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Puyi — The Last Emperor of the Qing Dynasty and Witness to History

Puyi (February 7, 1906 – October 17, 1967), respected as Xuantong Emperor, was the last emperor of both the Qing Dynasty and the history of China. 

From a toddler monarch to a puppet emperor, a prisoner, and then a civilian, he had witnessed many aspects of modern Chinese history.

Exquisite cloisonne Jars with Gilding Lid, and Jade Pieces of the Qing Dynasty

Jade Pieces in Exquisite Cloisonne Jars and Gilding Lids of the Qing Dynasty — Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Toddler Xuantong Emperor of the Qing Dynasty

Empress Dowager Cixi (1835 — 1908), the most powerful person in the late Qing Dynasty, was displeased by the current childless Guangxu Emperor's (1871 — 1980) reformative policies. 

Hence, Cixi took the two-year-old Puyi (Guangxu Emperor's nephew) away from his birth parent and nominated him as the heir of the Qing Empire. 

A few months later, when Cixi was very sick, she poisoned the Guangxu Emperor and passed away the next day.

Afterward, Puyi ascended to the throne as Xuantong Emperor; his birth father Zaifeng, respected as Prince Chun, with Cixi's approval, became the most potent regent of the Qing Empire. 

However, at that time, the Qing Empire's dominance reached sunset; rebel forces, from refugees and peasants to well-educated intellectuals, appeared in many places in China.

Painting of Empress Dowager Cixi, By Hubert Vos in 1905

Painting of Empress Dowager Cixi, By Hubert Vos in 1905 — Summer Palace

End of the Qing Dynasty and the Abdication of the Throne

Three years later, the Revolution of 1911 (or the Xinhai Revolution) broke out and quickly spread nationwide. The Qing army kept losing in the next two months.

Soon, his father, Prince Chun, was forced to resign as the regent. Then Xuantong announced abdication on February 12, 1912, as the legit emperor of this last feudal dynasty in the history of China.

The Republic of China (ROC), which consisted of many half-independent warlords, was established in the same year.  

Puyi still had the right to live in the Forbidden City and take a certain amount of money from the ROC government; the Qing's Manchu nobles still held some privileges and were respected.

Inside the palace, a complete system was in place to serve him as a true emperor, reminiscent of bygone eras. Despite the changing times, he continued to live a wealthy life and received education within the royal palace.

Two years later, they were required to abolish feudal royal titles and change their nomadic clothes and hairstyle to modern ones. 

Forbidden Palace in Beijing City

Forbidden Palace in Beijing City — Royal Palace of the Qing Dynasty

The 11-Day Second Reign as Emperor

When he was 11, a warlord occupied Beijing and supported Puyi in recovering the Qing Empire.

However, 11 days later, after another warlord occupied Beijing, he was forced to abdicate for the second time. 

Afterward, Puyi continued his emperor's lifestyle inside the royal palace and was able to meet his siblings and birth parents sometimes.

Since the Revolution of 1911, many people still haven't given up on restoring the Qing Empire, and he had always been taught so.

He had been educated to be a good monarch and enjoyed the privileges of being one, though he had never tasted real power or freedom.

When he was 15, his birth mother committed suicide because he had argued with a powerful empress dowager. 

Puyi finally realized that his noble title and "power" even could not protect his mother.

Puyi in Court Dress

Puyi in Court Dress During His Second Time of Being An Emperor

Failed Escape Attempt and Former Emperor's Modernization Efforts

Puyi had a British teacher named Reginald Fleming Johnston (1874 — 1938) since he was 13 and had a good relationship with him.


He learned English, math, and geography from this foreign teacher.

When he grew older, he became unsatisfied with his awkward situation.


He wanted to escape from the Forbidden City or even study abroad, but most conservative nobles and other royal members didn't allow him to do that.

So, he and his oldest brother Pujie (1907 — 1994) made an escape plan. 

Firstly, they secretly transported many valuable paintings and other treasures outside of the Forbidden City and stored them in another house; most soon disappeared after Japan arrived during World War Two.

Puyi's BSA Bike Imported From England

Puyi's BSA Bike Imported From England — Palace Museum

But right before Puyi got the chance to escape, he and his brother were found out, and this plan failed.  

Because of the influence of his foreign teacher, he finally cut off his plait and recommended other nobles to do the same.


Since then, this nomadic Manchu hairstyle finally disappeared from the history of China.

When he was 16, he married a queen and an imperial concubine simultaneously, according to the emperor’s wedding ceremony of the Qing Dynasty.

After the wedding, he dismissed some eunuchs, trying to change the situation that many people kept stealing and selling treasures from the Forbidden City. 

Puyi's Wedding Ring, Carved with Quotes " Yun Zhi Jue Zhong"
Puyi's Wedding Ring, Carved with Quotes "Wei Jing Wei Yi"

Puyi's Wedding Ring, Carved with Quotes "Wei Jing Wei Yi, Yun Zhi Jue Zhong", From the Ancient "Book of Documents" (Shang Shu) that Finished Around 2500 to 3000 Years Ago — Palace Museum

Expulsion from the Forbidden City

Two years later, Warlord Feng Yuxiang (1882 — 1948) initiated a coup and expelled those former royals of the late Qing from the Forbidden City. 

Feng claimed that Puyi would get their protection only if he gave up all the privileges and became a civilian afterward.

Qing’s Manchu nobles refused, including Puyi himself.

He then took as much treasure as he could and came to his father’s mansion; soon, they escaped to another city and lived in a house in concession when he was still respected as an emperor.

Meanwhile, he also got more chances to communicate with more foreign forces, most of whom were polite to him but not quite interested in the restoration of the Qing Dynasty. 

Except for the Japanese, who showed Puyi tremendous sympathy and the possibility to be helpful in the Qing Empire’s restoration. Hence, Puyi became closer to them.

Puyi's Jade Seal, Carved with His Former Reign Title Xuantong

Puyi's Jade Seal, Carved with His Former Reign Title Xuantong — Palace Museum

Destruction of the Mausoleums of Qing Dynasty Monarchs

After Puyi was expelled from his royal palace, the ROC ended long-term fights among warlords and organized a united government.

On the other side, Puyi was attempting everything to restore his empire and its former glory.

However, General Sun Dianying (1889 — 1947) led his army to open the Qing's late emperors' graves and took away countless treasures.


Qianlong Emperor and Empress Dowager Cixi, Qing's two most luxurious monarchs, had their fancy royal mausoleums ransacked and their skeletons dragged outside their coffins.

Puyi and his loyal "officials" were angry and sad; they tried to appeal to the ROC's government. 

In some gossip, Sun Dianying bribed many superior officials of the ROC, using the treasures he stole from these mausoleums. 

Meanwhile, Sun Dianying claimed that he was a descendant of the great Marshal Sun Chengzong (1563 — 1638) of the Ming Dynasty; based on what they did to Sun Chengzhong and Ming's civilians at the beginning of the Qing Dynasty, this was just karma. 

In the end, some people were investigated and imprisoned but ended up with nothing conclusive.

Empress Dowager Cixi's Mausoleum the Ding Dong Ling.

Empress Dowager Cixi's Mausoleum the Ding Dong Ling

The Third Time as a Puppet Monarch

When Puyi was 25, Japan invaded and occupied the northeast of China.

Then, Kenji Doihara assisted him escaped to northeastward, where he established another "country" named "Manchukuo" (1932 — 1945) with the help of the Japanese, which turned out to be an illegal regime, and Puyi was just a puppet monarch.

He didn't have much freedom there and was not allowed to make essential decisions or participate in politics as the emperor of "Manchukuo".

His queen Wanrong, a beautiful and well-educated noble-born girl, got the lunacy during this half-captive period. 

His father, uncle, and little brother refused to go to his new "country" to become a traitor. 

His imperial concubine Wenxiu (1909 — 1953) announced a divorce from him, who had lived as a teacher since after.

They all stayed in other cities, though in poverty, and refused to work for the puppet government that was under the control of the Japanese.

Only his oldest brother Pujie, who helped him steal and transport valuable treasures out of the Forbidden City, came to this new "country" to support him and married a Japanese wife. 

Puyi and Wanrong

Puyi and Wanrong

Miseries and Desperation in the Illegitimate Regime

As a puppet king, Puyi had no actual right in politics and never brought his people good lives.

Japanese invaders cruelly murdered large numbers of laborers; countless innocent people were captured and used in inhuman experiments.

Many mass graves containing thousands of bodies were found after the Japanese army left this area.

Civilians here were forced to accept enslaving education. 

People living in the best rice production area were forbidden to eat rice because the good food needed to be transported to the Japanese Battlefronts in World War Two. 

During this period, Puyi married two other "imperial concubines".

Puyi Wearing "Manchukuo" Uniform

Puyi Wearing "Manchukuo" Uniform

One was named Tan (1920 — 1942), whom he loved very much, and they spent some good times together.


But Tan died suddenly when she was only 22 after she got sick and had been "treated" by a Japanese doctor.

Puyi insisted that Tan was murdered by the Japanese because Tan was well-educated and told him many of the Japanese's cruel behaviors.

After Tan's death, he was "suggested" to marry a Japanese wife, but he refused firmly. Then, he chose a local young girl from a list that the Japanese offered. 

They got separated after Japan surrendered in 1945 and divorced in 1957.

Testifying as a War Criminal at Tribunal

When Japan kept losing on the Pacific and Southeast Asia battlefields, Puyi started to worry that the Japanese might kill him in case he fell into the "wrong" hands.

So he tried his best to show his "loyalty" to the Japanese, who then decided to take him with them back to Japan. 

Before that, he announced his "abdication" for the third time.

However, right before they were about to leave China, he was captured by the Soviets at the airport.

This time, he was no longer an emperor or "king" but became a war criminal. 

Also, as a puppet "monarch" of the illegal Manchukuo that the Japanese built, Puyi was defined as a big traitor to the ROC government and the Chinese people.

He was aware of this, so he applied several times to stay in the Soviet Union and donated many treasures that he took along but got no reply.

Soon, he testified at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East for eight days and revealed some crimes that the Japanese committed (according to his memoirs, he didn't say the things that he was involved in, in case Chinese people would sentence him if he were sent back someday).

Due to his special status, Puyi enjoyed a comfortable existence during this period; he was exempt from any labor activities.

Puyi testifying at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East

Puyi testifying at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East

Puyi's Captivity in an Ironic City

A few years later, Puyi and his former followers were sent back to China and imprisoned after the People's Republic of China (PRC) was established. 

Ironically, the city where he was grounded was where his nomadic Manchurian ancestor Nurhaci (1559 — 1626) established their regime and started to fight against the Ming Dynasty.

Here in Fushun, the first king of the Qing Dynasty rose and started his journey of building a vast empire; after three hundred years, the Qing's last emperor served his time there.  

Puyi then started learning to do everything independently, such as laundry.

For the first time, he knew what crimes the Japanese committed in the northeast of China under the name of his "kingdom". He also met many civilians who suffered a lot but fought bravely against the Japanese.

After hearing how ordinary people suffered under his "reign", his former followers stopped talking to him and tried to isolate him. 

He wrote his memoir during this period and donated the rest of his treasures, which were placed in different museums.

He also met with all his relatives who refused to work for the Japanese. 

After nine years of captive life, he and his brother Pujie were specially amnestied and completed the transition from the emperor to a citizen. 

Triple Jade Seals (Tianhuang San Lian Xi) of Qianlong Emperor

Triple Seals (Tianhuang San Lian Xi) of Qianlong Emperor that Carved Out of One Jade Stone, An Extremely Valuable Treasure that Puyi Had Been Carried WIth For Decades — Palace Museum

Commoner Puyi and His Late Years in Beijing

Then, Puyi went back to Beijing and met with his family members.

For the first time, he lived in his hometown as an ordinary person, freely, without constraints or life-and-death moments.

Later, he worked in the Beijing Botanical Gardens and participated in writing historical materials for an organization. Afterward, he was nominated as a member of the Political Consultative Conference.

Many people tried introducing women to him, but he refused all those former Manchu nobles. Instead, he married a civilian-born nurse named Li Shuxian (1925 — 1997) and spent the rest of his life with her.

In his later years, he paid his last visit to the Forbidden City, when he bought a ticket like other people and served as a guide.

A few years later, on October 17, 1967, he passed away old and sick, leaving no offspring. 

Puyi and His Wife Li Shuxian

Puyi and His Wife Li Shuxian

What Happened to Puyi's Close Relatives

Puyi's father, Zaifeng (1883 — 1951), the former regent of the Qing Empire, who refused to go to northeast China to work for the Japanese, passed away in his old palace.

His beautiful queen Wanrong (1906 — 1946) tried everything to escape from the "kingdom" he and the Japanese built but failed. Later, she became insane and was imprisoned.


After Japan surrendered in 1945, she was released but died the following year; no one knew how and where she ended up.

His uncle Zaitao (1887 — 1970), the former prince and powerful minister of Qing, stopped contacting him after rejecting to work for the Japanese.


After Japan occupied Beijing during World War Two, they offered his uncle the position of 'mayor' of Beijing, but he steadfastly refused and chose to live a life of poverty by selling goods in a market.


After the PRC was established, his uncle was assigned to work as a consultant in the army and a member of the National People's Congress. 

Night Revels of Han Xizai (Part One), by Artist Gu Hongzhong of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms
Night Revels of Han Xizai (Part Two), by Artist Gu Hongzhong of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms

Night Revels of Han Xizai, Originally by Artist Gu Hongzhong of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (907 — 979), and  Copied in the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279).
It Had Been Taken Out of Forbidden City by Puyi, and Years Later was Bought and Donated by Artist Zhang Daqian (1899 — 1983) — Palace Museum

His sisters took different careers, like educators, painters, file clerks in the Forbidden City, etc., and their kids worked in various occupations. 

His youngest brother Puren (1918 — 2015), dedicated his entire life to teaching and researching history.

Most of them recovered their nomadic Manchurian family names (many of Qing’s Manchurians changed their family name, trying to avoid being revenged after the 1911 Revolution) and have been working diligently to support themselves, like other ordinary people.

They are one of the 55 minority groups in China now, with a bigger name, the Chinese. 

Tang Tai Zong or Emperor Taizong Receiving the Tibetan (Tu Bo) Envoy, Painted by Politician/Artist Yan Liben (601 — 673)

Painting "Bu Nian Tu" that Describes Emperor Taizong of Tang Receiving the Tibetan (Tu Bo) Envoy, by Politician/Artist Yan Liben (601 — 673).
Puyi Had Took It Out of Forbidden City and Rewarded It to His Teacher. Years Later, it was Donated by the Owner — Palace Museum

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