Dec. 2, 2022

Puyi Becomes the Last Emperor of China

Puyi Becomes the Last Emperor of China

December 2, 1908: In a lavish enthronement ceremony, two-year-old Puyi becomes the Emperor of China, a title he will subsequently abdicate on three separate occasions.


Cold Open  

It’s December 2nd, 1908 in Peking, the capital of China now known as Beijing.

Prince Chun waits at the entrance to the Hall of Supreme Harmony, a grand building in the lavish royal palace known as the Forbidden City. The large wooden hall is bedecked with colorful decorations and packed with courtiers.  Prince Chun glances behind him, where soldiers stand to attention in perfect lines throughout the courtyard. Every set of eyes is cast in his direction. But they aren’t looking at him. They are looking at the two-year-old boy in Prince Chun’s arms—his son, Puyi—the boy who is about to be crowned emperor of China.

At a signal from a nearby official, Prince Chun carries Puyi into the Hall of Supreme Harmony. But as he steps into a barrage of noise that echoes around the hall, Puyi yelps in alarm and begins to cry.

Prince Chun tries to calm Puyi as he walks past the courtiers. He turns Puyi so that the royal audience can get a good view of their next imperial leader. But Puyi buries his face into his father’s chest and covers his ears with his hands.

The drumming stops as Prince Chun reaches the Dragon Throne, but the sudden silence only emphasizes the cries of the child. Prince Chun kneels, lifts Puyi, and places him on an oversized and extravagant throne that only makes the young boy look even smaller. Puyi's feet don’t touch the floor and tears continue to roll down his face. The boy lifts his arms, trying to get his father to embrace him once again. But Prince Chun gently pushes Puyi’s arms down. He bends his head toward Puyi and whispers into his ear: “Don’t cry, it’ll be over soon.”

Puyi’s tears mark an inauspicious start to the reign of the boy-emperor; beginning at a time when China is desperate for strong leadership. The former emperor, Puyi’s half-uncle, died childless. Puyi was selected to be the next emperor by the powerful Empress Dowager, but she died a few days later, and the ancient kingdom of China is under threat by foreign powers who want to carve it up for their own. Some Chinese nationalists have gone so far as to demand the end of the Qing dynasty and the creation of a new republican government.

But even so, nobody witnessing the ceremonial accession of Puyi as the new Son of Heaven expects that he will be the last emperor of China and that his reign will end more than 2,000 years of imperial rule. But Puyi will indeed be forced from the throne, not just once, but three separate times during his tumultuous life. And the crisis that led to his first abdication began soon after his enthronement as a two-year-old emperor on December 2nd, 1908.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is December 2nd, 1908: Puyi Becomes the Last Emperor of China.

Act One

It’s the evening of October 10th, 1911, almost three years after Puyi became emperor of China.

A platoon leader in the Chinese Army dashes across a military base in Wuchang, the biggest city in the Chinese province of Hubei. The platoon leader slinks in the shadows, trying to get back to his barracks, as he knows he’ll be arrested if he’s caught wandering outside. The entire base is in lockdown amid fears that mutiny is brewing among the soldiers. But the platoon leader isn’t afraid. In fact, he’s excited. He’s a member of a secret republican organization called the Progressive Association—and one of his fellow members in a different barracks has just revealed that the mutiny is going to begin tonight.

Over the past 100 years, China has suffered several military defeats and foreign powers have taken control of its territory. China’s ruling Qing dynasty has faced unrest from reformers - like the Progressive Association - who want to introduce a modern style of government. But the emperors have been unwilling to give up power and they’ve ruthlessly clamped down on any opposition. But despite the crackdown, here in Wuchang, disillusionment has been growing.

Four days ago, Qing authorities discovered that revolutionaries in the army were planning an uprising; swiftly, these authorities began arresting leaders of the plot. Now, the remaining revolutionaries are panicking that they might be next—and they’ve decided to rise up before the Qing loyalists get to them, too. 

So now, the platoon leader rushes into his barracks, where his soldiers—all fellow revolutionaries—sit on their beds, cleaning their rifles. The platoon leader grins and tells the other soldiers that the uprising will begin tonight, and the men begin to whisper excitedly. One darkly jokes that there is no point having a clean rifle though — he has no bullets to fire; officers confiscated all ammunition when rumors of mutiny began. But the platoon leader tells him not to worry. He reaches under his bed and pulls out several boxes. He opens the lid of one to reveal bullets inside and tells the soldiers he was given them by his brother. Then another man pulls a handful of bullets from his coat pocket. Smirking, he says he pinched them when the sergeant wasn’t looking.

But as the soldiers laugh, the barrack door bursts open. The very same sergeant stands in the doorway, taking in the scene with his hands on his hips. He looks suspiciously at them and asks why they have bullets in their hands. Nobody answers. The platoon leader is unsure whether to tell the truth; perhaps the sergeant will join them in the uprising. Or maybe he’ll try to stop them. Eventually, the platoon leader answers that the rumored mutiny is about to begin. And the sergeant quickly draws his pistol, telling the platoon leader he is under arrest.

The other soldiers begin to protest as the sergeant grabs the platoon leader’s arm to lead him out, but he refuses to move. So the sergeant cocks his pistol; in a swift move, the platoon leader grabs the sergeant’s wrist. As they struggle for control of the gun, the barracks erupt in chaos as the soldiers leap up to help their platoon leader; one strikes the sergeant, another fires his rifle.

The sound of the gunshot soon brings others running to see what's happened. But these new arrivals do not assist in the arrest of the platoon leader. The first few soldiers on the scene cheer and shout cries of revolution. Then the soldier other rifles firing elsewhere. It tells the platoon leader the revolutionaries in other barracks have begun to mutiny too.

Within an hour, the entire base has fallen to the mutineers. Uncooperative loyalists are executed. Phone lines are cut. Ammunition is distributed and buildings are set ablaze. Then the mutineers march out of the barracks with their heads held high. They’ve taken control of the army base. Now they need to take control of the city.

Wuchang will be the first of many cities to fall to the rebels. And over the next three months, similar uprisings will occur across the south of China and a provisional revolutionary government will be formed in Nanking. The Qing government ruling on behalf of the five-year-old Emperor Puyi will appoint Yuan Shikai as prime minister. They will order Yuan to quash the rebellion. But the new prime minister will prove a careful politician who cares about his own power above all else. He will choose to negotiate rather than fight—and the results of those talks will be the abdication of the emperor he is supposed to serve.

Act Two

It’s February 12th, 1912, four months after the Wuchang Uprising.

25-year-old Wang Lianshou, Puyi’s wet nurse, walks along a corridor in the Forbidden City royal palace in Peking. But as she nears Puyi’s rooms, she hears the six-year-old emperor’s high-pitched shouting. She sighs, wondering what he’s done this time.

When Puyi was plucked from his family home and named the next emperor, nurse Wang was the only person allowed to accompany him to the Forbidden City. For the past four years, Puyi has not seen his mother once. And he is indulged by his castrated servants known as eunuchs, who bow down, avoid eye contact and cater to his every desire. But this coddling has turned Puyi into a callous child with a vicious temper. Servants are flogged for any misdemeanor, no matter how minor. One of Puyi’s favorite past-times is to jump out on unsuspecting eunuchs and shoot them with pellets from his air gun. On one occasion, Puyi ordered a eunuch to eat a cake with iron filings baked into it. Puyi wanted to see what effect it had on the eater. The only person able to control the boy-emperor and his cruel directives is Wang. And now her services are about to be called upon once again.

Wang walks into a room where the emperor is kicking a eunuch who is curled up on the floor. Wang gently places a hand on the emperor’s shoulder and turns him away. She asks Puyi why he is attacking the servant. The emperor's cheeks are streaming with tears as he says, “He looked at me. He didn’t avert his eyes.” Wang gestures behind Puyi’s back and the eunuch scurries out of the room, bowing low.

Wang then sits down on a seat and lifts the emperor onto her lap. Puyi gradually calms down as Wang locks him in a long embrace and gently rocks him back and forth. After several minutes, they stand and Wang reminds Puyi it is time for his audience with the new Empress Dowager.

Soon, Wang escorts Puyi to the chambers of Empress Dowager Longyu, the regent who controls the government since Puyi is too young to actually rule China. Every day, Puyi must visit the Empress Dowager to report the progress of his studies. But today, there is another person present for their audience: Prime Minister Yuan Shikai.

The Empress Dowager asks Puyi what he knows about the state of the country. Puyi says nothing, and Wang is not surprised. The emperor is isolated inside the Forbidden City and has no contact with the outside world. So with tears in her eyes, the Empress Dowager tells Puyi that the army has mutinied. Wang looks at the emperor, whose young face is twisted into a confused frown. Puyi replies, “So execute the mutineers.” But Prime Minister Yuan interrupts. It’s a breach of protocol to speak over the emperor, but Yuan ignores Puyi’s furious look as he says the rebellions have spread throughout the country and that the revolutionaries insist that Puyi abdicate the throne. If he does, his life will be spared. But if Puyi does not, they will remove him by force and execute him.

Wang’s stomach lurches as Puyi’s face drains of color. More tears begin to roll down his cheeks. She wants to comfort Puyi again, but the etiquette of court means she must stand in silence. Puyi stammers as he asks the Empress Dowager what will happen next.

But before the Empress Dowager can speak, Prime Minister Yuan replies that he has prepared an edict on behalf of the emperor. He pulls out a paper and hands it to Puyi. Wang glances at the document over the boy-emperor's shoulder. She gulps when she reads the section stating that the emperor agrees to transfer the ruling power to the common citizenry. And she recognizes the four Chinese characters making up the Empress Dowager’s personal seal. Puyi’s regent has already signed it on his behalf. Wang is heartbroken. She knows that Puyi’s world has just been turned upside down.

Under the terms of the abdication, Puyi is allowed to keep his title as Emperor and remain in the Forbidden City. He continues to impose his cruel will on the imperial household, mistreating eunuchs and demanding their total submission. But though he has absolute power inside the walls of the royal palace, he no longer has any control outside it. The monarchy is briefly restored in 1917 when 11-year-old Puyi is restored to the throne after a general leads a coup in Peking. But still, Puyi has little say in the matter. He is nothing more than a figurehead to legitimize the general’s grab for power. But ultimately, the general finds little support, and within 12 days, Puyi is forced to abdicate for a second time.

Over the next few years, Puyi will continue to be manipulated by the forces who battle for control of China. But he will never give up his hope of becoming emperor once again, an ambition that will lead him to rely upon the might of foreign invaders, and will make him a puppet of the Japanese.

Act Three

It’s August 16th, 1945, 37 years after Puyi became emperor of China.

The now 39-year-old Puyi stares blankly out of the window of Mukden airport flanked by his personal servant on one side and General Yoshioka, his military adviser, on the other. But neither man disturbs Puyi’s thoughts, so overwhelmed is he by the day’s events. Hours earlier, for the third time in his life, Puyi issued an edict abdicating as emperor.

In 1924, Puyi was stripped of his imperial title and evicted from the Forbidden City following another coup in Peking. Puyi sought refuge in the embassy of China’s geopolitical rival, Japan. But the Japanese took advantage of their royal guest. In 1931, they invaded China and annexed the province of Manchuria, renaming it Manchukuo, and Puyi was installed as its ruler. But the new emperor of Manchukuo was again little more than a puppet. He had no more control of this realm than when he was a boy-emperor in the Forbidden City. The people of Manchukuo made their feelings clear by spitting at Puyi’s car as it drove around the capital. But now the Japanese have surrendered ending the Second World War, and Puyi is fleeing before Manchurian resistance fighters string him up by his neck.

Puyi lifts his head as his servant points out of the window. He sees a large aircraft touching down on the runway. Puyi turns to the general and smiles. It’s the plane they were waiting for - the one the Japanese promised they would send to help Puyi get out of the country. But Puyi’s smile fades when he sees the plane isn’t emblazoned with the red circle of the Japanese air force. It has a red star instead. It’s a Soviet plane—an enemy of the Japanese.

Puyi stands and presses his face up to the glass to get a better look as the plane’s doors open. Several dozen soldiers jump out and hustle to the airport buildings. Puyi wonders out loud whether they should run, but the general shakes his head. He says all it will get them is a bullet in their backs.

When the Soviet soldiers enter the airport terminal, Puyi and his companions stand and hold up their hands to show they carry no weapons. Puyi attempts to maintain his demeanor when a soldier who speaks the Manchu language aggressively demands to know who they are. Puyi answers that until a few hours ago, he was the emperor of Manchukuo. The Soviet soldier’s eyes widen in amazement. Then he points his rifle at Puyi and tells him he is now a prisoner of war.

Puyi’s arrest brings an end to the final reign of the last Chinese emperor, the man who oversaw the stuttering death of the imperial regime after more than 2,000 years of unbroken rule. Puyi was placed on the throne three times as the puppet of others, but he never held power on his own terms. Puyi will eventually die in 1967, a rehabilitated citizen of the communist China, far removed from his life as an emperor, which began when Puyi was enthroned in the Hall of Supreme Harmony on December 2nd, 1908.


Next onHistory Daily. December 5th, 1848. US President James K. Polk triggers the California Gold Rush by confirming discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Scott Reeves.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.