Despite the romantic intimacy conveyed in this photograph, it’s doubtful this imperial couple ever had sex. According to the Japanese sister-in-law of this former emperor, China’s last monarch known formally as Xuantong, but more commonly known to history by his private name, Puyi, much preferred the sexual company of pageboys to his empress, or any woman for that matter. Furthermore, Puyi stated in his autobiography, From Emperor To Citizen, that his first four wives, he was married five times in all, weren’t real spouses at all, and only existed for show. He even likened them to palace furniture. He certainly seems to have had no special feelings for the particular wife he’s holding hands with in this portrait, his empress, Wanrong. Not only is their evidence that he had her illegitimate, infant daughter killed, the product of one of several affairs she had, or at least was complicit in the child’s murder, but when he was finally informed of her death in a Red Army prison, while he himself was serving in another Communist Chinese penitentiary several years after the end of World War ll, he was emotionless. As a metaphor that aptly symbolizes the manner in which she was discarded by her husband throughout their marriage, Empress Wanrong’s body was wrapped in a sheet and tossed out into the hills near the prison camp where she died. Her remains have never been found. While Puyi, who at one point adopted the English name of Henry, was elegantly portrayed in the masterful 1987 film, The Last Emperor, as a figure of sympathy, the reality behind the cinematic myth of this man is that he was a narcissistic, borderline psychopath who lived the greater part of his life with no discernible moral compass. No woman close to him suffered more because of this than his empress.
Before one breaks down the tragic story of their marriage, it’s first necessary to provide some background information concerning the bizarre circumstances in which Puyi was living when at 15 the remaining consorts of the previous two emperors forced him to choose a bride. In 1908 when he was almost 3 years old Prince Puyi, the first born son of the then emperor’s younger half brother, Prince Chun, was summoned to the Forbidden City, the centuries old imperial palace, unaccompanied by his parents. He was brought to the palace on the orders of his great aunt, the empress dowager, Cixi, who was the real power behind the throne. When her son had died childless she’d chosen her nephew, who ruled under the name Guangxu, as his successor. Determined to retain control of the imperial government, and desperate to keep China from falling into the hands of European colonial powers, Cixi felt it necessary to modernize the country at a slower pace than her nephew preferred. When he openly defied her, she had him placed under house arrest where he languished for the last decade of his life. By 1908 both emperor and empress dowager were ailing, and given he was childless like his predecessor, Cixi once again designated the next in line, choosing Puyi over his father because his extreme youth guaranteed the conservatives at court would rule the country and maintain her isolationist policies. Within days of Puyi’s arrival, the emperor died. The Empress Dowager expired the next day. A 2008 DNA analysis of Guangxiou’s remains verified the long held rumor that he was murdered through a lethal dosage of arsenic. Historians now theorize that Cixi, knowing she was dying, ordered her nephew murdered to ensure he kicked the bucket before her, thus ensuring Puyi would inherit the throne while still a child, and her traditionalist government ministers would retain power.
Such was the state of affairs at the imperial court until a revolution broke out in 1911, and the next year the over 2,000 year old monarchy was overthrown. The last empress dowager, Longyu, widow of the previous emperor and niece of the previous empress dowager, however, was able to strike a deal with the republic whereby in exchange for Puyi’s abdication the new government would allow him and the imperial family and their retainers to remain in the northern half of the Imperial City, and continue to live their traditional existence as if nothing had happened, until such time within the indeterminate future that they could successfully decamp to the Summer Palace. This meant Puyi would continue to be treated, for the meantime, as if he were still a living god just as his predecessors had been for the previous two millennia. The republic even agreed to finance this state of affairs for the foreseeable future. Like his immediate predecessors , Puyi was forbidden from leaving his imperial abode, though in his case there was an added emphasis on keeping him cocooned within the Forbidden City, since he was no longer emperor outside of it.
In the meantime, the new emperor, who in reality was the former emperor, was growing up in complete isolation from other children, being worshipped as the literal son of heaven, and developing a completely warped personality as a result. As he later confessed in his memoirs, he enjoyed watching his eunuchs get whipped for the most minor of infractions and harbored a particular disregard for women, who were rarely in evidence at court. In their biography of Empress Cixi, Dragon Lady, Sterling and Peggy Seagrave write that by the 19th century, certainly by the time Cixi came to live at the Forbidden City as a concubine, it was standard practice for eunuchs to indoctrinate future emperors sexually, especially since it was thought best for princes and princesses to grow up in same sex environments. One can presume this form of sexual indoctrination was still in practice while Puyi was growing up. He certainly wasn’t girl crazy. One thing all his biographers agree on is that he abhorred sex with women, and preferred not having romantic relationships with them. And at least two people who knew him intimately claimed he had both sexual and romantic relations with two other males; one being a eunuch, the other a page boy. And then, of course, there’s his own admission in his memoir that his first four wives were merely decorative and nothing more. Of this, more later.
Regardless of his sexual preference, by the time he was 15 the remaining widows of the two previous emperors decided it was time for him to wed. They presented him with four photos of four teenaged girls and asked him to pick one. According to his memoir, he told the dowager consorts all the bridal candidates looked the same to him, except for the difference in their attire, but after some dithering he settled for Wenxiu, an impoverished aristocrat. Unfortunately for Puyi, the girl was only 12, came from a family the consorts deemed insufficiently wealthy, and they also felt she wasn’t pretty enough to be empress. They asked him to choose again. He next selected Wanrong, who fully met their criteria. After two years of palace negotiations, it was finally agreed that Wanrong would become empress, while Wenxiou would be Puyi’s secondary consort. This was a standard marital arrangement for emperors of his dynasty, the Qings, who always had one empress, but were allowed as many consorts and concubines they desired, or in Puyi’s case, were deemed politically advantageous.
In the meantime, both girls were sent small armies of courtiers to instruct them on the etiquette of palace life. Fortunately for Wanrong, whose father had served as a government minister to the previous emperor, study came easy to her owing to her father having decided to have her educated alongside her brothers at a missionary school in Tianjin. By age 17 she was highly regarded among most who came into contact with her for her beauty and intelligence. Prior to their nuptials, Puyi called Wanrong at her father’s compound and asked if she would be his friend once they were married as he was quite lonely. She haltingly agreed, no doubt realizing how prison like her new life would be. Shortly after their conversation, in 1922, she travelled to the Forbidden City and married Puyi in a resplendent ceremony that would prove the last of its kind to be held in the palace. Puyi describes their passionless wedding night in his autobiography. After retiring to the Palace of Tranquility, the traditional structure where imperial couples spent their first night together, he was utterly turned off and made to feel uncomfortable by the bedroom suite’s romantic decor, his new wife kneeling by their bed, and the prospect of having sex with her. He retired to his own bedroom instead and left Wanrong to spend her wedding night alone. It’s generally presumed by biographers that they never consummated their marriage. He also states that shortly after their wedding Wanrong informed Puyi she wasn’t in love with him, but had only agreed to their marriage so that she’d become empress.
Despite their mutual lack of romantic interest in each other, Puyi nonetheless developed a platonic fondness for his wife initially, often playing practical jokes on Wanrong, or calling her on the telephone during her continued court etiquette lessons. He also apparently preferred her friendship over that of Wenxiou. This affection might have resulted from the presence of his empress’s two little brothers who joined her in the imperial household shortly after her wedding. Puyi really liked them, especially the youngest one, Runqi, and was inseparable from them for their remaining time in the Forbidden City. Given his proclivities, one could jump to the conclusion they were his sexual underlings. The author, however, has found no proof of this. Between being trapped in a palace from which there was no escape, and being married to a husband who not only wasn’t in love with her, but clearly preferred the company of eunuchs, pageboys, and Wanrong’s two little brothers to her own, it should come as no surprise she soon developed “a nervous condition,” that in retrospect was probably a form of depression. Even the occasional visits of friends and family did little to relieve her loneliness. Doctors prescribed the empress smoke tobacco laced with opium to treat her illness. In time this “treatment” would avalanche into full blown opium addiction.
By 1924 historical events conspired to overwhelm Puyi, Wanrong, and all other members of the imperial household, which would change their lives forever. It was in that year that the warlord, Feng Yuxiang, seized Beijing and evicted the imperial family and court from their palace. They would never inhabit it again. After spending a few nights at his father’s palace, Puyi and his entourage sought refuge at the Japanese embassy, and shortly afterward moved to a rented mansion within the Japanese concession of Tinstin. At this juncture the former emperor was in constant contact with the Japanese, who were fomenting plans to start an East Asian empire. They were specifically eyeing the mineral rich, Chinese northeastern province of Manchuria, the original kingdom and homeland of Puyi’s immediate ancestors, as a potential future colony. To that end, they began cultivating Puyi as their future puppet emperor. He later wrote in his memoir that he was more than willing to collaborate with the Japanese invaders as long as they restored him to his rightful throne, and his only real issue with them in the ensuing years was that they only made him emperor of Machuria, which they named Manchukwo once they seized it, and not of the whole of China.
In the meantime Wanrong was daily becoming a worse and worse drug addict. She even admitted to an American journalist whom she befriended at the time that she was spending most of her allowance on opium. The departure of Puyi’s second wife, Wenxiou, only made matters worse. She escaped the household and filed for divorce, later marrying a Chinese general. Despite Puyi admitting later that he had neglected his second wife, he nonetheless blamed her rivalry with Wanrong, with whom she frequently vied for his attention despite neither giving a damn about him personally, as the reason for Wenxiou’s escape and began beating his empress in consequence. These beatings apparently became a frequent occurrence throughout the remainder of their marriage, and despite the last emperor marrying two much younger concubines during Wanrong’s lifetime, she bore the physical brunt of his increasing rage.
Puyi certainly had ample opportunities to exercise his natural sadism in the ensuing years. In 1931, after the Japanese successfully invaded Manchuria and began their nearly 15 year occupation of the region, a period in which their mass rape, pillage and murder of the Chinese people many historians have likened to a genocide, Puyi and his household moved to the new colony where he was first installed as head of state, then in 1934 was enthroned as emperor. Wanrong, for all it was worth, was once more a titular empress. By now detesting the Japanese and her husband in equal measure, she tried escaping Puyi twice: once in 1931, and again in 1933. Both attempts were foiled. In the meantime her opium addiction kept getting worse and worse. Perhaps because the drugs pacified the empress, her foreign overlords appear to have aided and abetted her addiction, at one point doubling her monthly allowance fully aware that half of it would be used to purchase opium. At this point Puyi, realizing he had neither the inclination to breed with his spouse, nor was she likely healthy enough to have a child, designated his little brother, Pujie, who’d recently married a relative of Emperor Hirohito, as his heir apparent. Subsequent events, however, would prove Wanrong’s womb was healthy enough for childbirth after all.
While Puyi was on a state visit to Japan, and had left his wife in Manchuria, the empress conducted affairs with two members within the imperial household: Li Tiyu and Qi Jizhong. According to her husband’s memoir, she was also introduced at this time to a Japanese military officer by her little brother who also conducted an affair with Wanrong. Her brother was paid for the introduction, so in essence he pimped her. Puyi believed it was this particular dalliance that led to his wife becoming pregnant.
Whoever the father was, it certainly wasn’t the emperor. He returned to Manchukwo to discover Wanrong was with child. Despite her entreaties to him to acknowledge the baby as his heir, Puyi had no plans of the kind. He writes in his autobiography, in a passage that was censored from publication in the ’60s but was restored to a revised edition published several years ago, that the baby, a girl, was removed from her mother and killed in a boiler shortly after birth. Wanrong was then told her daughter had been whisked away to courtiers outside the palace who were raising her. While it’s unknown if she ever learned the truth concerning her child’s fate, she appears to have suffered a complete and final breakdown shortly after her baby was removed from her. She would never recover. Given his ambiguity within this passage concerning whether or not Puyi was directly involved in this infanticide, it seems likely that he was, and may’ve even ordered it. His Japanese masters had reprimanded him concerning his wife’s affairs, and he’d even beaten her during her pregnancy as a result. Furthermore, his memoir is notable for its complete candor regarding most other episodes in his life. He fully acknowledges, for example, that he sent a letter to a Japanese general while living in Tinstjin imploring his help in restoring Puyi’s rightful throne. It seems more likely that his ambiguity concerning his stepdaughter’s murder resulted from Puyi knowingly covering his tracks because he ordered it.
The Japanese sent Wanrong to a hospital shortly after her child’s birth where she appears to have gone irretrievably insane. Meanwhile back at the palace Puyi continued keeping loving company with a handsome, feminine eunuch from whom, according to one account, he became inseparable. Author Jia Yinghua writes in the memoir, The Last Eunuch of China: The Life of Sun Yaoting, based upon the recollections of a eunuch who’d joined Puyi’s household at 14 and had remained throughout the emperor’s tenure in Manchuria, the affair began before Wanrong’s pregnancy. The emperor and his favorite male concubine, recalled Yaoting, were “as close as body and shadow.”
The empress returned from the sanitarium an insane, opium dependent zombie version of her former self. She was now extremely superstitious, and constantly blinked her eyes and spat at anything or person she thought unlucky. She also became ravenously hungry and would typically devour food with her bare hands at banquets. Her father soon found her changed demeanor so disturbing that he stopped visiting her.
Just as historical events overwhelmed Puyi and the rest of his imperial household in 1924, irrevocably changing their lives, the same happened again in 1945. The Japanese capitulation to the Allies and the subsequent repatriation of Manchuria to China forced Puyi and his family to flee the country. Deciding that the men and women should leave separately, Puyi boarded a plane for Tokyo that was shortly intercepted by the Soviets. Wanrong met the same fate with the Chinese Red Army. The last emperor finally made it to Tokyo, but as a prisoner of the Allies forced to stand trial for war crimes. He admitted all, was found guilty, then sent to the Soviet Union to serve five years in prison. Once that stint was over Puyi was next extradited to, now Communist, China where he was incarcerated for an additional decade. Once released, and now considered fully “rehabilitated,” he worked as a gardener for the remaining years of his life, married a fifth and final time, wrote a censored memoir confessing his previous sins, though not acknowledging much remorse for them, and died during the Cultural Revolution in 1967. His first wife didn’t fare as well.
Captured by Communist guerrilla soldiers while attempting to flee to Korea with the rest of the imperial women in January of 1946, Wanrong was transferred to four prison camps before dying in captivity in a puddle of her own urine later that year. Suffering from malnutrition and opium withdrawal, her sister-in-law, Hiro Saga, who was initially imprisoned with her, later wrote to her husband that at one point Wanrong began hallucinating she was still empress and commanded her prison guards, who only laughed at her in response. It’s unknown what happened to her body. Many believe it was wrapped in a sheet and simply discarded in the hills to be left to the elements. Puyi didn’t find out about her death until three years later while reading a letter written by his sister-in-law to his brother. He’s said to have received the news with no emotion at all.
Edward Behr writes in The Last Emperor that Empress Wanrong lived on in local folklore long after her death. Held in far greater fascination by the Chinese public than her husband ever was, it was rumored that she didn’t perish in a prison camp, but instead successfully escaped and became a revered, romantic, all powerful bandit queen. At least her myth had a happy ending.