Emperor Puyi | Christopher Winter


We often hear the fairy-tale story of pauper to millionaire, commoner to king, servant girl to princess. It is an extremely popular narrative which has persisted in literature and media through the ages. These dreams are explored in works such as Cinderella, The Prince and the Pauper, Jack and the Bean stalk etc. We also often focus on figures in real life who have accomplished this feat. Ralph Lauren, Oprah Winfrey, and Dolly Parton to name but a few.

We very rarely hear this story in reverse. The reason we never hear these ‘riches to rags’ stories is, of course, rather obvious, they don’t have a very hopeful narrative. There is, however, one man I can think of who lived out this life in a way that was so absolutely unique and extraordinary that I doubt we will ever see anyone like him again. This man is, of course, Emperor Puyi of China.

Puyi was born in 1906 and was crowned emperor of China at the age of just 2 years and 10 months in 1908. He was selected to be the next emperor by the Empress Dowager Cixi after the death of his uncle, who had no heirs. Immediately upon selection, Puyi was taken away from his parents (who were given no prior notice) and was taken to the Forbidden city. Only his wet nurse, Wang Lianshou, was allowed to go with him. Puyi would not see his own mother again for seven years and grew a strong relationship with his wet nurse instead. He later went on to say that she was the only person in the world who could control him.

Being the emperor at such a young age meant that, for Puyi, there never were any limits placed on him. A famously cruel and spoilt child, Puyi would regularly have his own eunuchs flogged and beaten for incredibly minor mistakes; he would shoot air-rifles at them for fun; he would suggest poisoning them to ‘see what would happen’. It is important to remember that, unlike the emperors before him, not a single person was able to discipline him for his actions during his childhood. He was given no real ‘prince’ phase in which he could be disciplined and punished for his actions – He was the emperor of all China, and therefore had the mandate of heaven from just the age of 2. For those surrounding Puyi, disciplining would have been a serious crime. It was therefore practically impossible to control him. However; it is rumoured that, during his childhood, Puyi was repeatedly molested and robbed by maids of the Forbidden City. Eunuchs and maids conspired to ‘tire him out’ by repeatedly molesting him until he was exhausted.

In 1911 a revolution took place, and by 1912 China was a republic. Under the terms of abdication drawn up by Puyi’s advisors, the empress dowager, and the republican government, Puyi was permitted to stay in the forbidden city. So isolated from the entire situation, was Puyi, that he did not learn of his own abdication until 1913, when he was greeted by the then President of China, Yuan Shikai. This arrangement would continue until 1917 when Puyi was briefly restored to the throne for just 12 days in July. This restoration attempt failed and Puyi carried on life in the forbidden city as normal.

As Puyi continued with his life in the forbidden city, he began learning from a British tutor, Sir Reginald Johnston. This was to prepare him for his life when he was reinstated as the emperor of China – a life of course which he would never lead. Sir Reginald taught Puyi English and educated him almost exclusively on British history and British and Japanese political science. Being a Japanophile, Johnston attempted heavily to steer Puyi towards befriending the Japanese at every opportunity and, when Puyi was removed from the forbidden city in 1924 by a Chinese warlord, Johnston encouraged Puyi to seek shelter with the Japanese embassy, not the British embassy. The decision, by Johnston, to send Puyi to the Japanese would come to alter the course of Puyi’s life forever as, on the 1st of March 1932, Puyi would be made the leader of the Japanese puppet government in Manchuria.

Puyi ruled, not as an emperor with a mandate of heaven, but as the chief executive of a republican government. Puyi never agreed with this, as he believed that he held the divine right to rule over all of China as emperor, but he was in no position to negotiate with the Japanese and would indeed bide his time as act as the ruler of Manchukuo. After ‘proving himself’ to Emperor Hirohito, he was reinstated as emperor of Manchuria in 1934 and was promised that he would rule all of China again when Japan had retaken the rest of it for him. This was a lie, but it pleased Puyi very much.

Of course, Japan’s war with China was unsuccessful and, after 13 years of governing Manchuria, Puyi was rushed to South Korea where he intended to board a plane to Japan. However, before he could make his escape, he and his advisors were captured by the Soviets. Surprisingly, however, the Soviets did not immediately put Puyi on trial. Instead, they kept him safe as a prisoner and allowed him to maintain some of his servants. Even in prison, Puyi still treated his staff as beneath him and demanded that they refer to him as their emperor. He would still routinely slap and beat his servants just as he had done before in the forbidden city.

Despite repeated requests by the Nationalist government of China, the Soviets refused to hand over Puyi to them. The Soviets wished to hold out until the Communists had won the Chinese civil war and, as such, would not extradite Puyi to Chang Kai Shek. This saved Puyi’s life as the Nationalists had already denounced Puyi as a traitor and had made their plans of executing him known. Puyi was eventually extradited to the Communists in 1950 who had a wholly different view for the returned emperor.

Convinced that the Communists would have him killed, Puyi wrote that he was shocked by their kindness and willingness to work with him. They sent him to a re-education facility where, over the period of nine years he was transformed from an emperor to a normal citizen of the People’s Republic of China. Puyi was transformed into an everyday man, and not shot, because Mao wanted to extoll the virtues of Chinese communism. Mao had believed that Lenin had failed in ordering the execution of Nicholas II of Russia, and that, by instead turning an emperor into a fully fledged communist, Mao had proven that the Chinese could do communism better than the Soviets.

From 1959 onwards, Puyi left the reform prison and returned to live in Beijing. During this time, he was highly sought out by foreign journalists who wished to meet the last emperor of China. Puyi was kept busy with work and was employed as a street sweeper and gardener in Beijing. He would often visit the forbidden city and the streets of Beijing and spook unthinking tourists by telling them that he was the last emperor. He would often remark during tours of the forbidden city that he had played with these items during his youth.

With the approval of Mao, Puyi would write his autobiography ‘From Emperor to Citizen’ which would win him praise from the CCP, but would eventually cause him much trouble during the cultural revolution in 1966 as Red Guards would routinely seek him out in an attempt to attack and steal from him. He was placed under protection until his death a year later in 1967.

I think it is fair to argue that Puyi lived one of the most extraordinary lives of anyone throughout the 20th century. Not a single other political leader of any nation could claim to have had such a unique life. An emperor, a prisoner, a refugee, a war criminal, a Maoist Street sweeper. Truly, we will never see anyone like him again.


This essay is an entry to the Mallard’s Rogues’ Gallery competition. You can find more information here.

Photo Credit.

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