Once Upon a Time in Beijing
A firsthand account of life in the Forbidden City
For 30 years, Gobulo Runqi had led a simple but purposeful life as a respected Chinese doctor in Beijing, living in an ordinary apartment with his family until his death late last year. The only thing that betrayed the image of this simple existence was his imperial accent, which hinted at the extraordinary nature of his former life.
In fact, Gobulo Runqi has led a life far from ordinary: He was once a key member of the royal family and experienced firsthand the last days of the Qing dynasty. He was raised in a rich and distinguished family closely connected to the Aisingioro clan, or the Manchu imperial family. For four generations the Gobulos shared ties to the royal family – Runqi’s great-grandfather was a general who was put in charge of Inner Mongolia and won many battles for the Qing emperors; Runqi was married to the sister of Puyi, the last Qing emperor; and Puyi’s wife, Wan Rong, was Runqi’s elder sister.
When we sat down with him this past summer, he was already in his 96th year, yet filled with lively enthusiasm at an opportunity to share memories about growing up among royalty, with the imperial palace as his playground. In a very special interview with tbjkids, Gobulo Runqi opened a window to an incredible view of life in old Beijing.
What games did you play with Puyi in Forbidden City?
I first met him when I was ten years old, after my sister’s wedding. He was six years older than me. He would always ask me to go to the Forbidden City to hang out with him. My mother was not happy with this because she was afraid it would disturb my studies. She would only allow me to go once for every two or three times he invited me, but when I did go I would often stay for half a month or more. When I was in the Forbidden City, we did nothing but play!
We tried different forms of entertainment. Bicycles were one of our greatest pleasures. Puyi bought more than twenty bicycles. At that time, people were more open-minded than now and they were willing to accept new things like bicycles. I suggested to Puyi that we remove the wooden steps at the entrances of the buildings so that the bicycles could get through. Many palaces, included Chu Xiu Palace, had their wooden steps sawn away.
Whenever I reminded Puyi of this he would start laughing; you can see this
interesting episode of our history mentioned in many films. Bicycles were quite popular in the Forbidden City; even my sister, Puyi’s wife, liked riding bikes as well. Tai Fei, Puyi’s aunt, wanted to ride too, but she couldn’t master it so they made her a three-wheel bicycle.
Did you ever get into trouble while playing in the Forbidden City?
Not really. Due to my position I felt very powerful; many people had to listen to me so my actions were usually unreported. For instance, I liked climbing onto the roofs. I would tie one end of the rope to myself and the other end to a eunuch, and then I would climb on one side of the roof and the eunuch would be on the other side.
What did the Forbidden City look like in the past?
For me, it was nothing special. It used to be kept spotlessly clean. Yang Xin Dian [part of the Forbidden City] is smaller now than when I was young. I don’t want to go back now. I’ve been there too many times.
Can you remember what Puyi’s wedding was like?
The wedding was held during the night. I remember that my father, my brother
and I knelt down to listen and take the imperial orders (sheng zhi, 圣旨). We could not see the emperor himself – only the people who passed on his orders. I remember I only saw parts of the ceremony.
When did you learn Chinese medicine?
I started learning as soon as I got to Japan. Puyi had sent me there to study military matters but I spent my spare time studying medicine. I easily spent more time learning about the latter than on the former.
Why did you decide to learn Chinese medicine?
I was terribly ill when I was young and the Chinese medicine I was given cured me. From that time on I wanted to learn traditional medicine but my environment and situation didn’t allow me to. I never forgot my desire, however, and when I had the chance I learned both Chinese and Western forms of medicine.
How long have you been working in Chinese medicine?
I started as soon as I came back to China.
How did your life changed after the end of the imperial age?
The imperial system was not the best form of government. Only with a good emperor can the society be peaceful and harmonious. There have not been many excellent emperors like Kangxi and Qianlong. It is bad for one person to have absolute power of shengsha yuduo (生杀予夺, “taking and giving life and death”). I think the present is best.
How have you lived so long?
The key to long life is physical exercise, and good dining habits are necessary too. Your body’s health is extremely important. But having a healthy mind is more important – keep yourself free from anxiety and irritation while being happy and open-minded.
What advice do you have for young people today?
Keep moving on in the present direction and try to approach things logically and scientifically.
Originally Published in English magazine, tbjkids