The Last Empress of China

25 Dec


Have you ever watched a movie or historical drama and ever wondered what happened to those characters? Or have you ever wondered is that what really happened?

One of the best movies i have ever seen is the 1987 film ‘‘The Last Emperor’ directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. The movie is the story of the Last Emperor of China, Aisin-Goro Pu Yi. 

Since the release of the movie, much has been written of Aisin-Gioro Pu-Yi, the Last Emperor of China. Pu-Yi became Emperor of China in 1908 at the age of three and lost his crown in the 1911 Revolution. Despite the Revolution, Pu-Yi was allowed to stay inside the Forbidden City, treated as an emperor by his various army of eunuch’s, courtiers and officials.  But Pu Yi was an emperor in name only.

I cannot help but wonder what ever happened to Pu Yi’s wife, the Empress Wan-Jung better known to the world as ‘Elizabeth’. The story of the Last Empress of China is just as tragic as that of her husband.

In the movie the ‘Last Emperor’, Wan Rong enters Pu-Yi’s life when in 1922 she was chosen to marry Pu-Yi. We know that Pu-Yi selected Wan-Jung from a collection of photographs placed before him. But what do we know about Wan-Rong? Pu Yi tells us that his original choice for Empress was overridden by the High consorts and he was persuaded to choose Wan Rong, also known as Wan Jung and Mu Hung. Pu Yi tells us that she was from a rich family, beautiful and the same age as Pu Yi.

But who was Wan Rong? Gobulo Wan Rong (“Beautiful Countenance”) was from one of Manchuria’s most prominent, richest families. Her father was Rong Yuan, the Minister of Domestic Affairs of the Qing Government and head of one of Manchuria’s most prominent, richest families.

We also know that Wan Rong’s mother was Xin Yu Heng Aisin-giorro, herself descended from the Qianlong Emperor (1735-1796). We know that as a child, Wan Rong had a tutor Chen Tseng-shou who would also be a life long friend. We also know that Wan Rong was highly educated at an American missionary school in Tianjin by the American tutor Isabel Ingram, where she had been given the Christian name of “Elizabeth.

The marriage beween Wan Rong and Pu Yi was not one of love but of necessity. Having come of age, Pu Yi was asked to choose a wife. Given a book of photographs of the eligible young women from wealthy chinese families, Pu Yi originally choose a young woman, Wen Hsiu as his wife. However objections to this choice by the imperial consorts forced Pu Yi to choose another. The second chice was that of Wan Rong. But Pu Yi was allowed to choose Wen Hsiu as his secondary consort or second wife.

The marriage of Wan Rong to Pu Yi seems to have gotten off to a rocky start when Pu Yi showed very little interest in Wan Rong on their wedding night and went to his own chambers. Pu Yi’s own attitude to his wedding was that ‘While all the hustle and busle went on around me one question kept running through my mind: ‘I have an empress and a consort; Im married. But how are things any different from before?’

pu yi and wan rong

With this mindset, Pu Yi showed very little interest in his new wife on their wedding night and returned to his own chambers. When i think about Wan Rong and Pu Yi, they seem to be more like brother and sister, or two friends. Pictures show Wan Rong and Pu Yi together happily. But were they ever happy as a married couple?

But Pu-Yi did not only have his wife Wan Rong to look after but also a secondary consort, Wen Hsiu.  How did the Empress Wan Rong feel about having to share with a second wife? Did Wan Rong and Wen Hsiu get along? According to Pu Yi there seems to have been a rivalry develop between Wan Rong and Wen Hsiu.


Pu Yi seems to have resented the money spent and the competition between the Empress and Wen Hsui. Pu Yi complained that Wan Jung knew even more ways of ‘wasting money on useless objects than I did’. Pu Yi also complained of the competition between Wan Jung and Wen Hsiu where if one had something, the other also had to have one. When the secondary consort Wen Hsiu asked for a divorce in 1931, Pu Yi admitted that ‘It appeared on the surface that Wen Hsiu was forced out by the ’empress’ Wan Rong. While this was not the whole truth it was certainly one of the reasonse for Wen Hsiu’s departure’.

After 1924 and their eviction from the Forbidden City, Pu Yi seems to have his mind soley on restoration to his throne. As he admitted that ‘I did not know what love was, and where husband and wife were equal in other marriages, to me wife and concubine were both the slave and tools of their master’.

The restoration of Pu Yi as the Emperor of the Puppet state of Manchukuo or Manchuria under Japanese control did little to improve the fortunes of either  Pu Yi or Wan Rong. Obsessed with becoming emperor again, Pu Yi became the wiling puppet of the Japanese, who held their own ambitions in China. The Japanese manipulated Pu Yi into believing that his life was in danger and that Pu Yi was in desperate need of Japanese protection. Little did Pu Yi realise that the Japanese had carefully set up incidents to scare Pu Yi towards Japan rather than British or American assistance.

Becoming emperor again in Manchukuo did little to improve their marriage. After Wen Hsui divorced Pu Yi in 1931, Pu Yi says that he felt a revulsion for Wan Rong, hardly ever talking to her or paying her any attention. As Pu Yi writes ‘So she never told me her of her feelings, her hopes and her sorrows’. Pu Yi knew that she had become addicted to opium and ‘behaved in a way that i could not tolerate’. What did Pu Yi mean by this?

According to the Manchu princess and japanese spy Yoshiko Kawashima (Better known to as history as ‘Eastern Jewel’), Wan Rong hated Manchuria where she suffered from the extreme climate and was subject to bad dreams and poor health.

Neglecting Wan Rong, Pu Yi married the 16 year old school girl Tan Yuling or ‘Jade Years’ in 1937 taking her as a secondary consort to replace Wen Hsiu. But what is interesting is that Pu Yi called Tan Yu-ling a punishment for Wan Jung. But Pu Yi did not see the new secondary consort as a wife but as necessary like an essential piece of palance furniture. As Pu Yi writes ‘She too was a wife in name only, and i kept her in the palace as i might have kept a bird until her death in 1942’. But it was also believed by Hiro Saga, Pu-Yi’s sister in law, that Pu Yi had a pageboy lover, a male concubine. Rumours of Pu-yi’s bisexuality plagued Pu-Yi for his whole life.

Addicted to opium, Wan Rong’s behaviour became bizarre. According to Edward Behr, Wan Rong’s opium addiction from july 1938 to july 1939 was 740 ounces of opium. Wan Rong never appeared at birthday or New Year parties and relations with Pu Yi had ceased while her own father stopped visiting her in Manchukuo because of what she had become. There is a story of a dinner party where Wan Rong ate a western style meal ravenously that was embarrasing to all that were there.

Pu Yi tells us that Wan Rong came to believe in luck and if she encountered anything unlucky she would blink or spit. Pu Yi says that Wan Rong made it such a habit to blink or spit that it was if she were ‘suffering from some mental illness’.

But there were also rumours that Wan Rong had an affair with her driver. After his second trip to Tokyo, Pu Yi was advised that his empress was pregnant by his driver, Li Tich-yu who gained opium for Wan Rong and smoked with her. Pu Yi gave him orders to leave town. When Wan Rong gave birth to a baby girl, it is believed that the Japanese doctor killed the baby with an injection. Edward Behr believes that from this moment Wan Rong lived in a constant opium daze.

Why did Wan Rong stay? Pu Yi wondered this himself in that the experiences of Wan Rong, ‘who had been neglected for so long would be incomprehensible to a modern Chinese girl’ and wondered what if Wan Jung would have divorced him. Pu Yi believes that where Wen Hsiu believed that ordinary family life was more important than wealth and power, that Wan Jung attached great significance to her position as empress and was prepared to be a wife in name only for the sake of it”.

Another contemporary of Wan Rong, the Manchu Princess ‘Eastern Jewel’ or Yoshiko Kawashima, wrote that she was proud to be the number one wife to China’s true emperor but was a victim of politics and her own snobbery as well as betrayal from the Japanese.


So what happened to the Last Empress of China, Wan Rong? Pu Yi wrote that when he left Manchokuo after the Japanese surrender her opium addiction was very serious. Wan Rong fled with her sister in law, Hiro Saga where they both fell into the hands of Chinese communist forces in Talitzou, Manchukuo. Wan Rong and Hiro Saga were moved to a prison in Yanji, Jilin.

Edward Behr recounts the story of what happened in prison. Suffering from opium withdrawals, Wan Rong begged for opium or halucinated as if she was back in the forbidden city. In Prison, Wan Rong became a curiosity for the local people who came to see the ‘Last Empress of China’. Unconscious in her cell, laying in a pool of urine and her own vomit, Wan Rong was helped by Hiro Saga who washed the dying empress until Hiro Saga and her daughter were moved leaving Wan Rong alone.

What did Pu-Yi think about her death? The last time Pu Yi saw Wan Rong appears to have been in Manchuria before he was to fly to Japan. As the aircraft was too small, he chose only Pu Cheih, his two brothers in law, three nephews and a doctor to go with him. Why wouldnt he have brought Wan Rong? Pu Yi seems to have been more preoccupied with saving his own life than any concern for his wife or anyone else.

It is believed that Pu-Yi did not learn of the death of his Empress Wan Rong until 1951 when Pu Yi was still imprisoned.  In his own words, Pu Yi tells us that ‘When our ways parted after the Japanese surrender her opium addiction was very serious and she was extremely weak; she died the following year in Kirin’. But what is interesting is Pu Yi’s words:

“I had married a total of four wives, or to use the terms employed them, one empress, one consort, and two minor consorts. But in fact they were not real wives, and they were only there for show. Although I treated them differently they were all my victims…….If her fate was not determined at her birth, her end was inevitable from the moment she married me”.

After a short period, Wan Rong died in prison reportedly from a combination of malnutrition and opium withdrawal in June 1946, at the age of 40. Wan Rong was buried in an unmarked grave at the prison. 

In October 2006, Empress Wan Rong’s younger brother, Gobulo Runqi (1912-2007), had a tomb built for Wan Rong at the Western Qing Tombs. Although the tomb did not contain the body of the Empress Wan Rong, the tomb did contain the personal hand mirror of Empress Wan Rong.

western qing tombs

The pictures used in this website is courtesy of the following websites: 

I acknowledge that pictures on this website are courtesy of metrosonus –

Suggested Reading

Behr, Edward ‘The Last Emperor’

Irons, Neville John ‘The Last Emperor’

Johnston, Reginald ‘Twilight in the Forbidden City’

Pu-Yi, Aisin-Gioro ‘From Emperor to Citizen: The Autobiography of Aisin-Gioro Pu-Yi’


Empress Wan Rong – The Last Empress Consort of the Qing Dynasty in China’,

8 Responses to “The Last Empress of China”

  1. annemette beich May 3, 2013 at 4:54 pm #

    Thank you very much. I loved the film, and have often wondered what had happened to the empress. The information about Ingram was new to me and led to new webpages with more pictures of the empress. for many years no pictures appeared but resently it has changed and info about her life can easyly be found on the web. It could be nice to read details about her eveyday life in the forbidden city or to read Inggrams diary
    BR Annemette

    • brianthompson32 May 3, 2013 at 8:38 pm #

      Thank you for your comment.

      After watching the film i wondered what ever happened to the Last Empress of China. She is one of those people in history that we wonder what her fate was.

      How it all ended for her was a tragedy.

      • metrosonus May 10, 2013 at 1:55 am #

        Behr’s book and the resulting movie are highly inaccurate. They were both based on Puyi’s diary, which in turn, was based on “confessions” he gave at a Communist labor and reform prison. These confessions were then put to use by the communist party as propaganda to show that they were truly benevolent and that they provided the path to enlightenment.

        Every book I’ve read on the subject that has been written by an American has been inaccurate, sensationalist, racist or some combination of the three. I’ve been doing Chinese language research for a few years now and there’s an overwhelming amount of evidence that contrasts the Western perspective quite sharply.

        Many of the “new” photos that have turned up have most likely been copied out of my Flickr account (not that I mind), where I have a large collection stored. I’ve also manged to contact Isabel Ingram’s grandson and I was able to get a copy of her diary from him. It was quite interesting.

      • brianthompson32 May 10, 2013 at 3:30 am #


        Thats some really good points about Pu Yi and Behr’s book.

        That is one of the problems of these ‘historical works’ in that we have to question when they were written and the purpose for their writing.

        Pu-yi was a smart man and realised that what he wrote in his memoirs would reflect the way that he was treated by the chinese. Even in his book, he talks about how he mistreated his wet nurse and how he felt sorry for her when he learnt about her plight. I doubt that a chinese emperor really had that much sympathy for people he regarded as his subjects.

        I think the book is honest about Wan Rung. I dont think Pu Yi had much time for her. His relationship with Wan Rong has brought into questions about his sexuality. But Pu Yi married later in life – but whether it was a search for true companionship or just to keep up appearances is another thing.

        Either way the story of Wan Rong is very tragic.

        Your pictures are really great. How can i reference your pictures in the word press? Do i reference them to your website or to your name?

        Also do you write posts regularly on wordpress about chinese history? Do you only specialise in late Ching dynasty history or go deeper into early ching and ming history? I love the Taiping Rebellion and the Opium wars.

        I am thinking about writing a post on the lady known as ‘Eastern Jewel’ who appears in the film and her background and lifestyle. Or even a post on the dowager empress.

        I would love to hear your feedback on ideas or something that needs to be discussed.

  2. metrosonus May 10, 2013 at 2:15 pm #

    Here is my Flickr account, if you would like to look at my photos; although I can’t take credit for the ones you’ve posted, as those have been available freely for quite a while.

    I’m glad to say that I’ve just graduated with my M. Ed., which has occupied most of my time for the last 5 years. So no, I haven’t been blogging about China and my wordpress info is out of date. My home page, which needs some work, is at

    You’re absolutely right about Wan Rong and Puyi though. Their relationship is difficult to describe, but they are more like brother and sister or childhood friends than they were husband and wife. Puyi actually spent most of his time with Wan Rong and was jealous of her, in playful way, when she spent time with Isabel and her friends. This continued for a while through their stay at Tianjin, but Puyi became consumed by paranoia and anxiety after events such as Wenxiu’s divorce, the blasting open of the imperial tombs and ultimately, their move to Manchukuo. She was without a doubt, his best friend. Despite the male bonding he felt with his brother Pujie and Wan Rong’s brother Runqi, she was his source of stability.

    I mainly specialize in this little group of people, so to speak 🙂 but I am also branching out into earlier history as well. I think it would be nice if I could learn something from you about those periods as well.

    If you like, I think it’d be easier to communicate via email. If you wouldn’t mind and you would like to, you can send me an email to moscowbuzzer at and I will write you back with some more info. 🙂


    • brianthompson32 May 15, 2013 at 3:11 am #

      Chris, sorry for the late reply.

      That would be great. The Taiping rebellion is really the start of the downfall of the monarchy.

      I dont know if Pu jie ever released an autobiography. I read that he was working on a book, but unfortunately his death stopped that.

  3. adhi June 9, 2013 at 9:52 am #

    i prefer to watch th legend of the last empress yehonala thu zhi,she a great empress before pu yi birth.

    • brianthompson32 June 10, 2013 at 5:09 am #

      The Empress yehonala – better known to history as the Empress Tzu Hsi or ‘Cixi’ was originally a concubine of the ‘Xianfeng’ Emperor.

      No doubt that she was one of the most ruthless empresses ever to assume power. But to me, i find her reign to have been nothing more than one of corruption and decadance that led to the fall of the Qing dynasty.

      Even when reforms of the Kuang-Hu Emperor tried to save China, the Empress Tzu Hsi squandered the money and arrested the reformers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: