Book review: Scottish Mandarin, by Shiona Airlie

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 January, 2013, 3:19pm

Scottish Mandarin: The Life and Times of Sir Reginald Johnston
by Shiona Airlie
HKU Press


Sir Reginald Johnston, a brilliant Sinologue, joined the Hong Kong administration in 1898 and made his mark on China in a most unusual way - through his close relationship with Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi, the last Manchu emperor.

Pu Yi's life was, in many respects, a tragic one. One of the few redeeming features of an existence controlled from infancy would appear to have been his connections with Johnston, who was appointed imperial tutor in 1919.

Johnston's account of his time with Pu Yi, Twilight in the Forbidden City, has remained in print for decades and provides a fascinating glimpse into the surreal world of the Manchu court between the end of the empire and the court's expulsion from the Forbidden City by warlords - and into the waiting arms of the Japanese - in 1924.

Shiona Airlie fleshes out Johnston's years in Beijing, and gives us a clearer understanding of what he did, and why, than he explained in his own account. In particular, she discounts (but not entirely convincingly) the contemporary view that Johnston was overly close to his much younger royal charge.

Johnston's own earlier life was blighted by spendthrift, alcoholic parents (his father left massive debts), and these unhappy experiences deeply affected him for the rest of his life. Personal shrewdness and an astonishing level of erudition were combined with a Peter Pan-like whimsy that, depending on individual taste, made him either delightful company or completely unendurable. Children and young people, in particular, loved him. And Pu Yi, a sad, isolated figure confined within a fabulously gilded cage, was clearly one of them.

Largely forgotten today, there were originally two "New Territories": one comprised part of Sun On County abutting Hong Kong, and the other was at Weihaiwei, in north China. Johnston was the last British resident commissioner at Weihaiwei and presided over its retrocession to China in 1930. He wrote the monumental, intermittently enjoyable Lion and Dragon in Northern China, which remains one of the few detailed contemporary studies of Britain's other leased Chinese territory.

Earlier biographical attempts were significantly hampered by the fact that most of Johnston's personal papers and effects were either destroyed or scattered shortly after his death. This was done by a calculating woman with whom he enjoyed a late-life infatuation. Airlie has managed to recreate, from widely diverse source materials, a solidly researched, readable life of a very unusual man who had a curious impact on early republican-era China.