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Emperor Pu-Yi (Hsuan-t'ung)


 Stewart Westdal
 Ponterio & Associates, Inc.

One of the most interesting people living in China during the transition period from the Empire to the Republic, the warlord times, the Japanese governance of Manchuria/Manchukuo and the Peoples Republic of China is the last Manchu Emperor, Pu-Yi (or P'u-I) whose reign title was Hsuan-t'ung. Born in 1905, his father was the second Prince Chun, brother of the Emperor Kuang-hsu and nephew of the Grand Dowager Tzu His, who had been the de fecto governor of China for many years; her son Kuang-hsu was completely isolated from all governmental and family affairs.

In November of 1908, Tzu Hsi became seriously ill and to keep Kuang-hsu from regaining power if she died, caused his "untimely" demise; this enabled her to name Pu-Yi the new emperor. She was to be Grand Dowager Empress and rule until he came of age but she died within a few days. Thus on December 2, 1908 Pu-Yi became Emperor of a country that needed good governance. Prince Chin and his advisors were unable to provide this.

On October 10, 1911, the garrison of Wuchang rebelled and declared China to be a republic; within 2 months thirteen of China's eighteen provinces had joined the rebellion. The government was unable to react as many military leaders were allied with the republicans. When republicans occupied Peking they delivered an ultimatum to Prince Chun that required the abdication of Pu-Yi but guaranteed his title, safety, income, etc., in the Articles of Favorable Treatment. With no alternative available, this was accomplished on February 12, 1912. Thus the Republic of China, complete with many competing warlord armies, came into being, with the recent Imperial general Yuan Shih-kai becoming President.

By terms of Agreement Pu-Yi and his family, advisors, etc., could remain within the Forbidden City (he was not allowed to leave) and maintain the lifestyle of the Imperial Court. During the next few years changing political and military activities in Peking area brought Pu-Yi back into the spotlight. General Chang Hsuan occupied Peking and proclaimed Pu-Yi emperor again, only to see his movement fall a few days later and Pu-Yi was forced to announce yet another abdication. In December of 1921, when Pu-Yi was nearly seventeen it was decided that he should marry. To choose a bride, he was given four photographs of young women and directed to mark the one he chose (he later said he couldn't see them clearly because of the poor photography). He marked the photograph of Wen Hsiu but his advisors "suggested" he pick another, which he did (Wan Jung). She was from a rich and powerful family and was "acceptable". As it would not be proper for Wen hsiu to marry someone else after his interest in her, Pu-Yi "had better" take her as his consort. Thus his wedding was held with a great ceremony on December 1, 1922. The procession had many military units and others bearing yellow banners with dragon and phoenix designs, the same which appeared on coins commemorating this event. Not only did Pu-Yi obtain a wife and a consort, but he also received a million dollars in cash and a "palace full" of jade, enamel, etc., much of it from republican generals who backed him in the past and/or might in the future.

pu_coin.jpg (109126 bytes)

Ponterio & Associates
public auction April 27 & 28, 2001
see catalog auction #112

By 1924, continuing warfare amongst the warlords and the increasing power of Chaing Kai-shek brought pressure to revise the Agreement and to require Pu-Yi to surrender the Imperial seals. On November 25th Peking was surrounded be general Feng Yu-hsiang who ordered the abolition of the imperial title and the eviction of Pu-Yi and his followers from the Forbidden City. Fearing for their safety from numerous factions, Pu-Yi et al sought asylum from the Japanese Embassy, where they were warmly received. Several months later they were transferred to the Japanese concession of Tientsin, a move Pu-Yi called his "flight to freedom". He was to later refer to it as "he entered the tiger's mouth". In Tientsin he and his entourage enjoyed the hospitality and protection of Japan but resisted various Japanese offers of support to recover his throne, at least until 1928. At that time, Kuomintang forces dynamited the Eastern Tombs of the Manchu rulers, looting and desecrating them. Numerous protests were filed with the Kuomintang government to repair the tombs, but nothing occurred. From this time Pu-Yi began to conspire for foreign help to recover the throne of China.

In 1931, Japan occupied the province of Manchuria after a "terrorist" incident and Pu-Yi was asked to help establish an independent Manchuria (there really was no option of declining). He agreed as long as it would be a monarchy. He was smuggled into Manchuria on February 13, 1932 and the independence of Manchuria, now called Manchukuo, was proclaimed on the 18th. The Japanese military commander advised Pu-Yi that he was regent (reign name Ta Tung) for the time being and would become Emperor of Manchukuo (this occurred March 1, 1934, with K'ang Te as the new reign name) but that he could not reign using the title of Chinese Emperor. Shortly the Kwangtung Army leadership placed Japanese vice ministers in his cabinet. All Chinese advisors gradually resigned or were dismissed and the Kwangtung Army basically ruled the country. Throughout World War Two he was a "rubber stamp" or propaganda image for the Japanese. When the Japan surrender was announced on August 15, 1945, he was "asked" to abdicate, which he did.

In attempting to flee to Japan, Pu-Yi and his compatriots were captured by Russian soldiers. They were taken to Siberia where they were separated and he was kept under "house arrest" until August of 1946 when he was flown to Tokyo to appear as a witness in various War Crimes trails. After several months he was returned to Siberia. He remained there until the end of July 1950 when, in response to a request from Mao Tse-tung for his return, he was sent back to China. He was placed in a camp for political prisoners undergoing "re-education". He remained there until his release as "rehabilitated" in 1959, receiving full rights as a citizen on November 20, 1960. During and after his imprisonment he was frequently paraded before visitors and gave numerous interviews. He was authorized to write his autobiography, which was published in 1964. On May Day of 1962 he married Li Shu-hsien, a forty year old doctor and continued working on various commissions and committees until his death on October 17, 1967. The cause of his death was never announced.

What a story! Good times to bad times, time and time again. Obviously this is only a brief outline of the life and times of Pu-Yi. There are many good materials which will provide a great deal of information about the China of his time and his life (including the movie "The Last Emperor": there were a few parts which really did not fit reality, such as his reunion with a cricket!). Below are a few books that were used in preparing this article and which I am sure you will find of interest, especially if you are interested in the interesting story of Pu-Yi.

"The Emperor to Citizen", by Aisis-Gioro 
"The Last Emperor" by Arnold Brackman
"The Puppet Emperor" by Brian Power

[end of Ponterio's article]


Additional links to reference material courtesy of cdot.org:

The Last Emperor of China

Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi

Pu Yi's Widow Reveals Last Emperor's Soft Side

Encyclopedia Britannica: P'u-i

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