With the recent passing of Queen Elizabeth II comes the beginning of a new king and a new reign. Finally retiring his position as the longest-serving heir apparent in English history, King Charles III has now become the 61st ruling monarch to accede to the British crown — a royal seat that has existed for more than 1,200 years.
Now, while that may seem like an exorbitantly long time, the age of the English Throne actually pales in comparison to China’s own imperial monarchy, having lasted for over an impressive 2,100 years. The history of the Dragon Throne first began when the King of Qin succeeded in his conquest of the various kingdoms of the Warring States period. Wanting to differentiate himself from the kings and rulers of the territories that he had conquered, he proceeded to name himself the huangdi (皇帝, emperor), a title that later became synonymous as the “Son of Heaven.”
Over the next two millennia came the rise and fall of several emperors and dynasties, with the final one collapsing during the early 20th century. Now, in the aftermath of rebellions, foreign invasions, and the opium wars conducted under Queen Victoria’s rule, the grandiose palaces of China no longer house any of its imperial members. Here is the story of how the reign of the last Chinese emperor and dynasty came to an end.
The White Lotus Rebellion
The earliest cracks that would lead to the Qing dynasty’s collapse in 1912 had long begun before Puyi, its last emperor, started his reign. Spanning a period of two centuries, the dynasty’s most distinguishable feature would be the fact that it was ruled by the Manchu, who were viewed to be “outside colonizers” because of the different religious and social customs that the Qing elites of the imperial court practiced — something that their subjects did not share or welcome.
At the time, since more developed technologies for treating contagious diseases and improving agriculture were being imported from the West, the country’s population boomed to nearly half a billion people, leading to famine and crowded conditions that the government had trouble resolving. The White Lotus Society, whose members wanted to overthrow the Manchu and restore the previous Ming dynasty, then used this opportunity to instigate the nine-year White Lotus Rebellion. Although the rebellion was eventually put down by the Qing elites, it ultimately weakened the power and strength of the Manchu-led dynasty.
The Opium Wars
Wary of the mistakes made during the White Lotus Rebellion, the Qing wanted to restrict foreign influence in the country but inevitably failed to do so. During this time, the British engaged in active trade with China for tea but did not want to pay with silver and gold. Refusing to enter trade negotiations, they then decided to instead launch the infamous illicit opium trade from India to Canton.
Because of this, opium addiction soon after became more prevalent across the coast, leaving the Qing authorities with no choice but to take action and burn 20,000 bales of opium. In retaliation, Queen Victoria ordered an invasion into China and started the Opium Wars. Caught off guard by the sudden assault, the Qing dynasty suffered a humiliating loss and had to relinquish control of Hong Kong to the British crown. At this point, China’s once powerful reputation came crumbling down for the rest of the world to see.
The Boxer Rebellion
After the Qing dynasty’s defeat to the British, other foreign powers such as France, Russia, Germany, and Japan also progressed in gaining colonies across Asia and establishing spheres of influence along China’s coastal regions. Discontent with the state of the once-great empire, the Han Chinese, who predominantly make up the country’s population, began to rebel against both their Manchu rulers and the foreign powers, resulting in the Boxer Rebellion.
The rebels, who later became known as the boxers, were initially a society that fought against anti-colonial and anti-foreign sentiments, viewing their Manchu leaders as people to be overthrown. Later on, however, they learned to collaborate with the Manchu in an effort to defeat the Western and Japanese forces. Unfortunately, even their combined efforts were not enough.
In 1900, the Qing surrendered and humiliatingly accepted peace terms. Then eight years later, the Empress Dowager Cixi suffered a stroke, her death announced a day after that of Emperor Guangxu, whom she was suspected of poisoning with arsenic. Unsurprisingly, this sequence of events marked the beginning of the end of the Qing dynasty and its imperial family.
Puyi, The Last Chinese Emperor
As the half-nephew of the late Emperor Guangxu, Puyi became China’s last legitimate emperor at the tender age of two, holding the throne for a mere four years before the dynasty was forced to give up the throne in 1912. At this time, public opinion had turned greatly against the ruling elite of the Qing dynasty, so very few had protested the abdication.
Despite this, however, Puyi (formally known as the Xuantong Emperor) was still raised with a highly privileged childhood that provided him with no censure for his abuse of power, having been noted to have even had his eunuchs flogged and shot with air bullets for the sake of his own amusement. Since he was given leave to retain his imperial lifestyle, he was not properly informed that he was no longer the emperor. It was only during the later years of his life when he realized his cruelty and lack of independence.
Five years after his first reign, Puyi was briefly restored to the throne from July 1–12, 1917 by the warlord Zhang Xun, but the act was quickly reversed due to overwhelming opposition across the country. A few years later, Puyi was expelled from the Forbidden City and stripped of his imperial title, leading him to seek refuge in the Japanese legation. With the support of the Japanese, Puyi then lived a non-eventful, if not passively lethargic, life in Tianjin with his wife the Empress Wanrong before being declared the chief executive and later emperor of the puppet state Manchukuo in 1934. During this period, he was unhappily resigned to becoming a powerless prisoner made to sign laws prepared by Japan and conduct official visits around the state, as well as indulging in sadistic tendencies of having his slaves beaten in between.
It was only the day after Japan surrendered in World War II in 1945 that Puyi finally abdicated his throne. In contrast to when the world welcomed Elizabeth II into her new role as the Queen of England post-war, the last emperor of China spent the next 10 years learning how to live life as a commoner in a war criminal prison, at long last learning how to perform basic tasks such as brushing his own teeth and tying his own shoelaces without the help of servants. After being educated in prison by the Chinese Communist Party, Puyi then lived as an assistant gardener and later a literary editor for the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference until his death. As a result of being exposed to the outside world, Puyi grew remorseful of his actions during his youth and spent the rest of his life repenting for them.
In the final chapter of his life, during the Cultural Revolution in 1966, Puyi was targeted by the Red Guards because he was considered to be the symbol of the Imperial China they wished to erase. Although he was placed under protective custody, he lost several of the simple luxuries he was initially allowed. Puyi’s health then began to decline. A year later, he died of kidney cancer.
And so finished the millennia-long history of the Chinese imperial monarchy.
Want to read more about the imperial Chinese family? Check out our story on Wu Zetian, China’s only ruling empress!