PUYI, THE LAST EMPEROR, 1906-67
Puyi 溥儀 (7 February 1906 – 17 October 1967) was the last emperor of China, where he reigned as the child Xuantong Emperor from 1908 to 1912 and for eleven days in 1917. Later, he was set up by the Japanese as their puppet ruler in his ancestral homeland of Manchukuo, of which he was Chief Executive 1932-4 and “Kangde Emperor” 1934-45. Captured, imprisoned and rehabilitated, he finally returned to live in communist Peking as a private citizen and wrote an autobiography, Wode Qian Bansheng 我的前半生, translated as From Emperor to Citizen (both Peking, 1964), with government endorsement and the help of an editor, Li Wenda, as ghostwriter.
From Emperor to Citizen said nothing about Puyi’s sex life, but what little could be gathered, indicating the emperor’s preference for boys, was included in The Last Emperor, a prize-winning autobiography of him by the Anglo-French foreign correspondent Edward Behr (1987). Amongst others whom Behr was able to interview for his book were Puyi’s brother Pujie, and Li Wenda, who had himself earlier tracked down and interviewed those involved in every stage of Puyi’s life.
Puyi’s ill-treatment of his women and boys should be understood in the context of his spoilt upbringing, in view of the evidence assembled by Behr that he behaved very differently after his transformative years in prison. “Gaol was like a school for him. All his life, until 1945, everyone around him had convinced him he was special, almost divine. Because of this, his attitude towards others had never been normal. Only in Fushun did he become aware of people as people,” explained his brother Pujie. “One of his earlier characteristics,' said his nephew Jui Lon, “was his utter selﬁshness. … When I saw him in Peking after his release he was a changed man. In his family, he started to care for people for the first time in his life.”
Presented here are all that Behr or Puyi himself had to say or infer about either his sex life or his pages. Both authors use the old Wade-Giles system of Romanising Chinese names. Names given here in square parentheses are the Pinyin equivalents otherwise used.
The Last Emperor by Edward Behr
Introducing Puyi in his “Foreword”:
Those who had known him best were extremely reluctant to talk about his sex life to strangers like myself. […]
From what I learned, there is no doubt in my mind that Pu Yi was bisexual, and – by his own admission – something of a sadist in his relationships with women. […] All this, however, is only inferred in the diaries of Pu Yi`s followers and in his own, highly selective autobiography. Time and again, as l pressed otherwise co«-operative and even loquacious intimates of Pu Yi`s life and times to tell me more, l inwardly raged at their protective discretion - while also, to some extent, sympathizing with it. Some of them may have been Pu Yi`s occasional – and unwilling - sex partners in their own youth, and Chinese reserve is such that I knew I could not expect them to say so.
Purists may ﬁnd my interpretation of Pu Yi’s behaviour during his adult years too inferential, insufﬁciently backed by corroborative evidence, but l have tried to tell his story with as much regard for truth and accuracy as possible. There is no doubt in my mind that Pu Yi`s awareness of his huge mistake in throwing in his lot with the Japanese from 1931 onwards resulted in a prolonged, and increasingly serious, nervous breakdown. One of the forms it took was in occasional sadistic sexual assaults on helpless, cringing adolescents of both sexes who, for several years, were his virtual prisoners inside the Salt Tax Palace in Changchun, the puppet capital of Manchukuo. [pp. 18-22]
Describing Puyi’s first weddings in 1922:
Outwardly. Pu Yi went through these ceremonies with suitable aplomb. He was seventeen, by his own account totally inexperienced sexually, and nothing in his previous years had prepared him for marriage, or female companionship of any kind. Suddenly he found himself saddled with two wives. As he describes it, 'I [had] hardly thought about marriage and family. It was only when the Empress came into my field of vision with a crimson satin cloth embroidered with a dragon and a phoenix over her head that l felt at all curious about what she looked like.'
The wedding night, or what was left of it after the arrival of the Secondary Consort. was spent, according to Manchu dynasty tradition, in the bridal chamber of the Palace of Earthly Tranquillity. […]
‘When we had drunk the nuptial cup and eaten “sons and grandsons" cakes,' wrote Pu Yi, 'I felt stiﬂed. The bride sat on the bed, her head bent down. I looked around me and saw everything was red: red bed-curtains, red pillows, a red dress, a red skirt, red ﬂowers, and a red face … it all looked like a melted wax candle. I did not know whether to stand or sit, decided that I preferred the Hall of Mental Cultivation [his boyhood quarters], and went back there. '
'How did Wan Jung [Wanrong] feel, abandoned in the bridal chamber? What was Wen Hsiu [Wenxiu], not yet fourteen, thinking? These questions never even occurred to me.' Pu Yi would have us believe that, at this very moment, his thoughts revolved exclusively around his future as Emperor. 'I thought: if there had been no revolution I would now be starting to rule with full powers. I must recover my ancestral heritage'
This is at total variance with the sentiments he had expressed during his harrowing encounter with Johnston a mere seven months previously.
What is far more likely, that traumatic dawn, is that he was obsessed by shameful proof of his sexual inadequacy. For he knew that his premature flight from the Palace of Earthly Peace would be reported by the omnipresent, malicious, gossipy eunuchs - and that such behaviour, in Chinese folklore terms, was both risible and profoundly humiliating.
It was perhaps too much to expect an adolescent, permanently surrounded by eunuchs, to show the sexual maturity of a normal seventeen-year-old. Neither the Dowager consorts nor Johnston himself had given him any advice on sexual matters - this sort of thing simply was not done, where emperors were concerned; it would have been an appalling breach of protocol. But the fact remains that even a totally inexperienced, over-sheltered adolescent, if normal, could hardly have failed to be aroused by Wan Jung's unusual, sensual beauty. The inference is, of course, that Pu Yi was either impotent, extraordinarily immature sexually, or already aware of his homosexual tendencies.
The taboos surrounding homosexuality in China today are so strong that try as I might, in conversation with Pu Yi's surviving relatives, I found no way of getting them to discuss this, except in the vaguest, most allusive terms. The nearest I came to it was when Pu Chieh [Pujie] told me – in response to the deliberately innocent question: ‘Why did Pu Yi never have any children?’ - that, many years later, 'the ex-Emperor was found to be biologically incapable of reproduction’.
Pu Yi's description of his wedding night is practically the only reference in his book to his relationship with Beautiful Countenance (or Elizabeth, as he soon started calling her). About Wen Hsiu, his Secondary Consort, there is nothing at all. Pu Chieh remembers the three of them - the two brothers and Pu Yi's bride - laughing, cycling around the palace grounds, ‘playing games like children’. […]
The light-hearted companionship [between Puyi and Wan Jung] did not last. A few months after the wedding, Wan Jung was spending more and more time alone, in her own quarters, increasingly moody and bored.
San Tao, one of her young eunuchs, today a crotchety 85-year-old and one of the two surviving eunuchs of this era, is reluctant to talk about those days. […] After much beating about the bush, deliberately avoiding the subject and rambling on about palace events that had no bearing on the questions put to him, he slyly acknowledged the unusual relationship between Pu Yi and his bride. ‘The Emperor,' he said, ‘would come over to the nuptial apartments about once every three months, and spend the night there.’ And then? More rambling, more reminiscences about his later life. Very interesting, but how did the Emperor feel?
'He would leave early in the morning on the following day,' San Tao said, 'and for the rest of that day he would invariably be in a very ﬁlthy temper indeed.’ [pp. 113-6]
Following Pu Yi’s move to Tianjin in 1925:
The Chinese extended family system meant that Pu Yi was compelled to feed and look after a score of young relatives who had no real business being in Tientsin [Tianjin]. As a gesture of loyalty, impoverished cousins sent him their young sons to feed, educate and bring up as loyal Ching dynasty subjects. Pu Yi could not refuse them without losing face. For this reason, in Tientsin. the Chang Garden house was full of what most foreigners assumed were servants. Pu Yi’s ‘court’ referred to them, pompously, as ‘page boys’. [pp. 174-5]
Describing life at Puyi’s court in Changchun, the capital of Manchukuo:
Pu Yi's court could at times be a place of real terror: one pageboy escaped, was dragged back and beaten so severely that he died. Pu Yi prayed endlessly for the soul of the dead boy, and had those who had beaten him to death severely punished.
Pu Yi's own sex life, Hiro wrote, in a random collection of diary jottings that was eventually published in 1957 under the title Wandering Primcess, was something of a mystery. Three weeks before her own marriage to Pu Chieh [Pujie] in April 1937, a sixteen-year-old girl called Jade Years (Tan Yu-ling [Tan Yuling]) moved into the palace as Pu Yi`s 'secondary consort', or concubine. […]
Pu Yi, the surviving members of his Pirandello-like court recall, seems to have been genuinely fond of Jade Years. Whether they made love is not certain. In his memoirs, Pu Yi admits that none of the women in his life until then had been “real wives - they were just there for show'. On the other hand Pu Yi gave the impression of badly wanting a male heir, complaining several times to his nephews that the Japanese must be doctoring his food to make him sterile. Again, Big Li feels this was all part of Pu Yi’s paranoia.
It was during those interminable years in the Salt Tax Palace that rumours of Pu Yi's bisexuality spread, nor just in Changchun but in Japan as well, where the reports from spies inside the palace household were scrutinized with considerable interest. They spoke of Pu Yi's increasing interest in youths of his own sex, of a whole stable of adolescents – half servants, half lovers - living in the palace compound. His sister-in-law, Hiro, was shocked to hear palace reports that Pu Yi had a pageboy lover. 'Of course l had heard rumours concerning such great men in our history,' she wrote later in her memoirs, 'but I never knew such things existed in the living world. Now however l learnt that the Emperor had an unnatural love for a pageboy. He was referred to as "the male concubine". Could these perverted habits, l wondered, have driven his wife to opium smoking?' Since the rest of her book is highly accurate, it is unlikely that this report is based on hearsay alone. It is, however, the only reference in her book to Pu Yi's homosexuality, a subject his surviving relatives refuse to discuss, though Pu Chieh's admission to me that ‘later on in life, he was found to be biologically incapable of reproduction' may have been a typically oblique, Chinese way of conﬁrming his wife`s allegations. The key to Pu Yi's sexuality remains locked away inside Japan's still classified secret service 'Manchukuo' archives. […]
In his memoirs, Pu Yi deplored that during those dark years his only intimates were pageboys, young, inexperienced relatives, a hopelessly opium-addicted wife and a teenage concubine. […]
He seems to have had at least some genuine affection and even love for Jade Years, for all his pageboy ‘affair’. […]
But he did eventually marry again, after a fashion. A year later, in 1943, a twelve-year-old girl appeared at Pu Yi's side, Hiro wrote in Wandering Princess, but ran away three days later. Pu Yi made no effort to have her brought back. Instead, he finally succumbed to Yoshioka’s pimping, insisting only that the new concubine be a local girl, not a Japanese. Jade Lute (Li Yu-chin [Li Yuqin]), aged sixteen, reﬂected Pu Yi's diminished importance in Japanese eyes. She was a waiter`s daughter. […] Her photograph shows a face with character, sternly handsome rather than pretty, and a boyish figure. Pu Yi treated her more like a pageboy than a concubine. […]
Pu Yi acknowledged his dark side. Of his ill- treatment of pageboys, he wrote: 'These actions of mine go to show how cruel, mad, violent and unstable I was.' He implies, of course, that his 'madness' was the result of his upbringing and of his predicament as puppet Emperor. [pp. 247-57]
From Emperor to Citizen by Aisin Gioro Puyi
In the following excerpts from a sub-chapter entitled “Home Life”, Puyi describes his increasing cruelty to his household in Changchun during his reign as Emperor of Manchukuo.
The most wretched victims of my rule were the pages. There were about a dozen of them, and they came from a Changchun orphanage. Most of their parents had been killed by the Japanese. For fear they would grow up with a longing for revenge the Japanese had made the puppet government bring them up in an orphanage, change their names, teach them to be slaves, and wear them out through heavy labour. Some of them had been very hopeful when they were told that they were being sent to the palace, thinking that life would be much better there than in the orphanage. It turned out to be even worse. They ate kaoliang of the lowest grade, dressed in rags, had to work fifteen or sixteen hours a day, and sometimes had to sit up on duty all night as well. In winter they were so tired, cold and hungry that they would sometimes fall asleep leaning on the radiators while they were working and wake up covered with burns. They were always being beaten --- for falling asleep on the job, for not sweeping clean enough, or for talking too loud. When my personal assistants were in a bad temper they took it out on the pages, who were in their charge, putting them in a solitary confinement cell. So wretched was their life that at the age of seventeen or eighteen they were as small as ten-year-olds.
One page called Sun Po-yuan died of his sufferings. Finding life in the palace intolerable he had tried to escape. After being recaptured on his first attempt he was given a savage bearing. The next time he tried to get out through the tunnel for the central heating, but after crawling round for two days he found no way out. Suffering from hunger and thirst, he came out for a drink of water and was captured. When I was informed of this by my assistants I ordered, “Let him have something to eat and then give him a good lesson." But before he could be given a “good lesson” he was beaten till he was almost dead. The news that he was nearly dead gave me a terrible fright, as I was afraid that he might turn into a ghost and take my life in revenge, so I gave orders that a doctor was to be sent for to save him. It was too late.
I spent several days after this kotowing and reciting scriptures in front of a Buddhist altar, praying for his soul to cross safely to the next world, in the hope that I could thus avoid retribution. I ordered that the assistants who had beaten him were to strike the palms of their own hands with bamboo rods every day for six months as a penance. It was as if these measures would absolve me of all responsibility for the killing. My cruelty to the pages later developed to an extreme because of my neurotic state. [pp. 305-6]
I had married a total of four wives, or, to use the terms employed then, one empress, one consort, and two minor consorts. But in fact they were not real wives, and were only there for show. Although I treated them differently they were all my victims. [pp. 309-10]
 His Scottish tutor.
 Saga Hiro, the Japanese wife of Puyi’s brother, with whom she had come to live in Changchun, where she befriended the emperor.
 Ryūten no ōhi 流転の王妃 by Aishinkakura Hiro 愛新覺羅 浩 (Madame Pujie), Tokyo, 1959.
 Big Li was Puyi’s long-term servant.
If you would like to leave a comment on this webpage, please e-mail it to firstname.lastname@example.org, mentioning either the title or the url of the page so that the editor can add it.