Royal-scandal watchers in the U.S. no longer need keep their opera glasses trained across the Atlantic for juicy tales of sex, lies and palace intrigue.
Now they can turn their gaze across the Pacific, where a nasty battle is brewing over a tell-all book about China's last emperor--already memorialized in an Oscar-winning movie--that was released in Beijing last week to a breathless public.
"Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Emperor's Final Marriage" combines new revelations with previously known facts about the deposed "Son of Heaven," Pu Yi, to paint a portrait of a man who was secretly homosexual, who had an affair with a boy eunuch with "red lips and white teeth," who underwent hormone shots to cure impotence and who wound up marrying a woman with a questionable past that was hidden until her death four years ago.
The book's salacious charges have provoked a bitter dispute between Pu Yi's surviving siblings and author Jia Yinghua--China's answer to Kitty Kelley, the writer whose shocker "The Royals" caused a stir in Britain with its unflattering portrait of that country's royal family.
Scenes From a Tempestuous Marriage
Jia, 50, is an amateur historian who says he has assembled an array of documentary evidence to support the sensational allegations contained in his 386-page opus, the fruit of 20 years' research.
In addition to offering new details about the emperor, Jia describes Pu Yi's last wife, Li Shuxian, as a twice-divorced, gold-digging former dance hall hostess who wed him in 1962 expecting wealth and glamour only to discover penury and sexual dysfunction.
The book charts their tempestuous marriage from fights over money to Pu Yi's near-inability to take care of himself after a pampered upbringing in Beijing's fabled Forbidden City.
When Li later tried to dump her husband, who had been politically "reformed" by the Communist regime, the divorce request went all the way to one of China's senior leaders, Premier Chou En-lai, who blocked it in a rare instance of personal intervention, according to one of the book's more startling claims.
Page after page of the new biography boasts photographs that would do British tabloids proud. There are shots of Pu Yi on the palace grounds lighting a cigarette for his first consort, Wan Rong, and of Wang Fengchi, the robed and pretty-looking castrated male servant with whom Pu Yi allegedly had "out-of-the-ordinary relations."
Also pictured are Li's personnel file from the hospital where she worked as a nurse, excerpts of letters written by the former emperor, and Pu Yi and Li's marriage certificate.
"My book will create an uproar around the world," Jia predicted confidently a few days before it hit the shelves last week.
It has already caused a ruckus among Pu Yi's four surviving siblings, all of them now over 80.
To them, Jia is a disrespectful, dishonorable man bent purely on personal gain.
"His behavior is immoral. He just wants to make money," Pu Ren, the last emperor's half-brother, declared during an interview at his small but comfortable courtyard home on one of Beijing's tumbledown old alleys. His wife, following Manchu custom, stayed out of sight while Pu Ren received guests. Wooden carvings on the doors and inside the living room appeared to date to the Qing Dynasty--which ended, along with China's entire imperial past, when Pu Yi abdicated, at age 6, in 1912, after a three-year reign.
"Jia is taking advantage of us because we're old and weak and ill," said Pu Ren, 83, a retired schoolteacher of dignified mien. "My eldest sister is 90 and bedridden. He's browbeaten us mercilessly."
Pu Ren does not deny all, or even many, of the allegations in Jia's book. About his half-brother's ambiguous sexuality, he says vaguely, "I'm not clear on that." (The 1987 film "The Last Emperor," which was widely seen in urban China at the time, depicted Pu Yi as a lusty heterosexual youth caught up in an erotic menage a trois with his wife and first concubine. A 1998 biography released in the U.S. concluded that Pu Yi was at least bisexual.)
Nor does Pu Ren contest the authenticity of the documents, including Pu Yi's medical records, shown or cited in "Unlocking the Secrets."
But he does object to their publication without the permission of the family. Pu Ren has hired a lawyer and says he intends to sue Jia for defaming Pu Yi and invading his privacy, albeit posthumously. Libel charges, which are not uncommon in China, can result in monetary damages and up to three years in prison.
Pu Ren takes sharp exception to accusations that his once-exalted brother stole treasures from the Forbidden City and sold them to foreign buyers for some ready cash.
"Pu Yi sold the things that belonged to him in order to sustain himself" after the new, republican government failed to pay his promised allowance of $4 million a year, Pu Ren said. "There was no other way. Jia says it was stolen, but [revolutionary leader] Sun Yat-sen agreed that it was private property."
Jia dismissed such objections.
"Using that argument, then the entire Forbidden City belonged to him," Jia said. "Pu Ren should consider objective historical facts. He shouldn't bring blood ties into it."
An Accusation of Wholesale Fabrication
Indeed, Jia added darkly, there were even more lurid details about Pu Yi that he kept out of his book to spare the family's feelings, and to protect the identity of some of the book's sources.
Criticism of Jia's work has also come from another quarter. Wang Qingxiang, an academic, accuses Jia of wholesale fabrication in his account of Li's unsavory past in southern China, before she met Pu Yi.
During that era, many dance hall hostesses also worked as prostitutes. One of Li's friends, who was involved in setting her up with Pu Yi, was a prostitute, Jia says, but Li herself was not.
Animosity between Jia and Wang stretches back two decades, to when the two were embroiled in a messy dispute over rights to Li's story. Both men came to know Li after Pu Yi died, in humble circumstances, in 1967.
Wang contends that Jia and Li eventually fell out and that the new book is Jia's way of exacting revenge.
"He didn't publish any of this while Li was alive," Wang said. "He waited until she was dead to ruin her reputation. If Li Shuxian were alive today, she'd fight Jia tooth and nail."
Not so, according to Jia. He claims that Li told him to wait until her death before he wrote about her life with Pu Yi, although he acknowledged that Li did not tell him directly that she had once worked as a hostess. He discovered that in interviews and searches through archives, Jia said.
Author 'Not Afraid of the Consequences'
In fact, the author added, he is exposing himself to some risk by going public with the information on Li. The Communist Party, which touted the reformed Pu Yi as a model new citizen, would never have allowed him to marry a woman with such a bourgeois, decadent past if officials had vetted her properly. The book, Jia said, shows that the party's work was flawed.
"I'm not afraid of the consequences," said Jia, who tends to describe himself and his work in grand terms, as a crusade for truth and a duty to history. "I struggled over whether to reveal this or not. I'm a party member. The Communist Party's motto is to seek truth from facts. . . . Whether I'm correct or not, let history be the judge."
Whether lay readers will be able to judge the strength or fairness of his claims is open to question.
But those who were among the first to buy copies of the book, after months of publicity in the Chinese press ("Was the Last Emperor Gay?" asked one headline), didn't seem bothered.
"I'm curious. I'd heard some things about Pu Yi before, but nothing very detailed or clear," said kindergarten teacher Tu Yuanzheng, 33. "Most of all, I'm interested in his love life."
Radio producer Mao Xuhong, who was born the same year that Pu Yi died, had also never heard the allegations about the troubled sex life of the last royal personage to rule China.
"This just proves he was a regular person," Mao said.