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Portrait of Puyi

The Last Emperor: The final ruler of China's Qing dynasty

Portrait of Puyi

'I'm Puyi, the last Emperor of the Qing dynasty. I'm staying with relatives and can't find my way home.'

These were the words spoken to curious passersby by a little lost street sweeper in the Chinese capital of Beijing in 1959. They sound like the words of a madman, but they were not. The street sweeper was telling the truth. He really was the last Emperor of China.

Born in 1906, the young Puyi was named emperor at the age of two years and ten months by the dying dowager Empress Cixi. The first his parents knew of his ascension to the throne was when a procession of palace officials and eunuchs arrived at their home to take the toddler away.

Screaming for his parents, the young boy was bundled into a carriage and driven away to the massive Forbidden City palace complex in the centre of Beijing. It would be his home for the next sixteen years.

Life in the Forbidden City was one of immense privilege for Puyi. Treated as a living god, as he grew up, he was waited on hand and foot by a huge retinue of servants, including eunuchs who were required to wear their pickled genitals in jars hung from their necks.

Nobody dared say no to the little emperor. His every whim was catered for. In time, this led the boy to develop a cruel streak. He was particularly fond of having his eunuchs flogged, amongst other cruelties including firing his air pistol at them and making them get down on their knees and eat dirt.

As he matured, Puyi continued to indulge his love of spiteful cruelties, free from the parental shackles that would ordinarily have restrained a growing child. Not even a revolution in 1911 that saw him forced to abdicate his throne changed anything in particular, for the newly-formed Republic of China decided to treat the boy as they would a foreign monarch, allowing him to continue residing in the Forbidden City with all his privileges still in place.

Following a failed attempt to restore the monarchy in 1917, it was decided in 1922 that the sixteen-year-old former emperor should marry. He indifferently examined photographs of a selection of teenage girls, picking one at random as they all looked the same to him. His first choice was dismissed, and he was instead told he would marry a girl called Gobulo Wanrong, while his original choice would be made his concubine.

The pair were married on the 22nd of October 1922. The marriage was not consummated on the first night as was expected, and it led to speculation that Puyi may have had homosexual tendencies. The couple got on well at first, riding their bicycles around the Forbidden City, laughing and joking. Sadly, the relationship would eventually turn sour, with disastrous consequences for Wanrong.

Puyi and Wanrong’s time in the Forbidden City was ended suddenly when the warlord General Feng Yuxiang captured Beijing in 1924 and ordered Puyi and his wife to leave the palace. Fearing for his life, Puyi took refuge at the Japanese embassy, and later he made it to the Japanese controlled concession in the city of Tianjin, where a small court was set up for him in a house known as the Garden of Serenity.

Life in the Garden of Serenity was extremely boring for the young emperor and his wife. It was at this time that Wanrong began smoking opium to relieve the tedium of being an empress who was expected to do very little other than servicing her husband’s desires. Puyi, meanwhile, wanted more out of life than being an exile, and this led him to write to the Japanese Minister for War, asking to be restored to his throne.

It was decided that Puyi would be moved to the Japanese colony of Manchukuo in northeast China, where he was crowned emperor in 1934 and installed at the Salt Tax Palace in the city of Changchun. In reality, he was just a puppet ruler who was expected to defer to the Japanese emperor. He would remain, emperor of the colony, until it was conquered by the Soviet Red Army in 1945.

As the Soviets closed in on Changchun, Puyi’s court was hastily packed up and the emperor, his opium-addicted wife, his concubines and servants left the city by train. However, they had nowhere to go as the Soviets had bombed all the train stations in the surrounding area. Reluctantly, the party turned back. It was then decided Puyi and the male members of his court would fly out of Changchun. They escaped the city by plane, only to be caught by the Soviets in the city of Shenyang.

The decision to leave the women behind proved disastrous for Puyi’s wife, Wanrong. She and her companions were captured by Chinese guerillas as they attempted to escape to Korea in 1946. When the guerrillas learned who Wanrong was, they put her in a cage and displayed her like a zoo animal. Suffering from opium withdrawal which drove her mad, she was deprived food and eventually starved to death in a pool of her own urine, vomit and excrement, much to the amusement of her captors and those who had come to see her.

Puyi, meanwhile, was taken to Siberia. The Soviets treated him well, even allowing him to travel to Tokyo where he testified against the Japanese at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. On his return to Russia, he was placed in a detention centre while his captors negotiated his handover with the Chinese authorities.

Eventually, the Soviets agreed to send him back to China in 1950. Convinced he would be shot the moment he set foot back in China, Puyi was pleasantly surprised to discover he was instead to be held in prison. The Communists had no intention of executing the former emperor. They planned to brainwash him into becoming one of them instead.

Delighted with the results of their brainwashing, the Communists released Puyi on license.

Prison life was hard for Puyi. At first, he was incapable of doing simple things such as brushing his teeth or tying his own shoelaces because these were tasks that had always been performed for him. He was laughed at and bullied by the other prisoners. Indeed, he would most likely have been murdered were it not for the protection of the prison warden, Jin Yuan.

Over the next nine years, the former emperor underwent an intense program of re-education. He was forced to confront the crimes that had been committed by the Japanese in his name and was slowly but surely worn down until he emerged a fervent believer in the communist system. Delighted with the results of their brainwashing, the Communists released Puyi on license and he went to live with his sisters in a modest house in the suburbs of Beijing.

It was here that he was assigned a job as a street sweeper, stopping people in the street to inform them he was the emperor of China and asking them for directions home. Eventually, he was given a job as a gardener in the Beijing Botanical Gardens. Life as a gardener suited him down to the ground, and when he wasn’t working, he would head for the Forbidden City where he would act as an impromptu tourist guide, pointing out various items he used to use as a boy. In later life, he would also be called upon by the authorities to hold press conferences, espousing the benefits of living under a communist system he had come to fervently believe in. It was quite a turnaround.

Puyi died of kidney cancer in Beijing on the 17th of October 1967. He was sixty-one years old. He had started out life as a spoiled boy king whose every whim was acted upon by an army of servants. He died a humble gardener. Never again would China be ruled by a monarch. Puyi, the twelfth Emperor of the Qing dynasty, would be its last.