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Thursday, 24 May 2018

Pu Yi and the Puppet State Principle of "Wangtao"


Back in 1933, Peter Fleming, the brother of James Bond's creator, Ian Fleming, travelled via the Trans-Siberian Railway to the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo in what is now the North Eastern corner of China. Here, he was lucky enough to interview Pu Yi, the "Last Emperor" of China, who was then serving as the figurehead leader under the title "Chief Executive of the State of Manchukuo. The following year he would become its "Emperor."

Fleming's sympathetic account of the meeting in his travel memoir "One's Company" (1934) perfectly captures Pu Yi's situation and the slyly manipulative nature of the Japanese rulers.

In order to lessen opposition to their rule, the Japanese, with the help of Pu Yi, made a pretence of ruling benignly and in the best interests of the Manchurian people. To express this they used the Chinese word "Wangtao," a vapid, high-sounding, abstract term, originally meaning the "Principle of Benevolent Rule." Even in the early days of the regime this had already been robbed of all meaning to become merely a hollow-sounding propaganda term:
"[The interview] lasted half an hour. I asked the inevitable questions, which it would have been unseemly to omit. They were beginning to sound pretty futile to me.

They were broad questions on political matters, and the answer to all of them turned out—not at all to my surprise—to be 'Wangtao.'

During the last few days the word had been often in my ear. 'Wangtao' means the Principle of Benevolent Rule.  it was found has a formula,  and has remained as a gag.  the more specific,  the more awkward the questions you asked,  the more certain you were to get one towel for an answer…

'Was it true that the government, under the pretence of suppressing the cultivation and sale of opium, had in fact turned it into a profitable state Monopoly?'

'Wangtao.'

'Had not the use of bombers on anti-bandit operations resulted in the destruction of much innocent life and property?'

'Wangtao.'

They answered, of course,  at much greater length. It took a certain amount of circumlocution to lead you round to the point. But the destination at which you finally arrived was always the same: Wangtao.

With His Excellency, needless to say,  I raised no such uncomfortably controversial issues as the above. After a few Wangtaos had cleared the air we passed from high politics to the personal. Did his excellency ever broadcast to his people, as our King had recently? Yes, he had, once: he would like to do it again. He had a great admiration for the King of England, who had once sent him a signed photograph. Did His Excellency contemplate becoming Emperor? (This was six months before the announcement was made.) His Excellency said that he would do whatever was thought best for his people.

I felt that we were slipping back to the Wangtao gambit. I tried a long shot,  reasoning that even potential Emperor's must like to talk about themselves. I asked His Excellency which had been the happiest time in his life -- the old days in the Forbidden City in Peking, or his untroubled exile in the Foreign Concession at Tientsin, or the present, when he was back in the saddle again?

His excellency, with a delightful smile, replied at length. The [Japanese] interpreter began to translate. 'His Excellency says that so long as you feel benevolent towards everyone—so long as you practice the principle of Wangtao—happiness is surely only a question of…' He droned on.

The formula has been rediscovered. Very soon I took my leave." (Peter Fleming, One's Company: A journey to China made by the author in 1933)
12 years later, Pu Yi's throne was lost to these guys.

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