Book Review: Twilight in the Forbidden City

It’s hard to find good books on China.  Most writings on China suffer from the author just not having lived there long enough.  The Chinese culture really can’t be skimmed – you have to marinate in it.  For a long time.  The language barrier can be very real, and while modern China has a feeling of openness and transparency that eminates from the coastal cities and it’s younger working class, the real China lays hidden behing many layers that most foreigners just can’t get through.

Twilight in the Forbidden City was written by a Scottish academic named Reginal Fleming Johnston who was appointed as Imperial Tutor to the last Chinese emperor, Puyi.  Johnston spent thirty-two years in China, from 1898 to 1930, and wrote this incredible account of his time with the Dragon Emperor of the Qing Dynasty, who he tutored for five years from the time the boy was 13.

This is an important book as it provides a very rare glimpse into the very secretive court life of China.  It was written and published prior to the Communist takeover in China and therefore sits squarely in one of the most tumultuous periods of Chinese history, without the benefit of hindsight.  Through it all, Johnston provides remarkable opinions on the issues of the day via his brilliant writing style.

Johnston is often accused of being a monarchist, and to some extent this was true, but his belief in the Chinese monarchy was driven by three main factors: that gross mismanagement by the Empress Dowager had squandered the benefits of a strong monarchy, that millions of lives and untold suffering and chaos could have been prevented had the monarchy remained intact, and his love and respect for his pupil who he believed would someday have the necessary skills to run the country.  In short, Johnston was correct in his assessment that China has always needed a strong central government and would continue to naturally tilt towards whoever or whatever could fill that power vacuum.  In this context, why couldn’t that figurehead be the Emperer in conjunction with a democratically elected parliament or some other such body?

Quite a bit of historical context is provided at the beginning of the book and seeing as how the Chinese Imperial system has ceased to exist for a hundred years, much of it was new to me.  Considerable time is spent on explaining the complex heirarchies within the family and court structures, and the backdrop of facts that he provides is richly interspersed with criticism of the rampant corruption of the Nei Wu Fu or imperial household department.  Johnston has provided what is probably the only Western eye witness account over a period of many years and he does so with discipline and rigor, often bringing into the narrative the necessary context for the reader to truly appreciate the landscape.

The story of the last emperor is ultimately one specific instance of sadness that is personalised for us during one of the most violent and turbulent period of Chinese history. Millions perished during a period of warlords, dueling republics, civil war, and World War II. There’s no escaping this while reading through the book, and even though Johnston’s account ends prior to the Emperor heading to become a puppet ruler for the Japanese, you can sense the foreboading.  Johnston ended up leaving China prior to major Japanese hostilities and moving back to the United Kingdom.  He remained friends with Puyi even after he ascended to the throne of Manchuko which was a controversial statement of loyalty.

Johnston tells us early in his book about the unique bond in Chinese culture between student and teacher, how it is revered above almost all other commitments, and how honored he was to be brought into that relationship.  When he retired to Scotland in 1937, he bought a small island in Loch Craignish, and proceeded to cultivate a Chinese garden.  He flew the flag of Manchuko, the new kingdom of his one-time pupil.  Despite the political difficulties he was communicating by endorsing the puppet state of a British rival, Johnston believed in the character of his student.  He believed in their relationship.  He believed in China more than many Chinese of the time.

Anyone wanting to know more about Chinese history, particular those influences that still reverberate in modern China should read this book.  It’s scolarship, the quality of writing, and the personal investment in the story by the author make it a rare and delighting read, if a bit wistful.

1 thought on “Book Review: Twilight in the Forbidden City”

  1. Good review. If you are interested in the late Imperial life, you can read the Twilight in the Forbidden City in conjunction with Pu Yi’s autobiography (‘From Emperor to Citizen: The Autobiography of Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi). quite interesting because they sometimes provide 2 different narratives of the same events. and you might be interested in my posts as wells. ( and

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