that Yuan Shih-kai’s candidate for the throne, if not himself, was a Prince Ching, an ambitious Manchu who had started life as a low-ranking noble and had become a prince of the first rank and Grand Councillor. The Army connections of these two plotters, who were so well known and liked by the foreign diplomats in Peking, were a source of anxiety to the royal family. It was thought desirable to check them with another prince who was also held in esteem by foreigners. After all, it was not Yuan Shih-kai or Prince Ching but Pu Yi’s father who had actually gone abroad and been graciously received by the Kaiser to whom he apologized for the murder of the German minister during the Boxer uprising. And although Tzu Hsi’s interest in the West was severely limited, she was impressed by the Kaiser’s statement---as it had been reported back to her—that the success of his own house was based on the continuing control of the Army by the royal family.
Thus, at the end, Tzu Hsi made her only dynastic gesture to what she supposed was the modernity of the West. By selecting the infant Pu Yi as Emperor she turned over power to the one member of the ruling family—Henry Pu Yi’s father, the Prince Regent—who had actually met a real Western European potentate whose family had successfully coped with problems of army loyalties. And how was Tzu Hsi to know, surrounded as she was by the crenellated yellow tiled walls of the Forbidden City and waited upon by 3,000 eunuchs, that this model of Western dynastic skill and enlightenment sat on a throne that was only slightly more stable than her own? And how was she to understand that the Kaiser’s own character and passions were as complex and distorted by family pride and jealousies as her own?
No sooner were Tzu Hsi and her nephew dead and Pu Yi on the throne, than many of the disruptive forces that she had so successfully suppressed for so long came to a head. Yuan Shih-kai, as commander of the Peiyang Army, the only modernized fighting force in North China, emerged as one of the most powerful men in the country. Pu Yi’s father, aware of Yuan’s questionable loyalty and remembering the Kaiser’s advice about control of the Army, ordered him into retirement to “recuperate from a leg ailment.” He then placed a Manchu prince in charge of the Palace Guard, founded a special army under the control of the royal family and put other Manchu relatives in charge of the Navy and General Staff.
But these reforms came too late to cope with Yuan’s plots. The new commanders were unable to suppress a revolt that broke out in Wuchang in 1911 and the Prince Regent was forced to recall Yuan Shih-kai to resume command of the Peiyang Army whose officers would not fight without him as commander in chief. Yuan thus became the arbiter between the Manchu Government in the North and the revolutionaries who were ultimately led by Sun Yat-sen in the South.
On February 12, 1912, under Yuan’s pressure, Pu Yi abdicated, although he continued to live the life of an emperor within the Forbidden City in accordance with agreements between the Ch’ing House and the new republican government. Yuan, meanwhile, was elected President of China and later became its personal dictator recognized by the foreign powers and supported by foreign loans.