by Ray Matsumoto
Aisin-Gioro Puyi was born on February 7th, 1906, to his father, Zaifeng, Prince Chun, and mother, Youlan. In December 1908, Puyi was crowned the emperor of the Qing Dynasty at the age of two following the death of the Guangxu Emperor, who died childlessly. Puyi was split from his family, and only his wet nurse Wang Lianshou was allowed to follow him to the Forbidden City. Puyi spent most of his time with eunuchs (castrated servants), who did everything from tutoring him to clothing him. The older Puyi became, the more he realized the power he held over these eunuchs. He recounts in his autobiography that he used to shoot them with his air gun and even ordered a eunuch to eat dirt to test his loyalty (Behr, 74). Nurse Wang was the only person who could restrain Puyi. However, when Puyi was eight, Empress Dowager Longyu, the de facto ruler of the Qing dynasty, expelled Wang from the Forbidden City. Puyi, reportedly, started crying himself to sleep after she left (Behr, 76).
Following Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in September 1931, General Doihara Kenji, the perpetrator of the Mukden Incident, visited Puyi in Tianjin and proposed establishing him as the Emperor of Manchukuo. Members of the noble court and Wanrong repeatedly tried to convince Puyi to reject Doihara’s proposal. However, Puyi’s cousin, Aisin Gioro Xianyu, a Japanese spy better known as Kawashima Yoshiko, convinced him to accept Japan’s terms (Behr, 197). On March 1st, 1932, Puyi was installed as the head of Manchukuo.
Although General Doihara had promised Puyi an empire in Manchuria, what awaited him was a puppet state that he held little to no control over. The Japanese instituted Puyi as the Chief Executive and moved him to what was previously an office of the Salt Tax Administration in Changchun, known as Salt Tax Palace. Although the Japanese had remodeled the building, it was far smaller than what Doihara had initially promised (Behr, 214). The Japanese eventually crowned Puyi as an emperor in 1934. However, instead of being the emperor of a restored Qing Dynasty, he was the Emperor of Manchukuo.
Wanrong’s condition grew worse after moving to Manchukuo. By 1938, she was smoking roughly two ounces of opium every day, nearly a lethal quantity (Behr, 247). She also began having secret affairs with servants of the palace and eventually bore a child (Behr, 256). The Japanese, troubled by this news, decided to kill the baby to prevent Puyi from having an illegitimate child as an heir. The baby was euthanized on delivery in 1935 (Behr, 256).
Although Puyi became emperor, he was still a puppet of the Japanese government and held no legitimate authority. His only task was to sign and enforce Japanese policies in Manchukuo. The outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War made it clear to Puyi that the Japanese had no intention of restoring the Qing Dynasty. When the Japanese Army conquered Nanjing and Shanghai, the Japanese created new puppet governments instead rather than adding more territory to Puyi’s Manchukuo regime.
Stalin decided to keep Puyi alive, and although he was a Soviet prisoner, he was still treated with respect and allowed to keep some servants (Behr, 271). Chang Kai-Shek repeatedly demanded the Soviets return Puyi to China to face trial, but Stalin refused on the account of the Chinese Communist Party. Puyi’s cousin, Kawashima Yoshiko, was captured by the Kuomintang and was publicly executed for high treason. Despite being a collaborator of the Japanese government, Puyi was never tried as a war criminal. In the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, Puyi testified as a witness and claimed that he was held by the Japanese against his will (Behr, 273). It was clear to the judges that Puyi was saying what was needed to protect himself. Edward Behr, the author of The Last Emperor, described Puyi as “showing himself to be a consistent, self assured liar, prepared to go to any lengths to save his skin” (278). Since there was insufficient evidence to convict Puyi, Judge Sir William Webb, the President of the Tribunal, frustrated by his testimony, ordered Puyi out of the room, stating “further cross-examination is utterly useless” (Behr, 278).
On December 7th, 1949, Mao Zedong’s Communist Military defeated Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang Army and established the People’s Republic of China. Mao saw an opportunity of using nobles such as Puyi for propaganda. Puyi was sent to the Fushun War Criminals Prison in Liaoning for a ten-year sentence. Puyi was treated well compared to other prisoners and under the protection of warden Jin Yuan (Behr, 294). However, he was an easy target for other inmates, most of whom were former Japanese, Manchukuo, and Kuomintang officers. It was also the first time Puyi had to live without servants and struggled to accomplish basic tasks such as tying his shoes and brushing his teeth (Behr, 295).
As a prisoner, Puyi attended communist discussion groups, lectures, and tours on the atrocities committed in Manchuria. Puyi was released from prison one year early because of good behavior. He returned to Beijing in 1959 and found a job as an assistant at the Beijing Botanical Garden a year later. He also often visited the Forbidden City, which had become a museum, and guided tourists around the palace. In 1962, Puyi married Li Shuxian, a Chinese hospital nurse. Unlike his other wives, Puyi and Li Shuxian seemed to have a loving relationship until his death. Li stated in an interview, “I found Pu Yi an honest man, a man who desperately needed my love and was ready to give me as much love as he could.” Two years later, Puyi started working as an editor for the literary department of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Puyi continued to prove his loyalty to the Communist Party as he always praised Mao’s government in interviews, articles, and in his autobiography. On October 17th, 1967, at 61 years old, Puyi died in the Beijing Anti-Imperialist Hospital from kidney cancer and heart disease.
Puyi’s legacy can be painted with a combination of condemnation and pity. He was China’s youngest emperor at the age of two, served as an emperor of the Qing Dynasty for four years, and was a leader of Manchukuo for thirteen years. However, he never possessed any legitimate authority in those terms. From a young age, he was groomed to be a puppet ruler and continuously manipulated by different regimes for their benefit. However, despite Puyi’s unfortunate circumstances, it does not excuse his behavior as an abusive monarch and cowardly leader. He never risked his reputation and ambitions for his people but always chose the easier path to protect himself.
The lack of resources also makes it challenging to paint an accurate picture of Puyi’s life. Although he published an autobiography in 1964, titled, The First Half of My Life; From Emperor to Citizen, it was ghostwritten by Li Wenda, an editor from the Chinese Communist Party, and was based on the confession he wrote under distress in the Chinese prison camp. Many people, including Behr, were skeptical about his loyalty to the Communist Party. He states in his book, “It is difficult to avoid the impression that Puyi, to prove himself a ‘remolded’ man, displayed the same craven attitude towards the powerholders of the new China that he had shown in Manchukuo towards the Japanese.”
Behr also interviewed one of Puyi’s servants, Big Li, who also viewed Puyi’s conversion with skepticism. Behr states, “Big Li, who had been at Puyi’s constant beck and call since 1924, is one of those who believes the new Puyi persona was as calculated as the old. ‘His book, From Emperor to Citizen, doesn’t correspond to the truth,’ he says. ‘Out of self-abasement. Puyi made himself out to be worse, and more helpless than he was.’” Puyi thus may have exaggerated the abuse towards his eunuchs and servants to promote Communism. Although the truth behind Puyi’s character and faith will remain a mystery, we can say that his reputation as a leader will most likely stay infamous and controversial.
Behr, Edward. The Last Emperor. Bantam, 1987.
Pu Yi, Aisin-Gioro. From Emperor to Citizen: The Autobiography of Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi. Translated by William Jenner, Foreign Languages Press, 1989.
Xin, Li. “Pu Yi’s Widow Reveals Last Emperor’s Soft Side.” Internet Archive, 8 Apr. 1995, web.archive.org/web/20150924041341/http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/55/045.html.
Ray Matsumoto is a recipient of the David D. Tsang Fellowship. To read more Ray's work, check out: