As China celebrates the return of Hong Kong from Britain, one Chinese woman has a very personal tale of indignity under foreign rule. The territory in this case was occupied not by the British, but the Japanese, who in 1931 invaded Manchuria, in the north-east of China, and installed Pu Yi, the deposed Qing dynasty emperor, as their "puppet" monarch. For one 15-year-old schoolgirl, Japan's victory over the Chinese bestowed an unwanted historical claim to fame. Li Yuqin was taken from her home by a Japanese official to be China's last imperial consort - the last concubine of the last emperor.
This was back in 1943, when Pu Yi's empress, Wan Rong, was all but destroyed by opium, his first concubine had divorced him, and a second concubine had died in mysterious circumstances (possible murdered by the Japanese) the previous year. The puppet emperor's Japanese minders decided that Pu Yi needed a new consort, and he was invited to take his pick from photographs of local schoolgirls.
These days, the 69-year-old Li still lives in Changchun, the north-east Chinese city where between 1943 and 1945 she resided with Pu Yi in the makeshift royal residence, the converted former headquarters of the local salt administration. Following the death this month of Pu Yi's second wife, Li Shuxian (a nurse whom he married in 1962 after being released from prison by the Communists), Li Yuqin is the only surviving female consort of the last emperor.
Ms Li still remembers the day when several of the prettiest girls in her class were suddenly selected to have their photographs taken. A month later, Japanese officials arrived at her home and told her parents that she was being sent to the imperial palace "to study". Her parents tried to refuse. "But the Japanese officer said firmly, this was His Majesty's order, no matter whether you were willing or not, you must go."
The young girl did not realise what awaited her. "Because I thought I went there to study, I even took my school bag. I was very innocent then, thinking I could flee back if I didn't like it. In fact it was absolutely impossible to escape.
"When I arrived, it was already dark. Pu Yi looked very happy. But I had a headache then, because I had also thought it over a lot the day before and was afraid I would be swindled ... Pu Yi asked me if I wanted dinner, I said no. I felt he was like a school teacher, a big brother. He was very kind and looked younger than his real age, 37. He even touched my head and asked if I had a fever. When he learnt I had, he called to the servants for medicine and doctor and insisted I should eat something."
They sat for a while. "Then he asked me to sleep with him in his bedroom. But I said I came here to study, how could I sleep with a boy-student or a male teacher? And I hadn't even seen all my other classmates yet." Pu Yi accepted the situation with good grace. "He immediately ordered servants to clean my room, and he also dined there. Then he happily left, asking me to take medicine and an injection."
It was all rather confusing for a naive girl. "We were not as mature as the teenagers now. At the age of 14 or 15 we even didn't know that it was the mother who gave birth to us. Instead we believed in our mama who said we were picked up from the rubbish bins."
Within a month, Pu Yi started telling Li that she was very lucky to be able to "serve" the emperor. "Gradually I was confused about my identity there, as a student or a servant ... Later he talked about marriage, and I felt surprised. I considered if I went back home, because people would not know what really happened, my reputation wouldn't be good ... All the time, his manner was sincere, he kept saying he liked me. I remember this point very vividly. In his eyes I was a pure and naive little girl who loved singing and laughing, so he kept asking me to be his wife."
Part of Li's attraction may have been her lack of obsequiousness, compared with the courtiers. "One day in his study, I saw lots of books and a portrait of him, and he asked me if the portrait resembled him. I said `no'. He laughed delightedly, and said nobody dared to say that before."
In fact, the physical relationship which started was blighted by Pu Yi's impotence. "We slept lots of times, but sleeping together is different from making love. As far as I know, Pu Yi only made love twice in his life, once with Wan Rong, and once with me, much later ... I always don't like this topic, because that's his privacy, but it is not a shameful thing. He had illness and was not treated properly, and it caused him lifelong pain ... I was too young and wilful at that time. If I was happy, maybe I would allow him to touch me, and if I wasn't happy, I wouldn't ... At the age of 16 or 17, I was like a rose with thorn."
The puppet emperor was still very much an autocrat, however, and Li remembers that everyone's lives revolved around his whims. "Sometimes, when his order was disobeyed, he could be very cruel. He never beat me, but he beat his servants fiercely, sometimes even to death. Then he became frightened, and prayed so that the dead could go to heaven."
Though Pu Yi was clearly fond of her, when the Japanese regime in Manchuria was about to topple in 1945, the emperor told his sobbing concubine to take the train while he prepared to flee in a small airplane. "I was far too preoccupied with saving my own life to care whether there would be a train for her or not," Pu Yi later wrote in his autobiography. Li remembers: "Those days he kept saying to me, `I made you suffer a lot. I made you suffer a lot' with sad clouds on his features ... He said we would meet again soon. I felt sad because he left in such a hurry. I went to his room and took the wood combs and towels he had left for keepsake. Later I lost them."
Pu Yi never made it to Japan. He was taken prisoner by advancing Soviet troops, who in 1950 handed him over to the victorious Chinese communists. Li fled with the opium-addicted Empress, who had also been abandoned by the Emperor. "In fact, she also wanted to escape, but couldn't. So she just committed suicide slowly by taking opium." She died in 1946.
For a few years, Li lived "in a state of half-starvation" with relatives of Pu Yi. Then she went back home, but in Changchun could not find any work. "Finally, it was with the party's help that I became a state cadre, a white-collar worker, in a library, which I liked very much."
But she still found herself facing criticism for not divorcing Pu Yi, and her family was suffering as a result. "I thought there was no hope for Pu Yi to come back again, but I longed for a normal family life; I love children. I am a woman, I also wanted a child."
There then followed perhaps the most bizarre part of the last concubine's experiences. By this time, Pu Yi was being held in Fushun prison, in neighbouring Liaoning province, and Li had visited a few times. By the time of her fifth visit, in 1956, she had applied to the authorities for a divorce. But when she arrived at the prison she was shown into a room with a big double bed. The party wanted a reconciliation.
"It was the leader in Pu Yi's unit who wanted to reform Pu Yi, but his way was a little blunt. I was not happy with their arrangement to let me sleep with him for one night. Couples can have many ways to love each other, and I felt my self-respect was hurt." But this was the first and only time, according to Li, that the couple did have sex. Li nevertheless yearned to be free, and by the end of that year had been granted a divorce.
Two years later, Li married her present husband, a TV station engineer, and now has a son and two grandchildren. "When we were fiances, I told him everything. He understood I was forced to do what I did. I did nothing harmful. By then I was a state cadre, and I could enjoy a citizen's right. Sometimes people do say things, but we just face them with a clean conscience."
This perhaps explains why these days Li talks about the past only for money. When The Independent asked to meet her, a price of pounds 400 was quoted by Changchun government officials. This offer was declined, and a tape- recording instead obtained of a two-hour conversation by Li with a group of other Western journalists.
To this day, Li remains benevolent in her judgement of Pu Yi, who was finally released from prison in 1959 and sent to work in Peking's botanical gardens until he died, childless, of cancer in 1967. "Pu Yi has many aspects, he was timid, suspicious, irritable, but he respected his ancestors and felt guilty that the Qing dynasty ended during his reign ... As an emperor, he brought a lot of disaster to the Chinese people and became a collaborator. But as a human being, he also suffered a lot of pain and misery much heavier than the common people's," said LinReuse content