The History of the Collared Shirt

The shirt is probably the most common item ever worn by man and any well-dressed man is likely to have several of them in many colours and styles. But where does the shirt come from and how has this simple garment evolved over time?

Where Does the Shirt Come From?

The modern shirt that a typical man wears on an almost daily basis is a garment that dates back into the Middle Ages and before. Exactly when it was invented is unknown. Most shirts were cheap and handmade at home out of wool, but by the 1300s, men started looking for people who made shirts for a living. It was at this time that the shirtmaker started to rise in European cities, manufacturing comfortable shirts out of cotton, silk and linen. These shirts felt much better against the skin than ordinary wool and the demand for comfort meant that the shirt began to spread around the world. The basic shirt remained the same for centuries, as it does today. It was the components of the shirt that changed with the times.

The Rise of the Shirt

Originally, all shirts, as with all other garments, were handmade. If you wanted a shirt, you went to a shirtmaker, just like if you wanted shoes, you went to a cobbler, and a tailor for your suits. In the 1700s and the 1800s, the rise of the Industrial Revolution meant that shirts could now be mass-produced cheaply from cotton, mostly grown in the Deep South of the United States of America and sent to cotton-mills in the nothern states, or to England and Europe. While the shirt’s popularity spread, its status remained the same.

A Social History of the Shirt

These days, it’s common for men to show off their shirts. You wear a shirt open-collared with a pair of trousers or jeans. Or you open the front of your jacket to show off your shirt. Or you wear a waistcoat but ditch the jacket, to show off your shirtsleeves. Or you might spend fifteen minutes trying to figure out whether or not a particular tie goes with a particular shirt. However, this trend of showing off your shirt as an item of ‘designer fashion’ and style is actually a pretty modern one. Prior to the second quarter of the 1900s, good manners dictated that you never showed your shirt in public. At all. Not the back, the front, the sleeves and certainly not the shirttails. Why? Because the shirt, like your briefs or your boxer-shorts, was considered an item of underwear, a frame of mind that had existed for centuries before.

Because the humble shirt was, for centuries, relegated to and given the same level of decency as your lucky boxer-shorts with the picture of the ‘Blasting Zone’ roadsign on the back, a typical shirt was rarely washed. While today it’s common for a man to change his shirts every couple of days, prior to the end of the First World War, most men wore shirts for much longer intervals. It wasn’t uncommon for one shirt to be worn for two days. Three days. A week. Two weeks. Sometimes even a month…or more. Don’t forget that the modern washing-machine hasn’t been around for very long. Before its invention, the family wash was an event that took several days of boiling, soaking, soaping, scrubbing, beating, rinsing, scrubbing, rinsing, mangling, drying, ironing, starching and folding. Because of the effort and time required to do a single load of laundry, which could take up to a week, men were eager to wear their shirts for as long as possible and to only wash them when it was absolutely necessary. And because of this, the shirt was naturally kept hidden from public scrutiny as much as possible.

Anyone who’s done a lot of work in a shirt and worn it for a while and then had to handwash it, will know that a shirt’s collar and cuffs can turn black from the accumulation of grime, sweat and skin-flakes that comes away from the human body during the course of the day. With the majority of a man’s shirt hidden by a waistcoat and jacket or a sweater or some other suitable overgarment, it wasn’t necessary to change it until it was absolutely essential. But the exposed parts of the shirt – the collar and cuffs, which could become filthy after just one day’s heavy use, would naturally have to be changed on a regular basis, since this was something that couldn’t be hidden from the public eye.

Collar Studs…

…and how they’re used

Collars and Cuffs

To combat the problem of infrequent and long wash-days, early shirts came with detachable collars and cuffs, not something found on most shirts today. While a shirt was worn for days or weeks on end, the collars and cuffs were changed and replaced as necessary, perhaps once a week, or more, if needed. The collars and cuffs on shirts were held on with special buttons called studs. There were two studs for the collar (front and back) and additional studs for the cuffs (one stud for each sleeve). While most people are familiar with all manner of cuffs, from one-button, two-button, convertible cuffs and the variations of the French cuff (for which cufflinks must be worn), detachable shirt-collars have largely slipped from the public consciousness. Here’s some of the more common collars…

Wing Collar

The wing-collar, so-called because of the two ‘wings’ at the front, is popularly associated with the turn of the last century. Wing-collars are typically worn with more formal attire, such as White Tie, but they were also popular everyday collars. This particular type of collar retained its unique shape thanks to copius amounts of starch used in the ironing process that helped the collar stay stiff, even in the hottest, soggiest weather. As you may have guessed, the wing-collar doesn’t fold down. So if you’re going to wear one, you better know how to tie a good necktie or bowtie, because any imperfections in the knot will be extremely visible.

Eton Collar

Named for the prestigeous Eton College in the United Kingdom, the broad Eton Collar has been a part of the school’s uniform since the 1800s.

Spear-Point Collar

The spear-point collar was popular in the United States during the first half of the 20th century, distinguished by its excessively long, pointed collar-tips.

Club Collar

Popular during the Victorian era and well into the early 20th century prior to the Second World War, was the club collar. Unlike the other collars shown so far, the club collar has rounded collar-points.

Clerical Collar

This flat collar is the one traditionally worn by members of the clergy (hence its name), such as priests, vicars, and pastors. It was invented in the mid-1800s by the Rev. Dr. Donald McLeod of Scotland, and by the late 19th century, had become a common part of clerical attire.

Imperial Collar

The Imperial collar was another popular collar of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. This was one of the more extreme collars of the era and could be upwards of two or three inches wide. This could make it a bit uncomfortable to wear and probably thankfully, it was considered a formal collar, only to be worn on special occasions.

Because a man could have a wide variety and large number of collars in his wardrobe, they were often stored in leather collar-boxes such as this one:

While some collars were soft and floppy, others, particularly the nonfolding rigid ones such as the Wing collar and the Imperial collar, were treated extensively with laundry starch to help them keep their shape (as well as making them easier to clean).

Detachable shirt-cuffs also existed and like with collars, they were often treated with starch to make them stiff so that they would hold their shape. As mentioned earlier, cuffs were held onto a man’s shirtsleeves with cuff-studs. A pair of detachable cuffs are shown below:

The two buttonholes at the tops of the cuffs accomodated the cuff-studs. The two other buttonholes further down existed for the use of cufflinks.

A big manufacturer of mens’ shirts, collars and cuffs was Cluett, Peabody & Co. of Troy in New York State, U.S.A. They popularised the famous ‘Arrow’ brand of collars which were popular from the early 1900s up to the early 1930s. The Arrow collar lives on today in the lyrics of the Irving Berlin song ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz‘ (“…High hats and Arrow collars, white spats and lots of dollars…”).


Apart from early shirts having removable and adjustable collars and cuffs, they also had adjustable shirtsleeves.

Early shirts came in one size. Extra large. Don’t forget that, because the shirt was considered an undergarment, no thought was given to its fit on a man’s body, since nobody was ever likely to see it. Shirts were sized roughly according to neck circumfrence and shoulder-width, but everything else was measured and made to be as accomodating as possible. This included shirtsleeves. Prior to the arrival of the modern shirt that we know today, shirtsleeves were all made and measured to be extra-long. This way, they would fit the largest man in comfort.

But what happened if you weren’t the largest man? What happened if, instead of being Robert Wadlow (8ft 11in), you were instead James Madison, who towered over ants at a staggering 5ft 4in.? Obviously, shirtsleeves would be too long. And if you weren’t able to find a shirtmaker, or as was more likely the case, weren’t rich enough to get a shirtmaker to custom-measure your sleeves, then what did you do?

Most men utilised these things:

Forever associated with bartenders, writers, banker-tellers and barbershop quartets, there was a time where almost every well-dressed man owned at least one pair of these things and kept them on his dressing-table. They’re called sleeve-garters. Made of elastic material (or in this case, springy steel), sleeve-garters were worn on a man’s shirtsleeves, just above the elbow. They worked by holding back the extra sleeve-material that would otherwise cascade down a man’s arms and prevent his hands from doing any useful work. They were also handy for holding a man’s shirtsleeves back if he was doing heavy work and didn’t want to get his sleeves and cuffs dirty.

Thanks to the modern, made-to-measure, off-the-rack shirt, sleeve-garters aren’t as often used as once they were. However, you can still buy them (they’re usually very cheap) and if ever you have a shirt you like but which you can’t wear on account of the sleeves being too long, you might want to break out grandpa’s sleeve-garters and slap them on. They can still come in handy.

The Modern Shirt

The shirt with detachable collars and cuffs died out during the interwar period and the shirt which we know today was born. With improvements in washing and cleaning clothes and the introduction of the first washing-machines in the 1920s, clothing could now be washed faster and more frequently. Public demand for shirts with detachable collars and cuffs gradually died away during the 1930s and by the middle of the century were more or less ancient history. Cloth-rationing during the Second World War probably played a significant part in their demise, since it would’ve been difficult to find the extra cloth needed for detachable collars and cuffs.

You can still buy shirt-collars and cuffs (either brand new or vintage) as well as collar-studs, shirt-studs and collarless shirts today, although understandably, they are much rarer than the shirts that most people have today. They’re still manufactured for formalwear, or for people seeking an authentic period look in their wardrobe for any variety of reasons from a desire for vintage style, historical reenacting or sheer convenience and comfort. Collar-boxes can still be found cheaply at antiques stores and flea-markets.


Fountain Pens and Flexible Nibs

Ballpoint pens are boring.

There. I said it.

One of the reasons why I love fountain pens is because of the variety that surrounds them. You have pens made of gold, of rubber, of wood, of steel, of silver, of plastics of various kinds, you have steel nibs and gold nibs of all kinds of writing styles and characteristics. You have all kinds of inks and filling-mechanisms and sizes and styles. Somewhere out there, is the fountain pen for you.

And perhaps you’re already out there looking for that fountain pen just for you. And perhaps you’ve been looking on websites or forums or online photo-galleries to find the best pen for you. And perhaps you’ve become interested in nibs. But not just any nib. A flexible nib. And maybe you just want to know a bit more about this curiosity of writing before deciding whether or not it’s really for you. That’s what this posting is here to do.

What is a Flexible Nib?

A flexible nib is…a…flexible…nib.

Okay that’s the short story.

The long story is that a flexible nib is a nib that bends, spreads and flexes according to the amount of pressure that the user applies to the pen. The more pressure, the more flex. Less pressure, less flex. Press down and the tines of the nib spread apart. Ease your force and the tines spring back together. Easy. That is a flex nib in a nutshell.

Why do we Want Flex Nibs?

Flex nibs are desirable for a number of reasons, although granted, they’re not for everyone. Flex-nibs are prized by people who like line-variation in their writing, by people who practice calligraphy (particularly styles like Roundhand) or people who just want a bit of fun in their writing. Flex-nibs are also handy for illustrators and artists who require line-variation in their art, such as comic-book writers and cartoonists.

I want a flex nib but…I can’t find any!

Unfortunately for the population at large, fountain pens with flexible nibs are, on a whole, no longer manufactured. In fact, they haven’t been manufactured in mainstream fountain pens for a while now. If you’re after a fountain pen with a flexible nib, for the best results, you’re almost certainly going to have to hunt for vintage pens, preferrably before ca. 1930 (or at least before the 1950s). Fountain pens with flexible nibs were particularly popular in the years between 1880 to about 1930, but their manufacture and use died away gradually since then until now they’re hardly manufactured at all. Many fountain pens made during the first two decades of the 20th century are famous for their flexible nibs and many pen companies were famous for making pens with flexible nibs. Companies such as Swan, Conway-Stewart, Wahl-Eversharp, Waterman and Conklin.

Where did Flex Nibs Come From?

Flex nibs or flex pens have a long history and they started with the quills of the Middle Ages.  Quills, which were the long, flight-feathers of birds (usually geese), were prepared for writing by being de-barbed (having their frilly bits cut off), being heated and dried, and then by being cut into pen-points.

Repeated dipping in ink meant that over time, the pen-points would become soft and flexible. Writers who enjoyed this quality let their quills stay nice and soft and flexy until such time that the quill-points got so soft that they’d just break (at which point, the broken point was cut off and a new quill was cut out of the remaining feather-shaft).

When steel dip-pens started replacing quills en-masse in the 1830s, writers were so used to flexible quills that factories often manufactured steel pens with flexible points so that writers would have something more familiar between their fingers.

In the early 1900s when fountain pens began to replace dip-pens, pen-manufacturers kept flexible gold fountain pen nibs as a writing holdover from the dip-pen era.

In the 1930s and 40s, as the fountain pen became more and more popular, flexible nibs were found to be unsuitable for the office environment, where pressing a pen-nib through paper and carbon-paper meant that stronger, stiffer nibs were required. After that time, flex nibs started being manufactured less and less, and finally died out after ballpoint pens started rising to prominence in the 1960s. Today, flex nibs…true flex nibs…are rare in the modern fountain pen market. Most people who want flex generally buy antique pens, or else buy cheap, steel dip-pens (which generally have flexible properties on a much lower price-level than antique fountain pens which can cost hundreds of dollars).

Using a Flex Nib

Flex nibs are not for everyone. Because they haven’t, for the most part, been manufactured for the past several decades, public knowledge of flex nibs is low. By that I mean, the average person on the street is unlikely to have ever seen one or used one. So, is a flex nib for you? It might be, it might not be.

Using a flex nib requires a light touch. Yes, all fountain pens require a light touch, but this is especially true with flex nibs (and the more flexible the nib, the lighter the touch). Someone transitioning from a ballpoint pen to a fountain pen should get used to using a regular, stiff-nibbed fountain pen first before unleashing themselves on a flex-nibbed pen and all the uncertainties that can come with it.

It’s important to know the limitations of a flex-nib. No two flex nibs are exactly the same and there are varying levels of flex. They range from superflex (also called ‘Wet Noodles’), to full-flex and semi-flex. Superflex nibs which will bend at the lightest of touches are especially common with older pens from the turn of the last century. The majority of pens are full-flex or semi-flex. If you want to experiment with flex-nib pens and aren’t sure whether or not you can handle trying to write with a pen that’s going to jump and down like a pogo-stick, you might want to start with a more forgiving semi-flex pen. These pens will only flex a small amount, compared with say, a 1900 Waterman which would have nib-tines that literally flex like wet noodles.

If you want to experiment with flexible nibs but don’t want to fork out $200+ for an antique Parker that you might only ever use once, when you figure out that flex really isn’t for you…then what do you do?

A lot of people ask this question. “How can I fiddle with flex on a fluff?”

The answer is easy. Go to your local arts and crafts shop or arts-supply shop or fancy paperie or your local pen-shop, and purchase some steel dip-pens and a pen-holder. Even modern dip-pens (but especially older ones) can be significantly flexible. Once you’ve got the hang of preparing the pen, then you can learn to write with it and see if writing with a flex-nib is for you. Think of the dip-pens as the cheap, training-wheels, free-sample alternative to blowing big bucks on antique flex-nib fountain pen. A small stash of flexible steel nibs and a pen-holder might cost $20 (okay, a bit more if you need to buy the ink as well), and it’s a small price to pay for trying out something totally new. Plus, if you break the pen-nib, you won’t cry.

Most importantly when learning how to use flex-nibs is to know how much pressure to place on the pen when writing. A really flexible nib will require almost no pressure at all to write a line a quarter-inch wide. Semi-flex nibs might require a somewhat heavier hand to produce a similar result. Not knowing the limits and capabilities of the flexible qualities of flexible nibs can lead to the nibs being broken or sprung (where the nibs have been pressed down so hard that the tines don’t spring back together when you ease off the pressure). Sprung nibs can be repaired and hammered flat again, but it’s a fiddly, messy process that’s best avoided to begin with.

What are Flex Nibs Made Of?

The vast majority of flex-nibs (for fountain pens, at least) are made of gold. The soft properties of gold make it ideal for nibs of different levels of flex. Dip-pen nibs which contain flexible properties, on the other hand, are generally made of steel. Steel can be a little harder to work when making and using a flex-nib, but it’s cheaper and easier to mass produce for throwaway dip-pens.


The House of the Dragon Throne: Imperial China and the Forbidden City

China has not had an easy history. In the last one hundred years, China has gone from a monarchy to a capitalist, democratic republic to a communist state. China has seen great changes and turmoils. It has seen wars, famine, revolution, disease, infighting and upheaval. But what do we think of when we think of Chinese history? We think of Emperors, Empresses, princes, princesses, big, fancy houses, fine furniture, paddyfields, baggy robes, pigtails, chopsticks, incense, Taoism and the millions of Chinese peasantry.

But what was China really like back when the Chinese Empire still existed?

China: A Land of Empire

China has had a long history of tens of thousands of years and over a dozen dynasties and smaller kingdoms ruling over it, all fighting for power and control. China is a massive country and controlling the entire nation is an ambitious undertaking. For centuries, kings, armies and emperors fought each other and at various points in Chinese history, the country was united, divided, united, divided, united and divided yet again, as kings, emperors and generals fought for control. To try and cover over four thousand years of Chinese history in one article is far too ambitious…so I won’t. Let’s take a more general view of Imperial China and look at the parts of China that have entered the public, global image of China.

The Chinese Emperor and the Mandate of Heaven

In older times, China was ruled by an emperor, as were most Asian countries, such as the current Emperor of Japan. In China, the Emperor was seen as a demigod, appointed by the Chinese gods to be their representative on earth. Think of it as the Chinese equivalent of the Western belief of the ‘Divine Right of Kings’.

The Emperor held absolute power over all of China (provided of course, it was all of China that he controlled at the time of his reign). His right to this power came from the ancient belief of the Mandate of Heaven, similar to the above concept of the Divine Right of Kings in Western monarchies. In its essence, the Mandate of Heaven, according to traditional Confucian teachings, stated that so long as an incumbent emperor was reasonable, kind, just and merciful towards the commoners, he would retain the right to rule. If his rule became objectionable in any way and remained so until it became intolerable, it was the right of the people to overthrow the emperor and his dynasty and establish a new one. If the emperor was successfully overthrown and defeated, the common people would take it as a sign that the emperor had displeased the gods and had therefore, lost their blessing and protection, which meant that the blessing of the gods would transfer to the next dynasty to be established.

And this was the essence of Chinese dynastic imperial rule for centuries.

According to research of ancient Chinese documents, the Mandate of Heaven has existed ever since it was put to paper by Zhou Gongdan, brother to the first emperor of the Zhou Dynasty (established 1045 B.C). The original documents as written by Duke Zhou Gongdan, outline the eight main points of the traditional Mandate of Heaven, as was followed by every ruler of China since then for the next two thousand years. In essence, they state that:

1. The Right to Rule China is Granted by Heaven.
2. There will only be ONE ruler of China at any one time.
3. The right of the Emperor to Rule is based on his good conduct and his being the earthly representative of Heaven.
4. While the Mandate of Heaven is maintained, dynastic rule (father-to-son) is allowed. Failure to maintain the Mandate will result in the loss of the right to dynastic rule.

With these four main rules of the Mandate of Heaven came the four corresponding implications or conditions:

5. The ruling family of China must be seen as legitimate by the People of China.
6. If China is ruled by more than one family or person, the family or person that puts forward a legitimate claim to the Mandate must be able to justify it to the people of China.
7. Rulers are responsible for their own behaviour and must make the welfare of the Chinese people their first priority.
8. Rulers of China should always be mindful of revolutions. A revolution would indicate the displeasure of the people and therefore, the loss of the Mandate of Heaven.

If you read the Terms and Conditions of the Mandate of Heaven, you may notice that it doesn’t mention anything about noble birth. Noble birth is not (and never was) a condition of rulership over China, in contrast to rulership of contemporary Western monarchies. In theory, any man could become ruler of China. Of course, the men with the best chance of ruling China were those who were already close to the emperor, men like advisors, ministers and prominent royal officials.

The Imperial Examination

You might not believe it, but becoming part of the governing class of Imperial China was not as difficult as it might seem.

In ancient times, the only way to get into the Chinese Government was to ‘know the right people’.People gained access to the administrative bureaucracy by being recommended for vacancies by current bureaucrats or by prominent Chinese noblemen. Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty established an examination system during his reign (141 B.C. – 87 B.C.) based on Confucian teachings. Any man could apply for these examinations if he could pay the fees and had the necessary education. Applicants or students who passed the examinations would be given posts in the Imperial Bureaucracy. From there, it was just a matter of getting promoted until you got high enough in the imperial ladder to hopefully one day, become emperor. The Imperial Examination was a part of Chinese life until the fall of Imperial China centuries later.

The Forbidden City

The most famous (and the largest) remnant and symbol of Imperial China and the Chinese Emperor: The Forbidden City in Beijing, China.

Despite what you might think, the Forbidden City was not the first palace to house the Emperor of China. In fact, the Forbidden City was not built until the second emperor of the Ming Dynasty came along. The emperor’s father, the first emperor (and founder) of the Ming Dynasty moved the Chinese capital from Peking to Nanking (what are Beijing and Nanjing today) during his reign. When his son, the Yongle Emperor came to the throne, he moved the Chinese capital back to Beijing and in 1406, ordered the start of construction of a grand new imperial residence that would eventually become known as the ‘Zijincheng‘, or the ‘Purple Forbidden City’ (In China, as was also the case in contemperous Western monarchies, purple was the colour of monarchy. Why? Because purple dye was notoriously difficult to make, and therefore extremely expensive, which meant that only kings and emperors could afford it). In time, the structure just became known as the ‘Forbidden City’.

The Forbidden City took fifteen years to build. It holds the Guiness Record as being the largest palace complex on earth. From the completion of its construction until the fall of Imperial China, it was the seat of power for the Chinese Emperor.

The Forbidden City gets its name quite simply because commoners were forbidden to enter its walls. The only people allowed inside were the Emperor’s family, government officials, servants, courtiers and of course…the Imperial eunuchs.

Eunuchs have a long history in China. They ranged from prisoners of war to men found guilty of the crime of rape (or any other crime for which castration was the punishment) and men who became slaves were also turned into eunuchs. But most famously, eunuchs were employed in their thousands by the Imperial household to act as servants to the emperor and his family. Since eunuchs were incapable of having sex, they were unable to establish their own families (and by extension, their own dynasties) which might threaten the power and position of the emperor, which was the main justification behind the employment of eunuchs by the Imperial court.

The Peculiarities of the Palace

The imperial palace, the great Forbidden City in Beijing, was (and remains) unlike almost any other palace complex in the world. To begin with, it is the largest palace complex in the world. It has hundreds of buildings and miles of walls, dozens of watchtowers, acres of courtyards, gardens and several enormous gates. The walls and gates divided the palace and servants, courtiers, officials and members of the imperial family were strictly segregated. Only certain people were allowed in the innermost areas of the palace grounds and buildings where the emperor lived with his family. In total, the palace has 9,999 rooms. This was considered good luck because the Chinese word for ‘nine’, ‘Jiu‘, is pronounced the same way as the Chinese word meaning ‘long-lasting’.

Because a number of the buildings in the palace were made of wood, there are several enormous cauldrons placed around the various palace courtyards. The cauldrons were used to collect rainwater which would then be used to put out fires in an emergency.

Despite the palace’s enormous size, because it was also designed as a fortress, there are only four gates into the main complex, and a fifth gate (the Gate of Supreme Harmony) that leads to the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the structure used by the emperor on his wedding-day and on special occasions. Because of the hall’s general inaccessibility, it was impractical to use it on a regular basis when the emperor would hold court. So, although this was officially one of the hall’s intended purposes, it was rarely occupied for this use. The Hall of Supreme Harmony is also the location of the ‘Dragon Throne’ mentioned in the title of this article. The Dragon Throne was the official seat (literally) of the Emperor of China.

Colours play an important part in Chinese culture, and some colours held special significance in the Chinese Imperial Court.

Red was the colour of happiness.

Purple was officially the colour of the Emperor of China himself, although he might also wear robes that were dyed yellow instead.

Gold or Yellow was the colour of the Imperial Family. In imperial times, only members of the Imperial Family were allowed to wear yellow or own objects coloured in yellow.

An interesting fact is that the floor of the Hall of Supreme Harmony is laid with golden bricks to symbolise the Imperial Family and the emperor. Okay, that’s not quite right. Yes, the floor of the hall is made up of bricks. But no, they don’t actually contain any gold. They get their name ‘golden bricks’ because the bricks (fired in the imperial kiln), took an incredibly long time to make. Because they took so long and were so difficult to make, each brick was considered to be worth it’s weight in gold (and probably cost just as much!), hence the name ‘golden bricks’.

The Last Emperor

The Chinese Empire lasted for centuries. But it could not last forever. And it couldn’t last in the 20th century.

The Opium Wars and the Boxer Rebellion of the late 19th century caused great instability in China. The last dynasty, the Qing Dynasty, was becoming increasingly unpopular with ordinary Chinese citizens…probably because it wasn’t Chinese.

That’s right. A Chinese dynasty that wasn’t Chinese. How is this possible?

The Qing Dynasty just sounds so…Chinese…doesn’t it?

Well, that was the whole point. To make it sound as Chinese as possible. That way, hopefully, people would forget the dynasty’s other name: The Manchu Dynasty.

The Manchu Dynasty got its name from  where its people originated from, a geographic region northeast of China, then called ‘Manchuria’. But how does this differ from the rest of China and how do its people differ from the rest of the Chinese population?

Well, up until the mid-1600s, China had always been ruled by a Han emperor. That is to say, it was ruled by an emperor who came from amongst the Han people, the Han being the main ethnic group in China (this is why the Chinese language is called ‘Hanyu‘ or the ‘Han Language’, and the Chinese people are called ‘Hanren‘ or the ‘Han People’ in their native tongue).

But in the early-1600s, all this changed and Manchu people from the north of what is now part of China, invaded Beijing. To the ordinary Chinese people, they saw the Manchus as being foreigners and not part of the China or the Chinese people which they knew. They were not Han people and were therefore considered outsiders. But the Han seized power in the 1640s and remained in power, founding the ‘Qing Dynasty’ to make themselves sound ‘more Chinese’.

The Chinese people, who had been growing more and more displeased with the Qing Dynasty, were itching for a chance to abolish the monarchy and found a new government: A western-stye democractic republic.

In 1908, the aged and extremely bad-tempered Empress Dowager, Cixi, died of old age. She had ruled China as it’s empress for nearly fifty years after the death of her husband. When she died at the age of 72, the last emperor of China inherited the throne.

He was not a powerful man. He was not an authoratative man.

He was not a man at all.

In fact he was a boy.

And his name was Puyi.

The diminutive Puyi, just three years old when he inherited the throne, was the great-nephew of the Empress Dowager Cixi (a fact that took me a while to figure out. Imperial Chinese succession can be hideously frustrating, confusing and convoluted). He ‘ruled’ from 1908-1912, although, because he was far too young at the time, his father ruled as his regent.

In 1912, the Republic of China was declared and Puyi abdicated in 1911. He was briefly restored to power for the grand total of eleven days in 1917, but was dethroned on the 12th of July, 1917 and lost power for the second time in less than ten years; this time for good.

Puyi lived in the Forbidden City with his family and his servants and courtiers until 1924. By now, Imperial Chinese Rule had disintergrated to such a level that it was little more than a show of power and a shadow of what it once was. The palace eunuchs had all been fired in 1923 and the enormous imperial complex was virtually empty. In 1924, Puyi was finally kicked out of the palace. To prevent his returning to the Forbidden City and possibly staging a coup to take back the throne, the entire palace complex was declared a museum and the Forbidden City was given its current name: the Palace Museum.

Puyi’s life was one of constant change. Even though he was an emperor of China, he never ever really ruled anything. Not China, not even the puppet-state of Manchukou which the Japanese made him the ruler of in 1932. He finally died on the 17th of October, 1967. He was 61 years old.

Before his death, Puyi was encouraged by the government of the People’s Republic of China to write his autobiography, perhaps recognising his significant and special place in Chinese history. His autobiography (translated from Chinese) is “The First Half of My Life“. When the text was translated into English, it was given the title “From Emperor to Citizen”.

The History of the Forbidden City

The Forbidden City (documentary)


The Killing Fields – Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge

I’m sure if you asked many people what “The Killing Fields” were, they’d tell you that it was a movie.

And so it was. A movie about a true event. An event that was as horrific as it was true. An event that rocked the world and which changed and destroyed a country forever. An event which saw two million people butchered, tortured, starved, beaten, shot and bludgeoned to death for no other reason than the desire to create a better world. Truly, the story of the Killing Fields, the story of Pol Pot, the story of the Khmer Rouge, the story of the Cambodian Genocide, is “The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions” in its absolute essence.

Cambodia in the 1970s

For 90 years, from 1863 to 1953, Cambodia was part of the extensive French colonies around Southeast Asia. Along with the majority of Vietnam and Laos, it made up a collection of colonies then called “French Indochina”.

In the years after the Second World War’s ending in 1945, many colonised countries demanded independence from their European masters. India, Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia and Vietnam were chief among these who wanted independence from Britain and France respectively. British transitions of power and decolonisation happened relatively peacefully, with little incident. The French, however, wanted desperately to hold onto their colonies in Indochina. This sparked the fierce French colonial wars of the 1950s. In time, this collection of conflicts would be called the First and Second Indochinese Wars.

Today, they’re just called the Vietnam War.

In 1954, Cambodia successfully won its official independence from France. However, fighting in nearby Vietnam meant that Cambodia was far from being a stable country. With the fall of Saigon in 1975, the Vietnam War came to its eventual end. But in neighbouring Cambodia, things were going from bad to worse.

The Vietnam War had significant effects on Cambodia and there were shortages of food, water and almost everything else required to sustain human life in any comfort. Enter the Khmer Rouge.

In English, ‘Khmer Rouge’ literally means ‘Red Cambodians’, from the Cambodian Khmer word ‘Khmer’, which means ‘Cambodian’, and the French word ‘Rouge’, which means ‘red’. Red being traditionally associated with communism, this was therefore effectively the Communist Party of Cambodia.

Wanting to improve Cambodia and make it self-sufficient, the Khmer Rouge and its leader, Pol Pot, fought a vicious, five-year war (from 1970-1975), against the Khmer Republic, the United States and the Republic of Vietnam (until 1975, also called ‘South Vietnam’).

The Cambodian Civil War, as it was called, ended in 1975 with a Khmer Rouge victory in the capital of Phnom Penh.

Khmer Rouge Reforms

The Khmer Rouge wanted to make Cambodia a new country. It wanted to make it self-sufficient. It wanted to make it powerful. It wanted to start over.


The Khmer Rouge started by ordering all Cambodian civilians out of the cities. Phnom Penh to start with, but eventually, other population-centers as well. What would follow would be four years of torture, genocide, mass-murder, execution and starvation.

The Khmer Rouge managed to empty the city of Phnom Penh by spreading a false rumor that there was going to be an American air-raid on the capital. As there were insufficient air-raid shelters in Phnom Penh, the population would be safer if they relocated to specially-constructed ‘camps’ outside in the countryside.

This was false, of course. There was no air-raid. And once the population had been relocated to the countryside, it was easy for Khmer Rouge soldiers to pick and separate people and send them to the camps. From here, the Khmer Rouge would start a new country, called the ‘Democratic Kampuchea’.

Of course, there was absolutely nothing ‘democratic’ about this new country.

Once Cambodians reached the camps, they were separated from each other, because of the desire of the Khmer Rouge to build a new country. An agricultural country where people grew their own food. Where foreign influences did not exist. A country that was Cambodia for the Cambodians. Anyone who had any links to anything that wasn’t Cambodian, or which was capitalist in nature was duly disposed of.

Hundreds of doctors, lawyers, nurses, businessmen, diplomats, teachers, anyone who had anything at all to do with with the former Republic of Cambodia government, anyone who worked for a foreign government and anyone with a university degree was interrogated and then killed in any number of ways. Almost anyone in Cambodia who had any kind of education, from university down to elementary school, was killed. The Khmer Rouge didn’t want all these smart, dangerous people screwing up their wonderful new vision for Cambodia.

Also on the kill-list were ethnic minorities. Monks. Vietnamese. Chinese. Any Western foreigners. Also, anyone wearing glasses. A person wearing eyeglasses was judged to be educated and intelligent (the only reason ANYONE would have eyeglasses is because they need them to READ, right?) And all classes of educated persons were executed, along with those bespectacled Cambodians who probably never read a word in their lives.

Also among the targeted groups were town-dwellers. Urbanites. City-slickers. They were stupid, ignorant, lazy people. The new Cambodia would be have an economy based on farming and agriculture. These city-dwellers had no idea how to farm or grow crops or dig ditches. So they too were executed because they would not be any use in the “New Cambodia”.

“Old” and “New” People

After the Khmer Rouge came to power, Cambodian people were split into two broad groups. ‘Old people’ and ‘new people’.

‘Old People’ referred to the old classes of people who had lived in Cambodia for centuries. Generally, this meant the Cambodian peasantry. The country folk who lived in small villages, who provided their own food, their own traditional folk-medicines, the people who worked the land and farmed and bred animals and who lived the perfect, peaceful, relaxing peasant existence. They had no need for an education. No need for wordly goods. No need to read or write, because everything they had was already provided for them by nature. There was total equality and nobody had more or less than anyone else.

This was the Cambodia that the Khmer Rouge dreamed of. A peasant agricultural society of peace, tranquility and equality for everyone.

But to get there, they had to first get rid of, or change, the ‘New People’.

The Cambodian ‘New People’ were all those who were city-dwellers. Who were professionals. Who were educated. Who were learned. Who earned money, who owned material goods, who challenged each other and strived to be the best. This was the complete opposite to what the Khmer Rouge wanted or liked. New People had to be destroyed. And they were, in their hundreds of thousands.

After being transplanted from the cities to the countryside, the ‘New People’ were immediately put to work. They had to farm. Grow crops. Harvest rice and grain. They had to dig-ditches, plough fields, they had to chop wood, tend to farm-animals and do all other kinds of things which these people had never before had to do, and which they had no idea how to do! And that was THEIR fault which THEY would be punished for, because the Khmer Rouge wasn’t going to teach them how to be farmers or peasants or labourers. If they weren’t smart enough to be stupid, they would pay the price. And they did.

Anyone who couldn’t work the twelve-hour working days on very little food and almost no sleep were taken away and killed. After digging their own graves, they were beaten and then buried. Whether or not they were actually dead was unimportant, and people could be (and were) buried alive, dying of suffocation. The Khmer Rouge cadres were under strict rules not to waste ammunition on anybody who was not considered important. To conserve what little ammunition they had (which they used to fight the Vietnamese), Khmer Rouge cadres killed their enemies using plastic bags, drowning, burying alive, beating and bludgeoning with clubs, axes, shovels, rifle-butts…anything at all. So long as it wasn’t a bullet.

The Killing Fields

So. What exactly were the infamous ‘Killing Fields’?

The term ‘Killing Fields’ was coined by Cambodian journalist and genocide survivor, Dith Pran, who moved to the United States in the 1980s. It referred to the various sites around rural Cambodia where a total of two million Cambodians were either killed, or to which they were taken to be buried after being killed elsewhere. Estimates of exactly how many people are buried in these vast, unmarked mass-graves varies from about 1,300,000, up to three million. The general consensus is that the actual number is about two million people.

Toul Sleng Prison

We’ve all heard of Alcatraz. Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Sobbibor, Sing-Sing and other famous prisons or prison-camps around the world that have existed at various times in history.

But how many of us have heard of a place called…Toul Sleng?

Toul Sleng is Khmer for ‘Strychnine Hill’.

Strychnine is an extremely poisonous substance, used as often for saving people as well as killing them.

This ‘Strychnine Hill Prison’ was known by another name.

S-21. Security Prison #21.

And it was feared by all Cambodians.

S-21 was not actually a prison. In an earlier life, it was actually a highschool. The Chao Ponhea Yat Highschool. But when the Khmer Rouge came to power, the school-buildings were transformed into a prison-complex. Classrooms that once taught children and teenagers their languages, their histories, their sciences and mathematics, their geography and music, were turned into torture-chambers and cramped, tiny prison-cells or holding-cells. The entire school-campus was surrounded by barbed wire and electric-fences. The windows were all barred to prevent escapes and probably most interestingly, the prison’s commandant was Kang Kek Lew…a former maths-teacher. Who better to keep a track of the records of the estimated 17-20,000+ people that the prison ‘processed’ through the years?

Nobody was safe from Toul Sleng. Everyone from doctors, lawyers, teachers, professors, students, ethnic minorities, Western foreigners, monks and almost anyone else with an education. In later years, the Toul Sleng Prison, perhaps ironically, was also used to house members of the Khmer Rouge party itself! Intense paranoia had spread in the Party in the later years of its existence as the rulers of Cambodia and hundreds of party-members were sent through Toul Sleng. Here, they were interrogated, photographed, tortured, interrogated, tortured, interrogated, tortured, interrogated and tortured again.

Medical facilities within Toul Sleng were almost non-existent. What medical help there was proved to be woefully undertrained and understaffed. The medics in the prison knew almost no medicine at all – after all, all the doctors and medical professors had been killed – and the ony purpose in having a medical staff in Toul Sleng was to keep people alive for longer so that they could be tortured for longer.

Conditions in the prison were shocking. There was almost no food and no water. Life was so terrible that committing suicide was infinitely better than trying to survive. Of the nearly twenty thousand people who went into Toul Sleng, only seven people (some say up to a dozen) ever came out.

Today, Toul Sleng is a genocide museum.

Pol Pot: Brother Number One

So. Who is this ‘Pol Pot’?

He was born Saloth Sar, on the 30th of November, 1925. He lived his middle-class existence in rural Cambodia. As a child, he was sent to the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, to study. After winning a scholarship there, he travelled to Paris, France. In France, he failed miserably at his university studies. How miserably? He flunked his exams three times in a row. It was while he was in France that he got exposed to the local communist parties and so began his interest in communism and what it could do for Cambodia, which in the 1950s and 60s, was struggling under French colonial rule.

Pol Pot returned to Cambodia in 1953 as a young university drop-out fired up with communist beliefs. Over the next twenty-plus years, he would establish the Khmer Rouge, give speeches, rally followers and start a revolution that would end with a communist victory in 1975. With Cambodia firmly under his control, he could start his new, glorious peasant society, starting from “Year Zero”. What Pol Pot wanted to do was nothing less than literally starting civilisation from scratch, all over again.

The End of an Era

So…what happened in Cambodia that caused the eventual end of the Khmer Rouge regime? Did it just self-destruct from poor handling, rampant idealism and internal paranoia? Or was there a people’s revolution? Or was Pol Pot killed by a foreign assassin?

None of those, actually.

The Khmer Rouge regime eventually collapsed because of outside forces. For centuries, there was always an intense animosity between Cambodia and its neighbour, Vietnam. During the early 1970s, South Vietnam fought a war with the United States against Cambodia, in an attempt to keep the Khmer Rouge from gaining power. But in 1975, the Vietnam War ended with the fall of the South and the evacuation of American forces, leaving North Vietnam, in Vietnam, and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, victorious over their respective peoples. But almost at once, another war started.

North Vietnamese communists had an uneasy partnership with the Khmer Rouge and it was never one that was going to last. Pol Pot was paranoid about Vietnam and in the second half of the 1970s, he ordered an invasion by the Khmer Rouge, into border-villages in Vietnam.

Hardened by years of fighting and with buckets of combat experience, in 1978, the Vietnamese Army easily forced back the hodge-podge Khmer Rouge soldiers who were fighting with limited munitions and weaponry. In history, this conflict was called the Cambodian-Vietnamese War.

In truth, the war had started the moment the Vietnam War ended, in 1975, but fullscale military operations didn’t begin until 1978. Angry with the Cambodian presence on their native soil, the Vietnamese Army fought back and went on the offensive, charging full tilt into Cambodia. The severely underpowered Cambodian Army was easily overwhelmed by the vastly superior and much more experienced Vietnamese forces. The People’s Republic of China attempted to mediate between the two countries, but Vietnam grew more and more uneasy and in late 1978, a fullscale Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia was underway.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia was not supported by the international community. Of course, this was before news about the Cambodian genocide started making it onto the international airwaves. As Vietnamese forces surged into Cambodia and uncovered evidence of horrendous crimes, opinions about the Vietnamese invasion began to change…although that didn’t stop China from invading Vietnam in 1979 to teach it a lesson about invading Cambodia.

What followed was a ten-year occupation of Cambodia by the Vietnamese, between 1979-1989. The Khmer Rouge were forced out of power and what members who weren’t captured or killed, fled into the countryside, and a new “People’s Republic of Cambodia” was established. The communist republic lasted from 1979 until 1993. In 1993, Cambodia became a democracy and is unique among all nations as being the only communist (or former communist) country to have re-established its monarchy. The Cambodian monarchy was restored in 1993 as part of the government reforms. The current ruler of Cambodia is Norodom Sihamoni.

The End of the Khmer Rouge

The Khmer Rouge did not end when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia. Some were killed or arrested, but others merely fled into the jungles. It wasn’t until 1998, with Pol Pot’s death under house-arrest, that the Khmer Rouge was finally put out of action. Trials for war-crimes committed by members of the Khmer Rouge are still being held today. With a total population of about 8 million people, Pol Pot and his regime successfully killed roughly one quarter (that’s one person in every four), of his country’s entire population.

If you’re looking for more information about the Khmer Rouge and what happened during those years, look for the documentaries “Return to the Killing Fields“, “Pol Pot: Inside Evil”,  and “Pol Pot: Secret Killer“, three films which were my main sources for this grisly article. At the time of this posting, all three documentries (along with several others concentrating on the Khmer Rouge), may be found on YouTube.