December 2nd – Puyi, the last Emperor of China, ascends the throne

Poster for the biopic The Last Emperor (1987), a movie chronicling the life of Puyi

Poster for the biopic The Last Emperor (1987), a movie chronicling the life of Puyi, China’s final ruling monarch

On this day in 1908, China’s last Emperor, Puyi, ascended the throne. Only two years old when he became the Emperor of China, Puyi’s reign from 1908 to 1912 marked the end of imperial China, which lasted for over 2000 years.

Given the age of Puyi upon his ascension to the throne, Puyi’s father, Prince Chun, ruled over China as regent. A regent is one who “caretakes” for a government in place of an individual who is not capable of doing so at the time. This regency was to be short lived however. As an emperor of the Qing Dynasty, Puyi was Manchu in origin, not Han Chinese as the majority of his subjects were. This racial difference between the ruling Manchu class and the subject Han Chinese people was a source of tremendous tension in the Empire, as the Chinese resented being ruled by foreigners. As well, the Chinese Empire had been humiliated by the Western powers and Japan throughout the past century, particularly in the Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901. The monetary reparations and territorial concessions made to these foreign powers highlighted the weakness of the Qing Dynasty and the failure of the Chinese Empire to adopt Westernizing reforms aggravated the situation.

In 1911, the Xinhai Revolution broke out in China, resulting in the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty, and in its place, the establishment of the Republic of China. Despite the formation of the Republic, for a little more than a decade, Puyi was granted the right to retain his imperial title, reside in the Forbidden City and receive a stipend from the government. This all ended in 1924, when, following a failed coup and restoration of the Emperor, Puyi was banished from the Forbidden City and became a regular citizen of China. No one was to ever live in the Forbidden City again, which had served as the imperial residence of Chinese emperors for almost 500 years.

Following the Japanese invasion of Manchuria (the northeastern part of modern China) in 1931, Puyi was installed as the emperor of a new Japanese puppet state, Manchukuo. During his time as a private citizen, Puyi harboured many pro-Japanese feelings, feeling resentment towards the Chinese republic for the end of the Qing Dynasty and prejudice towards the Manchu. While recognized as the ruler of Manchukuo, Puyi exercised little authority, with most decisions concerning Manchukuo and its military and economy made by the Japanese in Tokyo. Few states in the world recognized the independence of Puyi’s country, mostly Japan and her allies (e.g. Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy). While Puyi did certainly come back to the throne, he was but an emperor-in-name only.

In 1945 with the defeat of Japan in the Second World War, Puyi was caught by the Soviets trying to flee to Japan. He was then repatriated to the Communist Chinese government, where he was sent to a re-education camp to commit to the communist ideology. Puyi would live the remainder of his life in Beijing as a citizen of the People’s Republic. Miraculously, Puyi went largely unscathed by the Cultural Revolution that passed through China, which did denounce all aspects of the country’s imperial pass. Puyi passed away in 1967, shortly after the Cultural Revolution ended. After negotiations between his family and the government, was buried near the Western Qing Tombs – the site where previous Qing Emperors that came before him were buried.

Puyi’s life has become popularized in the 1987 biopic, The Last Emperor (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0093389/), winner of nine Academy Awards that year (including Best Picture and Best Director). Almost three hours long, The Last Emperor chronicles Puyi’s life starting with his ascent to the imperial throne, his time under Japanese manipulation, and ending with his life in Communist China. Interestingly, this movie was the first Western feature film made in China with the Chinese government’s full cooperation since 1949 (when China turned Red). It was also the first feature film permitted by the Chinese government to film in the Forbidden Palace, which was made an UNESCO World Heritage Site on the same year that the The Last Emperor premiered.

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