Biographies & Memoirs


Reginald Johnston—My British Tutor

THE FIRST TIME I SAW FOREIGNERS WAS AT A RECEPTION given by the Empress Dowager Lung Yu for the wives of the chiefs of mission accredited to Peking. Their strange clothing and the various colors of their eyes and hair made them seem to me both undignified and alarming. I had not yet seen any foreign men. My knowledge of them was limited to the magazine pictures printed at that time in which they all seemed to have moustaches like a Chinese figure eight on their lips, creases in their pants and walking sticks. The eunuchs claimed that foreigners’ moustaches were so stiff that one could hang a lantern on them and also that their legs would not bend. This latter belief led a high official in 1900 to recommend to the Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi that the easiest way to fight foreign soldiers was to push them down with a bamboo stick, since, once they fell, they could not stand up again.

My tutor Chen Pao-shen had once been in Southeast Asia where he had actually met foreigners, and he passed on his knowledge of them to me. What he told me gradually replaced what I had learned from the eunuchs, but when I heard that I was to have a foreigner as a tutor, I had some strange and uneasy feelings for a youth of fourteen.

It was on March 4, 1919, that my father and my Chinese tutors introduced me to Mr. Reginald Fleming Johnston in the Yu Ching Palace. First, in accordance with protocol, I sat on my throne and he bowed to me. I then stood up and shook hands with him. Then he bowed again and withdrew. Later, he re-entered and I bowed to him in order to demonstrate my respect for him as my teacher. After this ceremony was over, he began to give me lessons in the company of one of my Chinese tutors.

I soon discovered that Johnston was not so alarming after all. His Chinese was very fluent and much easier to understand than the Fukinese and the Kiangsi dialects of my other tutors. Johnston at that time was a little over forty and although he seemed to be much older than my father his movements were much more nimble. His back was so stiff and straight that I thought he might have it encased in a cast concealed beneath his clothes, and even though he did not have a moustache and could bend his legs he gave me a feeling of being stiff. I found the clarity of his blue eyes and the yellowish gray of his hair frightening.

Also within about two or three months, I discovered that this Scottish tutor with so many alien characteristics was really much like my other tutors. He not only respectfully called me Emperor but also, when I became tired during my studies, he would push aside my books and talk to me about everything under the sun. Based on his recommendation, a companion student was provided for my English class.

Johnston had received an M.A. degree from Oxford University in England. He had been a secretary to the Governor of Hong Kong and, before he came to me, he was a Commissioner of the British Leased Territory of Wei-hai-wei. He said he had been in Asia for over twenty years, had visited almost every corner of China, and had admired its famous mountains and rivers, its ancient monuments and scenic views. He knew Chinese history and was well acquainted with the customs and habits of the interior of China. He had done research in Confucianism, Mohism,12Buddhism and Taoism and was especially fond and appreciative of Chinese poetry. I do not know how many Chinese classics he had read, but I noticed that he, like my other Chinese tutors, would move his body and shake his head according to the rhythm when he recited Tang poems.

Just as with my other tutors, he felt honored when I bestowed titles on him. After he had received the hat button of the highest grade, he had a full set of court clothes and headgear made. He posed for a photo in these in front of his summer home outside of Peking in the Western Hills and sent prints of it to many of his friends and relatives. The Household Department rented a house for him in the city and he had it decorated as a court official would have done. Upon entering the gate one could see four red tablets on which were written in black ink: Companion of the Yu Ching Palace; Privileged to Be Carried in a Sedan Chair with Two Bearers; Awarded the Hat Button and Robes of the First Rank; Endowed with the Right to Wear a Sable Jacket Whenever he received a special honor he would have a formal memorial written to thank me.

He was very fond of Chinese tea and peonies and liked to talk with the veteran Ch’ing Dynasty officials. When he retired to England he set aside a room in his house for displaying the things I had given him and also his formal Ch’ing robes. He also flew the flag of Manchukuo over a small island he had purchased in order to show his loyalty to the Emperor. When I think back, I realize that the cordial relationship that developed between us was due to his patience. It could not have been an easy task for such an easily aroused Scot to adopt the attitude he did toward me. Once he showed me some foreign magazines filled with World War I pictures of aircraft, tanks and artillery and explained them to me: the functions of the tanks, which country’s airplanes were the best, the bravery of the Allied soldiers, etc. Although fascinated at first, I eventually became bored as usual and emptied the contents of a snuff bottle on the table and started drawing flowers in the powder. Without a word, Johnston put away the magazine and waited patiently while I played, until it was time to close the class.

On another occasion he brought me some foreign candies, and I was delighted with the tin box, the foil wrapping paper and the different fruit flavors of the candies themselves. He then told me that the different flavors were derived from chemicals and explained how the candy box had been shaped by machine. I didn’t understand anything of what he told me and I did not want to understand. After I had eaten two pieces, I thought only of the ants in the pine trees outside and I wanted them to taste the chemicals contained in the machine-made box. I therefore went out to the courtyard while Johnston waited patiently until the time for the class to end had come.

As I gradually came to understand his patience I became interested and obedient. He not only taught me English; he also sought to educate me to be a gentleman in the British tradition. When I was fifteen years old, I decided to follow his advice about being an English gentleman and sent some eunuchs out to buy a complete foreign outfit for me. Later I put on the suit, which was too big for me, and then tied my necktie in a knot, as if it were a piece of rope, outside my collar. When Johnston saw me he became so furious he nearly burst. He told me to take off my foreign clothes immediately and, the following day, he came back with a tailor to take my measurements and had a suit made for me. “If you cannot wear foreign suits made to order,” he explained, “it would be better for you to wear Chinese gowns. A person who wears a ready-made suit bought in a shop is not a gentleman. You’ll be . . .” But what I would be he did not go on to say.

“If Your Majesty ever visits London,” he told me, “you will be invited to tea parties which, although comparatively casual, can be important occasions. The time will usually be on Wednesdays. At these teas, you will be required to meet many of the aristocrats, scholars, philosophers and other prominent people. Your clothes need not be too formal but your manners will be very important. It would be a disaster for you to drink your tea as if it were hot water, to eat the refreshments as if they were a real meal, and to make too much noise with your fork or spoon. In England tea and cakes are refreshment [he used the English word] to restore your spirits, not a meal.”

Even though I could not remember all of Johnston’s tea party instructions and threw the caution with which I had eaten the first cake to the winds by the time I ate the second, Western civilization as represented by airplanes in the magazines, candies produced by chemistry, and the etiquette of tea parties made a deep impression on my mind. From the time I first saw the World War I magazines I became interested in foreign periodicals. I was especially struck by the advertisements and immediately ordered the Household Department to order foreign-bred dogs and diamonds from abroad like the ones in the magazines. I also bought some foreign-style furniture and had the red sandalwood table with brass fittings used on the kang for the support of the elbows changed for a small painted desk with porcelain fittings. Imitating Johnston, I also ordered a pocket watch with chain, rings, tie pins, cuff links, neckties, etc., etc. I also asked him to give me a foreign name as well as ones for my younger brothers and sisters and “empress,” and “consort.” I was called “Henry” and my “empress,” “Elizabeth.” I even imitated his way of talking in a mixture of Chinese and English with my fellow students:

“William [Pu Chieh], hurry up and give me a pencil [pencil in English], sharpen it and put it on the desk [in English].”

“Joseph [Pu Chia], ask Lily [my third sister] to come around this afternoon to hear some foreign military music.”

I felt very proud when I talked like this, but when Chen Pao-shen heard this jargon he would lift his eyebrows and close his eyes as if he had a toothache.

In my eyes, everything Johnston did was the best. He made me feel that foreigners were the wisest and most civilized people and he the most learned man of all Westerners. I don’t think he fully realized how deep his influence was; that the woolen cloth of his suit made me question the value of Chinese silks and brocades; and that the fountain pen in his pocket made me ashamed of my writing brushes and Chinese writing paper.

Because Johnston spoke disparagingly of Chinese queues and said they looked like pigtails, I had mine cut off. Since 1913, the second year of the Republic, the Minister of Interior of the Republic had sent several letters to the Household Department requesting that the Ch’ing officials persuade the Manchu bannermen to cut off their queues. They also had expressed the hope that the queues in the Forbidden City would go. The tone of these letters was very polite and they never referred to the queues on my own head or those of the high officials. The Household Department used many reasons to defend the use of queues and even went so far as to say that queues were a useful way of distinguishing who should be allowed in and out of the palace. Several years after the matter was first brought up the Forbidden City was still a world of queues. But now, after Johnston’s remark, and within a few days of cutting off my own queue, at least 1,000 disappeared. Only my three Chinese tutors and a few senior functionaries kept theirs.

The High Consorts wept over the loss of my queue and my tutors wore gloomy expressions on their faces. Later Pu Chieh and Yu Chung had theirs cut off.

The people who disliked Johnston the most were the staff of the Household Department. At that time, expenditures in the palace were still enormous yet the payments under the Articles of Favorable Treatment from the Republic had been in arrears year after year. In order to meet operating expenses, the Household Department had to sell or mortgage antiques, paintings, calligraphy, gold and silver objects and porcelain from the palace every year. I learned from what Johnston said that there were some questionable practices involved in all this. On one occasion the Household Department wished to sell a golden pagoda as tall as a man, and I recalled that Johnston had told me that the Household Department, when it wished to sell gold and silver objects, should treat them as art objects, and thus receive much more money for them. According to what Johnston had said, only a fool would sell these objects by weight. I then called in a Household official and asked him how he planned to sell the golden pagoda. When he said he planned to sell it by weight, I blew up.

“Only fools would do such a thing,” I said. “Haven’t you any sense?”

The Household officials realized that Johnston was really calling their hand so they thought up a new method to forestall him. They had the golden pagoda sent to Johnston’s house and asked him to sell it, saying that I had requested this. Johnston saw through the trick right away and exploded with anger. “If you don’t take it away,” he ordered, “I’ll report this to the Emperor immediately.” The result was that the officials dutifully removed the golden pagoda and made no more trouble for Johnston because they came to appreciate his position within the royal family and knew that he had my full trust.

In the last year of my studying in the Yu Ching Palace, Johnston had become the most important part of my soul. Our discussion of extracurricular topics occupied more and more of my class time and the area of our discussions broadened. He told me about the life of the British royal family, about the conditions and political systems of the various countries, the strength of the powers after World War I, about conditions all over the world, about the customs of the British Empire “on which the sun never set,” about China’s civil wars, about the vernacular language movement in China (the May 4th, 1919, New Civilization Movement, as he called it) and the relationships of the various Western civilizations with one another. He even talked about the possibility of my restoration and the unreliable attitude of the war lords.

“Judging from the newspapers,” he said one day, “the Chinese people are longing for the Great Ch’ing Dynasty, They are tired of the Republic. I do not think Your Majesty need worry about the war lords; nor need Your Imperial Majesty try to find out their position by spending so much time reading the newspapers, nor by concerning yourself with their varying attitudes about supporting your restoration or defending the Republic. What Tutor Chen says is true. The most important thing is for Your Majesty to improve himself. But in order to develop your sage virtue you should not always stay in the Forbidden City. Your Majesty can broaden your horizons in Europe, especially in Britain at Oxford University where the Prince of Wales is studying.”

At times, my intoxication with Western life and my imitation of Johnston did not give him complete satisfaction. For instance, our ideas on Western clothes differed. On my wedding day, after I had appeared at a reception for foreign guests and drank a toast, I returned to the Mind Nurture Palace and took off my dragon robe and changed into a Chinese long gown on top of which I put on a Western-style jacket. Also I put a peaked tweed cap on my head. Just then Johnston came in with some friends. A sharp-eyed foreign lady noticed me standing in the corridor and asked, “Who is that young man?”

Johnston looked at me and when he saw what I had on his face turned red. His appearance frightened me and the expression on the faces of the foreigners further mystified me. I did not understand what was wrong.

After they had left, Johnston was still in a temper. In fact he was so worked up, he looked as if he would explode with anger.

“What kind of style is that?” he asked furiously. “Your Majesty the Emperor—for the Emperor of China to wear a hunting cap! Good God!”

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