Jin Yulan, the nephew of China's last emperor Pu Yi, attends his private antique  show in Beijing. Photo: Agence France-Presse/ Wang Zhao
Jin Yulan, the nephew of China's last emperor Pu Yi, attends his private antique show in Beijing. Photo: Agence France-Presse/ Wang Zhao

His uncle was the last Emperor of China, reigning over the Middle Kingdom from the Forbidden City. Now Jin Yulan scours the antique shops of Beijing for trinkets that might once have belonged to his family.

The Qing dynasty ruled over China for 268 years until it was deposed after the 1911 revolution. But interest in the past is growing and when Jin opened an exhibition of his artefacts this week dozens of enthusiasts attended.

Children examine a collection of antiques from Jin Yulan, the nephew of China’s last emperor Pu Yi, in Beijing. Photo: Agence France-Presse / Wang Zhao

A retired teacher dressed in a polo shirt and jacket, Jin says he likes things “with a sense of age, with a kind of culture and history to them.”

“I never knew the life of the court,” he laments. “I can’t say how good life there was or how succulent the food would have been. But I feel a link with my ancestors and this bond will last forever.”

Born in 1948, shortly before Mao Zedong’s Communists took power, Jin has had a life of marked contrast to the Imperial finery of his forebears.

During the Cultural Revolution – when Mao’s Red Guards sought to destroy China’s heritage – he was exiled to the countryside of Henan and ended up spending more than 20 years in the central province, only returning to the capital in the 1990s.

“The Red Guards sacked our house and confiscated our belongings,” he said. “They took 90 percent of what we owned.”

Family reunion

Jin’s uncle Pu Yi was aged two when he took the throne in 1908. Abdicating while still a child in 1912, he later served as Tokyo’s puppet emperor of Manchuria after Japan invaded in the 1930s.

He was arrested by Soviet forces in 1945 and imprisoned by China’s new Communist authorities until 1959.

When he was freed, his Aisin-Gioro clan held a dinner that was “the largest family reunion since the fall of the Qing dynasty”, Jin said.

“Pu Yi took my hands, he was very kind. It was the first time that I had seen him. He was wearing the same black cotton clothes that he would have worn in prison – the only thing he had removed was his number.”

Pu Yi was later set to work as a gardener by the Communists and died of cancer in 1967.

“We spoke very freely. I saw him more as a human being than an emperor,” Jin says, highlighting the contrast between his uncle’s earlier and later life. “When he was younger, people would kowtow before him.”

‘The dynasty is dead’

Jin started collecting pieces as a boy, scouring flea markets and occasionally picking up items that could have belonged to his family. 

One of the artefacts on display in the exhibition, at a museum in a former aristocratic residence in Beijing, is a kaleidoscope given to Pu Yi’s father by Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany during a visit to Berlin in 1901.

Jin played with the kaleidoscope as a child, and managed to take it with him to Henan, dismantling it, stuffing it into a bag and sneaking it under the noses of the Red Guards.

A photo from the late 1920s shows Pu Yi surrounded by his brothers and sisters. “The child sitting on the floor is my father,” Jin explains of the emperor’s half-brother, who died last year at the age of 96, the last of his generation.

He has not been to the Forbidden City, his family’s former home and now a UNESCO world heritage site and Beijing’s top tourist draw, for 30 years, claiming he does not think it is “worth the price of the ticket.”

But with the passage of time, people are becoming increasingly interested in Qing history, he says.

“The dynasty is dead, but we can look at it from an objective point of view and I think most people are well disposed to the imperial family.”

According to Wang Qingxiang of the Jilin Academy of Social Sciences, the official Chinese assessment of Pu Yi found that he “made some mistakes” but gave a “good judgement” on his post-prison life.

Wang has published 60 books about Pu Yi and the Qing dynasty, but said the subject has become more sensitive in recent years, with authorities now taking four months to approve his works for publication, compared with “no strict scrutiny” in the past.

Jin insists he has no nostalgia for the Qing dynasty, admitting that by its end it was paralysed by corruption and no longer able to govern China. 

“It was time to go,” he says.