Biographies & Memoirs


My Wet Nurse

IN THE JOURNAL OF MY LIFE, WRITTEN BY MY TUTOR, there is an entry dated February 21, 1913:

His Majesty frequently quarrels with the eunuchs. He has already had about seventeen of them flogged for very minor offenses. His obedient servant, Chen Pao-shen, and others have tried to persuade him to stop but he will not listen to them.

Often, when I became out of sorts, the eunuchs would receive punishment. And if I suddenly became happy and high-spirited, they would also be in for trouble. When I was a child, I not only enjoyed watching camels, feeding ants and worms and observing fights between dogs and cattle, I was also especially fond of practical jokes. Many of the eunuchs suffered as a result. One day, at the age of eight or nine, it suddenly dawned on me to find out if the eunuchs would really carry out an order of the “divine Son of Heaven” without question. And so I pointed to a lump of dirt on the floor. “Eat it up for me,” I ordered. A eunuch knelt down and ate it without question. Once I was playing with a fire pump and, just then, an aged eunuch walked in front of me. I was seized with an irresistible urge to spray water on him. Instead of running away, he knelt down under the water and, as a result, received such a shock from the cold, for it was wintertime, that we later had to revive him with massage and artificial respiration.

The difficulty, of course, was that with everyone trying to please me and cater to my every wish, my propensity for practical jokes was increased rather than diminished. My tutors tried to use philosophy as a curb and talked to me about such abstract ideas as benevolence, humanity and forgiveness while, at the same time, they recognized my authority. But no matter how many times they reasoned with me in this way and told me of the heroic deeds and benevolence of the Emperors of the past, this sort of persuasion had no effect.

The only person, in the palace, who could control my practical jokes was my wet nurse, Mrs. Wang Chiao. She knew nothing of Chinese history and the heroic deeds of the great Ch’ing Emperors, but she could always persuade me and I felt I could not refuse her. Once there was a young eunuch who put on a special puppet show for me. I loved it and I decided to give him a piece of pound cake to eat. Then, all of a sudden, my fondness for practical jokes came over me. I decided to play a trick on him. I tore open the bag of little iron pellets that I used for my Chinese boxing lessons and put some of them in the cake. When my wet nurse saw what I was doing, she said:

“My own Master and Lord. How can you put pellets in that cake and let him eat it?”

“I just want to see his face after he bites into it,” I said.

“But won’t it break his teeth?” she asked. “If his teeth are broken he won’t be able to eat.”

I thought over what she had said for a minute. “Well,” I explained, “I just want to see what he looks like after he cracks his teeth this once. I won’t do it again.”

“How about using green lentils instead? Biting on the lentils will be just as much fun for you to see as biting on the pellets.”

In this way the little eunuch who played so well with the marionettes avoided disaster, and in the end I was happy for him.

Another time, I was playing with my air gun and pointing it at the windows of the eunuchs’ rooms. I thought it fun to shoot little holes in their paper windows. Someone sent for my nurse.

“Oh Master,” she said. “There are people in those rooms. You may hurt them.”

Only then did I think that there were people behind the windows whom I could not see and that they might be injured by my shooting. My nurse was the only one who ever explained to me that other people were human beings as I was; not only did I have teeth, but other people had teeth as well; not only could I not bite into iron pellets without being injured, but other people could not as well; not only did I have to eat, but other people had to eat as well, otherwise they would go hungry. Other people also had feelings and could be hurt by the pellets from my air gun. Much of this was simply common sense which I knew as well as anyone. But in my peculiar environment, it was difficult to keep in mind because I tended not to think of other people and not to put myself in their shoes. In the Forbidden City in which I grew up, other people were all slaves—my subjects. In the palace, from my infancy until the time I grew up, only my wet nurse, because of her simple language, was able to make me grasp the idea that I was like other people.

I was fed on Mrs. Wang’s milk until the age of eight. In these eight years we were inseparable. When I Was eight, the High Consorts had her sent away without telling me. At that time I would rather have seen all of my four mothers expelled from the palace instead. I still wanted to keep my wet nurse, but no matter how I cried the High Consorts would not allow me to have her back.

After my marriage, I sent people to search for Mrs. Wang and sometimes I had her stay with me in the palace. During my Emperorship of Manchuria, I welcomed her to Changchun and supported her until I left the Northeast. She never sought anything for her own benefit because of her special position. She was, by nature, calm and mild and never quarreled with anyone. Her face always wore a smile. She did not talk much, and if no one took the initiative in conversation, she would remain silent, smiling quietly. When I was young I used to find her charming little smile rather strange. Her eyes seemed to be fixed on some fardistant place and often I wondered whether she had seen something in the sky outside the window or was looking at the scrolls on the wall. She never spoke about her own life or background.

In later years, I talked about her with her adopted son and for the first time I learned about the life of this person whose milk had fed me. She was born in 1887 to a poor farm family by the name of Chiao in a small village of Jenchiu County in what is now Hopei Province. She was one of a family of four, which included, besides herself, her mother, father and brother, who was six years older than she.

The father, who was about fifty, had a few acres of poor lowland which was parched when it did not rain and flooded when it did. Even in a good year there was not enough to feed them. When my nurse was about three, there was a severe flood and her whole family had to flee to avoid disaster. While en route, her father wanted to abandon her several times, but he always put her back into one of the broken baskets slung from his carrying pole. The other basket contained some tattered clothes and bedding which was all the property they had in the world. They did not have a single grain of rice to eat. When she later talked to her adopted son about how she had almost been abandoned as an infant, she had no word to say against her father. She only pitied him and thought of the hunger that had made him so weak he could hardly carry her along the road.

Finally the Chiaos reached Peking where they sought relief from one of their cousins who was a eunuch. But he refused to see them and they had to become beggars. Peking at this time was full of thousands of refugees who were sleeping on the streets and crying for food and clothing so that they had the greatest difficulty subsisting. At this point they tried to sell their daughter, but no one wanted to buy her. Later, the Prefecture set up a relief kitchen in order to feed the refugees and thus avoid rioting. Here the family found a temporary haven and also, at this time, the nine-year-old boy was finally accepted by a barber as an apprentice. Thus they managed to survive the winter and, when spring came, the Chiao family, along with the other refugees, began to think of their land. One by one, the refugees, the Chiao family among them, returned to their farms.

During the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, the troops of the Allied powers devastated their district. By this time the daughter of the family was thirteen, and she returned to Peking, a refugee again. She stayed with her brother, who was now a barber, but he could not support her and so, when she was sixteen, she was married to a tuberculous loose-living government messenger named Wang. After three years as a sort of slave, she gave birth to a daughter, and then her husband died, leaving her, her infant child and her in-laws destitute.

This is just about the time I was born and the household of Prince Chun was looking for a wet nurse for me. She was chosen from among twenty applicants because of her gentle personality and the quality and quantity of her milk. She was not allowed to return to her home to say good-bye to her child. Her pay was two ounces of silver each month and she was made to eat bowls of unsalted meat which, at the time, was felt to be beneficial for wet nurses.

Three years later her daughter died. The palace officials, however, kept the news from her in order to safeguard her milk. After she had been in the palace eight years, one of the women servants quarreled with a eunuch. As a result, the High Consorts decided to fire them, ordering them to take my wet nurse with them. It was then that this obedient, gentle, and humane woman found that her own daughter was no longer living.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!