Puyi was crowned Emperor of China in 1908, aged just 2 years and 10 months. After less than four years of regency rule, Puyi was forced to abdicate in 1912, bringing to an end over 2,100 years of imperial rule in China.
The abdication came as a surprise to many: China’s imperial tradition had endured for millennia, but its emperors had become somewhat complacent. And in the early 20th century, decades of gentle unrest toppled over into a full-scale revolution that marked the end of China’s Qing dynasty.
After the fall of the Qing, Puyi spent most of the rest of his adult life as a pawn, manipulated by assorted powers in pursuit of their own ends because of his birthright. By 1959, Puyi had well and truly fallen from grace: he worked as a street sweeper in Beijing, a citizen with no formal titles, perks or honours.
Here’s the story of Puyi, the infant emperor who became the last Qing dynasty ruler of China.
The infant emperor
Puyi became emperor in November 1908, following the death of his half-uncle, Guangxu Emperor. Aged just 2 years and 10 months, Puyi was forcibly removed from his family and taken to the Forbidden City in Beijing – the home of Imperial China’s palace and powerholders – by a procession of officials and eunuchs. Only his wet nurse was allowed to travel with him the entire journey.
The infant was crowned on 2 December 1908: unsurprisingly, he quickly became spoilt as his every whim was kowtowed to. Palace staff were unable to discipline him because of the rigid hierarchies of palace life. He became cruel, taking pleasure in having his eunuchs whipped regularly and firing air gun pellets at whoever he wished.
When Puyi turned 8, his wet nurse was forced to leave the palace, and his parents became virtual strangers, their rare visits constrained by stifling imperial etiquette. Instead, Puyi was forced to visit his five ‘mothers’ – former imperial concubines – to report on his progress. He received only the most basic of educations in the standard Confucian classics.
In October 1911, the army garrison in Wuhan mutinied, igniting a wider revolt which called for the removal of the Qing Dynasty. For centuries, China’s powerholders had ruled by the concept of the Mandate of Heaven – a philosophical idea comparable to the European concept of the ‘divine right to rule’ – which painted the sovereign’s absolute power as a gift from heaven or God.
But during the unrest of the early 20th century, known as the 1911 Revolution or the Xinhai Revolution, many Chinese citizens believed that the Mandate of Heaven had been, or must be, withdrawn. The unrest called for nationalist, democratic policies over imperial rule.
Puyi was forced to abdicate in response to the 1911 Revolution but was allowed to retain his title, continue to live in his palace, receive an annual subsidy and was to be treated like a foreign monarch or dignitary. His new prime minister, Yuan Shikai, brokered the deal: perhaps unsurprisingly, it was favourable for the former emperor because of ulterior motives. Yuan had planned to eventually install himself as emperor of a new dynasty, but popular opinion against this plan prevented him from ever managing to do this properly.
Puyi was briefly restored to his throne as part of the Manchu Restoration in 1919, but remained in power for just 12 days before republican troops overthrew the royalists.
Finding a place in the world
The teenage Puyi was given an English tutor, Sir Reginald Johnston, to teach him more about China’s place in the world, as well as to school him in English, political science, constitutional science and history. Johnston was one of the few people who had any influence over Puyi and encouraged him to widen his horizons and question his self-absorption and acceptance of the status quo. Puyi even began to aspire to study at Oxford, Johnston’s alma mater.
In 1922, it was decided Puyi should be married: he was given photographs of potential brides and told to pick one. His first choice was rejected as only being suitable to be a concubine. His second choice was the teenage daughter of one of Manchuria’s richest aristocrats, Gobulo Wanrong. The pair were betrothed in March 1922 and married that autumn. The first time the teenagers met was at their wedding.
Despite Johnston’s best attempts, Puyi became a vain, easily influenced adult. Visiting foreign dignitaries viewed Puyi as malleable and potentially a useful figure to manipulate for their own interests. In 1924, a coup saw Beijing seized and Puyi’s imperial titles abolished, reducing him to a mere private citizen. Puyi fell in with the Japanese Legation (essentially the Japanese embassy in China), whose inhabitants were sympathetic to his cause, and moved from Beijing to neighbouring Tianjin.
Puyi’s birthright meant he was of great interest to foreign powers: he was courted by the Chinese warlord General Zhang Zongchang, as well as Russian and Japanese powers, all of whom flattered him and promised that they could facilitate the restoration of the Qing dynasty. He and his wife, Wanrong, lived a luxurious life amongst the cosmopolitan elite of the city: bored and restless, they both frittered away huge amounts of money and Wanrong became addicted to opium.
Foolishly manipulated by the Japanese, Puyi travelled to Manchuria in 1931, hoping to be installed as head of state by imperial Japan. He was installed as a puppet ruler, dubbed the ‘Chief Executive’ rather than granted the imperial throne he had been promised. In 1932, he became the emperor of the puppet state Manchukuo, seemingly with little understanding of the complex political situation occurring in the region at the time, or realising the state was simply a colonial tool of Japan.
Puyi survived the duration of World War Two as Emperor of Manchukuo, fleeing only when the Red Army arrived in Manchuria and it became apparent all hope was lost. He abdicated on 16 August 1945, declaring Manchukuo to once again be part of China. He fled in vain: he was captured by the Soviets who refused repeated requests to have him extradited, probably saving his life in the process.
He subsequently testified at the Tokyo War Trials in an attempt to defend himself, declaring he had never willingly taken up the mantle of Emperor of Manchukuo. Those present declared he was “prepared to go to any lengths to save his skin”. He was eventually repatriated to China in 1949 after negotiations between the Soviet Union and China.
Puyi spent 10 years in a military holding facility and underwent something of an epiphany in this period: he had to learn to do basic tasks for the first time and finally realised the true damage done by the Japanese in his name, learning about the horrors of the war and Japanese atrocities.
He was released from prison to live a simple life in Beijing, where he worked as a street sweeper and vocally supported the new communist regime, giving press conferences to the media in support of the CCP’s policies.
Full of regret for the pain and suffering he had inadvertently caused, his kindness and humility were renowned: he repeatedly told people “yesterday’s Puyi is the enemy of today’s Puyi”. In an autobiography, published with the permission of the Communist Party, he declared he regretted his testimony at the war tribunal, admitting he had covered up his crimes to protect himself. He died in 1967 from a combination of kidney cancer and heart disease.