Biographies & Memoirs


Crossing the White River

THE DAY OF MY DEPARTURE WAS SET FOR NOVEMBER 10, 1931. I used lots of ingenuity in developing what I hoped would be a safe plan and scheduled my departure for after dark so that I could slip out, unseen, through the main gate of the Quiet Garden. Originally, I had hoped to avoid the main gate and leave through the garage door which opened directly on the street. Thus I told my servant, Big Li, to see whether it could be opened, but he reported that it had not been used for so long that the posters which had been plastered over it on the street side had sealed the door fast. It was therefore decided that I was to hide in the rumble seat of a roadster. One of my aides would serve as chauffeur while another would sit beside him.

Waiting for me in his car not very far from the main gate was the Japanese interpreter, Yoshida. As soon as he saw our car it was arranged that he would follow in his.

My departure occurred on the third day after the Tientsin Incident. Martial law prevailed in the Japanese concession as well as in the neighboring Chinese-controlled areas. Although no Chinese vehicles were allowed on the streets, whenever my car was stopped at a crossroad, or at a barbedwire obstacle or by Japanese soldiers, it was allowed to pass after Yoshida gave a signal. My driver was completely inexperienced and a very poor chauffeur. As soon as he had passed through the main gate of the Quiet Garden, he ran into a light pole so that I bumped my head on the lid of one of my suitcases, and throughout the trip I was shaken up most uncomfortably by his bad driving. Nevertheless, we managed to reach our destination, which was a Japanese restaurant.

After the automobile came to a stop at the restaurant, my aide and Yoshida opened up the rumble seat and helped me out. The three of us entered the restaurant together. Here a Japanese captain, who had been waiting for us for some time, produced a Japanese Army greatcoat and cap and hurriedly put them on me. Then the captain and I entered a Japanese military car sent by the Commanding Officer of the garrison of the Japanese concession. This car had no trouble at all passing the various roadblocks, and we went straight to a dock on the bank of the White River. Yoshida and the captain helped me from the car. I noticed right away that we were no longer in Japanese territory and became somewhat worried. Yoshida whispered to me in a low voice: “Never mind, this is the British concession.”

Yoshida and the captain each took one of my arms and hurried me along a concrete wharf until we reached a small darkened motor launch, which we boarded. In the cabin, I found Cheng Hsiao-hsu and his son Cheng Chui, as planned, as well as three Japanese. The captain of the launch explained that there were also more than ten Japanese soldiers on board in charge of an officer whose sole duty was to escort me safely. The boat had been sent out by the Transport Section of the local garrison, and because of its special “transport” mission, there were piles of sandbags and steel protective shields aboard. About twenty years later, in a Japanese magazine I read some reminiscences about my escape in which the author claimed that if the launch had been detected by Chinese soldiers there was a big drum of gasoline aboard with which to blow us up if escape was impossible. According to the article my seat in the cabin was only a few feet from this incendiary bomb!

As soon as Yoshida, the interpreter, and the captain who had brought me to the launch left, we pulled away from the dock. When the lights of the boat came on, I gazed at the night scene on the river and let my mind be overwhelmed by thoughts. I had been to the White River quite a few times before, in daylight, and had visited aboard a Japanese destroyer and gunboat. On each of these occasions I gave myself up to dreams of my restoration. I had thought of the White River as the road of my escape to the ocean and to foreign help. Now I was actually sailing on it and was immensely happy. But, as it turned out, my happiness was premature. For Cheng Chui told me that we were now beyond the foreign concessions and would soon be within Chinese jurisdiction where we might encounter hostile troops.

After hearing this my heart nearly jumped into my throat. When I looked at the faces of the Japanese, I saw that they were all fixed and grim. No one spoke. Then, from the riverbank, I heard a voice: “Stop! Halt!”

Suddenly, as if my nerves had been severed, I nearly fainted and collapsed on the floor. The Japanese soldiers rushed onto the deck, and I heard orders given in low voices and the scurry of running feet.

When I looked out of the cabin window I saw soldiers behind each sandbag aiming their rifles toward the shore. The speed of the boat seemed to decrease and we were heading directly toward the riverbank. This puzzled me. I could not understand why we should be heading in the direction from which the order had come to halt. The boat’s lights were turned off, and I heard a burst of gunfire from the bank. All of a sudden, the motor roared into full speed and the boat shot forward while it veered to one side as if we were about to leap over the bank itself. Meanwhile the shouting from the bank and the gunfire receded into the distance. The Japanese plan had succeeded! First they had pretended to obey the order to halt by approaching the bank slowly; but then, when the Chinese were taken in by the ruse, they had veered off from the bank and bounded away.

After a while, the lights came on again and life returned to the cabin. About midnight we reached the mouth of the river at Taku, and while we waited for the merchantman, Awaji Maru, to pick us up, the Japanese soldiers produced miso soup, pickled cabbage and sake. Cheng Hsiao-hsu became very lively and started talking about the racial and cultural ties between China and Japan. He described our escape as a “heroic episode” and offered toasts to the Japanese soldiers. Then he began to sing and compose poems, one of which ran something like this:

Two Emperors of the same Continent wish to be almighty and deserving of respect,

While seven guests, passengers on the same ship, speak of Imperial coexistence.

It is not an empty boast to say that man can triumph over his destiny,

For when there are common goals there is no need for lengthy talk.

Because we had eaten a Japanese meal together, Cheng Hsiao-hsu later was inspired to design two personal seals for me in commemoration of the event. One seal told of the times of civil wars in the remote past when a prince escaped his captors and managed to regain his throne. The other seal celebrated the eating together of a meal of rice paste and oatmeal which symbolized the revival of the Later Han Dynasty.31 By recalling these two incidents from the historical past of China, he sought to remind me of how we had survived a crisis and shared the common experience of a new beginning.

Once we were aboard the Awaji Maru, Cheng Hsiao-hsu talked incessantly about his ambition to govern the country, and his words seemed not to cease until the morning of November 13th when we put in at the South Manchuria Railway dock at Yingkow in Liaoning Province. I had imagined that there would be a crowd to give me the sort of welcome I had received when I visited the Japanese primary school in Tientsin—people waving flags, cheering, and shouting “Long live the Emperor.” But the nearer the boat drew to the dock the fewer signs I saw of any such welcome. There were no crowds, no flags. When I went ashore I discovered that the handful of people there to meet me were all Japanese.

I was immediately taken to the station and, without being given a word of explanation, was transported to the warm springs resort of Tangkangtzu, where, full of suspicion, I entered the Tuitsuike Hotel. Run by the Japanese South Manchuria Railway Company, this hotel was a luxuriously furnished Western-style building in the Japanese manner and was reserved for Japanese army officers, high officials of the South Manchuria Railway, and Chinese bureaucrats. I was shown to a suite of rooms on the second floor where my former tutor and adviser Lo Chen-yu, the head of my general affairs office in Tientsin Tung Chi-hsu, and my counselor Shang Yen-ying were waiting. After greeting me, Lo Chen-yu told me that he was in the midst of discussions with the Kwantung Army regarding my restoration and the founding of the new state. He explained that it would not do for news of my arrival to leak out before the conclusion of the discussions, and that it would also be wrong if any of us but he were to be seen outside the hotel. I did not understand the significance of his advice and simply thought that this explained why nobody had come to welcome me. I believed that the talks with the Kwantung Army would present no problem and that soon the news could be announced that I, the Great Ch’ing Emperor, had returned to the throne in the palace of my ancestors, in Mukden. I did not notice the worried expression on the faces of Cheng Hsiao-hsu and his son. I happily ate an exotic Japanese supper as I gazed out of the window at the beautiful sunset, then went to bed, at peace with the world.

The next morning I discovered that my happiness had been premature. After washing, I wished to go out for a stroll to look at the scenery.

“It’s not possible! They won’t let anyone out,” said my attendant.

“Why not?” I asked in surprise. “Who said so? Go downstairs and ask!”

Thus I found out that I was blockaded in the Tuitsuike Hotel, that strangers were forbidden to come near the building, and that the guests on the floor below could not come up to the second floor, which was reserved entirely for the use of my little group.

“This is a safety precaution, a safety precaution for Your Majesty,” one of my Japanese escorts said in Japanese-accented Chinese.

“How long are we going to stay here?” asked Cheng Hsiao-hsu.

“That depends on Colonel Itagaki.”

“What has happened to Lo Chen-yu?”

“He’s gone to Mukden to see Colonel Itagaki. They are personally discussing the new state, and when they have reached agreement he will come to take Your Majesty to Mukden. To carry out so great an undertaking is easier said than done. Be patient, Your Majesty. When the time is ripe you will be invited to go.”

“To go where?” cut in Cheng. “To Mukden?”

“That will also be decided by Colonel Itagaki.”

Furious, I left them and sent for Tung Chi-hsu to come and see me in another room. I asked him why he had sent me a telegram from Mukden saying “everything ready.”

I did not know at the time that the Japanese were in a state of desperate confusion. Japan had been internationally isolated, and, within the country, there were still differences of opinion as to what form their rule over the new colony of Manchuria should take, so that the Kwantung Army could not yet allow me to appear publicly on the scene. My only reaction was that the Japanese were not being as respectful toward me as they had been in Tientsin. After a week of uneasy waiting I received a telephone call from Itagaki asking me to move to Port Arthur, where I stayed in the Yamato Hotel. Here, as before, the whole of the upper part of the building was reserved for us and I was told that I was not to go downstairs. Subsequently, however, my Privy Councilors were allowed out and permitted to travel freely about Manchuria.

When I asked Lo Chen-yu to explain this to me, he said, “It would injure Your Majesty’s celestial dignity were you to show your face. If you wait until your ministers have arranged everything, then Your Majesty can ascend the throne at the appropriate time and receive homage with decorum and propriety.” He also explained that the Kwantung Army was my host for the time being, and until I ascended the throne I should regard myself as its guest. Meanwhile it was only right that I should do as my hosts thought fit. Although I was increasingly impatient, I had no choice but to force myself to wait.

Actually, however, the delay frightened me while I was in Port Arthur. The reason for my concern was not as much my isolation as the admission by the Japanese that the Kwantung Army had not yet decided the form of the new state. This situation, which conflicted with what Doihara had told me in Tientsin, was far more depressing than having nobody greet me at the harbor at Yingkow. Then I had believed that “preparations were incomplete,” or my arrival had “not yet been announced.” But what did they mean when they said that “the form of the state had not been settled”?

Three months later, on February 19, 1932, came the news that the Administrative Committee for the Northeast had passed a resolution to set up a republic in the Northeast. This committee, chaired by Chang Ching-hui, was composed of a number of high Manchurian officials who had already submitted to the Japanese. On the same day it issued, under the direction of Itagaki, a “declaration of independence” from the rest of China. Everyone in my entourage except Cheng Hsiao-hsu and his son became panicky and indignant.

I seethed with hatred of Doihara and his associate Itagaki as I paced back and forth like a madman, breaking cigarettes in half. I threw a book of divination called The Art of Knowing the Future on the floor. I remembered my Quiet Garden and thought that if I could not become an emperor I would be much better off leading a comfortable life as an exile. I could sell some of my treasures and enjoy life abroad. Finally, I decided to let the Kwantung Army know that if they would not agree to my demands I would return to Tientsin. Neither Lo Chen-yu nor Cheng Hsiao-hsu opposed this course of action when I told them about it. I agreed to a suggestion of Lo’s that I should send a gift to Itagaki, and I gave Lo a few of the valuables I had brought with me. Just then Itagaki telephoned to ask Lo and Cheng to come for talks. I instructed them to stand firm and make my views clear to Itagaki and then I prepared a list of twelve reasons why my immediate restoration was essential to the proposed new and independent Manchurian state:

1.     The right system is essential if we are to follow the moral code of East Asia which dates back five millennia.

2.     The right system is essential to the carrying out of the Kingly Way32 and moral principles.

3.     To rule the state one must have the trust and respect of the people, and for this the right system is essential.

4.     China and Japan are fraternal countries, and for their joint survival and welfare they must respect the time-honored morality and ensure that both peoples have an identical spirit. For this the right system is essential.

5.     China has suffered from the disasters of democracy for over two decades, and, apart from a selfish minority, the great majority of the people loathe the Republic and long for the Ch’ing Dynasty. For this reason the right system is essential.

6.     The Manchu and Mongol peoples have always preserved their ancient customs, and the right system is essential if we are to win their allegiance.

7.     The Republican system is very widespread while the numbers of the unemployed daily increase. This constitutes a most serious threat to the Japanese Empire, but if the imperial order is revived in China, this will do a great deal to preserve the intellectual and spiritual qualities of the peoples of our two countries. For this reason the right system is essential.

8.     The Great Ch’ing has a history of over two hundred years in China and of over a century in Manchuria before that. To observe the way of life of the people, calm their minds, maintain the peace of all parts of the country, preserve the Oriental spirit, carry out the revival of the Kingly government and consolidate the imperial order in our two countries, it is essential to have the right system.

9.     The rise of Japan dates from the Kingly rule of Emperor Meiji. His edicts to his ministers all propagate morality and give instruction in loyalty and righteousness. While science was learned from Europe and America, morality was based on Confucius and Mencius. Since the ancient spirit of the Orient was preserved and the people were saved from the contagion of disgusting European practices, they love and esteem their elders, and protect their country as readily as one’s hand protects one’s head. That is why I respect him. The right system is essential if we are to follow in the steps of the great Emperor Meiji.

10. The Mongol princes continue to use their old titles, and if they are abolished under a republic they will be disappointed and disaffected, and there will be no way of ruling them. For this reason the right system is essential.

11. Japan deserves our deepest admiration for the way in which she has assisted the Three Eastern Provinces [the Northeast] and taken thought for the welfare of their thirty million people. My wish is that we should not restrict ourselves to thirty million people but should take the Three Eastern Provinces as a base from which to arouse the whole nation and save the people from the disasters that have befallen them. This would lead to the common survival and prosperity of East Asia, a matter which closely involves all of the ninety million people of Japan. There should therefore be no divergence between the political systems of our two countries. To bring about the prosperity of both countries is indispensable.

12. Since I retired from office in 1911, I have lived among the people for twenty years. I have had no thought for my personal glory and have been guided only by a wish to save the people. If someone else would undertake the responsibility for the country and bring disasters to an end with the True Way, I would be happy to remain a commoner. If I am forced to assume this burden, it is my personal opinion that without the correct title and real power to appoint officials and administer the country, I will be unable to bring twenty years of misgovernment to an end. If I am ruler only in name and am hedged in by restrictions, I will be of no help to the people and will only make their plight worse. This would not be my original intention, and would increase my guilt, and I absolutely refuse to bear the responsibility for this. If I were only concerned about my personal glory, I would be only too pleased to be given the land and the people after two decades of living in obscurity. What would I care whether I become president or monarch? It is purely for the sake of the people, of the state, of our two countries of China and Japan, and of East Asia as a whole, and not because of the slightest self-interest, that I maintain that the right system is indispensable.

Although Cheng Hsiao-hsu agreed to present my twelve demands he never did so. Instead, he agreed to the Kwantung Army proposal that the new state be a republic, and he undertook to persuade me to become its “chief executive.” When Cheng Hsiao-hsu returned from his meeting with Itagaki and admitted what had happened, he tried to pacify me by citing historical precedent, by arguing that the “chief executive” would be sovereign, and by telling me that my hopes of restoration would be finished if I did not go along with the Japanese for the time being.

When this did not work, he said that since Itagaki wanted to see me that afternoon, I could talk to him then.

“Let him come,” I angrily replied.

I met Seishiro Itagaki33 on the afternoon of February 23, 1932, in the presence of an interpreter from the Kwantung Army. Itagaki was a short man with a shaven head, and the blue-white pallor of his clean-shaven face contrasted with the black of his eyebrows and his small moustache. He was the most neatly uniformed Japanese officer I had ever seen; his shirt cuffs were of dazzling whiteness and the creases in his trousers were razor-sharp. This elegance and his habit of gently rubbing his hands made me feel that he was scholarly and graceful.

First he thanked me for the presents I had sent him and then he went on to say that he had come on the orders of General Honjo, the Commander of the Kwantung Army, to report to me on the “problems of the formation of the new state of Manchukuo.” He elaborated systematically on the “justice” of the actions of the Japanese Army and its “sincerity in helping the Manchurian people to establish a paradise of the Kingly Way.” As he spoke I nodded in approval and in my heart I hoped he would hurry up and answer the question about which I was most concerned. At last he came to the point.

“The new state will be called ‘Manchukuo’ [Manchuland]. Its capital will be Changchun, which will be renamed Hsinking [New Capital]. This nation will be composed of five races: Manchus, Hans, Mongols, Japanese and Koreans. . .”

Without waiting for the interpreter to finish translating, he produced from his briefcase the “Declaration of Independence of the Manchu and Mongol People” and the proposed five-colored Manchukuo flag and put them on the table in front of me. Pushing them aside with a trembling hand, and with my lungs ready to burst with rage, I asked:

“What sort of state is this? Certainly it isn’t the Great Ch’ing Empire!”

“Naturally, this will not be a restoration of the Great Ch’ing Empire,” answered Itagaki, unflustered. “This will be a new state. The Administrative Committee for the Northeast has passed a unanimous resolution acclaiming Your Excellency head of state. You will be the Chief Executive.”

The phrase “Your Excellency” enraged me. My blood rushed to my face. Never before had I been thus addressed by the Japanese, and I was not prepared to tolerate the abolition of my imperial title, not even in exchange for the two million square li of territory and the thirty million people of the Northeast. I was so worked up I could scarcely sit still.

“If names are not right then speech will not be in order,” I shouted, “and if speech is not in order then nothing will be accomplished! The people of Manchuria are longing not for me as an individual, but for the Great Ch’ing Emperor. If you abolish the title, their loyalty will be lost. I must ask the Kwantung Army to reconsider this.”

Itagaki gently rubbed his hands and, his face wreathed in smiles, he said, “The Manchurian people have already expressed their wishes by acclaiming Your Excellency as head of the new state, and the Kwantung Army is in full agreement with them.”

“But Japan has an imperial system! How can the Kwantung Army go about founding republics?”

“If Your Excellency does not like the term ‘republic’ then we will not use it. This will be a state built on the ‘chief executive’ system.”

“I am very grateful for all the enthusiastic assistance your honorable country has given, but I cannot accept a ‘chief executive system.’ The imperial title has been handed down to me by my ancestors, and were I to abandon it, I would be lacking in loyalty and filial piety.”

Itagaki seemed most understanding. “The office of chief executive will be for the transitional period. It is perfectly well known that Your Majesty is the twelfth Emperor of the Great Ch’ing Dynasty, and I am sure that after the formation of a national assembly, a constitution will be adopted restoring the monarchial system.”

“There are no good national assemblies! Furthermore, the first Great Ch’ing Emperor was never given his title by an assembly!”

The argument continued for over three hours. Itagaki remained calm and continued to smile, while he rubbed his hands gently. Finally, he picked up his leather briefcase as a sign that he did not wish to go on any longer. The smile vanished from his face and, when he addressed me, he reverted from “Your Majesty” to “Your Excellency.” “Your Excellency should think it over carefully,” he said. “We will continue our discussions tomorrow.” With that frosty remark he left me.

That evening, in an effort to improve the relations between us, I gave a banquet for Itagaki and the next morning he summoned my advisers to the Yamato Hotel and asked them to give me his final decision: “The demands of the Army cannot be altered at all. We will regard rejection as evidence of a hostile attitude and act accordingly. This is our final word.”

These words, when relayed to me, left me stunned. My legs turned to jelly and I collapsed speechless onto a sofa.

“Since things have developed to such a stage, there is no use in regrets,” was Lo Chen-yu’s dejected view. “Our only course is to set a time limit of one year for this transitional period and if the imperial system is not restored by then, Your Majesty can resign. Let us see how Itagaki reacts to this condition.”

Seeing no other way out, I sighed and sent Cheng Hsiao-hsu to see if Itagaki would agree.

Cheng soon returned, his face beaming, to say that Itagaki had agreed and was going to give a small banquet that evening in honor of “the future Chief Executive.”

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