Thursday, November 1, 2012

Understanding the Last Emperor, Part I

The last Emperor of China is not a well known figure, and it is an unfortunate truth that most of the notoriety he does hold is on account of the famous Academy Award-winning film about his life. Though he lived not a very long time ago, the last Chinese Emperor remains a very enigmatic figure. The accounts of his life written by others invariably come from biased sources, people who have some agenda to push and in his case it involves the necessity of vilifying the Emperor. Yet, even reading his own accounts, it is hard to come to a very clear understanding of the man. In his youth in the Forbidden City of Peking, surrounded by traditionalist mandarins and submissive eunuchs he was a staunch Chinese imperialist. When he was head of state of Manchuria under Japanese protection he was a staunch ally of Japan and finally when he was taken by the Communists he voiced his disgust at his past life and praised the People‘s Republic. Which opinion was the sincere one? Where any of them sincerely felt? What sort of man was he or was his life spent so dominated by others that any individualism in him was stamped out? Regarding the last Chinese Emperor anyone will find that there are many more questions than answers.

The last Emperor was born Aisin-Gioro Pu-Yi on February 7, 1906 to Prince Chun II; the half brother of Emperor GuangXu, and Princess Youlan; daughter of General Ronglu. He had very little time for a normal childhood however as he was summoned to the Forbidden City by the Empress Dowager Cixi when he was not yet three years old. Empress Dowager Cixi was ruling in the place of the nominal monarch, Emperor GuangXu, whom she had suppressed in a military coup after he tried to modernize the country. Now on her deathbed, Cixi wanted to make sure that the Emperor could not retake power after her death and ensure that the system she had in place would continue. An infant monarch would allow those she trusted to hold real power and bring up the child in line with their way of thinking and so she chose PuYi to be the adopted heir of his uncle and succeed as the next emperor. She possibly had GuangXu poisoned as he died on November 14, 1908 with Cixi herself dying the following day. The following month PuYi was officially enthroned as Great Emperor of the Great Qing Dynasty, Grand Khan of Tartary, Lord of 10,000 Years and the Son of Heaven with the reigning name of Hsuan-tung. Already the victim of circumstances beyond his control this occasion marked the beginning of the end of the ancient Chinese Empire.

Because of his age, the little emperor was watched over by his adopted mother, Empress Dowager Longyu and his father who served as regent on his behalf. Opinion varies considerably on Prince Chun, encouraged by the fact that he was quite adept at being acceptable to the powers-that-be at all times. Some view him as a potential reformer, others as a hopeless reactionary. Regardless though, he had relatively little time at the helm of the Chinese Empire before the outbreak of the republican revolution in 1911. The revolt happened almost by accident and was led by the American educated Sun Yat-sen who received the aid of the notorious General Yuan Shihkai. This general had already betrayed the previous emperor, betrayed PuYi and would ultimately betray Sun Yat-sen when after being given the presidency in return for convincing the Qing Dynasty to abdicate he declared himself emperor and tried to found a new dynasty. The Qing were quickly overwhelmed, intimidated and through the persuasion of Yuan Shihkai convinced that they had to come to terms with the revolution in order to survive.

Prince Chun gave up being regent on December 6, 1911 and passed the position to Empress Dowager Longyu who was left to deal with the disaster. It was she, on behalf of the Hsuan-tung Emperor, signed the "Act of Abdication of the Emperor of the Great Qing" on February 12, 1912. The agreement which brought about this abdication, an unprecedented event in world history, was extremely interesting. For one thing, it stated that the Emperor was bowing to the Mandate of Heaven as expressed through the will of the people; which had certainly never been done before in the history the succession of Chinese dynasties. Likewise, in return for the peaceful surrender of the monarchy, the newly born Republic of China agrees to the Articles of Favorable Treatment which guaranteed the title of the Manchu Emperor, the protection of the imperial tombs and monuments, imperial ownership of the imperial palaces within the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace, the treatment of the emperor with the respect of a foreign head of state and the payment of four million dollars a year to the imperial court. It was a remarkable agreement in the history of fallen monarchies especially in that, even though China had embraced republicanism, a certain mystique still surrounded the child emperor and even the republic would not deny that the emperor was an emperor and thus worthy of a certain respect. Unfortunately, the republic did not ultimately live up to this agreement, especially in terms of the payments which were stopped fairly quickly, but neither did the imperial court which never accepted the republic as permanent and continued to hope for a restoration.

During this period PuYi led a rather uneventful life. There were occasional ceremonies for him to participate in, dignitaries to be received and of course his education at the hands of the mandarins, particularly his tutor Chen PaoShen who was to be one of his closest advisors throughout much of his life. It is interesting to note how many of the republican officials treated the Emperor. China, especially during this period, was a place where everyone tried to keep all bases covered as to whom might one day be in a position to benefit them. When republican officials would come to the Forbidden City on some errand they would often enter in western clothes, deliver their speech on behalf of the republic in a dignified manner and then leave again, don traditional robes, come back in and bow down to address the Emperor as a private individual. There was a constant dance between the imperial court, the republican government and the military warlords who held most of the actual cards, each one paying lip service to the other for momentary support and looking for a chance to gain political power with the little emperor caught in the middle.

General Chang Hsun
This situation seemed to reach a pivotal moment for the Qing in 1917 when a monarchist warlord, General Chang Hsun, marched on Peking. His troops were known as the Pigtail Army because they retained the Manchu queue hairstyle as a symbol of their continued loyalty to the Qing. The General offered to restore the young monarch and with the assurance that the republican government was supportive, and that the President would step down, the court agreed and announced the official return of Emperor Hsuan-tung to nominal power on July 1. For a brief time dragon flags appeared on the streets and imperial-era robes were being worn again. There was even a rush on costume shops to obtain horse hair queues to give the appearance of having been ever loyal. Yet, not everyone was convinced, and vendors were selling imperial pronouncements with the advertisements that they would soon be antiques. True enough, the President of the republic did not go along with the restoration and soon Peking was besieged by republican forces under General Duan Qirui. There was even a brief air raid when a republican plane dropped a bomb in the Forbidden City which did little damage but caused considerable fright simply because of the novelty of it. By July 12, 1917 the Pigtail Army had been dispersed and Chang Hsun was forced to flee to the Dutch legation. Another abdication announcement was hastily issued on behalf of the young Emperor and once again China reverted to republicanism and warlord rule.

Inside the Forbidden City life went on under the usual routine for PuYi. In the hope of gaining foreign aid and to give the Emperor a more western education a British official named Reginald F. Johnston was employed as tutor to the Emperor. He befriended his pupil and would remain a defender of the last Emperor for the rest of his life, even after certain political problems arose during the 1930's between Britain and some other friends of the last Emperor. It was with Johnston that PuYi chose a name for himself from a list of British monarchs, picking Henry in reference to Henry VIII and so became known by many in the English-speaking world as Emperor Henry of China. In 1922 it was decided that, as he was 16 years old, it was high time for the Emperor to marry. He was given a number of candidates to choose from, but his first choice, the Princess Wen Xiu, was deemed too ugly by the courtiers and so Princess Wan Jung was chosen for the job of wife and Empress with Wen Xiu coming along as concubine.

To be continued in Part II...


  1. The interesting aspect of the Warlord Era after 1912 was that monarchical aspirations among warlords never quite vanished, and only Yuan Shikai ever came close to creating a new one.

    I remember Gerald Warner's article earlier this year which predicted that China could revert to this kind of scenario if the regime was ever in trouble (and mark my words, it will be one day).

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    1. I will not, would not support any communist regime, real or pretended, for any reason whatever. And it was not the Republic of China, officially, that evicted the Emperor from the Great Within, it was General Feng Yuxiang who was on the most radical leftist fringe of the Kuomintang, was friendly with the communists and who the communists buried with full honors after his death -even though he was, officially, a life-long general in the nationalist army. Which says something about him.

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    3. It was the nationalists who started it, and though the communist regime has the blood of tens of millions on its hands, the KMT killed plenty of people too. Not nearly as many as the Reds, but still enough to be considered atrocious. A difference I have (besides just despising all communists on principle) is that the reds are an illegitimate regime whereas the first republic of China, somewhat like the USA, had a royal to sign off on it, so I regard the Republic of China as the "legal" successor state to the last legitimate Chinese authority.

      And even when the communists don't act like "real" communists, I still despise them. They put a freaking Starbucks in the Forbidden City -if that is not outright cultural rape I don't know what is.

      Anyway, if another dynasty rose up and took power in the traditional fashion, reviving the traditional ways, I would certainly accept them. I am partial to the Qing Dynasty, but that's the Chinese way and the way I see it, if you don't keep up the traditions and the rites, you cannot claim the Mandate of Heaven and I consider the Mandate unclaimed since the fall of the Qing. If another dynasty can revive the empire they will have proven to have it.

  3. Just an observation, but I cannot hold that any abdication, especially one done by an intercessor (even a legitimate one), can be valid if made under duress. That's rather like holding a gun to someone's head and telling them to sign a confession to a crime they didn't commit, or they can watch their family die...And 'de factor' may hold sway over 'de jure', but it can never hold legitimacy.

    And kudo's on a truly awe-inspiring blog, Sir!

  4. The restoration of the Qing in China and the overthrow of the Chinese Communists and Nationalists on Taiwan is my heart-felt prayer. MM do you know of any legitimate Qing monarchist organisation and claimant to the Throne?


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