The Last Emperor's Humble Occupation

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He was consigned to be a relic before his time had come. Henry Pu Yi started out life as an anachronism, a boy emperor of a fading dynasty. He died as a forgotten footnote, a stooped gardener assigned to the Beijing Botanical Gardens where he tilled the earth that had supported his Qing Dynasty predecessors for nearly 300 years. 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. On releasing him into Chinese hands in July 1950, the Soviets heightened the ex-monarch's fears, assuring him that he would be executed by a wrathful populace. Moscow was wrong. By not killing Pu Yi, the Chinese communists avoided making him into a martyr like Nicholas II in Russia or Louis XVI in France. Instead, he was to be fashioned into a Maoist role model, proof that even the most pampered royal could be reformed. Pu Yi spent a decade in jail, where he underwent relentless thought reform. In addition to admitting his complicity in Japanese barbarity in Manchuria and professing communist zealotry, Pu Yi also learned more practical things like how to brush his teeth, wash his feet and tie his shoelaces. On Dec. 4, 1959, Comrade Pu Yi, a 54-year-old who could now dress and groom himself, was issued a special pardon and entered life as a private citizen.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.