Puyi, China's Last Emperor

The former Emperor Pu-Yi with his entourage

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The last emperor of the Qing Dynasty, and thus the last emperor of China, Aisin-Gioro Puyi lived through the fall of his empire, the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II, the Chinese Civil War, and the founding of the Peoples Republic of China

Born to a life of unimaginable privilege, he died as a humble assistant gardener under the communist regime. When he passed away of lung kidney cancer in 1967, Puyi was under the protective custody of members of the Cultural Revolution, completing a life story that's truly stranger than fiction.

Early Life of the Last Emperor

Aisin-Gioro Puyi was born on February 7, 1906, in Beijing, China to Prince Chun (Zaifeng) of the Aisi-Gioro clan of the Manchu royal family and Youlan of the Guwalgiya clan, a member of one of the most influential royal families in China. On both sides of his family, ties were tight with the de facto ruler of China, the Empress Dowager Cixi

Little Puyi was only two years old when his uncle, the Guangxu Emperor, died of arsenic poisoning on November 14, 1908, and the Empress Dowager selected the little boy as the new emperor before she died the very next day.

On December 2, 1908, Puyi was formally enthroned as the Xuantong Emperor, but the toddler did not like the ceremony and reportedly cried and struggled as he was named the Son of Heaven. He was officially adopted by the Dowager Empress Longyu.

The child emperor spent the next four years in the Forbidden City, cut off from his birth family and surrounded by a host of eunuchs who had to obey his every childish whim. When the little boy discovered that he had that power, he would order the eunuchs caned if they displeased him in any way. The only person who dared discipline the tiny tyrant was his wet-nurse and substitute mother-figure, Wen-Chao Wang.

A Brief End to His Rule

On February 12, 1912, Dowager Empress Longyu stamped the "Imperial Edict of the Abdication of the Emperor," formally ending Puyi's rule. She reportedly got 1,700 pounds of silver from General Yuan Shikai for her cooperation — and the promise that she would not be beheaded.

Yuan declared himself President of the Republic of China, ruling until December of 1915 when he bestowed the title of Hongxian Emperor on himself in 1916, attempting to start a new dynasty, but died three months later of renal failure before he ever took the throne.

Meanwhile, Puyi remained in the Forbidden City, not even aware of the Xinhai Revolution that rocked his former empire. In July of 1917, another warlord named Zhang Xun restored Puyi to the throne for eleven days, but a rival warlord called Duan Qirui nixed the restoration. Finally, in 1924, yet another warlord, Feng Yuxian, expelled the 18-year-old former emperor from the Forbidden City.

Puppet of the Japanese

Puyi took up residence in the Japanese embassy in Beijing for one and a half years and in 1925 moved to the Japanese concession area of Tianjin, toward the northern end of China's coastline. Puyi and the Japanese had a common opponent in the ethnic Han Chinese who had ousted him from power. 

The former emperor wrote a letter to the Japanese Minister of War in 1931 requesting help in recovering his throne. As luck would have it, the Japanese had just concocted an excuse to invade and occupy Manchuria, the homeland of Puyi's ancestors, and in November of 1931, Japan installed Puyi as their puppet emperor of the new state of Manchukuo.

Puyi was not pleased that he ruled only Manchuria, rather than the whole of China, and was further chafed under Japanese control where he was even forced to sign an affidavit that if he had a son, the child would be raised in Japan.

Between 1935 and 1945, Puyi was under the observation and orders of a Kwantung Army officer who spied on the Emperor of Manchukuo and relayed orders to him from the Japanese government. His handlers gradually eliminated his original staff, replacing them with Japanese sympathizers.

When Japan surrendered at the end of World War II, Puyi boarded a flight for Japan, but he was captured by the Soviet Red Army and forced to testify at the war crimes trials in Tokyo in 1946 then remaining in Soviet custody in Siberia until 1949.

When Mao Zedong's Red Army prevailed in the Chinese Civil War, the Soviets turned the now 43-year-old former emperor over to the new communist government of China.

Puyi's Life Under Mao's Regime

Chairman Mao ordered Puyi sent to the Fushun War Criminals Management Center, also called Liaodong No. 3 Prison, a so-called re-education camp for prisoners of war from the Kuomintang, Manchukuo, and Japan. Puyi would spend the next ten years interned in the prison, constantly bombarded with communist propaganda.

By 1959, Puyi was ready to speak publicly in favor of the Chinese Communist Party, so he was released from the re-education camp and allowed to return to Beijing, where he got a job as an assistant gardener at the Beijing Botanical Gardens and in 1962 married a nurse named Li Shuxian.

The former emperor even worked as an editor for the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference from 1964 on, and also authored an autobiography, "From Emperor to Citizen," which was supported by top party officials Mao and Zhou Enlai.

Targeted Again Until His Death

When Mao sparked the Cultural Revolution in 1966, his Red Guards immediately targeted Puyi as the ultimate symbol of "old China." As a result, Puyi was placed under protective custody and lost many of the simple luxuries he had been granted in the years since his release from prison. By this time, his health was failing as well.

On October 17, 1967, at the age of just 61, Puyi, China's last emperor, died of kidney cancer. His strange and turbulent life ended in the city where it had begun, six decades and three political regimes earlier.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "Puyi, China's Last Emperor." ThoughtCo, Apr. 21, 2022, thoughtco.com/puyi-chinas-last-emperor-195612. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2022, April 21). Puyi, China's Last Emperor. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/puyi-chinas-last-emperor-195612 Szczepanski, Kallie. "Puyi, China's Last Emperor." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/puyi-chinas-last-emperor-195612 (accessed March 26, 2023).

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