Childhood and Early Reign
Aisin-Gioro Puyi was born on February 7, 1906, and became the emperor of the Qing Dynasty when he was just two years old in December 1908, after Emperor Guangxu passed away. In Edward Behr’s book, The Last Emperor, it is mentioned that Puyi passed away without any children. Assuming the position of emperor proved to be a challenging and disconcerting journey for him. Transitioning from the final emperor of China, he ultimately became a puppet ruler under the Japanese and eventually transformed into an average citizen, appearing to be constantly at the mercy of fate throughout his lifetime. Puyi had to deal with family separation, and only his caregiver Lianshou was allowed to be with him in the Forbidden City. He ascended to the imperial throne during a difficult period for the declining Chinese Empire. In 1912, Puyi stepped down from his throne forcibly. During his early years, he mostly interacted with eunuchs who did everything from educating him to helping with his clothes. As he grew up, Puyi realized the significant influence he had over these eunuchs.
In his autobiography, Puyi remembered shooting eunuchs with his air rifle. One messed-up story involves him making a eunuch eat poop as a loyalty test. Wang Lianshou was the only one who could keep the young emperor’s impulsive behavior in check. But when Puyi turned eight, Empress Dowager Longyu, basically the ruler of the Qing Dynasty, kicked Wang out of the Forbidden City. According to Behr, after Wang left, Puyi was upset, crying himself to sleep. On October 10, 1911, a group of insurgents executed a meticulously orchestrated armed rebellion against the Qing government. After they succeeded, they set up a temporary government in Nanjing and forced Qing leaders to give up their power. As a result, Puyi lost his imperial status, and the formerly influential imperial court had to relinquish its power.
Amid the political upheavals, those in power extended a degree of leniency, permitting the ousted imperial group, including Puyi, to remain within the confines of the Forbidden City. The new Republic assumed the responsibility of taking care of them, displaying a notably generous gesture. Yuan Shikai, previously the Prime Minister of the Qing Dynasty and later the President of the Republic of China, paid a significant visit to the Forbidden City to express his respects. During this visit, Puyi smartly noticed from Yuan’s attitude that Yuan had way more authority than him. It served as an early indication of the forthcoming political changes.
Yuan Shikai’s Short-Lived Empire
In 1915, Shikai took an unexpected turn by proclaiming himself the Emperor of China, yet this proved short-lived, lasting only 83 days. Strong opposition from the people brought it to an end, and by June 1916, Yuan concluded, marking the closure of an essential chapter in Chinese politics. After Yuan’s death, China went through a crazy time, breaking up into different factions led by local military leaders. The Warlord Era, characterized by chaos and turbulence, marked a tumultuous phase in Chinese history.
During his tenure as a leader, Puyi lacked genuine authority. Since he was a kid, he was trained to be a puppet ruler, always getting played by different regimes looking out for their interests. Puyi’s leadership path was controlled by outside forces, trapping him in a political mess. Unfortunately, his second shot at ruling got cut short by some bombs going off in the Forbidden City. Three small bombs strategically placed ended his rule. The Republic of China was behind it, trying to show off its strength and determination against Zhang Xun, who was in charge at the time.
In March 1922, elaborate preparations for Puyi’s wedding began at the luxurious royal court. They took on the job of picking a good match for the former ruler. In addition to adhering to traditions, Puyi received a collection of portraits of potential empresses from distinguished Qing families. It was up to him to pick one for the prestigious role. At first, he liked Wenxiu, a Bordered Yellow Banner family member. But the royal court didn’t agree, pointing out that Wenxiu was just 12 years old. Thus, cognizant of the court’s apprehensions, Puyi altered his decision and chose Wanrong, who was bestowed with Empress Xuantong’s prestigious title and hailed from the Plain White Banner clan of the Manchu nobility.
The Fall of the Forbidden City
October 23, 1924, witnessed a tumultuous event in Beijing as warlord Feng Yuxiang executed a significant coup, seizing control of the Republic of China. After this bold power move, they kicked Puyi and all the nobles out of their sacred pad in the Forbidden City. This significant occurrence occurred in the month of May. The fallout of this forced eviction made Puyi run to Tianjin, where he unexpectedly teamed up with the Japanese for protection. So, Puyi had to deal with the tricky political scene, all tangled up in the chaotic politics of the time.
During this time, things went downhill in the imperial scene, especially with Empress Wanrong. She got hooked on opium, and it messed up her physical and mental health big time. Her reliance on opium made her useless, unable to do even basic stuff in the palace. Simultaneously, the empress dowager began harboring deep-seated resentment towards Puyi. Meanwhile, in Tianjin, Wenxiu, feeling neglected, decided to bail from the scene. It led to her officially asking for a divorce in 1931, and Puyi agreed, ending their marriage.
Manchukuo: A Puppet Empire Beckons
Amidst all his problems, there was a big geopolitical shake-up in September 1931 when Japan invaded Manchuria. After this invasion, General Doihara Kenji, a big-shot Japanese official, came to Tianjin and pitched a bold idea to Puyi—making him the Emperor of Manchukuo. The complete noble court and the ailing Empress Wanrong pleaded with Puyi not to follow through with Doihara’s scheme. Despite everyone’s advice and the time’s tricky situation, Puyi listened to his cousin, Aisin Gioro Xianyu. Unbeknownst to Puyi, Xianyu was covertly collaborating with the Japanese under the alias of Kawashima Yoshiko. Even though they were family, Xianyu skillfully talked Puyi into agreeing to Japan’s terms. On March 1, 1932, a pivotal choice was made, formally designating Puyi as the leader of Manchukuo, intended to be a kingdom within Manchuria.
However, Puyi quickly understood that Manchukuo functioned as a puppet state, and he had minimal influence despite the assurances given. The idea of being a regal ruler turned out to be more like a tricky role within the bigger picture of Japanese dominance. To make it look good, Japan gave Puyi the title of executive head and had him move to the old Salt Tax Administration office in Changchun. Even with Japan fixing up the place, Puyi’s new palace was nothing like what Doihara had promised in grandeur’s terms. The vast disparity between the envisioned and the actual state of the palace underscored the gap between promises and reality. Behr elucidates the situation by stating that Japan formally crowned Puyi in 1934. But Puyi soon figured out that this imperial coronation didn’t mean the Qing Dynasty was back; he was now just the Emperor of Manchukuo.
Emperor in Name, Puppet in Reality
Despite being called an emperor, Puyi’s role was just a fancy name, hiding that the Japanese government was pulling the strings. Straightforwardly, he gave up actual authority and ended up restricted to a role where he accomplished the formalities of supporting and executing Japanese policies in Manchukuo. His imperial title was more for show than anything substantial, just a front to hide how much control Japan had. Even when Japan faced setbacks in big battles, like Midway Atoll and the Philippine Sea, the Japanese media kept spreading the idea that they were winning. Because of this, Puyi didn’t realize Japan was in trouble until 1944. The carefully crafted image of Japan being unbeatable in the media kept Puyi in the dark about the actual challenges and defeats Japan was facing.
Significant developments unfolded on August 9, 1945, as the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and commenced the takeover of Manchukuo. Faced with the overpowering strength of the Soviet forces, both Manchukuoan and Japanese military crews were powerless against this strong enemy. To dodge the incoming Soviet attack, Puyi tried to make a run for it to Korea. Subsequently, on August 15, 1945, a momentous historical event occurred—Puyi, acknowledging the irreversible shift in global circumstances, officially resigned, signifying the conclusive conclusion of Manchukuo. This action, essentially a capitulation, brought the imperial experiment initiated by Japan in Manchuria to an end.
Desperate Escape and Unexpected Twist
Having resigned, Puyi, anxious about potential apprehension and uncertain about his future, attempted to escape, this time to reach Japan. He decided to use a plane, but with limited seats, he had to figure out who to take with him. In this strenuous decision-making phase, the advice of Imperial Household Attaché Yasunori Yoshioka played a crucial role in guiding Puyi. Following Yoshioka’s convincing advice, Puyi reluctantly decided that the group’s safety was the top priority. So, he made the tough call to leave behind Wanrong and the other women in his family. The reason behind this choice was the belief that these individuals would be more vulnerable to capture by the advancing Soviet forces.
When Puyi got to Mukden, he thought he had a way out with a Japanese plane waiting for him. But fate wasn’t on his side—Soviet forces caught him before he could board the second plane, messing up his plan to avoid getting caught. In a surprising twist related to the political complexities of the time, Joseph Stalin, the Soviet leader, decided not to give Puyi a harsher punishment. Even though Puyi was now a Soviet prisoner, he strangely got some respect. This unexpected treatment showed up in certain privileges, like having personal attendants or servants, as Behr explained in his account of Puyi’s time in captivity.
Chiang Kai-Shek, who held authority in the Republic of China, persistently attempted to retrieve Puyi from Soviet custody for prosecution in China. But Joseph Stalin, making a politically loaded decision, consistently said no, pointing to the tricky situation with the Chinese Communist Party as a reason. Amid this intricate period, Puyi’s cousin, Yoshiko, experienced a markedly distinct destiny. The Kuomintang captured her, charging her with high treason, and she ended up publicly executed. The severe outcome mirrors the tangled alliances and betrayals of this historical era.
In a weird twist, even though Puyi worked with the Japanese, he didn’t have to face the legal consequences that many war criminals did. Surprisingly, he escaped any trial or punishment for what he did during the war. In his comprehensive portrayal of Puyi, Behr depicted him as a “persistent deceiver, confident, and ready to undertake any action for self-preservation.” This harsh portrayal sums up how Behr saw Puyi’s attitude and actions during the proceedings.
During the trial, it became clear that there wasn’t enough evidence to convict Puyi, so Judge Sir William Webb made a significant decision. Seeing the lack of proof, Judge Webb kicked Puyi out of the courtroom, showing the legal challenges in reaching a definite judgment against the former emperor. Then, on December 7, 1949, Mao Zedong’s military forces, representing the Communists, won over Chiang’s Kuomintang Army. This significant triumph resulted in the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, with Mao assuming leadership. Seeing the potential for using noble figures like Puyi for propaganda, Mao’s government made a strategic move involving him.
Following the Communist victory, authorities sent Puyi to the Fushun War Criminals Management Centre in Liaoning, where he received a 10-year sentence. Surprisingly, the authorities treated Puyi relatively well compared to other prisoners, indicating a distinct approach to handling this high-profile individual. Undergoing a significant shift in his accustomed lifestyle, Puyi had to confront the stark reality of living without servants for the first time. Simple stuff like tying his shoes and brushing his teeth, which someone else used to do for him, now became tough challenges for the former emperor. This sudden shift from a life of privilege was a big adjustment for Puyi, making him deal with the demands of self-reliance.
While in jail, Puyi, now just a regular prisoner, actively joined Communist discussion groups, went to lectures and joined tours to learn about the terrible things that happened in Manchuria in the past years. The authorities implemented educational initiatives, perhaps encouraging people to contemplate and comprehend historical injustices. As per Behr, Puyi’s post-prison life took a surprising twist in 1959 when he returned to Beijing and secured a position as an assistant at the Beijing Botanical Garden. It marked a notable avoidance from his prior life as an influential figure in the imperial court, indicating a transition towards a more commonplace and labor-oriented existence.
Haunted by the Past
Despite everything changing drastically for him, Puyi kept a powerful connection to his past by regularly visiting the Forbidden City, which had turned into a museum. Surprisingly, he found himself guiding tourists around the same palace where he used to rule as emperor. The strange part was that Puyi, the former emperor, had to pay to visit his old home, showing the ironic twists in his life after the revolution. Two years after going back to Beijing, Puyi started a new job as an editor in the literature department of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. It was a substantial part of Puyi’s life after being an emperor, as he shifted into the role of an editor, dealing with the cultural and literary aspects of the changing political scene.
Proving his sturdy loyalty to the Communist Party, Puyi consistently showed his support through various ways, like interviews, articles, and his autobiography. He openly commended Mao’s government, affirming his alignment with the existing political structure. On October 17, 1967, at 61 years old, Puyi’s life came to an end at the Beijing Anti-Imperialist Hospital due to kidney cancer and heart disease. The death of the last Chinese emperor stirred up a mix of criticism and sympathy. His life story captured the many facets of a guy who became the youngest emperor in China at just two years old, ruled the Qing Dynasty for four years, and then led Manchukuo for 13 years.
A Life Under Manipulation
Throughout Puyi’s leadership, attaining actual authority proved challenging; he found himself in a position devoid of genuine power. Since his early years, Puyi underwent an intentional grooming process aimed at molding him into a puppet ruler. Different regimes played their part, each using their influence to manipulate Puyi for their gains. Puyi’s leadership exemplified the fragility of genuine authority when leaders find themselves in roles more symbolic than substantive, susceptible to strategic manipulation.
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