Pu Yi and Wanrong - The Last Emperor of China and his empress

At the moment I am reading "Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China" by Chinese writer Jung Chang - it is a gripping family saga that encompasses three generations in one Chinese family and it gives even bigger picture than my previous read "Red Scarf Girl" - where "Red Scarf Girl"  focuses only on particular time in 1960s, "Wild Swans" actually describes life and social atmosphere in imperial China and how it all got completely transformed once communists came into power. It is not a pleasant read - it constantly makes me squirm with discomfort and horror just by reading about brainwashing, imprisonments and cruelty that was part of daily lives of people back than. Out of curiosity I have also checked the fascinating lives of the last emperor of China and what happened to him.

I was vaguely familiar with Pu Yi from celebrated movie directed by Bernardo Bertolucci ("The Last Emperor") which was basically a westerner's fantasy about life in Forbidden City and allegedly whitewashed real character of emperor who was a sadistic, spoiled child monster. Placed on a throne with unlimited power, little boy was only three years old and surrounded with entourage of kowtowing slaves (mostly eunuchs) who were there to care for his every whim, open the doors for him and suffer his tantrums. Since nobody could control or criticise him, Pu Yi grew into psychotic despot (which was not depicted in the movie) and it obviously deformed his personality - living exclusively in the royal palace and surrounded with sycophants, his power was divine and absolute. I just find it absolutely fascinating that the whole royal court bowed to this spoiled brat, who obviously needed some control. Everything came to the end when Pu Yi was about eight years old - communists took over and forced him to abdicate - of course, grown ups signed the abdication - he was allowed to continue to live in Forbidden City and even assigned a Scottish teacher to teach him history and languages. Sir Reginald Johnston was impressive and self-confident man who deeply impressed young Pu Yi and perhaps the only real authority he had in life up to that point. At this point, seventeen year old was married to Gobulo Wanrong who shared very much the same aristocratic background and was given instructions how to behave like a empress.

Marriage was not a happy one - it is a questionable was it ever consummated at all, since Pu Yi didn't care for women - however, initially they seems to have gotten along but there was never any particular passion or affection between them, as Pu Yi was basically incapable to think about anybody else except himself. Political upheavals eventually turned their lives topsy turvy - invading Japanese army placed Pu Yi on a throne of a newly created Manchukuo state but he was there without any power or influence and had to toe the line. It was around this time that frustrated and lonely empress became opium addict (which Pu Yi encouraged, as this kept her quiet) and after adulterous affairs produced a child, she was locked away and her newborn baby killed - Pu Yi too much of a coward to protect her. With Japan losing the war and in aftermath of Atomic bombs exploding in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Pu Yi had to abdicate his puppet throne and he was quickly bundled away in security, while Wanrong and her ladies stayed behind. Chinese communists displayed opium-dazed, delirious Wanrong in a cage like animal, where she starved to death to apparent thrill of visitors who came to gawk at what became of the last empress.

Pu Yi was eventually captured by Chinese authorities - contrary to Russians who eliminated their last Tsar, Chinese communists decided to show their superiority by transforming their last emperor into a communist. It was often said that he spent his days living quietly and working as a gardener but this is just official version - after years of humiliation, imprisonment and brainwashing, Pu Yi became a broken man who was constantly apologising to everyone and was harassed on every step, even made to sweep the streets by sadistic Red Guards. Not unlike his ex-wife, he was also shown around (except not in a cage) specially to visiting diplomats, as a perfect example of a transformed and obedient communist. It is a fascinating story that deserves new, fresh perspective and a book that honestly deals with both imperial and communist China.

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