Obituary: Li Shuxian

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The Independent Online
Li Shuxian was the widow of Aisin Goro Pu Yi, the "last emperor" of China, immortalised (with some of his character traits deliberately overlooked) in Bernardo Bertolucci's Oscar-winning film, The Last Em- peror (1987).

Though she probably knew him better than any of his contemporaries, she did not know him all that long: they met and married in 1962. Five years later, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, Pu Yi died of lung cancer.

It was said that Chou En-lai himself, fascinated by Pu Yi's "born-again" Maoist faith after his 10-year detention in Fushun "re-education centre", encouraged the match. Chou, himself from an aristocratic mandarin family, had taken an interest in Pu Yi ever since Stalin had handed him back to the Communist Chinese in 1950.

Prior to that Pu Yi, the puppet emperor of Japanese-run Manchuria, had been living under comfortable detention in a commandeered spa near Khabarovsk - along with a handful of senior officials and generals who had collaborated with Japan.

Characteristically Pu Yi had abandoned his then wife, Elizabeth, and his teenage concubine, in Manchuria soon after Emperor Hirohito's historic speech ("the war situation had developed, not necessarily to our advantage") marking the end of the Second World War, following the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. In August 1945 the Japanese had tried their best to smuggle Pu Yi out of Manchuria but he was still on the tarmac at Mukden, waiting for a plane, when Russian paratroopers landed there and arrested him.

Chou En-lai took a personal interest in Pu Yi and monitored his progress. As the last Chinese emperor (even if he was deposed when he was four) Pu Yi epitomised the evil "old society" and his transformation into an exemplary Communist citizen demonstrated the superiority of the Chinese revolutionary system.

Bertolucci's film tells the story with an obviously sympathetic bias: there are no hints of brainwashing nor of any time-serving servility on Pu Yi's part. Significantly, "Big Li", Pu Yi's personal servant from 1924 until the year of his release from re-education camp believed, when I met him, that Pu Yi was a "professional survivor" and that his ostentatious humility in the last years of his life was entirely contrived.

Li Shuxian, a hospital nurse, was related to one of the puppet Manchurian generals who had kept Pu Yi company in Fushun. When they married, Pu Yi was, officially, employed as a gardener at the Peking Botanical Gardens. In fact this sinecure, provided thanks to Chou, only lasted three years, during which time he did very little actual gardening.

He was then given another sinecure, as an archivist in the China People's Political and Consultative Committee - and would in all likelihood, had he lived, have become a member of this organisation (Pu Yi's brother Pu Chie was appointed a member in 1980).

At least once a year, Chou En-lai invited Pu Yi and Li over to dinner. He also saw to it they got privileged accommodation in a modern building. Pu Chie lived in unusual privacy in a small but comfortably traditional house in a central Peking hutung (alley).

According to Li Wenda, the 8th Army veteran and ex-editor who "ghosted" Pu Yi's autobiography (From Emperor to Citizen, published 1964), the last four years of Pu Yi's life were not specially happy. "His wife was a shrew," he told me. "She nagged him ceaselessly." If so, she may have been exacting some form of revenge on the child concubines who had been so ill-treated by him in his puppet emperor days.

Whatever his ambiguous sexual proclivities may have been in his earlier life, Pu Yi, after his release from Fushun, was prematurely, caricaturally, absent-minded and his years in Fushun had not enabled him to look after himself. For all his humility, he still expected to be waited on hand and foot, and, in Li Wenda's words, "had a genius for creating an instant, disorderly mess around him".

The first hint of Li's displeasure came a year after my book, The Last Emperor (1987), was published. She wrote to me, in English, from Shanghai, where she was then working as a nurse in a hospital, asking why I had not bothered to get in touch with her while researching the book. I wrote back saying I had been told (by the film's production team) that she had refused to collaborate with them. On a subsequent visit to China, I added, I would very much like to meet her, and - in any subsequent printing - rewrite my final chapter, if indeed I had been unfair to her.

There was no reply, but a year later, out of the blue, she sued me under French law for making "false allegations" about her husband, also demanding substantial financial damages. Court proceedings dragged on and on: she lost in one court, appealed and lost again. Perhaps she idealised her relationship with Pu Yi after his death. Those who knew her, and whose notarised testimony turned out to be crucial to the lawsuit's outcome, think not. "She only wanted money," they said.

Edward Behr

Li Shuxian: born 1924; married 1962 Aisin Goro Pu Yi (died 1967); died Peking 10 June 1997.