Scotland/China articles

Scottish Mandarin - Reginald Johnston

Reviewed by Website Editor, 5 November 2012

Sir Reginald Johnson, diplomat in China, scholar, and, rather more famously, tutor to the last Emperor, the young Puyi, did create a substantial personal archive. “He had kept not only his notes of all his travels, but also his manuscripts, finished and unfinished, and a huge number of letters. These included letters from Puyi, written since his childhood in the Forbidden City and continuing through to his enthronement as emperor of Manchukuo...Johnston wrote to an enormous circle of people, Chinese and European ; his correspondence presented a unique picture of forty critical years in the history of China”.

However, all this was burnt at his Argyll estate of Eilean Righ after his death in 1938, against Johnston's wishes, by the woman he had planned to marry. As author Shiona Airlie says, “the loss of these papers is, even today, inestimable”. But even so, she has written this biography, despite beginning “with nothing ; no record of the family nor a Johnston archive”. So just how do you write the biography of someone whose own papers have been lost ?

As Shiona says, “laying bare the life of Reginald Johnston was a long arduous journey”, which took her “from the suburbs of Edinburgh to the far west of China...simply the most marvellous adventure”. What that exciting introduction disguises, of course, is an awful lot of hard work and careful archival digging. This book has clearly been, like her previous one on Johnston's great friend, colleague and mentor, Sir James Stewart-Lockhart, a labour of love.

The first two keys to unlock the history of Johnston came, appropriately enough, from Puyi and Stewart-Lockhart. During his own rehabilitation, Puyi wrote his story in the late 1950s, and began to put Johnston back into the historical limelight. Closer to home, the Stewart-Lockhart papers, now housed in the National Library of Scotland, include some 600 letters from Johnston to his friend. With these starting points, Shiona has been able to locate other collections of correspondence, notably that of the Johnston family lawyers, and other leading British diplomats and China experts of the early 20th century. Combined with Johnston's extensive official paper trail in the files of the Colonial Office, his own publications, and much more, she has woven this into a story that is probably as complete as it can be, told, wherever possible, in his own words.

So what do his words tell is ? The picture that emerges is, as Shiona says, that of a “strange, difficult and eccentric man”. Johnston was “clever and foolish, amusing and annoying, liberal and prejudiced...predictably unpredictable”. He was able to irritate everyone from his long-suffering Colonial Office masters to eunuchs in the Forbidden City. However, he was equally able to entertain and indeed charm his close friends, male and female, with his wit and irreverence.

For example, he noted in his first Annual report from Wei-hai-wei (now Weihai), where he began work under Stewart-Lockhart in 1904, that one of the reasons he had to hear so many civil cases as District Officer was that “the number of hen-pecked husbands in the territory of Weihaiwei is exceedingly large...” In the same report, he also noted “I am happy to be able to report that by the registration of three [European] marriages during 1904 the reproach of celibacy has been forever removed from this corner of the British Empire”. The latter remark did not survive Colonial Office editing in London.

Photos of the rendition of Wei-hai-wei to China in October 1930 - left to right - Johnston (top hat, second from left) arrives with the Chinese Commissioner, Wang Jiazheng (top hat, far right), Admiral Sir Arthur Waistell, Commander in Chief of the China Station and Lt Col Colchester-Wemyss of the 2nd Battalion, Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, who were providing the guard of honour ; Johnston speaking during the ceremony ; and the Argylls Guard of Honour

It seems, in fact, that the Chinese mandarinate respected Johnston much more than its British equivalent. They were impressed by his knowledge of the language and their culture, and by his understanding of how to rule in the Chinese way, firmly but fairly, as he did in Wei-hai-wei. This is perhaps why he was asked, in 1919, to become tutor to Puyi, then 13 and subject to a stifling and anachronistic regime in the Forbidden City while the new Chinese republic seethed with political intrigue around him. The strangeness of his position was very clear to Johnston, who wrote in his own book on this period, Twilight in the Forbidden City, “the Chinese republic might have been ten thousand miles away instead of a few hundred yards”. He went to become a close confidant of Puyi through the difficult years of the 1920s and beyond.

It is therefore perhaps not surprising that a version of this biography has, in fact, already been published in Chinese. But this new book from Hong Kong University Press has taken the story even further, and it is also much more detailed than Shiona's earlier short biography, Reginald Johnston : Chinese Mandarin, published in 2001, which some SCA members may already have.

Shiona concludes that “to the very end, he was an enigma”. However, thanks to her diligence and entertaining writing, he is now considerably less of an enigma – and the bonfire of Eilean Righ has been substantially redeemed.

Scottish Mandarin – the life and times of Sir Reginald Johnston, by Shiona Airlie, has been published by Hong Kong University Press, ISBN 978-988-8139-56-9, as part of their Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Studies Series. It is now listed as available by online bookseller Amazon. The book has some 340 pages, including 16 pages of fascinating black and white photos, detailed footnotes and an extensive bibliography.

For a report of Shiona Airlie's talk to SCA Edinburgh Branch on her previous book on Sir James Stewart-Lockhart, see our earlier article.