Focus topics


Beijing’s imperial heritage

By Johnny Erling
Ein Bild von Johnny Erling

How does a new autocrat entertain his dethroned predecessor? Sixty years ago, Chairman Mao Zedong held a grotesque lunch for the last emperor of China, Pu Yi, (溥仪). He had imprisoned him as his most prominent prisoner for a decade before finally pardoning him. Then he suddenly invited Pu Yi as his surprise guest to a private lunch at Yingtai Palace (瀛台), one of the magnificent buildings of the once imperial gardens of Zhongnanhai. Mao had commandeered the buildings as his party headquarters and residence after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949.

Yingtai Palace

Now, President Xi Jinping followed in Mao’s footsteps. On December 22, he brought his Hong Kong governor Carrie Lam to the same Yingtai Pavilion for a report. There, tea was served in imperial yellow porcelain cups. Xi presided over the meeting in a pompous wooden chair carved with dragon ornaments.

The new ruler made fun of the emperor

It was January 31, 1962, four days before the start of the Spring Festival celebrations for the Year of the Tiger. Mao Zedong invited his four oldest friends, who hailed from his home province of Hunan, to a private lunch. He chose the Yingtai Pavilion on the northern lake of Zhongnanhai as a special location for the occasion. Emperor Qianlong had once praised it as a “fairyland by the water”.

Mao rejoiced like a child when he announced a surprise guest to his countrymen. They would never guess “who it is, although you all know him as your supreme leader” (顶头上司). With a smirk, he allowed a lanky man waiting in the anteroom to enter and introduced him by his former dynasty name: “This one is our Emperor Xuantong. We were all his subjects.” (“他就是宣统皇帝嘛! 我们都曾经是他的臣民.”)

It was China’s last emperor Pu Yi (1906 – 1967), who took the Dragon Throne at the age of two and was forced to abdicate when his feudal empire collapsed under the bourgeois revolution of 1911. In his later odyssey, he was crowned puppet emperor of occupied Manchuria by the invading Japanese. After Tokyo’s surrender, he fell into the hands of Soviet troops in August 1945. Wang Qingxiang (王庆祥) historian and biographer of Pu Yi found, fearing extradition to China and execution, he once asked Stalin to let him stay in the Soviet Union. He was said to be ready to join the CPSU.

But when Mao’s Communists came to power in 1949, Stalin, at Mao’s request, extradited Pu Yi in the fall of 1950. In China, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. Mao had him pardoned on December 4, 1959. He had specially placed Pu Yi’s name as number 001 on a list of 1,000 war criminals whom Beijing had amnestied on the occasion of the tenth National Day of the People’s Republic.

Former emperor Pu Yi (center with sunglasses) with his brothers Pu Jie (behind him) and Pu Ren (squatting in front of him) and his six sisters. Pu Ren signed the photo showing the imperial family in exile in Tianjin in 1928.

Pu Yi had already been living back in Beijing for two years when Mao summoned him on a whim. Biographer Wang first described the meeting between China’s new ruler and the last emperor, which had been kept secret for decades, in a two-part essay for the magazine “Zong Heng” (纵横) in 2003. Even the timing was delicate. Just the day before, on January 30, 1962, Mao had addressed 7,000 officials at a mammoth Beijing labor conference, seemingly self-critical about the starvation catastrophe of his Great Leap Forward and the People’s Communes. He acknowledged responsibility for mistakes made in Beijing’s ultra-leftist policies. But while the party continued to brood over ways out of the crisis, Mao absented himself to dine with the ex-emperor.

When he introduced the Emperor to his four compatriots who had once participated in the Wuhan Uprising to overthrow the empire in 1911, Pu Yi submissively jumped up and bowed to each. Mao stopped him, “Stay seated. These are all my friends. You are the one who is a guest here.” Pu Yi should also stop apologizing all the time. Zhang Baochang, (张宝昌), who was serving at the Yingtai Palace at the time, recounted how the five-hour meeting began in the 2013 official series “New Communist Party of China authentic oral history” (中国共产党口述史料丛书): He barely had poured the Tea when Pu Yi confessed: “I am a person who has committed crimes worthy of death against the state and the people. Today I have the good fortune to be received by Chairman Mao. This is the greatest honor of my life.” Mao waved it off and lectured on China’s past dynasties, saying Pu Yi was not only the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty but also embodied “the last emperor ever in the more than 2,000 years of feudal rule over China,” for which his new era was now beginning.

At lunch, Mao amused himself by serving up the peppery favorite dish of his native Hunan. He stuffed chili-fried bitter melon (青椒炒苦瓜) into Pu Yi’s bowl. The ex-emperor, unaccustomed to such spicy fare, moaned, “tastes very good.” The meeting culminated in a group photo. Mao insisted on posing at eye level with Pu Yi. The table celebrated the photo as “the State Founder and the Last Emperor” .(这叫开国元首与末代皇帝). Pu Yi’s later wife Li Shuxian (李淑贤) revealed long after his death how Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution demanded Pu Yi hand over all photos showing the “arch-criminal” together with China’s leader. Out of fear, Pu Yi had handed over the photo to a state archive, where it vanished. Today, only one unflattering photograph of the meeting with Mao is left.


Only one photo exists of Mao Zedong’s meeting 60 years ago on January 31, 1962, with the last emperor of China Pu Yi. Their body language says it all.

Mao was even more interested in Pu Yi’s biographical life story than in the person. After Pu Yi’s release from prison, Beijing provided Li Wenda (李文达), the publishing director, as a ghostwriter. From January 1960 to spring 1964, he helped Pu Yi write the world-famous memoirs about his re-education from emperor to citizen. Li later said that he had to rewrite and revise the manuscript nine times before it became a bestseller. Pu Yi became the cue for one of Beijing’s greatest propaganda coups. Historians and writers, from Jian Bocan and Wu Han to Guo Moruo, Lao She, or Cao Yu, also collaborated on the edition published in March 1964.

Pu Yi’s diary notes, published in 1996 on 800 pages, which he noted September 1914 to October 1967. He omitted the year 1962, in which he met with Mao. Only long after his death (1967) and Mao’s (1976) did the meeting become known.

By the time Mao met Pu Yi, he had already read the first manuscript, which was based on Pu Yi’s written confession – and wasn’t happy. “After halfway, I stopped reading,” he said. He wanted a vivid and lively account of the making of an emperor to his re-education as a citizen loyal to Mao. Time and again, Mao boasted to his foreign visitors about how successful Pu Yi’s transformation was.

The true feelings and thoughts of the last emperor were taken to his grave when he died at the end of 1967. It is quite interesting that he does not mention the 1962 meeting with Mao in his 800 pages long diary of his years from 1914 to 1967, published in 1993. Chronologically, he skips over the entire year 1962.

In the same place with Carrie Lam

Will we ever know what Hong Kong’s Chief Administrative Officer Carrie Lam was thinking? President Xi Jinping summoned her two days before Christmas on December 22. She was to brief him on the situation in Hong Kong. Xi Jinping served her and her entourage tea in imperial yellow porcelain cups. It all took place in the same Yingtai Palace where Mao Zedong and Pu Yi once met. Xi Jinping sat in a particularly large chair adorned with a dragon statue and presided over the meeting.

Xi Jinping also received Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam at the Yingtai Palace. Xi presided in the massive wooden chair with carved imperial dragons. In front of him are two (!) yellow porcelain cups in imperial designs. Carrie Lam sits more simply with only one cup for tea.

All of this is deliberate and calculated. Back in November 2014, Xi had shown then US President Barack Obama the Yingtai Pavilion as a special place where as early as 1681 the Qing Emperor Kangxi pondered the development of a national strategy. Xinhua quoted that he told Obama that “knowledge of China’s modern history is of great importance in understanding the ideals of the Chinese people and their path.” Surrounding themselves with imperial flair and embracing the imperial legacy is part of the self-image of Beijing’s new rulers.

    A time when the party rejected Xi Jinping tenfold
    It’s a bit reminiscent of the rejection of the manuscript for Harry Potter by numerous publishers: When Xi Jinping wanted to join the Chinese Communist Party in the early 1970s, officials rejected his application for political reasons. Later, he had to cheat his way into university because he was not to be given a spot initially. An autobiography by the future head of state allows for fascinating insights into this time – and partly explains his way of thinking. continue reading →
    Image of Erling Johnny
    by Johnny Erling
    Kissinger’s secret passion for Beijing’s Temple of Heaven
    When Henry Kissinger and his Chinese interlocutors found themselves in a diplomatic dead-end in the early 1970s, they visited the Temple of Heaven in Beijing – and immediately got back on track. And to this day, the once sacred place full of symbolism inspires astute analysis. Meanwhile, Kissinger, the mastermind of modern US policy towards China, despairs over the aggressive course the two superpowers have taken. continue reading →
    Image of Mayer-Kuckuk Finn
    by Finn Mayer-Kuckuk