The Last Emperor is the story of Henry P’u Yi (one of the many names by which he was called), the last emperor of China.
The author was a reporter—for United Press International, among others—who spent decades covering Asia, and who watched P’u Yi in person at the war crimes trials in Tokyo (the War in the Pacific version of the better known Nuremberg Trials).
This is a solid, straightforward, well-written, consistently interesting biography. It covers P’u Yi’s life quite thoroughly, and does a nice job providing historical context along the way. It’s only 350 pages, so I’m not going to say it’s anywhere near as thorough on the historical context of what was going on in China and the world as it is on P’u Yi himself, plus it’s now several decades old and I’m sure a lot more is known now about P’u Yi and the period in which he lived, so I doubt it would count as the definitive biography of China’s last emperor. But for non-scholars who just are curious to know more about this particular historical figure, I would think this would be a very good choice.
Probably most people who are familiar with P’u Yi at all know him from the Bertolucci film of the same name as this book from 1987. From what I’ve read, that movie was based in large part on P’u Yi’s autobiography, which Brackman points out is often not a reliable source.
P’u Yi was of the Manchu dynasty, the final dynasty of imperial China. The Manchu were a people not very great in number, and sort of not Chinese (most outsiders would think of them as roughly the same ethnicity, especially since their home region of Manchuria is now a part of China, but Chinese and Manchu themselves were quite conscious of being different), who swept down from the north in the 1600s to supplant China’s Ming dynasty.
This was not unusual in Chinese history. Dynasties were violently replaced fairly regularly, sometimes as a result of invasion from without.
China had a reputation, though, of “conquering the conquerors,” meaning that even if an outside group took power in China, they tended to quickly become assimilated and adopt Chinese ways. (I think India has had a similar pattern.) The Manchu, though, made more of an effort than most to avoid this. For example, whereas you might think the Manchu nobility, especially the royal family, would want to intermarry with the Chinese to solidify the alliance between the two peoples, they were strict about keeping their bloodlines pure. As long as there was a Manchu emperor it would be a Manchu emperor, not a partly Manchu partly Chinese emperor.
There’s a little bit about this in the book, but I would think that would set up an interesting dynamic when the Manchu dynasty was later under threat of revolution, and ultimately did indeed give way to a republic. On the one hand, the emperor was the emperor of China, and patriotism required defending the throne at all costs, especially since Chinese emperors had the mandate of Heaven after all. On the other hand, the Manchu still sort of functioned as foreign conquerors, which means a patriot would want to get rid of them.
Anyway, toward the end, the Manchu rulers, and China for that matter, were a mess. The Europeans hadn’t bothered to out and out conquer China, but they pretty much had the run of the place and exploited it however they could. Civil order was more the exception than the rule. Warlords were running amuck.
Imperial power was wielded by the Empress Dowager Tsu Hsi for most of the last several decades of the dynasty. Not officially—there were various emperors throughout that time who were nominally in charge—but Tsu Hsi manipulated things so that the succession went through a series of children and others she could totally dominate (the succession rules evidently had considerable flexibility), including P’u Yi, who ascended the throne at age 2.
Tsu Hsi was extraordinarily skilled at keeping power, but at little else, so things continued to fall apart until the dynasty was overthrown shortly after her death when P’u Yi was still a child. So really he never got to exercise power in any meaningful sense.
No power (beyond the palace, at least), and little freedom. His life, while he was a child emperor, was full of stunning opulence, pomp and ritual, which was all imposed on him. On the surface he was treated with great obsequiousness, but in reality others made all his decisions for him. There was no “I’m the emperor, so I’m calling the shots.”
Actually his life remained roughly the same well after the dynasty technically ended. According to the abdication agreement, P’u Yi was allowed to retain his title and his palace and servants and everything, and was to be protected by the new government and treated as the equivalent of a visiting monarch from another country. He got to more or less play act being emperor in the palace, but he had zero authority over China, which really was a continuation of the life he was used to.
When it came time to marry, he didn’t even have say over that. He was presented with photographs of several available brides, and picked the one everyone agreed was the ugliest. It was tactfully explained to him that he wasn’t allowed to pick that one—in other words this “choice” wasn’t his choice after all—but that he could always have her as a concubine if he picked an appropriate bride.
He picked the one they wanted and married her, and did indeed get the ugly one thrown in as a concubine. Then he proceeded to have sex with neither of them.
The author indicates there’s a good chance P’u Yi in fact never had sex with a woman in his life. He was totally messed up sexually, which was pretty much an occupational hazard of Chinese emperors.
Not only did emperors choose—or have chosen for them—wives and concubines for political reasons rather than because they loved or desired them, but they were largely raised and influenced by a massive number of eunuchs. These desexualized folks in some ways were like slaves, but then again the more Machiavellian of them could acquire considerable power within the palace. They were great at gossip and political intrigue and cutting deals with various factions, to where at times it was unclear who were the slaves and who were the masters.
As a result of the weirdly artificial life they had, typically starting in childhood, Chinese emperors routinely ended up homosexual, grossly perverted, or both.
For an emperor like P’u Yi, eunuchs were among those who basically ran his life, but eunuchs were also like his property or play things that he could do whatever he wanted with.
One of the few things he did seem to enjoy in a sexual or quasi-sexual way was witnessing eunuchs being whipped. The transgression could be minor or invented; he just liked seeing them writhing in pain under the whip.
Insofar as he was identifiably anything sexually he was probably more homosexual than heterosexual. The evidence is inconclusive as to whether he ever acted on his homosexuality and actually had sex with a male (unless you count fetishes like having someone whipped for your amusement “having sex” in some broad sense).
He was mocked as a “eunuch” himself by his wife. (Because he manifested no sexual desire for her or any other female? Because any time he attempted to have sex with her he couldn’t achieve an erection? Because he liked boys, and she was using the term “eunuch” broadly as a term of abuse that included homosexuals?)
Aside from his sexuality and personal life, stepping back and looking at his life as a whole more from a political standpoint, the dominant theme is that he would do pretty much anything to maximize his chances of regaining his throne.
The thing is, though, he doesn’t come across as particularly power hungry in any conventional sense. It seems to have been more a matter of duty to his ancestors, his predecessor Manchu emperors. It was like he felt he was dishonoring them if he was the one who lost the throne and ended the dynasty.
So month after month, year after year, he would scheme and plot and conspire with this general or that warlord, or this faction of the republic or that foreign country—whoever seemed to him to hold out the best hope of restoring him to the throne.
Actually there was a supposed restoration for a few days in 1917, but the warlord who thought he was in charge and engineered it was quickly pushed aside, and P’u Yi was an ex-emperor again.
I don’t get the impression there was ever much of a popular movement in favor of restoring P’u Yi; it always seemed to be something he was trying to work out with one of the figures or factions jockeying for power in the chaos of 20th century China. Certainly I would think the percentage of ordinary Chinese who felt loyal to the ex-emperor and/or were actively trying to get him back into power was never remotely as high as the percentage of ordinary Russians who felt loyal to the Tsar and/or were actively trying to get him back into power after the Russian Revolution.
Maybe, like I noted, that had to do with his dynasty having been a Manchu one and Chinese hating the Manchu foreigners. Or maybe it had to do with the double-edged sword nature of the whole mandate from Heaven thing; the Chinese attitude was that the very fact of an emperor being an emperor meant it was the divine will that he rule and be obeyed, but also that if he somehow did lose power then that was proof that the divine will was that his dynasty end.
He was mostly miserable trying to regain the throne. He was certainly in a lot of danger since every time he made temporary alliances of convenience he was also making temporary enemies, it’s not clear he had any particular political goals he wanted to achieve if he were ever emperor again, and I doubt he anticipated enjoying being emperor (the fun parts of it, like having eunuchs whipped, he had just as well been able to do without being emperor). For much of his life he could have walked away from it all and had a comfortable life in some place like England or America. But he just kept hanging around on the outskirts of power, looking for an opportunity to be emperor again, because that was the only meaning his life had to him.
Among the many he conspired with were the Japanese. When they conquered parts of China, they worked out a deal with him to become emperor of Manchuria (one of the areas they’d conquered, which they renamed “Manchukuo”). He was all for it, but it worked out nothing remotely like he’d hoped.
His idea was that they’d give him back his title as emperor of China, and that he’d temporarily rule over just Manchuria since that’s what he and his Japanese allies had control over, but that he’d have authority over all of China as soon as that could be worked out, militarily or otherwise. The Japanese said no, this isn’t a restoration of your former throne even in a theoretical sense; Manchukuo is a new country and this is year one of a brand new monarchy.
He thought the people in Manchuria would rally to him, as eventually the people in China as a whole would. In fact, even just in Manchuria he was no big deal any more. That region had been very sparsely populated with Manchu, and once large numbers of people moved there centuries later they had almost all been regular Chinese, so really Manchuria was far more Chinese than Manchu by this time, and those Chinese had no love for P’u Yi.
But the biggest disappointment was that he was in fact in charge of Manchuria (Manchukuo) in name only. It would be kind to call him a puppet of the Japanese.
This wasn’t a situation like, say, the Bourbon restoration in France after the revolutionary and Napoleonic eras, when a Bourbon monarch was put back on the throne by foreign powers, and though in some respects dependent on his foreign benefactors was still a real king. Probably that’s what P’u Yi had envisioned, that there would be certain restraints on his foreign policy, and he would have to be tactful in certain dealings so as to maintain his alliance with Japan, but that he’d still be in charge of a country.
But no. He had zero authority. The Japanese basically held him prisoner in a makeshift palace, and they scripted everything he said and did. They didn’t just influence him or pressure him; they ran the country in all respects. He was back to being a make believe emperor.
After the war he fell into the hands of the Soviets, who treated him surprisingly well. Manchuria too fell into the hands of the Soviets, and they absolutely did not treat it well. Though if anything the Japanese had been more brutal than your average conquerors in many of the Asian countries and parts of countries they’d conquered—including other parts of China—and though the Manchurians certainly had no political freedom under the Japanese, really most people there were still able to have a somewhat decent life, at least compared to what you’d expect in a war zone. The standard of living was not terrible. But the Soviets felt entitled to the full spoils of war after all they’d been through, and they stripped the place clean, leaving Manchuria and the Manchurians in horrible shape.
Eventually, after Mao and the Communists took over in China, Manchuria as well as P’u Yi were returned to China by the Soviets. P’u Yi went through many, many brutal years of “re-education.” Eventually he renounced any desire to regain his throne and pledged to just be a good ordinary citizen of the Communist state.
He’d made pronouncements like that multiple times before, whenever pulling back had seemed the optimal move in a long term strategy of becoming emperor again—in other words, he was lying every time—but this time apparently he never took it back. Maybe he finally realized how utterly hopeless his quest was and just gave up. Maybe he’d been fully broken and brainwashed and truly believed in the Communist regime.
He lived the last years of his life in insignificance, probably dying of cancer in 1967. That was the official account of the Chinese government anyway, and the author says it’s very likely true, but notes that there were rumors of P’u Yi having been tortured and murdered during the chaos of the so-called Cultural Revolution that was going on at that time in China. Some of the rumors were quite detailed in fact—eyes being gouged out and such.
After I finished the book I spent a little time online researching P’u Yi’s death, to see if the consensus of historians today remained in agreement with the author’s contention that P’u Yi died of cancer and that the rumors of his murder were false. Not only did every source I find state matter-of-factly that he died of cancer, but very, very few even mentioned any contrary rumors or that there was or ever had been any controversy about the matter. So I guess it’s settled.
In the end, is P’u Yi a sympathetic figure? I think he was a very lonely person. I think virtually no one was ever real with him, and he was virtually never real himself. (One partial exception is that he’d apparently had a somewhat healthy and friendly relationship with his British tutor Reginald Johnson for a few years, as depicted in the Bertolucci film.) Everything was staged, everything was phony, everything was strategic, everything involved ulterior motives. I think it was a horribly stifling life. I think he was cruel in his weird quasi-sexual fetishes, but otherwise no crueler than the typical person who runs a major country or seeks to. I think he was a very flawed person in many respects, but that the extraordinarily perverse nature of his circumstances has to stand as partial mitigation of that.
In most respects he was something of a mediocrity, and when you get right down to it something of a nobody in the sense that he never really had power or accomplished much of anything. Even when he nominally was an emperor—of China as a child, and later of “Manchukuo” under the Japanese—he was a paper emperor, a phony emperor.
There’s still something strangely fascinating about his story. Maybe it’s not who he was, but what he was. Or really not even what he was, but what he almost was. Maybe the compelling nature of his story has to do with what a huge element of “what might have been” there is to it.
P’u Yi spent his life on the periphery of importance, desperately trying to matter again, when in reality he never had.