While on her deathbed the Empress Dowager Cixi chose the infant boy Pu Yi to be China’s next emperor. In December 1908 he ascended the throne.
His early years were spent inside the walls of the Forbidden City where he was cared for by consorts of previous emperors. Uncontrollable as a child, Pu Yi often ordered the eunuchs who served him to be beaten for minor offences. Shortly after the revolution of 1911, China became a republic and this put an end to imperial power. Pu Yi was forced to abdicate the throne in February 1912. Over the next fifty-five years China’s political scene was dominated by warlords, rebellions, a long and bitter war with Japan, and the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. These events profoundly shaped Pu Yi’s life.
Pu Yi’s Youth and Education
The emperor received lessons in classical subjects like poetry but learned next to nothing about geography, science and mathematics. The Manchu people wanted him back on the throne and it was thought at the time that the best way to do this was to expose him to Western thought and educational influences. A senior official from the British Colonial Office named Reginald Fleming Johnston became Pu Yi’s tutor. Over the next few years Pu Yi developed a fascination with all things Western. He picked an English name — Henry. He stuck with it for the rest of his life.
Eviction from the Forbidden City
Pu Yi had no choice but to leave the Forbidden City in November 1924. He was forced out by Feng Yuxiang, a warlord who had schemed to take control of Peking (Beijing). Pu Yi packed his belongings and fled to Tientsin (Tianjin) with a small entourage. While living in the Japanese concession of that city he lived a life of decadence. Full of imperious airs, he schemed and plotted to get back on the throne.
Pu Yi and the Japanese from 1931–1945
Japan invaded the northeastern region of China called Manchuria in 1931. Japanese militarists went forward with their plans to separate this area from Chinese control and a puppet government was created. Pu Yi was installed by Japan as the emperor of this state, which was then called Manchukuo. During this period he had no real authority. It was the Japanese who were making the decisions and getting him to sign all of the new laws. Pu Yi’s old supporters were eliminated one by one and replaced with Japanese vice-ministers.
Pu Yi’s Life as a Prisoner and an Ordinary Citizen
At the end of World War II, Soviet troops took control of Manchuria and Pu Yi was captured at Mukden. When he heard about Japan’s surrender he formally declared the dissolution of the Manchukuo government. When he was taken to Japan to testify in the Tokyo War Crimes Trial in 1946, Pu Yi insisted he was just a tool of the Japanese militarists and not in any way responsible for wartime atrocities.
After spending time in a Russian detention centre in Khabarovsk, Pu Yi was sent to the Fushun War Criminals Management Centre in China’s Liaoning Province. Over the next nine years, he underwent an intense period of educational reform.
Pu Yi’s Final Years in Beijing
On September 17, 1959, deliverance was at hand for Pu Yi. He was formally pardoned by Chairman Mao Zedong and went to live in Beijing. He was assigned to work as a gardener and spent the remaining years of his life tending his plants. After his release from prison, he married Li Shuxian, a nurse, in 1962 and wrote his autobiography in 1964.
At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution he was an easy target for the Red Guards. Hospital workers had to link their arms to stop the revolutionaries from storming Pu Yi’s ward a few hours before his death in October 1967.
He once declared when working as a gardener, “I, along with 650 million of my compatriots, was now the owner of our 9,600,000 sq km of land.” There was a time when as a boy he owned it all.