The bespectacled, sweet-faced Prince Pu Lun—for a time, a contender for the Chinese throne—was only the third member of the Chinese royal family to visit the United States. The 29-year-old prince came as an emissary to the 1904 World’s Fair, breaking China’s long isolation from the West. The Fair’s Chinese Pavilion was the first grand-scale revelation of traditional Chinese culture to the rest of the world.
The pavilion was a replica of Pu Lun’s country home. It included a pagoda of carved wood, ebony, and ivory. Inside: a 17-foot portrait of the empress dowager (this work is now in the Smithsonian), as well as silks and jades, dragons and gilded lions, scrolls and porcelain and coins.
A St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter speculated about how much traditional Chinese etiquette would be required for the royal visit. Would the Fair’s president, David Francis, need to kowtow, bowing 30 times and striking the floor with his brow nine times each time he bowed? Fair officials might be excused from using chopsticks, “since it requires a long training to be able to get morsels to the mouth by means of these implements,” but courtesy could require a few puffs of an opium pipe, should the prince smoke one, and afterward the St. Louisans should arrange to be put to bed straightaway…
Pu Lun put his new friends immediately at ease. At the Washington Hotel, he listened to American music and doled out about $1,000 in tips. He’d brought a huge retinue, but he braved American cooking and quickly acquired a taste for beef, potatoes, and hard-boiled eggs. Adolphus Busch presented him with a horse-drawn carriage, and there were sightings of it all over the city. Newspapers reported how late he slept in the morning, his taste for ice cream, and his wagers at the racetrack.
In short, Pu Lun fell in love with much of American culture—which was opportune, for he had an agenda for his visit. He was conveying a message to President Theodore Roosevelt from his uncle the emperor, who pronounced the fair “a fresh opportunity of manifesting our friendship.” China had survived a war with Japan and the Boxer Rebellion. Now the Qing Dynasty was under pressure to open and democratize China.
Alas, diplomacy snagged: U.S. immigration officials detained many of the workers, merchants, and actors headed for the Fair, and the bitter feelings that resulted prompted a Chinese boycott of American goods. Pu Lun never became emperor; by 1912, China was a republic. Many of the pavilion’s treasures were sold to pay for passage home, and they wound up in private homes all over St. Louis.
Article originally posted by STLMag