SEPTEMBER 27, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 12
Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi, the 10th ruler of the Manchu Dynasty, was born to the gilded splendor of the Forbidden City and ascended to the throne in 1908. Just three years later, a nationalist putsch ended the infant's reign. At the tender age of six, the Son of Heaven was out of a job. Twelve years later, in 1924, Pu Yi was ejected from his prison palace by an ambitious warlord. He fled to Tianjin, where he cavorted as an exiled and extravagant playboy, full of imperious airs but no imperial mandate.
That mandate, however forced, was reinstated in 1932, when invading Japan set up the puppet regime of Manchukuo in northeastern China. Tapping the disgruntled ex-Emperor as figurehead ruler, the Japanese promised him a kingdom to match his royal breeding. In 1934, Pu Yi slipped into silken robes emblazoned with dragons and formally ascended to the throne of Japanese-occupied Manchukuo, fueled by hopes of a revived Qing Dynasty. Pu Yi proved a brittle ruler who lashed out at cowering servants to compensate for his sense of powerlessness. With the Japanese surrender in 1945, his dreams of empire were dashed, and the chastened Emperor was trundled off by advancing Soviet troops to the Russian Far East, where he spent five years dreading his return to the country he had betrayed.
In 1960, Pu Yi was sent to the Beijing Botanical Gardens to begin work as a gardener and handyman. The preserve was not far from Pu Yi's old Forbidden City haunts, but it was worlds away from the splendor of imperial China. He lived with his fifth wife in a dilapidated courtyard house, shuffling occasionally to the library to conduct historical research on his defanged and unloved dynasty.
Just hours before he died, unmourned, of cancer at a Beijing hospital in 1967, the medical staff reportedly had to link arms to keep the Red Guards from storming the ailing Manchu's ward. Nearly three decades later Pu Yi and his clan finally enjoyed a reprieve. In 1995, his widow was allowed to transfer his ashes from a public columbarium to the Western Qing Tombs, where five of the 10 Manchu rulers are interred. Just a few years before, a sanitized Qing revival had begun. Manchu-style banquets became the rage in Beijing, and state-published recipe books illustrated the proper ways of preparing, for example, a tasty sheep's ear. Cashing in on the hype surrounding Bernardo Bertolucci's 1988 film The Last Emperor, the Chinese tourist bureau even began offering tours of landmark places in Pu Yi's life, including his spartan prison cell in Fushun. The Botanical Gardens, where the deposed Emperor spent many of his final days, were not part of the itinerary. Curious tourists had to make do with official photographs of Pu Yi tending his plants.
Those graying portraits evoke a bittersweet Chinese Gothic, a diminutive, bespectacled man standing solemnly with his gardening tools. The one-time Emperor nurtured the earth lovingly, professing himself content with watering his patch of the motherland. In 1960, armed with his first voter's card, Pu Yi voiced the hopes of the great Chinese agrarian revolution: "I, along with my 650 million compatriots, was now the owner of our 9,600,000 sq km of land." Perhaps he had forgotten that he had once been responsible for more than just a little plot of flowers. Indeed, as a very little boy, Henry Pu Yi had once owned it all.
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