Biographies & Memoirs


Studying in the Yu Ching Palace

WHEN I WAS FIVE YEARS OLD, AFTER THE EMPRESS DOWAGER Lung Yu had chosen tutors for me, the Imperial Astrologer selected September 10, 1911, between the hours of seven and nine in the morning, as an auspicious time for me to begin my studies.

My first school was on an island in one of the lakes of the Summer Palace, but it was later moved to the Yu Ching Palace (Palace for the Cultivation of Happiness) in the Forbidden City. Only the two larger rooms on the western side of the building were used for my schoolrooms; the rest remained vacant. Under the southern window of one of the two rooms was a long table on which stood hatstands and flower vases. Along the west wall was a kang on which I studied, at first with a low kang table serving as a desk. Later I sat at a regular teakwood table-desk. There were two more tables along the north wall for books and stationery and there was also a row of chairs along the east wall. On the east and west walls hung scrolls of poems and maxims written by my grandfather, the first Prince Chun, for his son the Emperor Kuang Hsu. On the north wall hung an enormous chiming clock 7½ feet in diameter with hands as long as my arms. Its works were on the other side of the wall, and something resembling a car crank was needed in order to wind it. Where this object came from and why it was hung there or what sort of chimes it had I cannot remember.

But even though this clock was colossal, the people in the Yu Ching Palace had no concept of the passage of time in so far as the books I used were concerned. My principle texts were the Thirteen Classics10 plus supplementary books such as the maxims and proverbs of the Ch’ing Dynasty, the history of China with commentaries by my imperial ancestors, and so on. When I was thirteen, English lessons were added. But besides my English reader, I had only two other books; one was Alice in Wonderland and the other was an English translation of the Chinese classical Four Books. Thus from 1911 until 1922, I learned nothing about mathematics, physics or chemistry. As for the modern history of my own country, I read only about such events as the unsuccessful struggles for power against the Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi by the two preceding Emperors, and my knowledge of foreign countries was limited to my trip with Alice in Wonderland. I had no idea about people such as George Washington, Napoleon, Watts or Newton. Insofar as geography was concerned all I knew was that “the great Pole produced the two Forms, the two Forms produced the four Symbols, and the four Symbols produced the Eight Trigrams.” If it had not been for the willingness of my tutors to talk with me about things that were not in the texts, plus my own desire to read extensively, I would not even have known where Peking was or that rice grew out of the ground. In history, not even my tutors cared to expose the myths about the origins of the ancestors of the Ch’ing House. And in the matter of practical economics, no one ever told me how much a catty of rice cost. Thus, for a long time, I believed that my earliest ancestor was born after the fairy goddess Fokulun swallowed a red fruit and that everyone in China had a table covered with a variety of dishes at every meal.

Since I read a number of ancient books over a long period of time, I should theoretically have known the Chinese classics very well. But that was not the case. The truth was that I was not industrious and, up to the age of ten, I was far more interested in the big cypress tree that grew outside the Yu Ching Palace than in my books. In the summer there were always ants on this tree busy crawling up and down all day long. I became very interested in them and would often sit down to watch them and feed them crumbs of cake and help them move their food. Later I became interested in crickets and earthworms and had many antique porcelain bowls brought over for me to keep them in.

In my early teens I began to realize the importance of studies to my special position. I became interested in learning how to be a good emperor and in understanding the basic principles of rulership. My interest was centered in the content of the books rather than in the beauty and form of their language. But their content was usually devoted to the rights and privileges of an emperor and seldom to his duties. Even though some of the sages said, “If the emperor regards his subjects as so much grass, then the subjects will regard the monarch as the enemy,” the books were more concerned with the relations between the emperor’s ministers and the common people. My very first textbook, the Classic of Filial Piety,11 stated that one should “start by serving one’s parents and end by serving one’s emperor.”

My tutors never gave me any tests on my lessons nor did they require me to write any essays. I remember that once I wrote several couplets and poems, but my tutors never commented on them or sought to help me with my style. Actually when I was young I enjoyed writing this sort of thing, but since my tutors never encouraged me, I wrote them solely for my own amusement. After I was twelve or thirteen I read a lot of books besides the regular textbooks, such as diaries and unofficial histories of the Ming and Ch’ing Dynasties, historical romances, tales of knights and warriors with magic powers, detective stories, and current novels published by the commercial press. When I was a little older I also read English stories. I concocted and illustrated many imitations of these works, Chinese and Western, ancient and modem, drawn from my daydreams for my own amusement.

The subject at which I was worst in my studies was Manchu. Even after I had studied it for several years, the only word I knew was “yili,” meaning arise, which was the word I used when my Manchu ministers knelt before me in audience.

When I was eight, I was provided with some fellow students. Each of them received 80 taels of silver a month as stipend and were also granted the special privilege of being allowed to ride a horse up to a certain point within the Forbidden City. This was regarded as a great honor among the young boys of the royal family. There were three recipients of these honors—my brother Pu Chieh, Yu Chung (a son of my cousin Pu Lun) and Pu Chia, the son of my uncle Tsai Tao. Another honor conferred on my companion students was to receive punishments in place of the Emperor. This was a 2,000-year-old tradition and, therefore, when I did not do well in my studies, my tutors would reprimand my companion students. Actually, however, Pu Chieh, my younger brother, was never called on to be “whipping boy,” and the victim was nearly always Yu Chung. Pu Chieh was the best student because his own tutor at home prepared him specially for his lessons in the Yu Ching Palace, and Yu Chung was the worst because he was scolded whether he studied well or not and this made him lose interest. In other words, his studies suffered for occupational reasons.

When I had no fellow students, I was naughty. I once noticed the long eyebrows of one of my tutors and told him to come closer so that I could touch them. He obeyed me and bent his head, not anticipating that I would pull out a hair from his eyebrow. When he died a few months later the eunuchs said this was because I had pulled out his eyebrow of longevity. On another occasion, one of my tutors became so irritated with me that he forgot the distinction between Emperor and subject. On this occasion, I couldn’t study because I wanted to watch the ants come in and out of their holes in the courtyard. At first the tutor tried to persuade me to sit quietly by explaining that “to be a gentleman one must be polite and grateful.” But I continued to fidget and twist. Seeing that I was still unable to concentrate, he went on to cite another saying, “If a gentleman is not dignified, then he cannot show his prestige and his learning will not be well grounded.” But instead of paying attention, all I wanted to do was stand up and go out. Suddenly he lost his temper and shouted at me, “Don’t move!” I was frightened and quieted down a bit. But after a while, I thought again of my ants and started fidgeting once more.

But when I got some fellow students things went better and my tutors developed a way of warning me through them when I misbehaved. I remember once when I came skipping into the study I heard the tutor say to Yu Chung who was sitting like a good boy, “Look how undignified you are.”

My daily study hours were from eight to eleven in the morning, and later when English was added, the hours were extended from one to three. At eight every morning, I sat in my yellow-canopied sedan chair to be carried to the Yu Ching Palace. Upon arrival I would say “Call,” and a eunuch would then go and summon the tutors and my fellow students from a waiting room. They then entered the schoolroom in a set order; first a eunuch with the books, then the tutor of the first lesson and then my fellow students. Once in the study, the tutor would stand and look straight at me as a form of salutation. But I did not need to return this greeting since although he was my tutor he was also my subject. After this, Pu Chieh, Pu Chia and Yu Chung would kneel in front of me to pay their respects and when this was over we would all sit down. I sat in a chair on the north side of the desk, facing south; the tutor faced west and my fellow students sat beside him. As soon as the eunuchs had placed everyone’s hats on the hatstands they filed out, and my lessons would begin.

Among my Chinese tutors, Chen Pao-shen exerted the deepest influence on me. Chen, a well-known scholar in Fukien, had passed the palace examination during the reign of Tung Chih and became a Hanlin academician at the age of eighteen. After entering the Grand Secretariat, he became known for strength of character as a result of having dared to reprove the Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi. But because he did not alter his political views to cater to her whims, in 1891 he was demoted five ranks and retired for twenty years. He was recalled on the eve of the 1911 Revolution and appointed governor of Shansi Province, but before he reached his post he was summoned to the palace to be my tutor. From this time on he never left me until I went to the Northeast. Of all the Ch’ing Dynasty officials he was considered one of the most stable and cautious, and in my eyes he was the most loyal man I knew. Until I decided that his caution was too much of a hindrance to me, he was my principal adviser and I sought his advice on all matters, whether trifling or important.

Tutor Chen would often smile and praise me with the following quotation: “Although the king is young he is really the Son of Heaven.” When he smiled, his eyes became like small slits behind his glasses and he would stroke his long white straggly beard.

I always found his casual talk interesting, and when I grew a little older, almost every morning I would listen to his summaries of the latest news of the Republic—the tension between the North and South, civil strife among the war lords, the ill feelings between the presidency and the legislature. After these decriptions he would often go on to discuss the restoration of previous Emperors and the golden age of Kang Hsi (1654-1722) and Chien Lung (1707-1799). Naturally, he was fond of talking about the events surrounding his remonstrances with Tzu Hsi, and whenever he discussed Ch’ing officials who were serving the Republic, he became very angry. He believed that all these people should be considered traitors. In his eyes revolutions and republican governments were the source of all difficulties and disasters, and people who were involved in them were robbers and thieves. “Those who defy the sages have no law,” he would say. “Those who defy filial piety have no parents. This is the cause of all disorders.”

Tutor Chu Yi-fan, on the other hand, did not indulge in this kind of talk with me. He always seemed dispirited. Later on, I found that he enjoyed Mah-Jongg and used to play it all night. As a result, he suffered from lack of sleep. However, he did know the art of Chinese medicine and if I were ill I sometimes asked him to diagnose my illness. Tutor Liang was very talkative; the difference between him and Tutor Chen was that he talked principally about himself rather than events of interest to me.

At this time there were many things I did not understand and which were not explained to me. For instance, according to Confucius, a scholar should not talk about ghosts and spirits, but Tutor Chen really believed in fortune-tellers and even consulted the patron saint of fortune-tellers about the future of my dynasty. Tutor Liang believed in divining by a willow stick and sand writing. Tutor Chu even once recommended a soothsayer. They all knew how to fish for honorific awards, as well as scrolls and books of historic paintings, landscape paintings, and other valuables, which they selected for themselves.

After their deaths, all my tutors received posthumous awards that were the envy of other officials. It is fair to say that whatever they wanted to get from me, they got; and whatever they wanted to give me, they gave.

It was while studying in the Yu Ching Palace that I came to know my father, the Prince Regent, although not intimately. Whenever a eunuch would interrupt my studies to report that “His Royal Highness” was coming, my tutors would become very tense and would hastily tidy up the desk while they explained to me how I should behave. After this they would tell me to stand up and wait for him. A moment later a clean-shaven stranger wearing a peacock feather in his hat would appear in the door of the schoolroom and stand stiffly in front of me. This was my father. After greeting him I would pick up my book and start to read aloud as I had been instructed to do by my tutor.

In a few moments, I would get stuck, being unable to remember how to pronounce a character. This would make me flustered, but fortunately my father would appear more nervous than I and would keep nodding his head and mumbling “Good . . . good . . . very good indeed, Your Majesty. Study hard. Study hard.”

Then he would nod his head a few more times, get up from the table and leave. He had only spent two minutes with me.

Thus I came to know what my father looked like. He had no beard and his face was unwrinkled. The peacock feather on the back of his hat was always bobbing up and down. He used to make these visits every two months and he never stayed longer than two minutes. It was his stutter that made him shake his head as he groped for words, causing the peacock feather on his hat to bob about more than ever.

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