Tag Archives: puyi

Life in Forbidden City: Eunuch

The second starting from the right is one of the narrators in Eunuch's Recollection

The second starting from the right is one of the narrators in Eunuch’s Recollection

In Puyi’s eyes, they were  ‘slaves’. In The Twilight of Forbidden City, Reginald Fleming Johnston, the first foreign Imperial Tutor, portrayed them as greedy creatures who contrived to suck the remaining wealth of the Qing monarchy. The new Chinese Republicans viewed them as grotesque relics of the feudal past.

Xin Xiuming, the late Qing eunuch, was right in saying ‘It seems the most suffering and least appreciated group of people is eunuchs’

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The Last Emperor (1987)

Puyi: ‘Do you think a man can become an Emperor again?’
Johnston: ‘Yes’

China after 1911 witnessed a rush of unprecedented optimism that welcomed foreign ideas like republicanism, democracy and freedom. Using the Georgian calendar, driving mobile car and wearing western suit became a sign of culture and modernity – a final victory of the civilized West. In another secluded place, the high red wall insulated an ancient culture from this rush, trying, rather obstinately, to protect the old traditions in keeping the lunisolar calendar, riding horses and wearing Qing robes. This is the Forbidden City.

The Inner Court within this Forbidden City which itself is a city within the Peking city resides a person representing these futile or noble, depending on how you see, attempts. He was hailed as the Lord of Ten Thousand Years but was stripped off any effective power by the age of 6. He was the absolute lord in his own court but a powerless commoner beyond the red wall. He is Puyi – the last emperor of China.

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Forbidden City in Rains

Forbidden City after the worst rains since 1952

‘The Empress (Cixi,慈禧)  rushed back to the Forbidden City and ordered to wake up the Emperor (Guangxu,光緒 ) in the Hall of Mental Cultivation (養心殿). The young Emperor jolted up from his bed, went out and saw the Empress has already arrived. She went in and cried “Why have you done this to me?”. Seeing such rage, the Emperor kowtowed and trembled. “From now on, I’ll do the job. You may rest.” That began the second round of the rule from “behind the curtain” (垂簾聽政) ‘, remembered Xin Xiuming, a late Qing eunuch (太監) , from his memoir about his 25 year life in the Forbidden City on the Hundred Days’ Reforms and  Guangxu’s secret house arrest order for Cixi.

The Hall of Mental Cultivation is the place that marked the end of the  Hundred Days’ Reforms – the final chance for China to become a constitutional monarchy. On the right side rests a little bed with a translucent curtain hanging. Now everyone can visit this bed; the bed where Cixi ruled behind the curtain and decided the fate of Qing.

In front of the Hall of Mental Cultivation stands the Hall of Preserving Harmony, Hall of Central Harmony, and Hall of Supreme Harmony (保和殿,中和殿, 太和殿, respectively). They align to form the central axis that cut through the Forbidden City like a knife – a Feng Shui style carrying such power that only the Heavenly Emperor can carry.

Nonetheless, this Heavenly Emperor is but mortal flesh in front of the history tide. 1911,  Xinhai Revolution forced the abdication of Puyi, the last emperor of Qing dynasty and of China. Under the Articles of Favourable Treatment, he stayed and lived in the Forbidden City until he was expelled in 1924, only after annually reduced subsidy, humiliations from warlords and continuous harassment.

I passed through the narrow passage from the Meridian Gate (午門), crossed the Five Dragons Golden Water Bridges (五龍金水橋) and finally reached the wide and large Square of Supreme Harmony (太和廣場). I looked in awe at the giant structure of the Hall of Supreme Harmony that accentuates the spacial dimension of the sky, showing the greatness of the Heaven – the Emperor’s ultimate source of power. Yet all these designs fall apart when crowd of people fill up the square and unmanaged grass grows between cracks of bricks and floors.

A few trucks drove in and passed the Red Wall of the Forbidden City. The rains and moisture seeped in the wall and began to buckle the red surface. The paint tore off, exposing the bricks inside it. Other parts are discolored with batches of deep red and could no longer show the traditional auspicious wish.

Red Wall of the Forbidden City

As the rains fall – the worst rains in Peking since 1952, one remembers Trotsky’s words: “You are pitiful, isolated individuals! You are bankrupts. Your role is played out. Go where you belong from now on—into the dustbin of history!”. Dustbin of history. That’s where the Forbidden City belongs to – an imperial palace that becomes a tourist attraction  and a forsaken place to remember the forgotten history and the forgotten people.

Extended reading: The Last Emperor (1987), Life in Forbidden City: Eunuch  

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