Chinese history

Meeting the Last Emperor's brother

Chinese history

Kate Vandergrift reports on an interview with a witness to great changes in China. Many people will have seen the lavish Hollywood film on the life of the Last Emperor of China. Few may know that the Emperor's younger brother lived quietly in Beijing with his Japanese wife and gave a rare interview to a SACU delegation in 1980. Pu Jie died in 1994 at the age of 86.

Those who have read the excellent 'From Emperor to Citizen' by Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi (Vols 1 & 2, Foreign Languages Press, 1964), will recall that the young Pu Yi shared his English lessons with his brother, Pu Jie. They also raced about the gardens of the Forbidden City together, whenever they managed to escape the strict surveillance of tutors and eunuchs. Together too, they learned to swim, to row, and to wear English clothes, attentively supervised by our man in the British legation and one of the palace tutors: R. P. Johnston.

Pu Yi died in 1967, but his brother, younger by one year, still lives and works in Beijing. Some members of the recent SACU delegation were fortunate in having an interview with Pu Jie arranged by the People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries. His house, though perhaps modest by some ex-prince standards, was certainly a cut above the others in the neighbourhood. The door/gate was painted a smart brick red and the end tiles of the roof were picked out in bright blues and greens. (What cheerful notes in the prevailing greyness of the early spring - all of Beijing cries out for such simple accents!). We were ushered into the small courtyard where a few flowering-type trees, buds still clamped tight against the cold, hinted of rare luxury - a private garden devoted simply to beauty. Rooms looked on the court from all sides; out of one of them came Pu Jie to greet us.

He is quite small and frail - in many ways resembling the photos of his brother, yet quick and vigorous in movement. He wore a light-weight anorak, blue trousers and slippers, and a gracious, almost constant smile. We were, he told us, his first English visitors; hitherto he has received a European or two, but his most frequent visitors are Japanese. His connections with Japan are far-reaching. He spent his student days there and later married a Japanese wife. Their daughter also married a Japanese; she lives there now with her three children. This and all that follows we learned through our interpreter, for Pu Jie has forgotten his English.

We were invited into the reception room where the furnishings are simple and comfortable and relatively elegant. Some fine paintings of bamboo scenes dominated one wall; opposite were the usual smiling portraits of Mao and Hua. But pride of place on the back wall was given to a long framed photograph of the 1979, Fifth Plenum session of the National People's Congress. Somewhere among the hundreds of posed and smiling members was Pu Jie. Still another portrait was Zhou Enlai. Zhou's picture is to be found on a great many household walls throughout China for he is doubtless the most loved figure of recent history. Yet it seemed clear that this was a more personal memorial and, indeed, it emerged that Zhou had befriended both Pu Yi and Pu Jie. This very house had been found and prepared for Pu Jie on his release from Prison in 1961, through Zhou's action.

Pu Jie
The Last Emperor's brother Pujie

Along with his brother, Pu Jie spent some fifteen years in prisons. When the Russians entered Manchuguo in 1945, they were taken to far off Siberia where they stayed five years. When asked whether he or any of the Chinese nobility were successfully remoulded by the Russian socialists, Pu Jie laughed.

The prison officials were not good teachers - for instance, they had a habit of stealing the prisoners' pocket money each month. Although conditions were not too bad, the food was reasonable, still our thinking remained unchanged. We continued to believe it to be our life's duty to restore the Qing dynasty. It was only after our return to China that the prison officials here were able gradually to alter our attitudes.

In the Chinese prisons they learned self-sufficiency. Pu Yi had particular difficulties since, as emperor, he had never lifted a finger - was not allowed to dress himself, could not tie his own shoelace. Also they learned the principle of serving the people by working at various manual tasks. They had to rethink their Buddhist faith. For Pu Jie, who had never been very devout, this was no great problem. But for Pu Yi, it was quite another matter. He found it extremely upsetting to kill flies during the anti-pest campaign, and indeed, never really lost his belief.

Notwithstanding the firm and persistent re-education, the brothers were allowed certain privileges. For example they were permitted to play Mah Jong (banned throughout the rest of China) and were given a better diet than other prisoners. After their release (and, oddly, it took Pu Jie one year longer to receive his pardon) they both worked together in the national archives specializing in the late-Qing, the Warlord, and the Japanese occupation periods. By virtue of their education, early contacts, and experiences they were uniquely fitted to rescue that part of history before it was lost. What with collecting and sorting information, and recording reminiscences, they were fully occupied for many years. The work must suit Pu Jie, for he is still at it in his seventy-third year.

Of course it was not possible to resist asking for a comparison between then and now. 'I was ten years old,' Pu Jie replied, 'when I was first summoned to the palace to meet the emperor. I had no idea that I would find my brother. I imagined I would see an old man with a white beard, wearing a crown. I was amazed to see that the emperor was only a boy like myself.'

'Naturally, I had no reason to question my position then. It seemed correct that I should devote my energies to the restoration of the Qing dynasty. The idea remained unchanged in my heart throughout the years, during the Manchuguo era, after the defeat of Japan, and during the term of prison in Russia. When, after Liberation, we were returned to China, I was like the horse who cannot be forced to drink water. But when the horse is thirsty it is only necessary to lead it to the water and it will drink. Gradually I came to realize my fundamental mistakes. I was with many Japanese prisoners of war when they were released from the prison in Northeast China. Many wept because they had come to regard it as the place of their re-birth. To them the prison staff were their parents.'

'As for now ... certainly everyone in China is more relaxed since the downfall of the 'gang of four'. They feel able to speak their minds. I do see many difficulties, but the confidence of the people is an important strength.' So after sipping cups of sweetened tea, and doing justice to a plate of Japanese cakes prepared for us by Pu Jie's wife, we finally took our leave. During the photograph session in the garden, three plump and curious cats perched themselves on nearby roof peaks. On reflection, we realized these were the only pet cats we saw during our entire stay. As China cannot afford such luxuries, perhaps were visits from Japan?

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2006 reprinted from SACU's magazine China Now 90, Page 12, May 1980

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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