Changchun’s Echoes of Empire

  • Puyi (center) posing with a group of dignitaries and officials, circa 1938.

    Puyi (center) posing with a group of dignitaries and officials, circa 1938.

  • The former Manchukuo State Council building on Wenhua Square now serves as classroom space for Jilin University.

    The former Manchukuo State Council building on Wenhua Square now serves as classroom space for Jilin University.

  • Outside Tongde Hall, one of the buildings that comprised Puyi's official residence in Changdu.

    Outside Tongde Hall, one of the buildings that comprised Puyi's official residence in Changdu.

  • Changchun's expansive Culture Square is dominated by the Geological  Palae Museum, built on the foundations of what was to be Puyi's grand palace.

    Changchun's expansive Culture Square is dominated by the Geological Palae Museum, built on the foundations of what was to be Puyi's grand palace.

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The onetime capital of colonial Manchuria, Changchun is a living museum of Japan’s imperial ambitions in China.

By Michael Meyer

In 1931, the Imperial Japanese Army  lured China’s last emperor, Puyi, 900 kilometers northeast of Beijing to take the throne of its newly created puppet state, Manchukuo. Once he arrived in Changchun, the colony’s capital, Puyi instead found himself seated behind an empty desk. “I soon discovered that my authority was only shadow without substance,” he later wrote in his memoir From Emperor to Citizen. “I didn’t even have the power to decide whether or not I could pass out of the door to go for a walk.” Yet were he to stroll outside today, Puyi would recognize a surprising amount of Changchun.

The wide, Japanese pine–lined axial boulevards still lead to roundabouts such as the former Unity Plaza—renamed People’s Square—ringed by steel-framed bulwarks of buildings that were meant to signify Japan’s permanent presence. All remain in use. The former Central Bank of Manchukuo is now the People’s Bank of China, the Manchukuo Telephone and Telegraph Company is a branch of China Netcom, and the Police Headquarters has become the Public Security Bureau.

Nearby, Puyi’s preserved “Puppet Emperor’s Palace” looks more like a workers’ sanatorium; certainly, the two-story museum wouldn’t have qualified as a storage shed at the Forbidden City, Puyi’s previous residence. There are no vermillion walls, no awe-inspiring gates, no elaborate gardens, no throne room. The swimming pool holds only rotting leaves, the rockery masks a tiny bomb shelter, and the displays include captions such as: “To kill time after getting up, Puyi would sit on the toilet reading the daily newspaper.” A copy of the Manchurian Daily News sits, folded, before his lesser throne. The museum has been declared a “patriotic education base.”

Changchun is a city of eight million, renowned in post-Liberation China as the home of First Automobile Works, producer of the Socialist era’s ubiquitous powder-blue Liberation truck and black, boxy Red Flag sedans. The city is no Detroit, however: the car factory now makes sleek Audis, and 160,000 students attend Changchun’s 27 universities. Yet the city center is still littered with reminders of the occupation. While Japanese war memorials and cemeteries have been razed, the government has protected over 100 colonial sites, making the town itself a sort of patriotic education base.

A walk down People’s Avenue from the train station leads past a waving statue of Chairman Mao inside the gates of Victory Park, then past the pagoda rooftops of the castle-like structure that had been the Japanese army headquarters. The provincial Communist Party bureau now calls it home. Farther south, a Shinto temple to the god of war stands shuttered in Peony Park. Speed skaters on Rollerblades whoosh in loops around its wide, flat apron of asphalt. On its back wall, painted Cultural Revolution slogans fade in the sun. Otherwise, the building’s swooping tiled roof and white walls look recently built.

Japan chose Changchun as Manchukuo’s capital for its central location and its rail connection to Korean ports and ships to Japan. Tokyo means “Eastern Capital”; Changchun was christened Shinkyo, the “New Capital”—Xinjing in Chinese. It would be unlike other planned capitals, mired for years on drawing boards and budget sheets, as had been the case in the United States and Australia. Xinjing’s colonial blueprint called for modernist urban planning that looked nothing like Tokyo’s tangle of narrow lanes. Planners drew clean lines, circular plazas, and numerous parks. They added ornate, colonnaded buildings with steam heat and flush toilets—a rarity in Japan and the rest of China in the 1930s—meant to attract new settlers.

On my last visit, I walked past the curving lines of the Art Deco former movie theater (now home to the Great Jilin Medicine Store) and down Comrade Street to Liberation Road, which ends at the expanse of Culture Square, one of the world’s largest plazas. A grand palace for Puyi was to overlook the 20-hectare site, but only its foundation was finished when Japan surrendered in 1945. China built the Geological Palace Museum atop the site. Inside, schoolchildren stared up at the skeleton of a dinosaur from the genus Mandschurosaurus.

Culture Square bookends Xinmin (New Citizen) Avenue, which is to fascist architecture what Havana is to classic American cars. It slopes gently like the Champs-Élysées, terminating after a kilometer or so at South Lake Park. Under Manchukuo, the boulevard was lined with eight ministries set back from wide sidewalks shaded by the spindly branches of Japanese pines. The buildings look unlike any other in China—or the world—and their style, with crenellated towers, porticoes, and curving roofs, was called Rising Asia. Now they stand as markers of a fall.

Puyi read the notice dissolving Manchukuo on August 17, 1945. For the second time in his life, he abdicated, then fled his palace. Soviet forces nabbed him boarding a plane bound for Japan. They packed him away to detention in Siberia, then in 1946 the Soviets brought him to Tokyo to testify at the war crimes tribunal. Looking frail beyond his 40 years, Puyi talked to save his life.

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