Chinese Emperors: Puyi (1908-11)

Figure 1.--Puyi is pictured her at age 4 about 1909-10. He was still emperor at tghe time.

Puyi was born in 1906 and and on the death of his uncle Guangxu became the last emperor of China. We have noted various spellings, P'u-i, Puyi, Pu-Yi, and Buyi. Unlike his newphew, he did not have the Dowager Empress as regent. Pu Yi's father, Prince Ch'un, served as his son's regent. The prince, however, disliked politics and court officials conducted givernment affairs. Reformers in China demanded change and action aginst the Europeans. They considered Prince Ch'un weak and the imperial regime corrupt and backward--incapable of challenging the Europeans. Puyi was raised by court officials who taught him to leave a desolate life. A Scottish tutor, Reginald Johnston, was hired for him. Puyi was forced to abdiagate in 1912 after the 1911 Republican Revolution. He was permitted to live in the Forbidden City until 1924. He was courted by the Japanese who had acquired the former German concessions in Manchuria. Puyi took up residence in the Japanese concession at Tientsin. The Japanese gradually expanded their control of Manchuria. They installed him in 1933 as Emperor of the puppet state of Manchoukuo. He met with Emperor Hirohito. We do not know the nature of their discussions. Puyi was surprised to learn that he had no real authority. The Soviet invaded Manchuria in the final weeks of World War II and turned him over to the Chinese for trial as a war criminal. The Chinese pardoned him in 1959. He returned to Beijing where he worked in the mechanical repair shop of a botanical garden and died in 1967. Puyi's life was beautifully told in the film, "The Last Emperor".


The Dowager Emperess selected Guangxu as a small boy in 1875 to be China's emperor. This allowed her to continue ruling China as regent on the death of her own son. Guangxu in 1898 attempted to exert is authority as Emperor and reform the Chinese imperial system. The the Dowager Emperess and conservative forces around her did not want to relenquish power. They imprisoned Guangxu and executed his reformist advisers and then launched the Boxer Revellion to drive the Foreign Devils out of China. The failure of the Boxer Rebellion discredited conservative forces and the imperial system. Guangxu in 1908 died the day before the Dowager Empress, under suspicious circumstances. Many believe that he was poisoned. He was reported to have been in good health. The Dowager Empress' final decree was to transfer the imperial throne to Puyi, a small boy who was Guangxu's nephew.

Emperor (1908)

Puyi was born in 1906 and and on the death of his uncle Guangxu became the last emperor of China in 1908, "Great Emperor of the Great Ching Dynasty, Great Kahn of Tartary, Son of Heaven and Lord of Ten Thousand Years".


Pu Yi's father was Prince Ch'un, a younger brother of Emperor Guangxu. There were two other childern. There was a brother named P'u Chieh or Aixinjueluo Pujie. There was also a sister.


We have noted various spellings, P'u-i, Puyi, Pu-Yi, and Buyi.


Puyi, unlike his uncle, did not have the Dowager Empress as regent. Puyi's father, Prince Ch'un, served as his son's regent. The prince, however, disliked politics and court officials conducted givernment affairs. Reformers in China demanded change and action aginst the Europeans. They considered Prince Ch'un weak and the imperial regime corrupt and backward--incapable of challenging the Europeans.

Abdication (1912)

Puyi was forced to abdiacate in 1912 after the 1911 Republican Revolution began. The Revolution was caused in part by the resentment felt against foreigners and the Manchu government's inability to deal with the foreign challenge. Revolution swept China in 1911. Puyi's father Prince Ch'un was forced to resign as regent. A Chinese general Yuan Shih-k'ai who hoped to simply replace the Manchus seized the government in Beijing. The Manchu Grand Council fearing action Shih-k'ai had Puyi abdicate on February 12, 1912. He was 5 years old. Puyi continued to live in the palace in the Forbidden City and was treated with enormous respect. He was permitted to continue living in the Forbidden City until 1924.

The Forbidden City

Puyi's childhood was confined to the Forbidden City. It was a palace complex in the center of Beijing which was originally built by the Ming. The complex was surrounded by a moat and commoners were not allowed to enter. It is loacted on Tianenmen Square. The Forbidden City was a vast complex of 24 palaces built by Ming and Manchu emperors. In addition to the palaces were white-marble terraces, mericulously mainrained gardens, and enumerable shrines. The Forbidden City was built on grounfs totaling 250 acres and over 9,000 rooms. Color has great significance in Chinese cosmology. The city's walls were all painted red and the roofs were gold--the colors of the imperial court. Only the emperor in China was allowed to wear yellow garments. Almost everything around Puyi was yellow. There were yellow floor tiles and dishes. Puyi even had yellow pillow cases and blankets.


Puyi may have had the strangest childhood of any boy we have chronicled on HBC. After chosen by the Dowager Empress on her deathbed, he was taken from his family and brought to the Forbidden City. Court life at the Forbidden City was run by eunuchs. Puyi was kept isolated even after his abdigation as emperor. In fact did not encounter another child until he was 7 years old when his brother and sister first visited him. The three children after meeting played hide and enjoyed themselves. Then Puyi noticed the color of the lining of his brother's sleeve which was yellow. He was outraged and screamed acusations. His brother reportedly stood at attention and stamered, "It isn't yellow, sire. It is apricot, Your Imperial Majesty." Eventhough Puyi was not the emperor any longer, he was kept within the Forbidden City. Everyone there knelt and kowtowed to him. This including his parents, but he rarely saw them. He had become emperor in 1909 and didn't see his mother again until 1916 when he was 10 years old.

A a boy, Puyi was looked after by four consorts of previous emperors. Princess Jung-Shu (1854-1911) was an adopted daughter of the Dowager Empress. After the Empresses death in 1908, Jung-Shu became a leading dowager inside the Forbidden City. Puyi called her "mother". He later wrote, "Although I had many mothers, I never knew motherly love." [Puyi] His real mother disagreed over how her son was beung raised and there were arguments. After one such arguments when he was about 13, his mother took opium and died. This made Puyi a life-long critic of drugs and he never used them, although his wife became adicted. Pu Yi's father took much less interest. Prince Ch'un, would visit Puyi every 2 months. He reportedly never stayed for more than 2 minutes.

The court eunuchs in the Forbidden City treated P'u Yi with much formality. He had virtually no privacy. Where ever he went in the Forbidden City, a procession would follow him. He couldn't even take a walk by himself in the gardens. Whereever he went, an entourage would follow him. When he went out to play, for example, he was followed by silent eunuchs. Some carried ancient halberds, others carried traditional Chinese medicines in case he should be hurt. There were even delicacies in beautifully lacquered bowls in case he wanted anything to eat. [Brackman] There were no regular set times for meals. Whenever he wanted, he simply commanded, "Transmit the viands!" and instant imperial banquets appeared. Attending eunuchs would set up elaborate banquets with astounding speed. Normally there would be six tables full of food. There would be two tables of main dishes, one table of vegetables, and three tables of rice and cakes. These meals for Puyi would be "limited" to only 25 dishes per meal. Actually which was a fraction of whag was prepared for previous emperors. They were normally offered a minimum of 100 dishes, but of couese they were adults and actual emperors. Cooks at the Forbidden City's prepared food constantly, both day and night. As a result, food was ready whenever he requested it.

Puyi could order his staff punished. When upset, he might order the court eunuchs flogged. As an adult, he once had a boy who ran away beaten. The boy later died.


Puyi while in the Forbidden City well into his teens wore traditional clothes, including dragon robes. He also wore the traditional Manchu pigtail.

Dragon Robes

Chinese emperor's wore elaborately embroidered dragon robes. This tradition dated back to early Chinese dynasties. The robes had dragons and other symbols based on Chinese cosmology and were mean to signify the centrality of the emperor's role on earth.


Puyi was raised by court officials who taught him to leave a desolute, hedonistic life, in part so he could be more easily controlled. Puyi received an extensive education. He studied Chinese, history and poetry, but was given no classes in such modern subjects as math, geography or science. His lessons were in the Chinese and Manchu languages. When he was 13 years old he began to study English. The imperial court still though it was possible to restore Puyi to his imperial throne. It was thus thought advisable for him to have some vontact with Europeans which might assist, although they were uneasy about the potential European influence. Court officials asked the British Colonial Office to provide an English tutor. The man chosen was Reginald Johnston, a Scotsman who was not a trained tutor. Johnston was like a man from another planet when Puyi first met him. Johnston acted as a kind if liason between the imperial court and the British Government, in effect a British agent. The British at the time were suspicious of the Chinese Reoublic and its desire to seize the foreugn concessions. Thus some advantages were seen in maintaining some contact with the imperial court. Puyi was greatly influenced by Johnston. He became both a friend and mentor. Puyi as a result of Johnston developed a passion for anything Western. A bycycle Johnston gave him became a prised possession. Johnston also noted that Puyi's eyesight was weak and needed glasses. Court officials debated the advisability of wearing glasses as they seemed so Western. Puyi insisted, however, in wearing them. Johnston later became Governor of Weihawei (British enclave in China) and subsequently Professor of Chinese Literature at London University. He died in 1938.

The Republic (1911-49)

Agitation for a Chinese republic was led by Dr. Sun Yat-sen. A rebellion broke out ino October 10, 1911 that led to the over throw of the Manchus. The Imperial Army garrison at Wuchang rebelled on October 10, 1911, and declared China to be a republic. Other garrisons joined them. Within 2 months thirteen of China's eighteen provinces had joined the rebellion. The Imperail Government was unable to supress the rebellion as by thi time, many military commanders were allied with the republicans. The republicans occupied Beijing in 1912 and demanded Puyi abdicate. Prince Chun, the regent, was offered an arrangement that guaranteed Puyi's title, safety, income, and continued possession of the Forbidden City. Despite the Republic, China continued to be domunated by war lords until the mid 1920s. The 1911 Revolution and Chinese Republic had its own fashion dictates bringing a completely new look to Chinese fashion just as previous new dynasties had done. The importance of Western clothing grew after the Nationalist Revolution in 1911 and the fall of the last Machu Emperor. Even so, it was mostly seen in the larger coastal cities. Sun set new standards for formal attire to be worn. Chinese men wore both high and flat hats were demanded for formal wear and bowler hats and western suits or traditional long gowns were for less formal occassions. Ladies forformal events might wear a traditional jacket with front buttons down to the knees, slit on both sides and back and embroidery all over, worn with a black skirt. New regulations were adopted in the 1920s. Men were to wear Chinese tunic suits and ladies were to wear qipao. [Chang]

Figure 2.--This is Puyi wearing the traditional robes he wore as a boy in the Forbidden City. This photograph was taken when Puyi was 11 years old in 1917. Ot was during the brief attempt as a restoration by Warlord Chang Hsun (Zhang Xun).

Attempted Restoration (1917)

Puyi continued to be used as a pupet as Chinese history played out around him. The Chinese Republic was very weak. Warlords with armies continued to plague the country. Chang Hsun (Zhang Xun), a warlord general, in 1917 attempted to restore Puyi to the throne. Chang surrounded Beijing and Puyi or rather the court claimed that Puyi wjo was only 9 years olds was again the emperor. A few days later, an airplane dropped three small bombs on the Forbidden City. They were small bombs as the air plane was just beginning to see use as a weapon of war in World War I at the time. The attack on the Forbidden City was reportedly the first air raid in Chinese history. Puyi was taking lessons in his classroom when he heard the explosions. The attempted restoration collapsed and life went on in the Forbidden City for Puyi much as before.

Marriage (1919)

The imperail court in 1919 decide that Puyi should marry He was 16 years old. He was given photographs of four Manchu girls and had to pick one. He was unsure, but chose a 13-year old girl named Wen Hsiu. His advisors were not happy with the choice. They thought that Wen Hsiu was not beautiful enough to be the empress. They insisted that he picked another bride. This time he chose a very beautiful girl his own age named Wan Jung. She later became known as Elizabeth and was his legal wife. Wen Hsiu became his consort. Puyi may have never consumated his marriages. Puyi reportedly chose a crown prince becuse he never had a child with Elizabeth or his consorts. [Jia]

Expulsion from the Forbidden City (1924)

Puyi's situation became increasingly tenuous in the mid-1920s. Fighting was continuing with the warlords, but Chaing Kai-shek was increasing his power. Chang wanted the Agreement over the Forbidden City revised and the Imperial seals surrendered. Feng Yu-hsiang, a Communist Christian warlord general, in 1924 forced Puyi out of the Forbidden City. This was the first time since early childhood Puyi had ever been outside the grounds. He left with the imperial seal and a suitcase full of jewels. This was a dangerous time and Puyi feared for his safty. Johnston helped Puyi reach the Japanese Embassy. Apparently the British at this time conceived that limiting Chinese power might be helpful in maintaining their concessions in China. They though that Puyi might be useful in helping the Japnese expand their influence in Manchuria.


Eventuually Puyi moved to the Japanese concession at Tientsin. Puyi at the time called this his "flight to freedom". He was to later see it as entering "the tiger's mouth". [Puyi] Tientsin was an important port and much more cosmopolitan than Beijing. The Japanese allowed Puyi to set up a court there. Japanese Army officers treated him with great defference. He was fed accounts of how the Chinese were abusing Manchuria. They told him that Japan was ready to assist him to take back what was rightfully his--the homeland of the Manchus. Puyi and his wife Elizabeth in Tientsin had very busy social lives, but they were not intimate. Puyi in fact was closer to Wen Hsiu, but she was not content with being a consort and demanded a divorce. While in Tientsin, Puyi learned that the Kuomintang forces had dynamited the Eastern Tombs of the Manchu rulers, including that of the Dowager Empress, looting and desecrating them (1928). He had been trained since childhood in the Chinese tradition of ancestor worship and extremely disturbed by the news. This turned him further against the Chinese and toward the Japanese. Up until this time he had resisted offers by the Japanese concerning Manchuria. This apparently helped convince him to actively work against the Chinese Republic and the Kuomintang.

The Japanese

The Japanese had adopted a much different attitude toward modernization than the Chinese. They deploued a modern Army and Navy and had defeated Russia in the 1905-06 Russo-Japanese War. They proceeded to persue the same policies toward China that the European powers persued. Japan joined the Allies in World War I and acquited the German Pacific island colonies as well as Chinese concessions after the War. The Japanese also acquired interests in Manchurian railroads. The Chinese because if their limited technical abilities at the time, had to contarct foreigners to build badly needed railroads. The Japanese were especially interested in Manchuria which bordered their Korean colony and was the source of raw materials that Japan itself liked. Some in Japan began to think that Puyi could be useful as the Manchus were a Manchurian dynasty. [Brackman] Puyi as a young man was thus courted by some Japanese officials, especially the military. Puyi took up residence in the Japanese concession at Tientsin. The Japanese gradually expanded their control of Manchuria.


The Japanese steadily expanded their influence in Manchuria during the 1920s. The Japanese Army had powerful forces in neighboring Korea which they formally annexed (1910) after victory in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05). Arrangements were reached with the Russians over spheres of influence in Manchuria. Some Japanese forces were stationed in southern Manchuria to maintain security on the South Manchurian Railway. The Japanese Army in 1931 staged incodents along the railroad and used this a pretext to invade Manchuria. The Chinese Republic was able to offer only token resistance. At the time there was still a debate in Japan as to wether or not the couuntry should persue an aggressive policy of military expansion. Civilian politicians opposed to the military were assasinated or forced out of office. The Japanese Army smuggled Puyi into Manchuria.


After seizing Manchuria in 1931, the Japanese set up a suppet state which they called Manchoukuo. It was not recognized by other countries, with the exception of Japan's future allies Japan and Italy. Japanese authorities installed Puyi as the regent. He was furious as they had led him to believe that he would be made emperor. [Puyi, p. 246.] His desire was to be an emperor once again. The Japanese in finally 1934 agreed to make Puyi the Emperor of Manchukuo. He took the title K'ang Teh, or "Tranquility and Virtue." Puyi had expected to be named e,peror of China and not just Manchoukuo. He traveled to Japan to meet with Emperor Hirohito. We do not know the nature of their discussions.

Puyi was surprised to learn that as Emperor he had no real authority. The Japanese gave him a palace and provided money to finance his court. His palace is now a museum in Changchun city. Puyi had, however, no real authority. The Japanese Kwangtung Army in Manchoukuo placed Japanese vice ministers in his cabinet. All Chinese advisors gradually resigned or were dismissed and the Kwangtung Army essentially ruled the country. The Japanese ran Manchoukuo, controlling all the military and administrative power and made all decisions of any consequence. Puyi came to see that he had made a terrible mistake in trusting the Japanese, but found himself powerless in his own palace. The Japanese used Manchoukuo during World War II as a source of raw materials to support their war industries. Slave labor including Alloed POWs were used. The Japanese in propaganda films portrayed Manchoukuo as a paradice to recruit Japanese colonists, but relatively few volunteered for settlement there.

The Japanese attempted to control even Puyi's private life. The Japanese wanted Puyi and his brother to marry Japanese women. Puyi refused and took another new Manchu consort named Yu-ling, or "Jade Years." His brother, P'u Chieh, relented and married Hiro Saga, the daughter of a Japanese nobleman and distant relation to the Japanese imperial family. They had two daughters. [Jia] Puyi in 1939 had fallen in love with a 17-year-old student named Tan Yuling, but Tan, like most Chinese and Manchurians, resented the Japanese. She died hours after a doctor sent by Japnese officials gave her an injection, esposedly to treat her for typhoid fever. Pu Yi under consant pressure frim the Japanese chose a 14-year-old school girl for a concubine so he would not have to consort with a Japanese woman. She divorced him 15 years later while he was in prison. [Li] Yoshiko Kawashimsa known as Eastern Jewel (1906-1949) entered Puyi's life in the 1030s. She was a Manchurian princess and distant relative of Puyi. She was also a Japanese spy working in China. Chiang Kai-chek had her executed in 1949.

The Soviets

The Soviets in the final weeks of World War II attacked the Japanese in Manchuria. The Sovierts had buily up a massive modern army to fight the Germans and after the German surrender in May 1945, these forced were available for a campaign against Japan. The Japnese Army in Manchuria was overwealmed. Piyu fled his palace again with a suitcase of jewels and his imperial seal. Soviet authorities seized him and kept him under house in Russia. He was correctly treated and in 1946 testifed in Tokyo against Japanese war criminals. He mainatined that he had not been responsible for Japanese atrocities in Manchurria before or during the War, but was only a powerless puppet. He claimed that he had been the unwilling tool of the Japanese militarists and not, as they claimed, the instrument of Manchurian self-determination. [Puyi] The Soviets kept him under house arrest in relatively comfortable conditions for several years. Stalin apparently thought that he could be politically useful once the Civil War in China had played out. It was at this time that Puyi took up gardening. The Chinese Communists defeated the Nationalists and established the People's Republic in 1949. The Soviets then in 1950 turned Puyi over to Communist officials.

Chinese Communists

Soviet officials in July 1950, at the request of Chairman Mao, turned Puyi over to Chinese authorities. The Chinese tried Puyi as a Japanese collaborator and war criminal. He was subjected to almost a decade of re-education at Shenyang. [Puyi] The Chinese pardoned him in 1959. He returned to Beijing where he worked in the mechanical repair shop of a botanical garden. Puyi receiving full rights as a citizen in 1960. He was frequently paraded before visitors and gave manuy interviews. He was allowed to write his autobiography, which was published in 1964. He married Li Shu-hsien on May Day 1962. She was a 40-year old doctor. He worked on various commissions and committees. He died in 1967 just after the beginning of the Cultural Revolution.


Puyi's life was beautifully told in Bernardo Bertolucci's 1987 film, "The Last Emperor". This is probably Bertolucci's most undersyandable film. Parts of the film were actually shot in the Forbidden City. "The Last Emperor" is an epic film, surveying China's tumultous 20th century history through the life of one man--Puyi. China's transition from feudalism to revolution is beautifully told with considerable historical accuracy. It is an unusual epic film, because such films are usually about larger than life figures who shaped history. "The Last Emperor" is, however, about a very passive figure who was never able to control even his own life. One historian describes Puyi as a "A man kidnapped by history". [Behr] Scenes of Puyi's childhood in splendid isolation within the Forbidden City are intercut with scenes from his austere Communist reeducation. Often this mechanism is confusing in Bertolucci's, but rather effectively used here. The movie won several Oscars, imcluding Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing and six other categories. Peter O'Toole played Puyi's Scottish tutor.


Behr, Edward. The Last Emperor (Bantan Books, 1987).

Brackman, Arnold C. The Last Emperor (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1975).

Chang, Chang, January 14, 2002.

Jia Yinghua. A Biography of Pujie: Brother of the Last Emperor (Beijing, 2002). Jia has written several books Puyi and his brother. His books have included works on the last marriage of Puyi, China's last eunuch, the relations between Puyi and Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, and how Puyi chose a crown prince.

Johnston, Reginald F. Twilight in the Forbidden City.

Li Xin, "Pu Yi's Widow Reveals Last Emperor's Soft Side", Chinese Inter Press Service, April 8, 1995. Li Xin was Puyi's last wife whom he married after released from prison in 1959.

Power, Brian. The Puppet Emperor.

Ching Hshuan-t'ung (Asian-Gigoro Pu Yi). From Emperor to Citizen-The Autobiography of Pu Yi, W.J.F. Jenner, trans. (The People's Republic of China : Foreign Language Press, 1965).


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Created: August 29, 2002
Last updated: 11:22 PM 7/16/2008