Reginald Fleming Johnston

(1874 – 1938)

Reginald Fleming Johnston and Emperor Puyi: Biographical Sketch

Sir Reginald Fleming Johnston, KCMG, CBE (Edinburgh, Scotland, October 13, 1874 – Edinburgh, Scotland, March 6, 1938) was a Scottish academic and diplomat who served as the tutor and advisor to Pu-Yi, the last Emperor of China, and thereafter, as the last colonial governor of Weihaiwei.

Johnston studied at University of Edinburgh and later Magdalen College, Oxford.  In 1898, he entered into colonial service and initially worked in Hong Kong. While there, he studied Chinese, first Cantonese and then Mandarin, and learnt about the culture, people and the society of China. He also built up his library, started writing books, and made several expeditions into the hinterland of China, visiting Buddhist holy mountains and also staying in the temples.

After Hong Kong, he was transferred to the British leased territory at Weihaiwei in 1906 on the coast of the Shandong Peninsula as a District Officer, serving with Sir James Haldane Stewart Lockhart.

In 1919, Johnston was appointed tutor of thirteen-year-old Pu-Yi, who still lived inside the Forbidden City in Beijing as a non-sovereign monarch.  Johnston, as tutor to the Dragon Emperor, and Isabel Ingram, daughter of an American missionary and tutor to Empress Wan-Rong, were the only foreigners in history to be allowed inside the inner court of the Qing Dynasty. Johnston carried high imperial titles and lived in both the Forbidden City and the New Summer Palace.  Johnston also met the Ming dynasty Imperial descendant, the Marquis of Extended Grace Zhu Yu-Xun and arranged for him to meet Pu-Yi in the Forbidden City.

After Pu-Yi was expelled from the Forbidden City in 1924, Johnston served as Secretary to the British China Indemnity Commission (1926). In 1927, he was appointed the second civilian Commissioner at Weihaiwei. He ran the territory until it was returned to the Republic of China on October 1, 1930.

Johnston was appointed Professor of Chinese in the University of London in 1931, a post based at the School of Oriental and African Studies, to which he bequeathed his library in 1935. This library, one of the finest collections of Chinese and East Asian books in the country, consists of over 16,000 volumes.  Not a self-described natural teacher, he reputedly also hated university administration.  He retained his ties with Pu-Yi, which proved an embarrassment after the former emperor assumed the throne of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo.

Johnston retired in 1937, having acquired the small island of Eilean Righ in Loch Craignish, Scotland, on which he created for himself a Chinese Garden and flew the flag of Manchukuo. After a short illness, he died in Edinburgh in March 1938. In his will, he requested that no religious ceremony be conducted. In accordance with his wishes, he was cremated. His ashes were scattered on the island of Eilean Righ and the surrounding Loch.

Mrs Elizabeth Sparshott, to whom he was engaged at the time leading up to his death, burned many of his letters and other materials, at Johnston’s request.  Johnston’s book Twilight in the Forbidden City (1934) describes his experiences in Beijing and was used as a source for Bernardo Bertolucci’s film dramatization of Pu-Yi’s life The Last Emperor. He was portrayed by Peter O’Toole in the film.

Read more about Reginald Fleming Johnston on Wikipedia.


Major Awards and Honors

Order of the British Empire
  • 1918: Commander of the Order
Order of St Michael and St George (Great Britain)
  • 1928: Companion of the Order
  • 1930: Knight Commander of the Order
Imperial Court of China (Qing Dynasty)
  • 1919: Tutor to the Dragon Emperor (Pu-Yi)



Children’s Opera Libretto
  • The Queen of the Fairies (1892)
    Probably published privately; music composed by Johnston’s brother Charles.
Memoirs and Other Nonfiction
  • Remarks on the Province of Shantung (1905)
  • From Peking to Mandalay: A Journey from North China to Burma Through Tibetan Ssuch’uan and Yunnan (1908)
  • Lion and Dragon in Northern China (1910)
  • A Chinese Appeal to Christendom Concerning Christian Missions (1911)
  • Buddhist China (1913)
  • Letters to a Missionary (1918)
  • The Chinese Drama (1921)
  • Twilight in The Forbidden City (1934)
  • Confucianism and Modern China (1935)
Online Editions of Reginald Fleming Johnston’s Works:


A Selection of Quotes

Find quotes by Sir Reginald Fleming Johnston on Goodreads.