by Beatrice Camp
While studying Chinese in Taiwan in preparation for assignment at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, I gave birth to baby William, our first child. Along the way, I learned a fair amount about Chinese birthing beliefs; our teachers at the Foreign Service Language School were happy to talk about the importance of fetal education and how my studying Chinese while pregnant would benefit the baby.
A few days before my due date, my husband David dreamed I gave birth to a koala. David’s shock over having a furry animal for a son was compensated by the thrill of hearing the newborn utter a Chinese phrase. We had, after all, spent the previous two years struggling to master tones and characters. Not to mention that the little koala’s question of “gànmá” (干吗) or “whatever for?” seemed right on the money.
Our Chinese teacher proclaimed David’s dream auspicious and named our son Meng Xiong (梦熊), Dream of a Bear; she prophesied a bright future in accord with the Zhou general whose bear dream foretold becoming emperor. She predicted—correctly—that our baby would be a boy, born by his due date, and—less correctly—that he would never give his mother a day of trouble.
Two months later we flew to Beijing via Hong Kong, the only route in 1983 when there were no direct flights across the Taiwan Strait. By that time baby William already possessed three passports—a civilian one to leave Taiwan, a second civilian one that didn’t reveal our residence on the island, and a diplomatic one that we picked up in Hong Kong.
Despite two years of language and area studies at the Foreign Service Institute, we had little idea what to expect in the People’s Republic of China or how we would be perceived in those early days of diplomatic relations. The dark drive from Capitol Airport down a two-lane road rimmed by locals taking advantage of the street lights for their card games provided our first look at this strange new world.
Despite all the differences—we learned on that first night that it was illegal to drive with lights on in the PRC—both populations saw eye-to-eye over children. On both sides of the Taiwan Strait, we were roundly criticized for putting William on his stomach. As first-time parents dependent on Dr. Spock, we embraced this practice as received wisdom and laughed off the Chinese insistence that babies should sleep on their backs. Years later, after the western medical establishment changed its recommendation to back sleeping, I silently apologized to a billion Chinese busybodies. Okay, you were right after all.
One major cultural chasm, however, was the reaction to Little Bear’s name. This classically auspicious moniker didn’t go over well on the Mainland, where post-1949 naming conventions had abandoned animals and flowers in favor of Red Flag or Build the Nation. Most people thought giving a child an animal name was laughable.
One day, however, David walked with William, who was less than 2, to an antiques store in Ritan Park near the embassy where an old calligrapher was painting people’s names for an appreciative Japanese audience. He painted one for 梦熊 too, volunteering “that’s a very auspicious name.”
Intrigued at the first Beijinger to side with our teacher in Taiwan, we asked why everyone else thought a name with an animal in it was funny and he didn’t. He replied, “I had a different education. My father brought teachers to the house.”
The house in which he was raised was the Forbidden City, we learned; there he was born into the former imperial family, the Manchu rulers of the Qing dynasty, deposed by the 1911 revolution. We visited often after that with William. David chose poems by Li Bai, Du Fu, Wang Wei, and Li Shangyin; this descendent of the Aisin Gioro royal family made us scrolls in different calligraphy styles that we treasure to this day.
Although he wouldn’t accept any money for the scrolls, a gift was acceptable. Learning that he liked Western music, we gave him a cassette recorder with tapes of symphonies.
Decades later, helped by the internet and other previously unavailable sources, I set out to identify this man one of the park denizens told us was “the true last emperor”. A friend aided my quest with a 1993 book titled “The Empty Throne, The Quest for an Imperial Heir in the People’s Republic of China”, by Tony Scotland. While Scotland doesn’t get all the names right, he describes a noted calligrapher at Ritan where “foreigners, especially Japanese, buy his work”. “Pu-yi restored to the seventeen-year-old Yu-chan the title of Prince Kung (which had been given to his [Yu-chan’s] great-grandfather, Yi-hsin) along with the Kung estates in Peking and various family relics.”
Once I matched Scotland’s Yu-chan to a Wikipedia entry for Yuyan (毓嵒), I had my man. Born 1918, Yuyan accompanied “Last Emperor” Puyi after the Japanese invasion to the puppet state of Manchukuo. Post-war, both spent five years imprisoned in Russia, where Yuyan claimed Puyi appointed him as his heir. After subsequent decades in PRC detention, Yuyan was allowed to return in 1979 to Beijing, where he worked as a road sweeper.
By the time we were serving at Embassy Beijing 1983-85, the one-time prince was supporting himself as a calligrapher. The gentle old man who took a liking to Little Bear gave no hint of his tumultuous existence as pretender to the throne of Qing Dynasty China.
Beatrice Camp began her foreign service career at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, with subsequent assignments in Bangkok, Stockholm, Budapest, Chiang Mai, Shanghai, and Washington, DC. She is Editor of American Diplomacy.