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 people in Manchuria were complete slaves of the Japanese,” he averred. “They could not obtain necessities and they could not even get clothing in severe weather. It would be an offense if a Chinese had in his possession any high-grade rice. The Chinese did not have the freedom to say anything without fear of facing death.”

In his memoir, written two decades later, Puyi admitted: “I now feel very ashamed of my testimony … I said nothing about my secret collaboration with the Japanese imperialists … I maintained that I had not betrayed my country but had been kidnapped … I covered up my crimes in order to protect myself.”

In 1950 he was shipped to a prison near Qingyuan, a Manchurian county whose name meant “Origin of the Qing,” the dynasty that had ended when he abdicated the dragon throne in 1912. On his release nine years later, he was assigned to work in the hothouses at Beijing’s Botanical Garden. Always slight and sad-eyed, Puyi looked as delicate as the orchids that had once adorned the Manchukuo imperial seal.

In 1967, as the Cultural Revolution consumed China, Red Guards found Puyi, enfeebled by kidney cancer, and shouted, “We will take you back to the Northeast and smash you, you dog’s head!” The cancer took him first: he died, aged 61, leaving no heirs or treasure.

Since he was no longer an emperor, his cremated remains were interred not at the Qing tombs alongside his royal ancestors but at the Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery, the final resting place for Communist heroes. In 1995, a private cemetery paid his widow an undisclosed fee to move his ashes to one of their plots, aimed at the nouveau riche. The graveyard, named Hualong (Chinese Dragon), neighbors the Western Qing tombs—favoring the interred, its advertisements promise, with imperial feng shui. Puyi’s ashes lie beneath a headstone bearing only his name, written not in Manchu but in Chinese.

A living trace of him is seen in Changchun, outside the former Manchukuo State Council, tiered like a cinnamon wedding cake and crowned with a squat pagoda. A sign says that the mature pine tree shading its colonnaded portico was planted by Puyi.

Like the other Manchukuo ministry buildings, the State Council has been repurposed, here as university classroom space. The front doors were open, without a ticket window or security guards forbidding entry. Inside, I passed Puyi’s personal copper-plated elevator—it was closed for repairs—and walked under a chandelier to climb the marble stairs. Carved orchids adorn the balustrade; they were Puyi’s favorite flower. The stairs led to an unlit second floor. Reflexively, I stomped my foot, which usually turns on the lights in an old Chinese building. The room stayed dark. The only sound was my footsteps echoing amid the remains of Japan’s imperial ambition.

That night, I slept at the former Yamato Hotel, built as part of a chain along the South Manchuria Railway. A 1934 guidebook described the hotel as “quiet and cozy, surrounded by a spacious summer garden.” The garden is now a parking lot, and the hotel is dwarfed by a bus station whose rooftop neon sign flashes AMWAY.

The bedding had been updated and a television added, but otherwise the room—with floor-to-ceiling windows and a cavernous claw-foot tub—was a time capsule of the 1930s. The desk phone rang, and I expected to tell the caller I did not want a massage. But it was Housekeeping. I was the building’s only guest, the maid said, so she wouldn’t be making her regular rounds. She would leave two thermoses of hot water by the door. The front desk had said that Chinese preferred to stay in the hotel’s characterless new wing, which cost twice as much. Being an appreciator of history (or, as the clerk called me, kou men’r—a cheapskate) had resulted in having the old hotel to myself. Even the masseuses ignored it. The room was quiet and cozy, with original steam radiators running along a wall. At night they hissed low, as if urging me to keep this place our secret.

This excerpt was adapted from Michael Meyer’s In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China (Bloomsbury Press).

THE DETAILS

Getting There
Changchun, the capital of northeast China’s Jilin province, is easily reached by air from Beijing, a two-hour flight away. China Southern Airlines operates a daily route between Singapore and Changchun via Guangzhou, while Hong Kong Airlines flies there direct from Hong Kong twice a week.

Where to Stay
A short taxi ride from Cultural Square and the Museum of the Imperial Palace of Manchukuo, Shangri-La Hotel, Changchun (86-431/
8898-1818; doubles from US$120) has a prime downtown location and 457 comfortable if aging rooms. For something newer, a Hyatt Regency (86-431/8116-1234; doubles from US$132) opened in January with guest rooms occupying the top 17 floors of a 38-story skyscraper.

This article originally appeared in the February/March print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Echoes of Empire”).

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