After almost 35 years away, Henry returned to the Forbidden City on the 9th of December 1959. He moved in with his sister, and got a job as a street-sweeper. As was characteristic of his forgetfulness, he somehow managed to get lost on his first day. Seeking help, this seemingly-ordinary urban worker doubtless dumbfounded passers-by when he told them the following;
“I’m Puyi, the last Emperor of the Qing Dynasty. I’m staying with relatives and can’t find my way home.”
Despite this declaration, Henry was an incredibly modest and humble man. He insisted on being the last person to board a bus, which frequently led to his being late for work. At restaurants he would tell the waiting staff, “You should not be serving me – I should be serving you.”
However, the fact remained that this selfless individual had been brought up to be waited upon, hand and foot. Every need had been catered for, every whim had been seen to, every task performed…by others. Thus, he never quite learned to function completely on his own; doors would be left open, toilets unflushed, taps left running… As one friend put it, “He had a genius for creating an instant, disorderly mess around him”.
Before his came back to Beijing, Henry had spent 9 years in Chinese prison. Prior to that, he had been held at Stalin’s pleasure after being captured by the Red Army in the Autumn of 1945. When the Soviets handed him over to the People’s Republic, he had fully expected to be executed for his role in the Second World War.
Initially deposed by a coup in the mid-Twenties, Henry secretly contacted the Japanese in 1931 promising to provide assistance should they restore him to the throne. They promptly installed him as their puppet ruler of Manchukuo, and this traitorous monarch signed whatever his new masters placed in front of him. In a chilling echo of Hitler’s ideas for ‘Lebensraum’, Japan used the province to ease their overpopulation problem; in 1935 they announced the plan to relocate 5 million farmers from the mainland, evicting the indigenous residents. Those who resisted eviction? The Kwantung Army used them for bayonet practice.
For much of World War Two, Henry was confined to his Palace and kept completely ignorant of global events. Right up until 1944, he believed that Japan was winning in the Pacific and was shocked – and delighted – to discover that the Allies were in the ascendancy. When he was sure that nobody could be listening, he would sit at his piano and play a quick one-finger version of The Stars and Stripes Forever.
Nonetheless, in theory he was ‘supreme commander’, bearing ultimate responsibility for the brutal treatment meted out by the Japanese to his supposed subjects. His moods during this time became erratic, swinging wildly from hours spent staring blankly to the sadistic beating of his servants. The awareness that he was an object of loathing and levity drove him almost insane. One day he found that a member of his staff had scrawled in chalk, ‘Haven’t the Japanese humiliated you enough?‘
Following the end of the war, and his transfer into Chinese custody, Henry was taken to the facilities of the infamous Unit 731 – the Japanese Army’s chemical and biological warfare department. He was horrified to discover that all their gruesome experiments, all their agonizing tortures, all their appalling atrocities…were carried out in his name.
In 1960, Henry met the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. The Premier told him,
“You weren’t responsible for becoming Emperor at the age of three, or the 1917 attempted restoration coup…but you were fully to blame for what happened later. You knew perfectly well what you were doing when you took refuge in the Legation Quarter, when you traveled under Japanese protection to Tianjin, and when you agreed to become Manchukuo Chief Executive.”
In Europe, and across the rest of the world after different conflicts throughout history, leaders who had performed similar roles were executed; the Italians shot Mussolini, the French executed Laval, the British hanged ‘Lord Haw-Haw’… Yet the ideology of Communism explains why the Chinese released the man who had collaborated with their Japanese occupiers – their former Emperor had simply been performing his role in the system.
During his time in prison, Henry was put through Marxist-Leninist-Maoist remodeling. Much of this involved attending discussion groups where prisoners would discuss their lives before incarceration. He would also be confronted with ordinary citizens who had suffered under his ‘Empire of Manchukuo’, including individuals who had fought bravely with the Communist resistance – this was to show him both the reality of what his regime had wrought as well as the fact that submission was not the only response. As the warden would say when Henry protested that there was nothing he could have done, “Why did ordinary people resist while an emperor did nothing?”
By the mid-Fifties Henry was overwhelmed with guilt to the point of suicide. On one trip to the countryside he met a farmer’s wife who had almost starved to death while working as a slave in one of the region’s factories. When he begged for forgiveness she waved him away and said, “It’s over now, let’s not talk about it”, which made him burst into tears. On another occasion, he met a woman who, despite witnessing the mass execution of her entire village at the hands of the Kwantung Army, declared that she did not hate the Japanese because she retained her faith in humanity. This moved Henry, and gradually his faith in Communism began to grow.
From 1963 onward Henry gave regular press conferences at which he would praise life in the People’s Republic of China. Foreign Correspondents would often seek him out, eager to meet this ‘Last Emperor of China’. His family and friends all remarked on how much he had changed from the selfish royal they had known in his youth. He clearly cared for people, and became known for his kindness during this period; once, with classic clumsiness, he knocked down a woman with his bicycle, and so he subsequently brought her flowers every day until she was discharged from hospital.
Henry, aka Puyi, aka Puyi Xiansheng, aka Yaozhi, aka Haoran, aka Xun Di, aka Fei Di, aka the Last Emperor of China, died of complications arising from kidney cancer and heart disease on the 17th of October 1967 at the age of 61.
Solidarity, brothers & sisters…⋆