Sunday, November 11, 2012


If there’s one thing the Chinese love, it’s having their ears tickled. It really says so in that explanation of Chinese people, Wild Swans.

But if there’s something else they love almost as much, then it is definitely inventing things.

In China’s pantheon of ingenuity sits the so-called Gang of Four Inventions: gunpowder, paper, the compass and the printing press.

There are others less widely acknowledged, such as football and forks (the latter was a claim I reported on in the 1990s, made after archaeologists found “a fork-like object” in a cave. We assume the fork was quickly dismissed in favour of chopsticks).

Football isn’t the only sport China has tried to nab from the British. Archaeologists here also claimed their ancestors invented golf, after a “ball-like object” and a “stick-like object” were discovered in another cave. Rumours that a silly-trousers-like object was also found nearby continue to this day!

It seems fitting, then, that the Chinese even invented drawing the long bow; that is, they made the first archery set.

In fact the bow and arrow are credited to one of the cleverest Chinese inventors ever, who also happened to be the country’s boss: Its first boss – the emperor Huang Di, who was apparently yellow.
Huang is said to have fired the starting gun on these 5000 years of Chinese civilisation we keep hearing about. A particularly busy sovereign, among other things he invented maths, music, medicine, writing, clothing, the cart and the boat. Turning his hand to farming, he was also the first to devise a way of planting crops, and tamed six wild beasts including the bear and the tiger. He has also been mentioned as having invented the emotions of melancholy and mild anger. I wouldn’t put it past him.

How great it art, then, that today we can exclusively reveal China’s last emperor also invented something. And not just anything - something which has been a gift to generations across the world, a source of inspiration, comfort and succour to millions when it seemed there was nothing to do. I speak, of course, of the prank phone call.

Yes, the use of the telephone in practical jokery was hatched in the Forbidden City, by the man made famous in the film The Last Emperor, Mr Pu Yi.

The Lord of Ten Thousand Years made the revelation in his autobiography, The Last Manchu. I’m claiming this as an exclusive because it seems nobody’s read it. But it’s fascinating, not least for the dealings with the telephone by the Adolescent King, who was, after all, only 15 when he got his first phone.

Pu recounted his battles with palace staff in trying to get the phone on. The staff, perhaps not the brightest of civil servants, were alarmed at the thought. What if someone rings and speaks to the emperor directly, they said, fearing a Montreal radio DJ or the Daily Mirror. What’s more, they said, Pu’s royal ancestors never used a telephone.

“Well d’uh!” the teen ruler probably said. He did point out the ancestors hadn’t used “chiming clocks, pianos and electric lights” either. In time, Pu won the battle, and got his phone. He had noone to call, mind you, since he was shielded from contact with other people. However, he wrote that the telephone company had sent along a phone book.

“I became really happy when I turned the pages of the directory and I wanted to have some fun with my new telephone,” wrote Pu, who first called a famous Peking opera singer.

“When I heard a voice at the other end, I said: ‘Could this be the famous opera actor of Peking?’ The voice answered laughingly: ‘Yes, this is the famous opera actor of Peking. Who are you?’ I hung up right away. I was utterly happy and amused.”

Next, Pu called a famous vaudeville actor and did the same thing. Finally there came that breathtaking ‘eureka’ moment which has been copied down the ages:

“Then I called a well-known restaurant and asked them to send a first-class meal to a false address.” Pu also wrote that he sat there “amusing myself like this for a while”.

Oh, truly the Great Emperor of the Qing Dynasty, the Grand Khan of Tartary, the Son of Heaven and Lord of Ten Thousand Years was a trouble-making bastard.

Palace eunuchs years later insisted Pu had also called a gentleman’s club and paged “Hugh Jass” and “Mr Homer Sexual”, but this has never been confirmed.

Not just because of this hi-jinks, The Last Manchu is a truly fascinating read. How many other monarchs have penned an autobiography? Especially those whose reigns ended thousands of years of imperial rule?

Pu’s book details his early life as the boy emperor,  his dethronement in the 1912 revolution, his years as a puppet ruler under Japanese occupiers, his harsh life in a re-education camp under Mao Zedong’s rule, and his return to Beijing as a gardener.

Another excerpt, about Pu’s first meeting with a white man, shows how Chinese understanding of westerners has increased. A bit.

“My knowledge of them was limited to the magazine pictures printed at that time in which they all seemed to have moustaches … creases in their pants, and walking sticks,” Pu wrote.

“The palace eunuchs claimed that foreigners’ moustaches were so stiff that one could hang a lantern on them and also that their legs would not bend.

“This latter belief led a high official in 1900 to recommend to the Empress Dowager that the easiest way to fight foreign soldiers was to push them down with a bamboo stick, since, once they fell, they could not stand up again.”

The first emperor, Huang Di ... said to
have also patented a way of taking
credit for the inventions of other
people under his rule.

The last emperor, Pu Yi, soon after his coronation. His
days were filled with business such as setting domestic
policy, meeting foreign envoys and finger painting.

Pu Yi as he appears on the cover of his
autobiography, around the time of his
prank call. Palace officials were said
to be concerned that, were he to get his
own phone, the emperor himself would
be open to juvenile prank calls, what with
a name like his.

And here he is near the end. Surely no
more fascinating a life has been set out
in the pages of an autobiography. One
can't help but feel sorry for him, though
he was, to be fair, a bit useless.

Still on royals, the Tiger Father last week watched the film Young Victoria, about a certain well-known 19th century monarch. As a father of daughters, I can only say Victoria, with all her eponymously-named prudish values, is my all-time idol.

But one thing I didn’t know was this: Did you know old Queenie had nine kids? Nine of the blighters! And she somehow found time to oversee an industrial revolution and build an empire, crushing resistance in Africa and the rest of it. No wonder she wasn’t amused much. If you thought your place was bad around 7.00pm, imagine hers.



Victoria may have had some help. In fact it’s rumoured that in that austere era of muscular Christianity and tough love, she never actually saw any of her children until they were 50. But it’s a fair effort, hatching a baseball team. No wonder she was running short of names by the end.

This got me thinking: Was Victoria the best monarch at having kids in history? Or were there other imperial leaders more prolific at propagation?

The answers are no. And yes. While Victoria ranks fairly highly by bearing nine children, the all-time leader is King Sobhuza II, who had 210.

It’s probably what most of us want deep down for ourselves, a nice house and garden and a couple of hundred kids. I’m not sure how I’d have handled his 70 wives, but one thing was certain – Sobhuza not only had the money, but also the time. He also holds the title of world’s longest-reigning monarch, having sat on the throne for 82 years and nine months before dying from being driven absolutely crazy.

Such a royal family would need a big balcony, but one upside is that it would be hard for the paparazzi to sell a scandal if, say, a prince crashed his sports car or dressed up like Hitler.

“Go ahead and publish,” a palace aide might say. “He’s only 187th in line for the throne.”

And while nine kids seemed more than enough, Victoria isn’t even first in her country. The most fecund English monarch was merry old Henry I, who sired 29 children! There were even five of them who were legitimate!

Victoria, seen in the full flush of youth
at her coronation and ...

... at 38 after popping out nine kids.
No, she's about a hundred. However,
she wasn't that keen on children, and
thought newborn babies were ugly.
Well ... you will go and marry your
first cousin!

Here's the whole brood. Anyone who knows how hard it is
to just get one child to pose for a photo won't mind that
several of Victoria's are looking the wrong way.

Henry I - the Lion of Justice  and,
despite appearances, a real stud.

King Sobhuza II, with that trademark
glint in the eye. Or maybe he was
just completely mad by this stage.

* More on Thursday, readers!

1 comment:

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