WORLD OF DIFFERENCE BETWEEN IMPERIAL FAMILIES OF JAPAN AND QING DYNASTY CHINA
I’ve just finished reading The Private Life of Puyi, the Last Emperor of China (Gento-sha, Tokyo; 2019）. It is an engaging book in which author Yasuo Kato does a superb job depicting those in power who for centuries ruled this huge nation called “China” with ethics and values absolutely different from ours.
The values of the Japanese imperial family and the political and business leaders who actually hold power contrast sharply with those who have ruled China, whether that be the emperors of the Qing dynasty or the political leaders of the Kuomintang and the Communist Party.
I believe Twilight in the Forbidden City (1934) by Reginald F. Johnston, Puyi’s Scottish tutor, is essential to an understanding of Puyi’s life. Johnston’s book was used by the Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci as a source in the making of his 1987 movie The Last Emperor.
The first Japanese translation of Johnston’s book was published by the liberal publisher Iwanami Shoten in 1989, but was harshly criticized by renowned critic Shoichi Watanabe as “an unscrupulous publication that seriously impairs the honor of the publisher.” In addition to many serious translation errors, Watanabe asserted, the translation failed to precisely convey Johnston’s intentions due to “politically intended editing.” Those interested in getting closer to the truth about Japan’s relationship with Puyi and Manchukuo should read a two-part translation of the same book by Osamu Nakayama edited by Watanabe (Shoden-sha Publishing Co., Tokyo; 2008).
While Johnston’s autobiography fails to reveal a full picture of Puyi even in the improved translation, Kato has come up with several amazing facts about the emperor in The Private Life. To put it bluntly, Puyi was an unprincipled man. Given the cruel destiny that tossed him about throughout his 61 years on earth, this was maybe only to be expected. But it was nonetheless a fascinating life, with Puyi undergoing astounding transformations at a number of critical turning points.
Assuming the throne of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo in 1934, Puyi visited Japan as Emperor Kangde the following year, and again five years later, in 1940, when he was received by Emperor Hirohito and given a warm welcome the Empress Dowager Sadako.
The Japanese imperial household must have looked a peaceful haven for Puyi, quite different from the atmosphere of the Forbidden City he had been used to—a quagmire of conspiracies and intrigues. Puyi instantly had a strong admiration for the Japanese imperial family and “strongly desired to be assimilated into it and hoped earnestly to be allowed to enshrine Amaterasu Omikami, the ancestor goddess of the Imperial Family, into the newly founded imperial family of Manchukuo.”
Prone to Changing Sides
With such proclamations, Puyi naturally must have expected the Japanese army in Manchukuo to assume a more revering posture towards him. Even so, it is difficult to comprehend why he decided to enshrine Amaterasu and yet neglect the gods of his native country. Having just been created as a new state, Manchukuo was still devoid of a constitution or a national assembly. Designed to become a new realm of peace and prosperity for the five different races that Manchukuo embraced—Japanese, Manchurians, Mongols, Koreans, and Han—enshrining a Japanese god simply did not make sense.
Besides, in the first place Puyi’s dream was the restoration of his crown. Masaru Hatano, a specialist in the modern history of Japan, emphasizes in his Emperor Showa and the Last Emperor (Soshi-sha, Tokyo; 2007) that by agreeing to a Japan-Manchukuo unification, he had forsaken this dream.
Kato scrupulously traces the many times Puyi changed sides over the course of his life. While detained in the Soviet Union (1945-50), Puyi would often sing songs to himself praising the USSR and express the hope that he would marry a Soviet woman, Kato goes on. When brought back to Mao Zedong’s China, Puyi once again changed his position. Having been used to changing his position in accordance with the circumstances surrounding him since his childhood, these betrayals may have been inevitable.
When he visited Japan for the first time in 1935, he found an invigorated nation, as Emperor Showa’s first son, Crown Prince Akihito (now emperor) had just been born two years before. Returning to Manchukuo, Puyi started worrying about having not yet been blessed with an heir. When his brother Pugiye married Hiro Saga, the daughter of Marquis Saneto Saga, Puyi began to fear for his life feeling that he would “surely be killed if a baby boy is born to Pugiye.” He seriously thought his brother and his wife were going to kill him in order to succeed to his property in the absence of his own heir.
Why was Puyi not blessed with an heir? Kato minutely depicts his hither-to untold private life to explain the reason: Puyi grew up in the Forbidden City surrounded by a large number of eunuchs and ladies-in-waiting, with whom he engaged in a rampantly promiscuous life as a young man.
In 1964, Puyi penned The First Half of My Life; From Emperor to Citizen: The Autobiography of Aisin-Gioro Puyi (Foreign Languages Press.) One is wise not to take this book at its face value, as it was an autobiography the Chinese authorities wanted Puyi to write, but there is a description of Puyi’s wedding night as he, then 16, married a beautiful young princess the same age. Puyi writes:
“There were red drapes, red bedding, red clothes, a red skirt, red flowers, red cheeks…they looked like melted red candles spread all over. I felt very uncomfortable sitting or standing. Feeling Yangxindian (his rooms in the Forbidden City) would be much nicer, I opened the door and simply went home.”
That is the extent of the story about Puyi’ private life his autobiography reveals. But Kato digs further to state: “That night Puyi returned to Yangxindian and played his life away until dawn with eunuchs…Many people were quoted as testifying that Wang Fengchi, an attractive eunuch who would become Puyi’s favorite eunuch and homosexual partner, was immediately called in, and they spent an intimate night together.”
Difference of Heaven and Hell
Wang was reputed to be more attractive than the most beautiful woman on earth. Puyi became captivated at first sight by Wang, who lured him into the forbidden world of sex with eunuchs. No wonder he was not blessed with an heir.
The Forbidden City was the site of extremely cruel punishment horrifying just to hear. Depending on their mood, Empress Dowager Xi Taihou, her son Puyi, and others around them could give punishments over trifling matters so severe they could lead to death. “Two hundred hits across the buttocks” with a green bamboo stick was just a warm-up to more serious punishments within the Forbidden City. Because shoddy work on the part of one person would tar others with the same brush, the punishments were executed mercilessly. According to Kato, the severest punishment was called “qibi”—“covering the mouth, eyes, ears, and nose with several sheets of cotton paper dipped in water and clubbing to death.”
In order to simply get rid of his boredom, Puyi would often punish eunuchs who could not but absolutely obey him. He would suddenly take out a whip, hitting his poor victim incessantly. Or he would keep pouring water over his helpless victim in the extreme cold of February until he nearly froze to death. On other occasions, he would force his victim to “eat the horse manure on the street” or urinate into his mouth. Such abuses and abnormal behaviors were a daily affair for him.
“Puyi’s sickly habit of taking great pleasure out of abusing frail victims who had no means of resisting” (Kato) is truly atrocious and absolutely unpardonable from the Japanese cultural point of view.
The Private Life reminded me of Kato’s other superb documentary, Never Forget the Tungchow Mutiny” (Asuka-Shinsha, Tokyo; 2016), exploring an incident in which Chinese troops attacked a Japanese garrison, massacring 223 of the 385 Japanese residents in a district of Beijing in 1937. I will refrain from mentioning the ruthlessly brutal way in which the Chinese soldiers butchered the residents. The only thing I wish to say is that, no matter how eagerly Puyi desired to enshrine Amaterasu under the Japan-Manchukuo unification scheme, there was a difference of Heaven and Hell between how the Japanese Imperial Household and the rulers of China, including Puyi, treated their people.
As described in The Kojiki (The Record of Ancient Matters; 712) and The Nihon-Shoki (The Chronicle of Japan; 720), the members of our Imperial Family, regarded as the descendants of the gods who created Japan, have always cared for the people. Our leaders who hold the real power over our society have always revered the Imperial Household and our emperors as the symbol of spiritual authority. After the Meiji Restoration, our founding fathers aspiring to develop Japan into a modern state characterized our nation as a constitutional monarchy, in which “the sovereign reigns but does not govern.” Reading The Private Life, I strongly felt the need to securely maintain this precious national character of ours. (The End)
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 840 in the February 21, 2019 issue of The Weekly Shincho)