The Imperial Tutor: Reginald Johnston

Reginald Johnston was born in Edinburgh in 1874. His father Robert was a lawyer, and his mother Isabella Irving, was a daughter of an Irish minister. Johnston studied at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, but in 1894 he discontinued his studies and moved to Magdalen College, Oxford, to study modern history. After graduation, he received offers for a Hong Kong cadetship and a London-based posting in the Home Civil Service. He took the Hong Kong cadetship and set sail for Hong Kong on November 17 1898.

Arriving in Hong Kong, the British government provided him with books, teachers and modest living quarters, receiving a generous annual stipend. By the 1890s, the British colony was a bustling commercial port and a stronghold of British imperial trade. It provided all the creature comforts for the British expat: recreational and social clubs, a racecourse, excellent shops, churches, and comfortable housing. Johnston quickly ingratiated himself with the movers and shakers of British society in Hong Kong. Within two days of his arrival, he became a member of the colony's premier club, The Hong Kong Club.

In 1906 Johnston was transferred to the British leased territory Weihaiwei to work as a civil administrator under the direct supervision of its appointed commissioner James Stewart Lockhart. Located on the coast of the Shandong Peninsula, Weihaiwei was formerly a fortified Chinese naval base. The Japanese took control of it in February 1895 until naval base became a British concession in May 1898. Weihaiwei was also the summer air force base for the British China Squadron. In 1903 Lockhart made a trip to Qufu, the birthplace of Confucius.

He met with a duke who was one of the direct descendants of Confucius. During his visit, Lockhart promised to present a portrait of the British monarch Edward VII when he returned to Weihaiwei. The task of presenting the monarch's portrait, a large photograph with a 'magnificent carved gilt frame,' contained in a 'carved box impressed with the royal monogram,' was assigned to Johnston. He arrived in Qufu, 'dressed in top hat and frock coat,' in late August 1904. Johnston and the monarch's portrait were carried through the city's streets in a 'scarlet sedan chair,' and greeted at the gates of the duke's palace 'with an artillery salute.'

After some fifteen years in China, Johnston had traveled extensively. He developed an interest in Buddhism visiting some of the most sacred Buddhist sites in the country and wrote a book titled Lion and Dragon in Northern China. On returning to London in October 1913, he found the city 'depressing and gloomy.' He didn't fit in any longer. 'I felt overwhelmed by all sorts of conflicting feelings', he wrote. 'I shut my eyes and the fifteen years of life in China vanished like a dream.'

It is no surprise that Johnston was eager to return to China. He eventually returned to Weihaiwei and resumed administration duties working again with Lockhart, who was now in poor health. During a trip to Shanghai in November 1918, Johnston was made the fortuitous offer to become the English-speaking tutor to the emperor Puyi. The offer was too good to refuse. The salary alone was four times as much as he received from his duties as a civil administrator. Through luck and circumstance, Johnston was to become an imperial tutor to the last emperor, a position that was beyond the dreams of any English-speaking foreigner living in China at the time.

Johnston met Pu Yi for the first time in early March 1919. The last emperor was only thirteen years old. Johnston was 'dressed in top hat and tails,' and Pu Yi and his entourage 'were dressed in imperial costume. ' Pu Yi later wrote of his first meeting with Johnston in his autobiography From Emperor to Citizen:

I found that Johnson was not frightening at all. His Chinese was very fluent…He must have been at least forty at the time…but his movements were still deft and skilful…It was his blue eyes and graying fair hair in particular that made me feel uneasy.

Johnston developed a very close bond with the young emperor and was deeply concerned about his future. He saw his life in the Forbidden City as 'highly artificial,' and 'detrimental to his health, physical, intellectual and moral.' Johnston was convinced that the best thing for Henry (the English name Johnston conferred on Pu Yi) would be to further his education by taking a trip to Europe. Plans were discussed, but Pu Yi never left China.

The bond between Johnston and Pu Yi was like father and son. The relationship extended to Johnston being conferred with the title of Mandarin of the Second Rank with a Coral Button. The honor came replete with a sable robe. Johnston was also a constant source of advice and support. When the Palace of Established Happiness (Jianfugong) was burnt to the ground in 1923—the worst fire to engulf the Forbidden City in modern times—a tennis court was built on grounds at Johnston's recommendation.

Puyi was evicted from the Forbidden City in early November 1924. Two years later, Johnston served as Secretary to the British China Indemnity Commission. He was appointed commissioner at Weihaiwei in 1927 which he ran until it was returned to the Republic of China, October 1, 1930. The territory was renamed Weihai in 1945.

Johnston returned to Britain en route from Shanghai. He was engaged to the historian Eileen Power and had applied for the Chair of Chinese at the School of Oriental Studies in London. He procrastinated over the union with Power who eventually called off the engagement in 1932. His appointment as Chair of Chinese was prestigious position, but Johnston was not made for academic administration let alone regular teaching duties. The relationship was by all accounts a disaster.

Twilight in the Forbidden City was published in 1934 and dedicated to Pu Yi. The book brought Johnston considerable fame and gave him enough money to acquire a small island of Eilean Righ in Loch Craignish, Scotland. It was this book that was extensively used for the screenplay for Bernardo Bertolucci's film The Last Emperor (1987). Johnston made one last trip to China to visit Puyi in the summer of 1934, returning to Eilean Righ in the summer of 1936.

Johnston had several amorous relationships throughout his life, but never married. He almost married Eileen Power, and was close to author Stella Benson. He met Elizabeth Sparshott in 1934. She spent the last four years with Johnston who died in Edinburgh in March 1938 after complications from a kidney stone operation. His ashes were scattered on the island of Eilean Righ and surrounding Loch.

For reasons that will never be crystal clear, Sparshott did her best to eradicate the memory of Johnston by destroying all his papers and manuscripts. Within five months of Johnston's death, his house was 'emptied of its contents,' his estates sold, and furniture 'dispersed through salesrooms.'


Reginald Johnston: Chinese Mandarin, by Shiona Airlie, NMS Publishing Limited, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2001.

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