Puyi: The Last Emperor of China

In the winter of 1911-1912, a political earthquake in Asia brought one of our last links to the ancient world crashing down. Imperial China had outlasted the Western Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Holy Roman Empire. For 2,000 years, it had withstood civil wars and foreign invasion, only to dramatically implode after less than six months of unrest. The emperor on the throne at this turning point in history? A six year old boy named Puyi.

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Born into an ossified court and brought up in unimaginable luxury, the boy emperor spent his first six years as a living god… before finding himself turned into a political fossil, a relic of a dead age. But there was more to Puyi than just one frightened child. An entitled brat who grew up to be a spoiled playboy before ending his life a convicted war criminal, Puyi was the living embodiment of China’s crazed 20th Century transformation. Join us today as we journey through the life of China’s Last Emperor.

The Politics of Power

On 7 February, 1906, the boy who would one day rule China opened his eyes for the very first time.

Three-year-old Emperor of China Pu Yi, February 23, 1909

At the moment of his birth, Puyi was perhaps the single most privileged child on the face of the planet. His father, Prince Chun, was a member of of the Qing dynasty, a group of ethnic Manchus who’d ruled China since 1644. His uncle, Guangxu, was the current emperor. Yet the apparent stability of Puyi’s young life masked a much deeper series of problems.

By 1906, the 2,000 year old Chinese empire was less a Dàshà built on rock than it was a Zhǐpái wū built atop shifting sands. Oh, and this slippery, treacherous sand had a name. It called itself Cixi, the Dowager Empress of China.

Born in November, 1835, Cixi had once been a low-ranking concubine of the Xianfeng Emperor. However, she’d also been the only person to bear the emperor a son, so when old Xianfeng died in 1861, Cixi had suddenly gone from “ absolute nobody” to “mother of the new emperor”. Not that “mother of the emperor” was a job with many perks. 

While Cixi’s emperor-son Tongzhi was still a child, all the ruling was done on his behalf by an 8 member regent council. From the council’s perspective, Cixi was a nuisance, a concubine who’d gotten lucky. But while Cixi certainly had gotten lucky with her pregnancy, she was also someone who made her own luck.

In November, 1861, Cixi orchestrated a palace coup, kicking out the council and installing herself and two loyalists as regents in their place. It was an arrangement that effectively handed Cixi the keys to China. So long as her emperor son was a minor, she could rule on his behalf. And once he was no longer a minor, well… there are always other children, right?

On January 12, 1875, Tongzhi died aged 19 in circumstances so suspicious he might as well have been literally suffocated by Cixi’s ambition. Barely was the emperor’s body cold than Cixi announced she’d adopted her five year old nephew and made him the new Guangxu Emperor.

Now, normally just declaring your adopted nephew emperor of China would go about as well as, well, you or I declaring our adopted nephew emperor of China, but by 1875 Cixi had built such a powerbase that nobody could stand in her way.  And so came the second period of Chinese history where a little boy play acted at being emperor while Cixi did all the actual ruling.

This time round, though, Cixi allowed the emperor to reach maturity, presumably on the assumption that he’d just do whatever she said anyway. But Cixi had badly misjudged Guangxu. In 1898, the emperor suddenly did something that shocked her to her core. He grew a backbone and tried to reform Imperial China. 

This was actually a very astute move. By 1898, the Qing dynasty had lost two opium wars, barely survived the Taiping Rebellion, been humiliated in the First Sino-Japanese War, and had almost lost their mandate as Manchus to be ruling over the ethnic Han Chinese. 

The only way to stop a revolution from exploding was to introduce something like a European system. But that would involve both Guangxu and Cixi giving up power.

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And asking Cixi to give up power was like asking Napoleon to go easy on all the conquering. On September 22, 1898, a military force loyal to Cixi converged on the Forbidden City. Guangxu was imprisoned in his palace, his reforms scrapped, and his supporters driven into exile.

In his place, Cixi assumed full control of China.  And that’s where things stood when Puyi was born in 1906, with the emperor a prisoner, Cixi on the throne, and the public close to rioting over Guangxu’s blocked reforms. 

Little did the newborn child know it, but soon all those factors would combine to destroy his entire world.

The Last Emperor: Part I

It was a chilly mid-November day when Dowager Empress Cixi breathed her last in one of the vast and gloomy rooms of the imperial palace. Her penultimate act was to inform the world that the Guangxu Emperor had died the day before – almost certainly poisoned on Cixi’s orders. Then, with her last breath already rattling in her throat, she named her successor as little Puyi. 

Cixi passed away on November 15, 1908. Barely two weeks later, two year old Puyi was coronated in the heart of the Forbidden City. It’s said that when baby Puyi first saw the scale of the palace, heard the drums, and saw the thousands of eunuchs there to witness his coronation, he bawled his eyes out. For the toddler, that ceremony marked the moment he forever lost any chance of a normal childhood.

As the new emperor, Puyi was now followed everywhere by armies of eunuchs attending his every whim. To give just one slightly gross example, every time he did a poop he would be watched by dozens of grown men, who would then regally pass his bedpan to the head eunuch for examination. Still, there were upsides to being a living God, especially if you were a tiny sadist.

You know that old Twilight Zone episode where everyone is super-scared of the little boy who can read minds and turn people into jack-in-the-boxes? That was basically Puyi’s childhood. At a young age, the boy emperor discovered everyone had to do whatever he told them. And young Puyi loved nothing more than ordering his servants to beat random eunuchs into a wailing, bloody pulp.

Not that Puyi would hold this power for long. On October 9, 1911, an explosion leveled a small house in the central city of Wuchang, now part of Wuhan. When police investigated the blast, they found in the rubble a list of names linked to a nationalist revolutionary movement. 

At the time, China was suffering a constant, low-level threat from such movements. Not that they ever went anywhere, which may be why the police seemed so blase about the list. I mean, what were these dumb revolutionaries gonna do? Capture the whole of Wucha-… oh, wait a minute. That’s exactly what they did! By December, the uprising in Wuchang had inspired fourteen provinces to go into rebellion. A provisional government had been established in Nanjing under arch revolutionary Sun Yat-sen.

Seeing their reign on the verge of collapse, Prince Chun called the great general Yuan Shikai out of retirement to save the Qing dynasty. Late that month, Yuan finally asked representatives of the rebel government what they wanted. The end of the Qing, they told him.

That’s it?

That’s it.

In that case – and here we like to image Yuan Shikai giving a sly little smile – allow me to help.

God No More

PuYi visits Tokyo 1940

When the end of Imperial China came, it was with embarrassing swiftness. In January, the rebels declared a republic centered around Nanjing. On the 26th of that month, Yuan went to the palace and told the imperial family he was prepared for war, but that in his estimation they would all end up as dead as a Norwegian parrot.

At first, some of the family held out. But Yuan was… persuasive. Working behind the scenes, he offered the Qing a simple choice. Either accept a massive bribe now to end their dynasty, or be beheaded when the rebels finally took Beijing. Everyone took the bribe.

On February 12, 1912, six year old Puyi was forced to abdicate. The rebels had already agreed that he could continue to live in the Forbidden City, even keep his servants and be given enough money to live like an emperor for the rest of his life. Given all this, it’s highly unlikely the young boy even noticed anything had changed. Even noticed that his palace had now become his prison.

That March, a new constitution was promulgated. Yuan’s help in ending the Qing was rewarded by the rebels, who made him president.  And, just like that, 2,000 years of imperial Chinese rule came to an abrupt end.

Well, almost.

While Puyi may be known to history as the Last Emperor, there was actually another emperor who started his reign after Puyi abdicated. You already know him as Yuan Shikai. And his imperial ambitions were about to ensure China’s 20th Century would be a nightmare. The problems started when the Chinese republic held its first elections in January, 1913.

As you might expect, they returned a majority for the rebels. But President Yuan decided he no longer needed these guys now the Qing were gone, and had the head of the National Assembly murdered. This resulted in the rebels taking up arms again, only for Yuan to really go to war this time. He might have told the Qing in January, 1912 that a war could only end in their defeat, but when it was his own power on the line, he clearly felt differently. 

By March, 1913, he’d won. Now, Yuan had only won in a loose sense. In many provinces, power was concentrated in the hands of military leaders who only paid lip service to Beijing.  But, still, Yuan had no immediate challengers to his rule. Come the end of 1915, he was even feeling secure enough to have himself declared the new Hongxian Emperor. 

This turned out to be a mistake.

See, Yuan won the 1913 war because of the backing of the military. But even the military wasn’t willing to kowtow to an illegitimate emperor. 83 days after announcing his new empire, Yuan was forced at gunpoint to dissolve it. Barely three months after that, on June 6, 1916, President Yuan died – by some measures the true “last” emperor of China.

But only by some measures. After Yuan died, China disintegrated into multiple warring states ruled by former military generals. In the second year of what became known to history as the Warlord Era, a Qing loyalist named Zhang Xun marched on Beijing, and restored Puyi to the throne.

By now a boy of 11, Puyi ruled during his second reign for a mere eleven days before the warlord Duan Qirui captured Beijing, sent Zhang Xun into exile, and forced Puyi to abdicate all over again.

This time, Puyi really would be the Last Emperor.

The Boy and the Man

In early 1919, a man named Reginald Johnston arrived outside the Forbidden City. By now, China was three years deep into the Warlord Era and the countryside was a wasteland.

But Beijing was eerily calm. Ever since Duan Qirui had captured the city and forced Puyi to abdicate for the second time, no new warlords had tried to retake the capital. It was during this lull that Duan’s government had telephoned the British Foreign Office with an extraordinary request. 

They’d wanted an English language tutor. When asked why, they’d replied they wanted lessons for their deposed emperor. And now here Reginald Johnston was, on an official mission to teach Puyi English. Johnston’s first meeting with his new pupil involved being led to a room deep in the Forbidden City, and kowtowing three times to a thirteen year old.

Despite this, Johnston would later write that he felt instant affection for the teenage Puyi. Though it’s doubtful this affection would’ve survived much contact with reality. Unbeknownst to the teacher, Puyi was now a fully-fledged sadist who had made flogging a random servant part of his daily routine. Over the following months, Johnston and Puyi held daily classes.

The more Johnston got to know Puyi, the more he began to realize how much the boy who had everything really had nothing. He discovered Puyi needed glasses, and that he’d so far been refused because emperors weren’t expected to wear them. He discovered, too, that Puyi’s life was spent in a gilded cage. That, even in this cage, servants were stealing from him.

Being a practical man, Johnston tried to help his pupil. He got the boy glasses, arranged for him to spend some time outside the palace. After a while, you might even say that the man and the boy became friends. It was this friendship that would save Puyi’s life.

Outside the walls of the Forbidden City, trouble was brewing.  In 1920, a coalition of warlords angry that Japan had annexed South Manchuria drove Duan out of Beijing.

It was the sixth change of regime Puyi had survived since the 1912 revolution. It was also nearly the last.

In fall of 1924, two warlords, Zhang Zuolin and Feng Yuxiang, forged an alliance to conquer Beijing anew. As their armies swept into the city, Feng made a bold pronouncement. He would not be bound by the 1912 treaty allowing Puyi to continue living in the Forbidden City.

Either the boy emperor left his imperial home, or he would face the consequences. Not that Puyi was really a boy anymore. Now aged 18, he even had a wife. In extremely awkward fashion, the imperial court had given Puyi a stack of photos of girls in 1922 and told him to pick one to be his bride. 

Piyu’s first choice, a girl named Wenxiu, had turned out to be only 12, so instead he’d married Empress Wanrong and taken the underage Wenxiu as his consort. No, we don’t want to think too much about that, either. As Feng’s army approached the palace, Reginald Johnston desperately tried to find a foreign embassy that would grant Puyi asylum. 

But there was no-one. Even Johnston’s own employers, the British, refused.  Finally, at the last moment, Johnston had his lightbulb moment.

Why not ask the Japanese? On November 5, 1924, Puyi, Empress Wanrong, and the consort Wenxiu all fled to the Japanese embassy.

About four months later, the Japanese offered to move Puyi out of Beijing. We’ll send you somewhere safe, they said. And so it was that, on February 23, 1925, a disguised Puyi boarded a train bound for Tianjin, a Chinese city the Japanese had occupied after winning the first Sino-Japanese War. It was the start of a relationship between the Last Emperor and Imperial Japan that would end in horrific bloodshed.

The Last Emperor: Part II 

For the next few years, Puyi lived a life that can best be described as “dissolute”.

Facade matches Jing Garden photo in The Last Emperor and His Five Wives book p37

In Japanese-controlled Tianjin, he and Empress Wanrong reinvented themselves as a pair of rich dilettantes. Puyi showered money on luxuries, pets and society connections, using his faded imperial grandeur to gain entry to the city’s “whites only” clubs.

Wanrong, meanwhile, became addicted to opium, spending her life in a listless daze. It’s likely the pair barely even noticed as, across the border, Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist army finally defeated the warlords and reunified China. For his part, Puyi was far more concerned with his impending divorce from Wenxiu.

Remember, the underage consort? Well, she grew up, decided she could do better than some rich sadist and left, even though Puyi tried to bully her into staying.  So, yay, well done Wenxiu.

Yet it wouldn’t be quite true to say Puyi spent his six years in Tianjin ignoring China. We know this because, in 1931, Puyi wrote to the Japanese Minister for War, demanding help in restoring his empire. As luck would have it, the Japanese were in need of an emperor.

On September 18, 1931, the Japanese Imperial Army had used the pretext of a terrorist attack to annex the rest of Manchuria. They claimed they were restoring order. That Manchuria would now become the independent state of Manchukuo, a place where Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Mongols, and Manchus could live in harmony.  In reality, of course, Manchukuo would be a Japanese puppet state in which all other races were treated as inferior.

But the Japanese didn’t want the world to know this. They needed a fig leaf of legitimacy to cover their planned atrocities. A nominal ruler who was ethnically from Manchuria, and could claim to be Manchukuo’s legitimate leader.

In November, 1931, the Japanese wrote back to Puyi. We can’t restore you to your old throne, they told him, but hey, how about you come rule this shiny new state we just created? Ever the entitled fool, Puyi said yes.

On March 9, 1932, Puyi became president of Manchukuo. Outwardly, the Last Emperor appeared to have everything he ever wanted: a state to rule, a people who claimed to love him. Only Puyi knew that, behind the scenes, he’d signed secret documents transferring all power in Manchukuo to the Japanese Imperial Army. . In March of 1934, Puyi was elevated to Manchukuo’s emperor. The Japanese reported the citizens of their puppet state rejoiced. But that seems unlikely.

By 1934, it was clear just what a cruel regime Puyi was leading. Manchukuo was a racist, authoritarian state that persecuted non-Japanese citizens mercilessly. In 1932, for example, the Japanese responded to an act of sabotage by rounding up 3,000 Chinese civilians and mass-executing them all.

But Puyi didn’t flinch at these atrocities.  He simply indulged in his own. As Manchukuo’s emperor, Puyi was crueler than he’d ever been in Beijing. He had servants beaten to death for the smallest imagined infractions.  When he discovered Wanrong had been impregnated by her Japanese lover, he had the newborn baby thrown alive into the palace boiler. While most of the blame for Manchukuo’s cruelty can be placed at the feet of the Japanese, Puyi was far from innocent.

And things were about to get even worse.

On July 7, 1937, a skirmish between Chinese and Japanese forces at the Marco Polo Bridge turned into a full-blown Japanese invasion of China. The Second Sino-Japanese War had just begun.

By the time it was over, both nations and Manchukuo itself would lie in ruins.

The Criminal and the Gardener

Of all the phony celebrations that have been thrown by phony rulers over the years, none can have been quite so phony as the one that took place in Manchukuo in October, 1943. By that point, the Second Sino-Japanese War had become just another front in WWII’s epic punch up. Manchukuo had seen waves of show trials and executions. Citizens had been turned into medical experiments for Japanese doctors. Yet, that October day, Puyi still presided over a “celebration” of ten years of Manchukuo as an independent state.

It brings to mind Robespierre, throwing his great feast in the middle of the Reign of Terror, as thousands of Parisians were marched to the guillotine. Yet even Puyi couldn’t have been as blind as Robespierre to the fate that awaited him. He was the cruel, powerless emperor of a sadistic failed state.

There was only one way his last regime could end. In July, 1944, the first American planes began bombing Manchukuo. As cities fell in sheets of flame, Puyi clung to his belief that – even if Japan was defeated – he would still be allowed to go on ruling his ancestors’ homeland. By the time a year had passed, though, it was clear Puyi’s hopes were so much ash.

On August 9, 1945 the USSR launched a ground invasion of Manchukuo.  The arrival of the Red Army was like a cleansing fire sweeping over Manchukuo. 200,000 were killed in just two weeks. Not that Puyi was around to see it. Within a week of the first Soviet tanks entering his territory, the emperor had been captured by the Red Army. He would turn out to be the lucky one. Empress Wanrong was taken alive by Chinese partisans. She would starve to death in her jail cell just one year later.

For Puyi, this was the end.

Chucked into a Siberian gulag, the Last Emperor was now nothing but a mere war criminal.  Although he lied through his teeth to save his skin at the 1946 International Military Tribunal for the Far East – the Japanese version of the Nuremberg Trials – Puyi was done for.

And he knew it. The final act came just four years later. 

On October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong’s Communists succeeded in taking control of mainland China. 

The new government in Beijing contacted the Soviets, asking for their war criminal emperor to be returned.  The Soviets happily obliged. Shortly after, Puyi vanished for good into the black hole of Mao’s internment camps.  There was no public execution. No gunshot in a secluded courtyard. Just an emperor who stepped off a plane and vanished.

After three regimes and forty five years, the tale of the Last Emperor was finally at an end.

…Or was it?

Fast forward a decade to 1960. Imagine you are walking through Communist Beijing. All around you, Chinese workers in overalls ride bikes past concrete blocks. Up on the sides of buildings, Mao’s beaming face stares down at you. It’s the most typical Communist scene you can imagine.

With one exception. See over there, by those flowerpots? See that old and withered gardener tending to his plants? He may look like just another ordinary peasant, but that elderly gardener has some tall tales to tell. Tales about revolution and war, and about growing up in a palace where everyone had to do whatever he said.

Tales about the three separate times that he was China’s Last Emperor. Of course, these are only stories. You only have to look at the gardner to know he’s a nobody, an old man who dreams of being a somebody. But there’s something in the way he sometimes looks across the city, like he’s seeing a different Beijing, one that vanished decades ago. 

Something about the way the Communist Party sometimes calls on him to meet visiting dignitaries, parades him around like he’s something more than just a crazy old man. Perhaps the strangest part is that the old man never looks upset by this. Never looks as you’d imagine a former emperor to look in such circumstances. Instead, on these rare occasions, you can’t help but notice how happy he appears.

Almost as if, after a lifetime locked in different gilded cages, the elderly gardener who calls himself Puyi is finally free.

Sources:

Reprinted Bio from NY Review of Books: http://www.chinafile.com/library/nyrb-china-archive/born-too-late 

Bios:

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Puyi 

https://www.thoughtco.com/puyi-chinas-last-emperor-195612

https://www.historytoday.com/archive/pu-yi-last-emperor-china-pardoned 

https://www.scmp.com/magazines/style/people-events/article/2115727/remembering-chinas-last-emperor-puyi-50-years-after 

John Rabe Biographics – some other info about China’s 20th Century here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=80_r0VuB_wo 

Manchukuo: https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2015/09/testament-to-manchukuo-2/ 

https://oxfordre.com/asianhistory/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190277727.001.0001/acrefore-9780190277727-e-78

Reginald Johnston: https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/archived/hindsight/the-last-tutor/3116808#transcript 

Empress Wanrong: https://www.historyofroyalwomen.com/china/taking-look-empress-wanrong/ 

https://www.scmp.com/article/575773/cover-over-death-adulteress-empress-baby-detailed

Yuan as a dictator: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/10050528/Author-unravels-mystery-of-plot-that-toppled-Chinas-last-emperor.html

Cixi: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Cixi 

1911-12 Revolution: 

https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-double-ten-day-687502 

https://www.britannica.com/event/Chinese-Revolution-1911-1912

 

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