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My Memories of the Forbidden City

"I have something to show you," Pu Yi said.


Beijing, December 29th 2012

After the snow fall last night, The Forbidden City got sprinkled with fresh white snow -- like the banner of this blog you have always been seeing above. That was part of a wish-come-true for me. In 2009 I received a copy of Insight Guides China as a reward for the review I had written. Inside it was a photo of Forbidden City covered with immaculate snow. I promised myself, I would visit Forbidden City in winter.

However, my curiosity about The Forbidden City had risen far before that. When I was in junior high school, I read an article in Reader's Digest about Pu Yi, the last emperor of China. The impression lingered in mind for the next many years. It didn't sound like a fairytale. Not at all. It didn't sound like the kung fu movies Dad and I used to watch. It didn't sound like the story of kings and queens, let's say, England, France, etc. The story of Pu Yi to me was too weird for either fiction or real.

In around 2003 (if I'm not mistaken), I watched the DVD The Last Emperor. At that time I was a movie fan -- for except Asian movies. There was an exception, though. My favorite genre was those based on a novel or on true story. "The Last Emperor" qualified for both. It was a true story. I don't bother how far the truth. Pu Yi and the empire did exist on earth. Moreover, this movie was said to be based on Twilight in the Forbidden City, written by Reginald Johnston, Pu Yi's tutor until his last days in the Forbidden City.

There were two particular scenes in that movie that stays in mind, more vivid than the article I read in Reader's Digest. The first scene was when little Pu Yi, about 3 years old, was brought to the Forbidden City by his wet-nurse. Imagine a toddler: cute and timid, and helpless. When his wet-nurse got back on the rickshaw without him, he ran after the rickshaw. Imagine a wobbly run of a 3-year-old! His wet-nurse's rickshaw went through the giant gate of Forbidden City. The guards on left and right, obediently pushed the gate -- the left side and right side together -- in front of little Pu Yi. Relentlessly Pu Yi tapped his small plump palm on the giant gate while crying for his wet-nurse.

How on earth you think Pu Yi would not grow up as an angry man?

The second scene which I can replay over and over in my mind is the part of the last days of Mr. Johnston's in the Forbidden City. At that time foreigners were to be expelled from China. In spite the negative reviews of Mr. Johnston, in this movie I saw Mr. Johnston a true teacher by heart. He opened up Pu Yi's mind. He didn't just teach English, mathematics, and such. Pu Yi learned tennis, classical music, and he learned to ride a bike. If Facebook already existed at that time, I believe with all my heart, Mr. Johnston would have made Pu Yi a Facebook account.

So came that last day for Pu Yi and Mr. Johnston. "I have something to show you," Pu Yi said.

Pu Yi brought Mr. Johnston to the courtyard. A black bicycle was standing there. Before Mr. Johnston's eyes, Pu Yi got up on the bike and cycled through the pillars. If I remember correctly (I don't have the DVD anymore.), Pu Yi made the palace play classic music as music background while he cycled on his bike.

Each time I replay this scene in my mind, my eyes become watery. That's the innocent naif part of a wobbly toddler that remained until teenage. And as I had been a teacher myself, I can imagine how Mr. Johnston had felt. It's true -- at least in the country I currently live -- don't become a teacher if you aim to be rich materialistically. However, as a teacher, there are other rewards that no money can afford, and yet last longer -- even until the rest of your life.

Some of the bad reviews of Mr. Johnston blamed him for Westernizing Pu Yi. Oh, come on!! Which is more cruel turning one's custom from East to West, or separating a 3-year-old from his sanctuary by force? At the moment the giant gate of the Forbidden City was shut before little Pu Yi's eyes, at that time part of Pu Yi was dead. I can't agree more with Yasumi Matsumoto: Pu Yi's life was beyond imagination.

Next, I read Imperial Woman which Pearl S. Buck had described in such a way that stirred my anger against Empress Dowager Cixi who was so selfish. Everyone close to her became the victim of her ambition, including Pu Yi. Furthermore, the Forbidden City stands a silent witness to her ambition. You read "Imperial Woman", you'll find out.

It was all those mixed feelings that had driven me to the Forbidden City today.

Posted by automidori 05:32 Archived in China Tagged china beijing forbidden_city

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