Reginald Johnston

Sir Reginald Fleming Johnston (1874–1938) was a Scottish academic, diplomat and pedagogue and the tutor of Puyi, the last emperor of China, and later appointed as commissioner of British-held Weihaiwei.


Born in Edinburgh, he studied at University of Edinburgh and later Magdalen College, Oxford.

In 1898, he entered into colonial service and worked in Hong Kong. After initial service in Hong Kong, Johnston was transferred to the British leased territory at Weihaiwei in 1906 on the coast of the Shandong Peninsula as a District Officer, working with Sir James Haldane Stewart Lockhart.

Tutor to Puyi, in the Forbidden City

In 1919, he was appointed tutor of thirteen-year-old Puyi who still lived inside the Forbidden City in Beijing as a non-sovereign monarch.

As the British-born tutor to the Dragon Emperor, Johnston and Isabel Ingram, daughter of an American missionary and the empress' tutoress, 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.

After Puyi was expelled from the Forbidden City in 1924, Johnston served as Secretary to the British China Indemnity Commission (1926). In 1927, he was appointed Commissioner at Weihaiwei. He ran the territory until it was returned to the Republic of China on October 1, 1930. The dignity of Johnston's official departure — the first such by a British administrator from a British possession in China — to a waiting Royal Naval vessel, was somewhat spoiled by his obvious irritation at a servant who had failed to pack properly all of his clothes.

After China

Johnston was appointed Professor of Chinese in the University of London in 1931, a post based at the School of Oriental and African Studies. He was not a natural teacher, and hated university administration.

He retained his ties with Puyi, 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. He died in Edinburgh. After cremation Johnston's ashes were scattered on the island of Eilean Righ and surrounding Loch.

He never married but was at one stage engaged to the historian Eileen Power, and was close to author Stella Benson. Mrs Elizabeth Sparshott, to whom he was apparently engaged at the time of his death, destroyed all of his papers as Johnston had requested.

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 dramatisation of Puyi's life The Last Emperor. He was portrayed by Peter O'Toole in the film.


  • Shiona Airlie, Reginald Johnston, 2001. ISBN 1-901663-49-3
  • Robert Bickers, Coolie work: Sir Reginald Johnston at the School of Oriental Studies, 1931-1937, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Series III, 5, 3 (November, 1995).
  • Raymond Lamont-Brown, Tutor to the Dragon Emperor: The Life of Sir Reginald Fleming Johnston, 1999. ISBN 0-7509-2106-4

Published works

  • A Chinese Appeal to Christendom concerning Christian Missions, R.F. Johnston under the pseudonym Lin Shao-yang (London: Watts and Co., 1911)
  • Buddhist China R.F:Johnston (London: John Murray 1913 - in U. Toronto Library)
  • Letters to a Missionary R.F. Johnston, (1918)
  • Twilight in the Forbidden City Reginald Fleming Johnston, (1934)
  • From Peking to Mandalay R.F.Johnston, (1908)
  • Confucianism in Modern China R.F.Johnston,

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