Last emperor's widow nurses memories alone


December 07, 1993|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

BEIJING -- The last wife of the last emperor of China lives in an entirely ordinary apartment in a high-rise on the west side of this city. Hardly anything inside suggests that this -- at least theoretically -- is the home of China's dowager empress.

Hardly anything, that is, save for the still air of loneliness.

Li Shuxian answers the door, a tiny, fine-featured woman of 68, hard of hearing but easy to smile. A bright-colored silk scarf springs from the high neck of her proletarian jacket of coarse dark wool. She is quick to offer tea, oranges and candies.

Ms. Li met Pu Yi, the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty, in 1962. She was a 37-year-old nurse, and he was 56. She became his fifth wife, following two who had died and two divorces. They were together until his death in 1967.

Hidden atop the refrigerator in a corner of her living room, a small, black-and-white photo taken 30 years ago of her, Pu Yi and the late Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai shows her face fuller then and her eyes less doleful. But a certain charm is the same today.

This was long after Pu Yi had been forced as a boy by China's Nationalist Revolution to leave the Dragon Throne. It was after his fling at restoring the Manchu line as the putative emperor of a Japanese puppet-state in northeast China from 1932 to 1945.

Under communism, Pu Yi atoned for his crimes against the masses by spending a decade in prison. Paroled in 1959, he was transformed into an ordinary citizen, first a gardener and then historical researcher.

The American journalist Edgar Snow, who met Pu Yi at a party about that time, recalled him as "a thin, hollow-chested guest who gazed out of lashless eyes behind heavy-rimmed glasses. He had a bad haircut and, in blue cotton work clothes, was the most simply attired person there."

Like Mr. Snow, Ms. Li at first did not know who Pu Yi had been when she was introduced to him by a friend at a dance at a Beijing cultural club. All she knew is that he was looking for "a life partner," but was extremely picky.

"He was introduced to a lot of girls and, if he didn't like them, he would just turn around and walk right away," she says, still smiling that he did not do so with her.

He invited her to more dances, using a pseudonym when he called her at work. She found him surprisingly easy to approach. They married within a few months.

Their marriage -- as with all of Pu Yi's liaisons -- was childless, and she says directly that it was never consummated. But she has nothing but good to say about him.

"Pu Yi treated me like a pearl in the palm of his hand," she says. "I still miss him very much for his profound affection."

With Pu Yi and afterward, Ms. Li's life has never been that of an empress. Imperial pretensions -- long politically incorrect, if not decidedly dangerous -- would largely be considered simply irrelevant here today.

Confronted with any such questions, Ms. Li demurs with practiced ease. "I never even thought of Pu Yi as an emperor," she says. "He was my husband. He had already undergone reformation for 10 years."

But at the start of China's Cultural Revolution in the mid-1960s, Pu Yi came under renewed political attacks even as he was dying of kidney cancer. These attacks, Ms. Li recalls with apparent bitterness, were led by his fourth wife, who had been with him under the Japanese but divorced him under communism.

"No one in the government would protect him," she says.

After Pu Yi died, it was 13 years before his ashes were moved to a state hall for notable figures. Ms. Li was left with a small sum from the publication of his memoirs in the 1960s and a meager state pension that today has grown to about $60 a month.

"Pu Yi died with nothing," she says with finality.

These days, Ms. Li ages alone, nursing her heart trouble.

In the 1980s, Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci spent months in Beijing making "The Last Emperor," his epic on Pu Yi's life. He never came to see Ms. Li.

The former imperial family -- largely Pu Yi's nieces and nephews and their children -- is scattered about. They seldom come by.

"I must do everything myself," Ms. Li says as the afternoon light fades from her deeply quiet apartment. "It is very lonely."

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