Relatives of the late Emperor Puyi recall their days with China's… (Barbara Demick / Los Angeles…)
BEIJING — He was a gentle, if somewhat befuddled man. He couldn't keep track of his money or figure out how to take the bus, but he was a lot of fun when he'd roll around with the children, playing, tickling and laughing.
"He was just like one of the kids," said retired painter Zheng Shuang, 76, recalling her uncle.
In fact, dajiu, or big uncle, as they called him, was so unpretentious that Zheng's younger brother wouldn't believe it when she told him, "Did you know that big uncle was the last emperor of China?"
In a rare reunion of one of China's most famous families, four relatives of the late Emperor Puyi convened Thursday at the willow-fringed lakefront mansion in Beijing where he was born in 1906. One of the more reviled figures of Chinese history, Puyi was elevated to the throne as a 2-year-old and abdicated at age 6, only to be reinstalled as a puppet of the Japanese occupation during World War II.
Puyi died in 1967 in relative obscurity and although he had no children, he is survived by a gaggle of nieces, nephews and cousins.
There's considerable curiosity in China about those remaining royal family members, but their existence does not carry the same cachet as elsewhere, perhaps because of decades of anti-imperialist indoctrination by communists. The relatives hardly ever get together, and even less often in public — royal blood being something you don't advertise in a communist country — but made an exception to mark the publication of a new series of books about their family.
They did not appear glamorous, the women wearing sensible old-lady shoes and large eyeglasses. Though the mansion was their playground as children, they looked ill at ease in a sitting room adorned with yellow-tasseled lanterns and heavy curtains in the same shade of imperial yellow.
"I remember this place being much larger. As I child, I would get lost going in circles around the grounds," said Puyi's cousin Jin Aiyao, 78, a retired academic, looking around in confusion as she tried to reconcile her memories.
After the communist victory in 1949, the government confiscated the mansion from Prince Chun, Puyi's father. Puyi was imprisoned for his collaboration with the Japanese. His relatives dropped their Manchurian names and joined the Communist Party.
Guo Manruo, a 67-year-old niece, recalled going out of her way to choose a penniless husband descended from three generations of farmers. She was proud that her new family didn't have much to eat and lived in a small, dark apartment.
"I wanted to prove that I was part of the new red China, not of the imperial China," Guo said. "I was honored that my husband's family was poor."
Nevertheless, the former imperial relatives enjoyed privileges. Chairman Mao Tse-tung and Premier Zhou Enlai checked in on them frequently.
Guo remembered that during the famine of the 1950s, Zhou sent her a large ham, a delicacy she'd never tasted before. The relatives were encouraged to visit Puyi in prison; after his release in 1959, Puyi was given a job at the botanical garden in Beijing that paid a decent salary.
"Mao wanted to show his status, that he was above them by being generous. The family was always treated as special,"' said Jia Yinghua, a Beijing historian whose four books about the family were being launched at Thursday's event at the mansion, now a public museum.
Na Genzheng, a relative of the late Empress Dowager Cixi and a historian specializing in Manchurian themes, said that although his family became very poor after the communist takeover, he remembers that for his sister's wedding, his mother gave her a traditional Chinese dress and tucked into it a small portrait of the empress. That was the kind of memorabilia the family had lying around.
In adult life, Puyi was a complicated and difficult person. Widely believed to be homosexual, he had a series of unhappy marriages. Having been surrounded by fawning eunuchs and servants most of his early life in the Forbidden City, he couldn't perform simple tasks for himself.
Zheng, his niece, recalled that Puyi once tried to take a bus, but being chivalrous, let all the women get on first. One of them was the conductor, and the bus left without him. Another time, she went with him to a shop near the botanical garden and realized he had never used money.
"My uncle was trying to buy something and he didn't know which notes to use. He dropped the money all over the floor," said Zheng. "Being emperor is very sad. You lost the chance to live an ordinary life."
The last year of Puyi's life coincided with the start of the Cultural Revolution, Mao's violent purge of the elites. Although the Communist Party went out of its way to protect Puyi and family members, the last emperor was receiving threatening letters and became frightened and checked himself into a hospital.
"I think he was literally frightened to death," said Jia.
The relatives' memories of Puyi include fond ones, especially his playfulness with children. But as a whole, they say they're not proud of having him as a relative — or of having royal blood.
"It is a secret. I don't tell people I'm related to the last emperor," said Guo, who almost chose not to attend Thursday's event. "That's why I didn't want to come here today. I just wanted to be a regular person."
Nicole Liu of The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.