AMAZING  STORIES   from  the  past

From  Emperor  to  Communist

Pu Yi, the last Emperor of the Qing dynasty, was crowned at the age of two, but his life was to take an utterly different course from the one mapped out for him.

The small boy pushed down hard on the pedals of his bicycle and rang the bell as the deferential crowd on the street parted to clear a path for him. His bodyguards ran close behind him. Although, in the Forbidden City, he faced no danger, his servants knew they could never let the emperor out of theta sight. It seemed unimaginable that little Pu Yi, crowned when still a child, would end his days working as a humble gardener.ea

[The Forbidden City lies at the centre of the ancient metropolis of Beijing. Construction started in1406 and was completed 14 years later. It comprises 800 buildings with 9999 rooms and covers 720,000 square metres]


In November 1908, a two-year-old boy Pu Yi, was brought to the Forbidden City in Beijing. A few days later, he was installed on the Dragon Throne and as Xuan Tong, Emperor of China, proclaimed ruler over almost half the world's population. A few weeks before, the previous emperor of the Qing Dynasty, Dezong, had died. His wife, the powerful Dowager Empress Cixi, had just enough time to select a successor before she too passed away.

She chose a young relative, Aisin Gioro Pu Yi. His father, Zai Feng, became prince-regent. During the coronation ceremony, Pu Yi shouted out "I want to go home!" - and his father replied "Soon it will all be at an end."

In the early years of the 20th century, China was beset by troubles. Revolts broke out with increasing frequency and both peasants and intellectuals were involved in the protests. On February 12, 1912, the young Xuan Tong was forced to abdicate and China became a republic. His father's premonition had come true: the office of emperor was indeed at an end.


Pu Yi was permitted to stay living in the Forbidden City. A decree guaranteed him favourable treatment and generous expenses. He grew up in luxury behind the high walls of the Imperial Palace, cut off from his subjects in the same way as his ancestors had been. He was still uniquely privileged. At midday, hundreds of dishes were brought for him, although a weak stomach allowed him to taste only a few of them. A huge retinue of servants at the palace included more than 1000 eunuchs and the young man took great pleasure from giving them the runaround.

In December 1922 Pu Yi married for the first time - taking two women at once to be his wives - a First Wife named Wan Rong, and a Subsidiary Wife called Wen Xiu. Both women quickly found life in the Imperial Palace intolerable. Wen Xiu was granted a divorce from Pu Yi and became a teacher, while Wan Rong initially took refuge in smoking huge quantities of opium and conducting affairs with palace servants, before making her escape from the Forbidden City. 

In the same year, a new Subsidiary Wife was found for the young emperor, the 17-year-old Tan Yuling. She became Pu Yi's constant, caring companion and he grew extremely fond of her. Their happiness was short lived: at the age of 24 Tan Yuling died of typhoid. Pu Yi was devastated by her loss. He kept the urn containing her ashes until his death.


In 1924, Pu Yi had to leave Beijing following widespread revolts. He took refuge first in the Japanese consulate and then in the treaty port of Tianjin. There, he continued to lead a privileged life under Japanese protection and to dream of being reinstated as emperor. In 1932, Japan occupied the northeast of China and proclaimed it as the state of Manchukuo. On March 1, the Japanese authorities installed Pu Yi as emperor over the region. He reigned over the Japanese puppet state until 1945.

At the end of the Second World War the Soviet Red Army occupied Manchukuo. The Japanese tried to fly Pu Yi to Japan, but he was intercepted and arrested. Although he was treated respectfully, he was forbidden contact with the outside world.

In 1949, following the Communist takeover, Pu Yi was handed over to the Chinese authorities and put under arrest as a war criminal. He no longer enjoyed special privileges and was sometimes forced to share a cell with other prisoners.

The Communists decreed that prison inmates were to be re-educated in the ideology of the new regime. Pu Yi was tested on whether he had read and understood all the Communist texts and could demonstrate that he had become a good Communist himself. After 14 years, when he was deemed to be sufficiently 're-educated,' Pu Yi was finally released from prison.


Pu Yi arrived in Beijing early on the morning of December 9, 1959. The next day he reported to the police. He was to be employed as a gardener in the botanical gardens. He moved into a small furnished room in the grounds, which he shared with a bookkeeper. Pu Yi devoted himself to learning the principles of horticulture. He enjoyed his work and, for the first time, there was a degree of normality about his life.

In April 1962 he even married again, this time to a 37-year-old nurse called Li Shuxian. The 200 wedding guests reflected the enormous changes that had taken place during Pu Yi's lifetime. They included members of the former royal family, several Communist Party representatives and colleagues from Pu Yi's work.

Pu Yi's new wife was able to help him with aspects of daily life that he had never learned to master. He did not know how to light a fire or cook a meal; he also managed to lose anything that he was given. Attracted partly by Pu Yi's sheer helplessness, Li Shuxian also shared her husband's sense of humour. Pu Yi now led a very simple life. He loved walking and rediscovered the pleasure that he had enjoyed when riding a bike around the Forbidden City as a child.

But this new contentment was not to last. Shortly after the wedding, Pu Yi was diagnosed with cancer of the kidneys. He was also suffering from high blood pressure, an inflamed prostate gland and anaemia.


Along with the collapse in his health, the political situation in China had again become dangerous for Pu Yi. During Mao Ze-dong's Cultural Revolution, he was seen as the embodiment of corrupt imperial rule and subjected to attacks and threats.

As early as September 1966, a woman phoned him, demanding reparation for the ill treatment that she had allegedly received in the Imperial Palace during his reign. She also demanded that the former emperor should hand back the royalties for his recently published autobiography, as the book had been 'damaging' for the Revolution.

Although it later turned out that the woman had never been employed at the palace, Pu Yi hurried anxiously to the authorities to give back his royalty payment. He asked only to be allowed to keep a small part of it to pay for his medical treatment. Such was the public persecution of Pu Yi at this time that even Mao Ze-dong felt obliged to defend the former emperor against the hate campaign being waged against him.

Nevertheless, the attacks on the old man continued remorselessly. In December, 1966, Pu Yi had to go into hospital again. Members of the Red Guards, the driving force behind the Cultural Revolution, threatened to storm the hospital and turn him out of his room. As a result, he had to be moved to another hospital with less sophisticated facilities. There, his condition grew worse. On the evening of October 16, 1967, the doctors informed his wife that the former emperor would not last the night. Along with other family members, she kept watch at his bedside, until Pu Yi died at half-past two in the morning. Two days later, the body of the last Emperor of China was cremated.


Thirty-one years after his death, Pu Yi's fate was once more at the centre of public attention, this time in the West. In his film The Last Emperor, the Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci captured the life of the emperor who was 're-educated' into a Communist on celluloid.

The film and documents in which Pu Yi recorded events in his life, portrayed him as a pawn of more powerful forces, but many have pointed out that he had a strong interest in minimizing the significance of his political role. Had he been seen as a ruler, not a gardener, he would most likely have been executed.

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