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[789] Twilight in the Forbidden City – Reginald F. Johnston

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The author, a Scottish academic, who was appointed as Imperial Tutor to the boy Emperor, the last Emperor Puyi, gives a fascinating account of the checkered history of China since 1898 as seen from the palace. The story covered in this memoir continues to the time of Puyi’s ascension to the Manchukuoan throne in the northeast of China. The memoir mostly concerns Johnston’s time with Puyi, who is then 13 years old, with whom he cultivates a relationship beyond that which is expected between teacher and pupil. Johnston later supervises Puyi’s residence in Summer Palace after he is evicted from Forbidden City, and plays a role in his seeking refuge in the Japanese embassy. The book therefore provides a very rare glimpse into the very secretive court life of China, bound by tedious formalities, protocols, and regulations.

By the time Johnston commences teaching in 1919, China has fragmented politically in the aftermath of the fall of the Qing Dynasty. The dictator Yuan Shikai attempts to form a strong central government and even contemplates declaring himself emperor, but his failure plunges China into even more states of warlords. In 1912, the Qing court announces the abdication of the last emperor who, under the privilege treaty, is to retain his residence i Forbidden City, to retain his imperial appellate but divested of political power, and to live off an allowance from the Republic of China. It is under this political disquiet that Johnston begins his engagement in the palace, where he observes and criticizes the corrupted goings-on among the courtiers in the imperial household department. These people live out for their own benefits and suck the lifeblood of the remnant of the Qing court. Johnston cities malpractices and embezzlement and advocates for the dismissal of this department. He later manages to dismiss all the eunuchs and bureaucrats in order to save expenses and to pave the way for moving the imperial household to the Summer Palace.

Johnston is often accused of being a monarchist, and to some extent it’s true. He cannot help being biased in defending Puyi and the Qing monarchy in the face of the republic. devotion and affection aside, he blames Empress Dowager Cixi’s mismanagement that has squandered and repleted the benefits of a strong monarchy, and that millions of lives and untold suffering and chaos could have been prevented had the monarchy remained intact. Johnston is for a central government, but he doesn’t see anything wrong if a figurehead of an emperor being in conjunction with a democratically elected president. The Chinese translator, with his well-researched annotations and comments, really supplement Johnston’s narrative and correct his biased comments. A scholar who is contemporary peer to some of the historical characters that populate the pages, Guo Pak-U provides historical context and expounds how the Chinese imperial system works. The backdrop of facts that Johnston provides is richly interspersed with comments and annotations from Guo, which renders Johnston’s account more readable and objective.

Johnston has provided what is probably the only Western eye witness account over a period of many years and he does so with discipline and rigor, often bringing into the narrative the necessary context for the reader to truly appreciate the landscape. The book’s scholarship, quality of writing, and personal investment in the story by the author make it a rare and engrossing read.

389 pp. Oxford University Press. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Han Suyin, Crippled Tree, 19-20th Century China

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I came know about Han Suyin from the movie Love is A Many-Splendored Thing with William Horton and Jennifer Jones. It’s the story of an American reporter who falls in love with an Eurasian doctor originally from China, only to encounter prejudice from her family and from the Hong Kong society. Han Suyin is the author of the book and she is, herself, a Belgian-Chinese. The film is based on her autobiographical novel A Many-Splendored Thing.

In The Crippled Tree, Han researches and writes about her Eurasian roots, beginning with the tumultuous events toward the end of 19th century that weakened the monarchy of Qing Dynasty. It was during the time of uncertainty and disquiet that his father, a native of the distant Szechuan province, was born. A man born into the scholar-gentry class, Han’s father was selected by the government to study railroad engineering in Brussels, where he met Han’s mother, Maguerite Denis.

In a time of change and revolution, the clash between the old (monarchy) and new (reform), everything happened on a large scale influenced also private life. This is what Han sees to capture, to reconstruct the lives of her parents as they cope with the changes in China. For me, the book is an eye-opening testimony to the final years of the Manchu (Qing) dynasty, as the Empress Dowager, under the pretext that her son the Emperor was ill, interfered with and took over administration. It’s appalling how Manchus managed to twist the peasants’ demand for change and the hatred against monarchy into hatred against the foreigners. Equally stunning is how Western powers manipulate the Chinese, by offering loan to complete the railway to keep china under control.