Home > Book, Genre, memoir, nonfiction, Review > Book Review: The Last Manchu: The Autobiography of Henry Pu Yi, Last Emperor of China by Henry Pu Yi, translated by Paul Kramer

Book Review: The Last Manchu: The Autobiography of Henry Pu Yi, Last Emperor of China by Henry Pu Yi, translated by Paul Kramer

Small Asian boy in dragon robes.Summary:
Henry Pu Yi became the last emperor of China when he was almost three years old.  During the chaos of a post-WWI China fighting between republics and war lords, he would periodically rule, be a figurehead, or be in hiding on foreign-held embassy land.  Working with the Japanese in WWII he sought to refind his throne by ruling as the figure-head of the Japanese-held Manchuria region.  He then was held prisoner by the Soviets for five years before being turned over to the communist Chinese for thought reform.

Review:
Although the translator states that Henry Pu Yi’s life is an excellent way to examine how China survived so many upheavals in the early 20th century, after reading the autobiography I simply cannot agree.  Henry Pu Yi’s life was incredibly unique and absolutely not a reflection of what was really going on in China at the time.  If anything, he seemed to operate from an oblivious perspective up until the communists kind of smacked him in the face with reality.  For instance, during the time of chaos, civil wars, and famine in China prior to WWII, he states:

Just as food was cooked in huge quantities and not eaten, so was a vast amount of clothing made which was never worn. (location 544)

When reflecting on his past perspectives, it is evident that his past self did not understand why such wastefulness would infuriate China’s poor or make them push for a republic via Chiang Kai-shek.  Of course, one cannot entirely blame Henry Pu Yi for this short-sightedness.  He was raised from a young age being treated as a god by all those around him, being told it was his destiny to be the holy emperor.  That would mess with anyone’s mind.  However, as he became older he did have teachers and advisors who tried to enlighten him, he just refused to listen.

Eventually, Henry Pu Yi reached this odd mental compromise where he believed everything Western was good, except for their ruling system.

I also became far more convinced than I had ever been in the days when Johnston was with me that everything foreign was good and everything Chinese, except the Imperial System, was bad.  (location 2184)

His selfish mindset saw everything good he himself could garner from the west, but didn’t seek out anything positive to change or do for his people.  This self-centeredness in a ruler is disturbing at best.

This is even more evident during the time of his life when Pu Yi was puppet ruling for Japan in Manchukuo (Manchuria).  Pu Yi increasingly came to fear more and more for his life as it became more evident that Japan would lose the war.  The more afraid he was, the more he beat members of his household and staff.  Yet he simultaneously claimed to be a good Buddhist who would not even harm a fly.  It seems the only thing Pu Yi excelled at was compartmentalizing his actions.  A former servant of Pu Yi summed up his personality quite eloquently during one of the criticism sessions of the communist thought reform:

Pu Yi is both cruel and afraid of death. He is suspicious, tricky and a hypocrite. When he beat or scolded his servants, it was not for mistakes they committed, but due to his own mood at the time. (location 4020)

Pu Yi, for most of his life, was incredibly selfish.  He was obsessed with his own death and life and with maintaining his emperor status.  He cared little to nothing for those around him or for the people of China.  One must wonder how things may have been different if a strong, selfless man had been made emperor during the same time period.

Thus for most of the autobiography, we’re reading about a most unsympathetic man from his own perspective.  That can become a bit tough to endure.  The light of the autobiography comes in the last quarter of the book, though, when he recounts his time in thought reform.

The translator refers to this time period as Pu Yi being brainwashed.  I can’t say that it appeared that way to me at all.  Pu Yi was not tortured, made to starve, or beaten.  He was simply placed in prison and reformed.  Frankly, I think his time in communist prison did him a world of good.  Suddenly he was having to fend for himself.  Where before he never even had to open a door or mend a button, suddenly he did.  Slowly the communists gave him more and more responsibilities so that eventually he was on the same cleaning and work rotation as the other men in the prison.  Pu Yi says himself that he came to realize how truly useless he was at doing anything worthwhile.  Although at first he blames those who raised him, he comes to acknowledge his own bad character eventually, being ashamed for how he behaved.  When he is eventually deemed reformed by the communists, he enters society as an equal and works hard to do his fair part.  Personally I think if American prison systems could have this kind of excellent 180 result, we would soon see a much smaller inmate population.  For isn’t the purpose of prison supposed to be reform?  And one cannot deny that Pu Yi came out a better man than he went in, even if communist China has made many other mistakes, it is evident with Pu Yi things were handled quite well.  A man was reformed and made useful in society instead of senselessly killed off.

It is a bit of a wait to get to the interesting thought reform portion of the book, however.  Pretty much everything before that makes you want to attack Pu Yi through the pages.  His style is a bit rambling, although the translator claims that’s partly just Chinese culture versus Western culture.  It is an interesting read, but I do think it will only really hold the attention of those with a strong interest in China.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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  1. August 19, 2011 at 2:05 am

    Fascinating review, but maybe not the book for me, I think you summed up the interesting bits perfectly 🙂

    • August 19, 2011 at 7:53 am

      Thanks, Jessica. I try in nonfiction reviews to mostly discuss what I learned, because that’s the beauty of nonfiction. 🙂

  1. October 26, 2011 at 9:38 am

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