On February 12, 1912, Empress Longyu signed an edict forcing the last Qing Emperor Puyi to abdicate thus ending over two thousand years of imperial tradition in China and giving way to the rise of the People’s Republic as we now know it.
Born in Beijing to Prince Chun, on February 7, 1906, Aisin-Gioro Puyi had close ties with the ruling clan of the Manchu royal family on both his maternal and paternal sides. In 1908, when the Guangxu Emperor died of arsenic poisoning, the toddler Puyi was chosen as the next regent by Empress Dowager Cixi who also died the following day. In December 1908, Puyi was adopted by the Dowager Empress Longyu and crowned the Xuantong Emperor to rule under regency till he came of age. For the next four years, Puyi lived in the Forbidden City, away from his family and raised by eunuchs who both taught and entertained him. His wet-nurse Wen-Chao Wang had a free hand in his upbringing and engaged the Scotsman Reginald Johnston as his tutor. On February 12, 1912, succumbing to the pressures of the Republican Revolution, Dowager Empress Longyu issued the “Imperial Edict of the Abdication of the Emperor,” forcing little Puyi to abdicate. Thus the 267-year Qing rule of China came to an end and with it ended a 2,000-year-old system of imperial governance in the country. Puyi was allowed to stay in the Forbidden City till he was old enough to move to the Summer Palace in Beijing. The palace of the former emperor started to fall apart with looting and disregard becoming the order of the day. In July 1917, Puyi was briefly restored to the throne for eleven days by the Chinese warlord Zhang Xun. The restoration was bitterly resisted by Duan Qirui, another Chinese leader and by 1924, the former emperor Puyi was forced to leave the Forbidden City at the age of 18.
In 1924, Puyi secretly fled Beijing and reached Tianjin, a Japanese concession colony where he was made the President in 1932. With his trusted advisers brokering a negotiation with the Japanese government, Puyi was installed as the Emperor of state of Manchukuo in Manchuria in 1934. The move was an attempt of the Japanese to please the local Chinese populace and Puyi’s office was devoid of any real powers. Emperor Puyi was accorded the reign title of Kangde which also was the Chinese word for Kant (German philosopher Immanuel Kant). In the twelve years he ruled as the Emperor, Puyi grew increasingly dissatisfied as the puppet regent – his every move was monitored by the Japanese and his authority greatly curbed. He took to studying Confucianism as a link to his Chinese roots but by August 1945, as the World War II drew to a close, Puyi was taken prisoner by the Russians. The Russians returned him to China as a prisoner of war in 1950. Back in his native country, Puyi faced trial.
Puyi returned to a China significantly different from the one he reigned over. Mao Zedong, had founded the People’s Republic of China in October 1949 and was governing the country as the Chairman of the Communist Party of China. Under his directions, Puyi was sent to the Liaodong No. 3 Prison (Fushun War Criminals Management Center) that specialized in the reeducation of the prisoners who were sent here from Japan, Kuomintang, and Manchukuo. For the next decade, Puyi was introduced to the Marxist program and trained to further the communist propaganda. In 1959, when it was deemed that Puyi would not pose a threat to the communists and would make an excellent symbol of a converted imperialist, he was released from Liaodong No. 3 Prison and returned to Beijing. The erstwhile monarch of China started to earn his living as an assistant to the gardener of the Beijing Botanical Gardens in his tools workshop. In 1962, the former emperor married Li Shuxian, a nurse from Beijing. He spent his later years writing and editing his autobiography, “From Emperor to Citizen”. The autobiography found the endorsement of the communist leaders such as Mao and Zhou Enlai. Puyi also worked as an editor for various communist publications and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.
With the ushering of the 1966 Cultural Revolution, however, Puyi was targeted once more. He remained under the protective custody of the Red Guards and lost his liberty. In October 1967, Puyi, the last emperor of China, died of kidney cancer, at the age of just 61. His life was a strange account of the greatest and most turbulent changes that the PRC saw in the 20th century.
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