If you’ve seen Bertolucci’s film, The Last Emperor (crude dubbing, wooden acting, stunning cinematography), you’ll probably remember the scene of astonishing beauty in which a small, confused, petulant child, bundled in stiff robes, runs outdoors from a darkened hall to the top of a flight of steps, where the raising of a bright yellow awning reveals hundreds, maybe thousands, of men – soldiers, officials, priests – who prostrate themselves in a wave of movement across an enormous courtyard.
You may also remember Peter O’Toole in the role of Reginald Johnston, the emperor’s ‘English tutor’ – stiff-upper-lipped, but commonsensical and kindly: the archetype of a British colonial officer. In fact, Johnston was deeply committed to non-conformity in all aspects of his life and work. Scots by birth, and educated at Oxford, he seemed keen to separate himself as far as possible from an unhappy home life, and after failing to gain a place in the Indian Civil Service, went out to Hong Kong as a ‘cadet’ in the colonial service. This involved learning Cantonese, for which he discovered an aptitude which led to rapid promotion and eventually to a posting to Weihaiwei (now Weihai, and twinned with Cheltenham(!)), a remote naval station on the coast of northern China of which Great Britain had acquired the lease. He stayed there from 1904 to 1918, as secretary to the government, senior district officer and magistrate, and finally acting administrator.
During this time, he travelled widely and intrepidly across territories previously unexplored by westerners, and immersed himself in the study of the Chinese and their culture. A militant anti-Christian (his tirades against the work of missionaries in China may well have cost him promotion), he was particularly interested in Chinese Buddhism; in 1908, he met the thirteenth Dalai Lama (again, he was one of very few westerners to do so). He published three books during this period, From Peking to Mandalay (1908), Lion and Dragon in Northern China (1910) and Chinese Buddhism (1913). He and his friend and colleague Sir James Stewart Lockhart appear to have administered the colony using the tenets of Confucius rather than the rule book of the Colonial Office, and this can only have enhanced the impression that Johnston, with his linguistic skills and his preference for traditional Chinese clothes and food, had ‘gone native’ in a big way.
In November 1918, Johnston was appointed (seemingly out of the blue) to be tutor in the English language to the Chinese emperor, who had succeeded to the throne at the age of two and had lost any real political power upon abdication at the age of five in 1912 (it is not clear whether or what he was told at the time), but who, as a result of a bizarre pact between the imperial household and the new Republic of China, retained the traditional titles, respect and lifestyle (including thousands of eunuch servants) of his ancestors in the Forbidden City in Peking.
The correct forms of the personal, family and regnal names of this child, and those of his family, courtiers and enemies (all of these roles being interchangeable) are among the many tortuous issues which Johnston explains in Twilight in the Forbidden City (he uses, of course, Wade–Giles transliteration, not Pinyin, and you’ll have noticed that I’m sticking with him on this). The romantic title is deceptive: this is in fact a solid work of scholarship, 574 pages long (and with endnotes), which recounts the circumstances in which the child was chosen as the next emperor by the legendary ‘dragon empress’ T’zu Hsi (who has sometimes been described as a proto-feminist, but does not come out of Johnston’s account well, either as a politician or as a human being), the turmoil in China which led to the establishment of the republic, and the subsequent revolts, revolutions and civil wars which eventually saw the emperor forced to flee the Forbidden City, first to the Japanese Legation in Peking and then to the Japanese ‘Concession’ in the port of Tientsin.
Johnston writes from deep knowledge of his subject, with elegance and frequently with caustic wit. He is completely partisan on behalf of the emperor, for whom he clearly felt great affection, and is virulent in his denunciation of the enemies – whether straightforwardly traitorous, two-faced, hypocritical, corrupt or ignorant – who by act or omission contributed to the downfall of the dynasty and the betrayal of all that he perceived to be good and noble in traditional Chinese culture.
Johnston left the emperor’s side to return to Britain briefly in 1926, and then went back to Weihaiwei, as British commissioner, until 1930, when on 1 October he was responsible for handing the territory back to the Chinese government. During this time he had met and corresponded with the emperor, who was clearly growing frustrated at being penned up in a backwater, as much a prisoner as he had ever been in the Forbidden City. He took a formal farewell of his pupil, for the last time – as he thought – that autumn, but in fact returned to China in 1931; the two met again, only days before the emperor took the (with hindsight) disastrous step of travelling to Manchuria (from which his dynasty, the Ch’ing, had originated) and becoming the titular emperor of a state dominated by the Japanese. Johnston claims in his book that he was never party to this plan – though he also says he saw it coming. Certainly it seemed to many at the time that his re-appearance in China just before this fatal journey was not mere coincidence.
Johnston was appointed in 1930 to the chair of Chinese at the School of Oriental Studies (now SOAS) in London. His book, which ends on an optimistic note about the prospects of his ex-pupil (then still only twenty-eight years old) was published in 1934. Japan’s full-scale invasion of China began on 7 July 1937, and the ‘Rape of Nanking’ took place in December of that year. Johnston died in March 1938, and so was spared any knowledge of the further disasters to befall China and the ‘war criminal P’u-Yi’, better (and more correctly) known to his tutor as the Hsüan-T’ung emperor.