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Aisin-Gioro Puyi (Chinese: 溥儀), courtesy name Yaozhi (曜之), is the eleventh Emperor of the Qing dynasty and de jure ruler of China (excluding Manchuria). His era name, Xuantong Emperor, means “proclamation of unity”.

Born in Beijing in February 1906, Puyi originally ascended the Dragon Throne at the age of two in 1908 but was forced to abdicate in February 1912 as a result of the Xinhai Revolution. He spent his childhood in seclusion in the Forbidden City where he received a formal education from the Scottish diplomat Reginald Johnston. He was briefly restored to the throne by the Qing loyalist General Zhang Xun from 1 to 12 July 1917. He was expelled from the Forbidden City by General Feng Yuxiang during the Second Zhili-Fengtian War and fled to Tianjin, where he began to court the backing of various German officials and socialites.

As a condition of German support for Wu Peifu’s Zhili Clique against the Kuomintang during the Northern Expedition and the Fengtian during the Third Zhili-Fengtian War, Puyi was restored to the Dragon Throne for a second time in April 1927. While officially the claimant of the Mandate of Heaven and Lord of Ten Thousand Years, he holds little real power or influence in Chinese politics.


The child Emperor Puyi (right) with his father and younger brother Pujie, 1909.

Early Life, Accession, and Abdication

Puyi was born at his family’s residence in the Northern Mansion in Beijing on 7 February 1906. At the age of two, Puyi was chosen to become emperor by Empress Dowager Cixi upon the death of his childless half-uncle the Guangxu Emperor on 14 November 1908. The toddler was taken from his family’s care by a procession of palace guards in the middle of the night without prior notice, allowing only his wet nurse Wang Liangshou to accompany him. His father, Zaifeng, became Prince Regent and carried his son to the throne at his official coronation in the Hall of Supremacy on 2 December 1908. The young emperor, frightened by the deafening noise of the drums and music, cried during the ceremony.

Separated from his biological family, Puyi lived his childhood in seclusion in the Forbidden City, surrounded by palace guards, eunuchs, and other servants who treated him as a living deity. He quickly became spoiled and self-indulgent, often flogging eunuchs for minor transgressions and subjecting them to cruel punishments. He received a standard Confucian education during this time, learning the Chinese classics and nothing else. Puyi was forced to visit the five Dowager Consorts of his half-uncle to report daily on his progress, meetings which he despised as the Consorts insisted he refer to them as “mothers” and prevented him from seeing his biological mother until he was thirteen. Their informal leader, the Empress Dowager Longyu, conspired to have Puyi's adored wet nurse Wang expelled from the Forbidden City when he was eight on the grounds that he was too old to be breast-fed.

On 10 October 1911 a revolt by the garrison in Wuchang quickly spread across the entire empire, demanding an end to the 300-year reign of the Qing dynasty. In response to calls for a constitutional monarchy, the Imperial Court appointed Yuan Shikai as prime minister. Yuan negotiated with the revolutionaries and arranged for the abdication of Puyi in return for the position of President of the Republic of China and preferential treatment of the imperial family. On 12 November 1912 Longyu, acting as regent after Zaifeng’s resignation, issued the “Imperial Edict of the Abdication of the Qing Emperor”, formally ending over 2,000 years of imperial rule in China. Puyi himself was not informed of his abdication and continued to believe he was emperor for some time.

Life in the Forbidden City

As per the "Articles of Favourable Treatment of the Great Qing Emperor after His Abdication", Puyi was allowed to retain his imperial title, and the Imperial Court was allowed to remain in the Private Apartments of the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace. An annual subsidy of four million silver taels was promised to the imperial family but was never fully paid and abolished after a few years. Puyi soon realized the true reason for the Articles of Favorable Treatment was that Yuan harbored aspirations of claiming the title of emperor for himself, and spent hours staring at the Presidential Palace from the Forbidden City cursing Yuan whenever he saw him drive by in his automobile. In 1915, Yuan proclaimed himself emperor and had planned to marry his daughter to Puyi, but was forced to abdicate in the face of enormous popular opposition.

Puyi was briefly restored to the throne by General Zhang Xun from 1 to 12 July 1917 with the support of several high-ranking ministers and officials. The restoration was quickly reversed by Republican troops under the command of Premier Duan Qinrui, who ordered an aerial bombardment of the Forbidden City that killed a eunuch. Surrounded by Republican troops, the Imperial Court entered negotiations with the Republicans and General Zhang fled to the legations quarter, ending the first short-lived attempt at restoration.

Puyi with his tutor Sir Reginald Johnston, 1910s-20s.

In 1919 Sir Reginald Johnston, a respected Scottish scholar and diplomat, was appointed as Puyi’s tutor by President Xu Shichang, who believed the monarchy would eventually be restored and wished to prepare him for the modern world. Johnston instructed Puyi in subjects such as world history and English, with a special focus on British history in particular. Aside from history, Johnston also instructed the young emperor in political philosophy and imparted on Puyi his view of the superiority of monarchies over republics. Under Johnston’s influence, Puyi embraced bicycling as a form of exercise, cut off his queue, and began going by the English name “Henry”.

In 1922, the Dowager Consorts decided that Puyi should be married and gave him a selection of photographs of candidates to choose from. Puyi ultimately chose Gobulo Wanrong, the daughter of a wealthy Manchurian aristocrat, as Empress after his initial choice of Wenxiu was rejected by the Consorts, though she would also become his secondary consort. They were wed in a traditional Manchu ceremony on 22 October 1922 featuring a grand procession of guardsmen, eunuchs, and musicians conducted under the evening moonlight for good luck.

Inspired by Johnston to curtail corruption among the eunuchs, Puyi began to assert control over his court and ordered an inventory of all the Forbidden City’s treasures. The Palace Of Established Happiness was burned on the evening of 27 June 1923 as the eunuchs attempted to conceal the extent of the theft. Puyi resolved to expel the eunuchs from the Forbidden City, but their absence soon left the city and its palaces in a desolate state. He began to reform the Imperial Court by appointing the monarchist administrator Zheng Xiaoxu to manage the imperial household, but this was abruptly cut short as events in China at large intruded.

Flight to Tianjin

On 23 October 1924, the Zhili-aligned General Feng Yuxiang turned against his own clique and seized control of Beijing. Seeking to shore up his legitimacy and gain popular support, Feng unilaterally revised the "Articles of Favourable Treatment" on 5 November 1924, abolishing Puyi's imperial title and expelling him from the Forbidden City. Puyi fled to his father’s house for several days before taking up a temporary residence in the German embassy in Beijing. In February 1925 Puyi and his court moved to the German concession of Tianjin, the most cosmopolitan city in China after Shanghai.

Residing in Zhang Xun’s mansion, Puyi and his advisers began discussing plans to restore Puyi as Emperor. While some favored enlisting the help of the Japanese, others suggested collaborating with the Germans, whereas others opposed the idea of seeking foreign aid altogether. Ultimately, Puyi elected to enlist German support for the restoration due to two key factors: first, that Germany was currently supporting the Zhili Clique, which Feng had betrayed when he banished the emperor from the Forbidden City, and second, that Puyi believed Feng was aligned with Japan (in reality, he was beginning to align himself with the Koumintang). Changing his Western pseudonym to "Heinrich", he joined several social clubs in the city and began to curry favor with various German officials and socialites to secure support for his eventual restoration.

Xuantong Restoration

Portrait of the restored Xuantong Emperor.

In July 1926, the Kuomintang began the Northern Expedition under the command of General Chiang Kai-shek in order to reunify China and end the fragmentation of the warlord cliques. The threat of a potentially French-aligned China and the controversial Yangtze Incident convinced Germany to intervene militarily, leading to the Kuomintang's collapse and decisive victory for Wu Peifu’s Zhili Clique.

The Fengtian Clique's attack in March 1927 caused Germany to shift from being mere cobeligerents with the Zhili to direct supporters. The Kaiserreich did this with several stipulations, chief among them that Puyi be restored not only in the Forbidden City, but also as the Xuantong Emperor of the Qing Dynasty. Germany held that the Republic of China was innately chaotic and unsalvageable, and hoped that a single, long-lasting Head of State would provide enduring stability. Despite initial reservations, Wu agreed to the conditions when it was determined that Puyi would hold only a figurehead role. German money and ground forces were both necessary in allowing the Zhili to seize Bejing and achieve victory.

After the Third Zhili-Fengtian War ended in April 1927, Puyi was formally restored to the Dragon Throne as the Xuantong Emperor of the Great Qing. Initially several warlords refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the emperor, leading to the outbreak of the Fourth Zhili-Fengtian War. The result was the Shanghai Conference, which created the International Mandate for the Concessions, Settlements and Legations in China and paved the way for formal recognition of the Qing government by all Chinese warlords (with the exception of the Fengtian). Despite his official status as the de jure ruler of all China, Puyi today holds little sway or influence in Chinese politics. One contemporary commentator quipped that Puyi had now been "made emperor three times without knowing why and apparently without relishing it." In recent years, however, Puyi and the Imperial Court have become a center of soft power in China. Although Marshal Wu Peifu still effectively controls the government from his army headquarters in Luoyang, his grasp on the National Assembly has eroded after several political defections and near-defeat in the 1933 elections.

Personal Life

Puyi married both his primary and secondary consorts in an elaborate ceremony in 1922. His primary consort, Wanrong (婉容) was born to the Manchu Gobulo (郭布羅) clan in 1906 under the Plain White Banner. His secondary consort, Wenxiu (文繡), was born in 1909 and hails from the Mongol Erdet clan under the Yellow Banner. Neither has yet born him a child.

See also