Puyi becomes Emperor of China at the age of two.
Chosen by Empress Dowager Cixi on her deathbed, Puyi became emperor at the age of 2 years and 10 months in December 1908 after the Guangxu Emperor died on 14 November. Titled the Xuantong Emperor, Puyi’s introduction to the life of an emperor began when palace officials arrived at his family residence to take him. On the evening of 13 November 1908, without any advance notice, a procession of eunuchs and guardsmen led by the palace chamberlain left the Forbidden City for the Northern Mansion to inform Prince Chun that they were taking away his three-year-old son Puyi to be the new emperor. The toddler Puyi screamed and resisted as the officials ordered the eunuch attendants to pick him up. Puyi’s parents said nothing when they learned that they were losing their son. As Puyi cried, screaming that he did not want to leave his parents, he was forced into a palanquin that took him back to the Forbidden City. Puyi’s wet nurse Wang Wen-Chao was the only person from the Northern Mansion allowed to go with him, and she calmed the very distraught Puyi down by allowing him to suckle one of her breasts; this was the only reason she was taken along. Upon arriving at the Forbidden City, Puyi was taken to see Cixi. Puyi later wrote:
I still have a dim recollection of this meeting, the shock of which left a deep impression on my memory. I remember suddenly finding myself surrounded by strangers, while before me was hung a drab curtain through which I could see an emaciated and terrifying hideous face. This was Cixi. It is said that I burst out into loud howls at the sight and started to tremble uncontrollably. Cixi told someone to give me some sweets, but I threw them on the floor and yelled “I want nanny, I want nanny”, to her great displeasure. “What a naughty child” she said. “Take him away to play.”
His father, Prince Chun, became Prince Regent. During Puyi’s coronation in the Hall of Supreme Harmony on 2 December 1908, the young emperor was carried onto the Dragon Throne by his father. Puyi was frightened by the scene before him and the deafening sounds of ceremonial drums and music, and started crying. His father could do nothing except quietly comfort him: “Don’t cry, it’ll be over soon.”
Puyi did not see his biological mother, Princess Consort Chun, for the next seven years. He developed a special bond with his wet nurse, Wen-Chao Wang, and credited her as the only person who could control him. She was sent away when he was eight years old. After Puyi married, he would occasionally bring her to the Forbidden City, and later Manchukuo, to visit him. After his special government pardon in 1959, he visited her adopted son and only then learned of her personal sacrifices to be his nurse.
Puyi’s upbringing was hardly conducive to the raising of a healthy, well-balanced child. Overnight, he was treated as an emperor and unable to behave as a child. The adults in his life, except for Wang Wen-Chao, were all strangers, remote, distant, and unable to discipline him. Wherever he went, grown men would kneel down in a ritual kowtow, averting their eyes until he passed. Soon he discovered the absolute power he wielded over the eunuchs, and he frequently had them beaten for small transgressions. As an emperor, Puyi’s every whim was catered to while no one ever said no to him, making him into a sadistic boy who loved to have his eunuchs flogged. The Anglo-French journalist Edward Behr wrote about Puyi’s powers as emperor of China, which allowed him to fire his air-gun at anyone he liked:
The Emperor was Divine. He could not be remonstrated with, or punished. He could only be deferentially advised against ill-treating innocent eunuchs, and if he chose to fire air-gun pellets at them, that was his prerogative.
Puyi later said, “Flogging eunuchs was part of my daily routine. My cruelty and love of wielding power were already too firmly set for persuasion to have any effect on me.” The British historian Alex von Tunzelmann wrote that most people in the West know Puyi’s story only from the 1987 film The Last Emperor, which downplays Puyi’s cruelty considerably.
By age 7, Puyi had two sides to his personality: the sadistic emperor who loved to have his eunuchs flogged, expected everyone to kowtow to him and enjoyed puppet shows and dog fights, and the boy who slept at night with Wang, suckling her breasts and content to be loved for just once in the day. Wang was the only person capable of controlling Puyi; once, Puyi decided to “reward” a eunuch for a well done puppet show by having a cake baked for him with iron filings in it, saying, “I want to see what he looks like when he eats it”. With much difficulty, Wang talked Puyi out of this plan.
Every day Puyi had to visit five former imperial concubines, called his “mothers”, to report on his progress. He hated his “mothers”, not least because they prevented him from seeing his real mother until he was 13. Their leader was the autocratic Empress Dowager Longyu, who successfully conspired to have Puyi’s beloved wet nurse Wang expelled from the Forbidden City when he was 8 on the grounds that Puyi was too old to be breast-fed. Puyi especially hated Longyu for that. Puyi later wrote, “Although I had many mothers, I never knew any motherly love.”
Puyi noted that to travel from just one building to another in the Forbidden City or for a stroll in the gardens, he was always surrounded by “large retinue” of eunuchs and that:
In front went an eunuch whose function was roughly that of a motor horn; he walked twenty or thirty yards ahead of the party intoning the sound ‘… chir … chir …’ as a warning to anyone who might be waiting in the vicinity to go away at once. Next came two Chief Eunuchs advancing crabwise on either side of the path; ten paces behind them came the centre of the procession. If I was being carried in a chair there would be two junior eunuchs walking beside me to attend to my wants at any moment; if I was walking they would be supporting me. Next came an eunuch with a large silk canopy followed by a large group of eunuchs, some empty-handed, others holding all sorts of things: a seat in case I wanted to rest, changes of clothing, umbrellas and parasols. After these eunuchs of the Imperial Presence came eunuchs of the Imperial tea bureau with boxes of various kinds of cakes and delicacies … They were followed by eunuchs of the Imperial dispensary … at the end of the procession came the eunuchs who carried commodes and chamberpots. If I was walking, a sedan-chair, open or covered according to the season, would bring up the rear. This motley procession of several dozen people would proceed in perfect silence and order.
Puyi never had any privacy and had all his needs attended to at all times, having eunuchs open doors for him, dress him, wash him, and even blow air into his soup to cool it. Puyi delighted in humiliating his eunuchs, at one point saying that as the “Lord of Ten Thousand Years” it was his right to order a eunuch to eat dirt: “‘Eat that for me’ I ordered, and he knelt down and ate it”. At his meals, Puyi was always presented with a huge buffet containing every conceivable dish, the vast majority of which he did not eat, and every day he wore new clothing as Chinese emperors never reused their clothing. The eunuchs had their own reasons for presenting Puyi with buffet meals and new clothing every day, as Puyi’s used clothes made from the finest silk were sold on the black market, while the food he did not eat was either sold or eaten by the eunuchs themselves.
Puyi had a standard Confucian education, being taught the various Confucian classics and nothing else. He later wrote: “I learnt nothing of mathematics, let alone science, and for a long time I had no idea where Beijing was situated” When Puyi was 13, he met his parents and siblings, all of whom had to kowtow before him as he sat upon the Dragon Throne. By this time, he had forgotten what his mother looked like. Such was the awe in which the Emperor was held that his younger brother Pujie never heard his parents refer to Puyi as “your elder brother” but only as the Emperor. Pujie told Behr his image of Puyi prior to meeting him was that of “a venerable old man with a beard. I couldn’t believe it when I saw this boy in yellow robes sitting solemnly on the throne”. It was decided that Pujie would join Puyi in the Forbidden City to provide him with a playmate, but Puyi was notably angry when he discovered his brother was wearing yellow – the color of the Qing – as he believed that only Emperors had the right to wear yellow, and it had to be explained to him that all members of the Qing family could.