When Wanrong became the Empress of China, she was already ruling over a ghost land. In a matter of months, her country abolished the monarchy, turning all Wanrong’s decadent pleasures into dust. Somehow, though, this was just the beginning of her tragic tale. By the end of her life, Wanrong would lose her crown, her child, and most infamously of all, her sanity.
On November 13, 1906, Wanrong was born to the Golubo clan in Beijing—and she had far from humble beginnings. Her father was a high-ranking minister in the Imperial Court, and her mother boasted a top-notch pedigree. All in all, her parents might have been overjoyed to spoil their little girl—except tragedy struck the moment she was born.
Sadly, Wanrong’s mother suffered through a difficult labor in giving birth to her daughter, and she ended up passing from childbed fever—another term for postpartum infection—soon after Wanrong was born. Instead, a kindly stepmother raised the little girl like her own daughter. But that didn’t mean it was a normal childhood.
Wanrong’s father was extremely progressive for his time and insisted that she get just as good an education as her brothers. Even more luckily, her dad was stinking rich, and he could afford to send her to a pricy, chi-chi American school in the city of Tianjin. When Wanrong emerged from her tutelage, she was fluent in English, accomplished in piano…and ready to meet her destiny.
As Wanrong grew up, people couldn’t help but notice she was transforming into an absolutely stunning young woman. With a soft face and wide eyes, she perfectly fit the Chinese ideal of beauty at the time…and then there was the fact that the gorgeous girl also came with a very attractive dowry courtesy of her Daddy Warbucks.
In other words, Wanrong was one eligible bachelorette and could have her pick of paramours. This turned out to be a bad thing.
In 1922, when Wanrong was still only 16 years old, the teenaged Emperor Puyi of China started looking for a bride. Although Puyi was technically not Emperor anymore, having been overthrown for the Republic of China in 1911, he was still allowed to live in stateliness and splendor in the Forbidden City. Accordingly, Wanrong’s ambitious family put her forward in a bridal bid…only, this was no fairy tale.
Puyi’s courtship of Wanrong didn’t involve him swooping in and romantically swearing he would have only her—God no. In fact, the courtship didn’t even involve only her. Instead, the old Dowager Empresses at Puyi’s court collected a whole slew of photographs of the prettiest girls in the land, and Wanrong was just one among many presented to the emperor. And it gets more nightmarish than this.
See, when Puyi took a look at his prospective brides, he dealt Wanrong a crushing blow. He didn’t actually pick her; his first choice was a pretty girl named Wenxiu. However, his advisors vetoed the choice, claiming that Wenxiu wasn’t from a good enough family and could only work out as a concubine—besides, grossly enough, she was only 12 years old.
So that’s when Puyi chose Wanrong instead. How romantic.
Once the Emperor of China says he wants you as his bride, there’s not much you can do about it. Still, Wanrong probably should have thought twice about her betrothal anyway. As an Emperor who had held the crown since he was a toddler, Puyi had grown into a spoiled young man who was completely incapable of doing anything for himself. But it wasn’t just that.
In addition to his major case of rich kid syndrome, Puyi also had a terrifying dark side. He was notorious for his cruelty and loved to torment the eunuchs who served him. He particularly loved to flog the poor souls, despite repeated pleadings from his counselors to go easy on them. As Puyi himself later confessed, "My cruelty and love of wielding power were already too firmly set for persuasion to have any effect on me". Run girl, RUN.
In the fall of 1922, Puyi sealed the deal with Wanrong, marrying her in a lavish ceremony full of Imperial pomp and circumstance. Wanrong wore a garment made from crimson satin and embroidered with a dragon, and, according to Chinese custom, wore a mask for the proceedings. Puyi, meanwhile…somehow managed to suck even harder.
Puyi and Wanrong were roughly the same age, and neither teenager could have been ready for the responsibility of matrimony. Even so, the Emperor went way beyond an unfit husband. He later confessed that seeing Wanrong walk into the ceremony was one of the first times "I felt at all curious about what she looked like". And this wedding plot thickens…
Although Puyi had reluctantly relinquished his first choice of a bride, Wenxiu, he didn’t give up the girl completely. Or, um, at all. Instead, he also married her that very same day, taking her as his secondary consort while our girl Wanrong was official consort. Seriously, this guy didn’t understand the word "no". As we'll eventually see, this wedding night got weirder...but Puyi got weirder too.
While Puyi might have snubbed Wanrong on their wedding day, he made further strange demands. The immature man-child loved to bust in on her private meetings, play pranks on his new wife, or just telephone her incessantly during the day, complaining that he was lonely and demanding she treat him as an intimate friend and not as the Emperor. People, this is why you socialize your children.
In truth, Wanrong was suffering from her own issues without taking on her husband’s baggage. The Forbidden City was a stifling, formal nightmare, and the young girl had to learn a litany of new rules, traditions, and etiquette to keep up with what the court expected. For her first months as Empress, she would often pull all-nighters just to cram in her studies. It’s no wonder things started to unravel.
Around this time, the still-teenaged Wanrong took up smoking opium as a casual habit. The pastime was relatively accepted in the Forbidden City as a means to relax or just take the edge off of a long day, at least in moderation. With the stresses of the life she was leading, Wanrong took to the substance like a duck to water. Sensing any tragic foreshadowing here? You should.
As disturbing as this already is, there was an even darker side to Wanrong’s new habit. Emperor Puyi had actually not only given her his express permission to take up this habit, he actively encouraged it. Now why would he do that, you might ask? Because the Emperor thought it made his intelligent, often high-strung wife more "manageable". Big ugh.
In 1924, Wanrong’s life fell apart in the blink of an eye. That autumn, another coup rocked the Forbidden City, and this time the victors showed no mercy to the royal family. They forced Emperor Puyi, Empress Wanrong, and the rest of the clan right out of their ancestral fortress—giving them a bare three hours to do so. There was no going back now, and the way forward was full of terrors.
To be fair, Wanrong and Puyi seemed to land on their feet, at least at the beginning. The royal couple, along with the second consort Wenxiu, posted up in the Quiet Garden Villa in Tianjin. For a brief moment, Wanrong flourished in the more informal atmosphere, and enjoyed an active social life and a variety of pastimes, from horse riding to dancing. But soon enough, the cracks started to show.
For a long while, Wanrong and her fellow sister-wife Wenxiu had gotten along, but life outside the Forbidden City made them turn on each other. They began to compete for Puyi’s attention, and the erstwhile Emperor couldn’t buy one of them a present without the other complaining and demanding that he buy them the very same gift. Yet that was far from the biggest problem in the idyllic villa.
Puyi and Wanrong were always in the public eye, but one intimate detail of their lives is shrouded in mystery. Although an Empress of China was expected to provide an heir, Wanrong never had any children with Puyi, and historians speculate that the young royals never even consummated their union.
Then again, there might have been another reason for their fertility difficulties.
By this point, Wanrong’s smoking had grown into a genuine habit, and people were starting to notice. Her rival Wenxiu even believed the substance was responsible for Wanrong and Puyi’s barren union, sniping one day when she saw Wanrong smoking, "Why should you take [It]? You’d better stab at your belly". Eventually, it couldn’t help but catch up to her.
In the 1930s, Wanrong was growing increasingly fragile. She was never physically robust, but now suffered from a series of chronic illnesses, menstruated irregularly, and one of Puyi’s cousins even later claimed that she experienced an unnamed hereditary mental illness. Wanrong’s fairy tale life was crumbling in front of her eyes…and the next development didn’t help matters at all.
In 1931, a scandal shuddered through Wanrong’s life. For years, both she and Wenxiu had been growing dissatisfied with their Imperial wifely duties, especially since "exile" wasn’t exactly what they signed up for when they married an Emperor. Yet where Wanrong toughed it out for the sake of her little luxuries, Wenxiu finally had enough. Just like that, the secondary consort filed for divorce. Oof.
Suddenly, one of Wanrong’s oldest companions was gone, and it fell on her shoulders alone to look after the abandoned Emperor Puyi. Spoiler: Neither of them took it well. Forever after, they referred to Wenxiu’s escape from the marriage as "the treason"—that is, when they talked about it at all. And in the wake of the divorce, Puyi made some very bad decisions.
In late 1931, just months after Wenxiu left the royal throuple, Emperor Puyi tried to win the breakup in the weirdest way possible: He accepted Japan’s offer to become a puppet ruler in Manchukuo, AKA Manchuria. Wanrong, the smart girl that she was, thought this was a majorly bad idea and tried (unsuccessfully) to convince him to back out. Men, let this be a lesson: Listen to your wife.
That November, Puyi had Wanrong whisked away to his new kingdom. It was a nightmare from the very beginning. The Japanese, tense about the new arrangement, refused to let Wanrong even see her husband when she landed, leading some people to whisper that Puyi had somehow been killed. Well, eventually Wanrong probably wished he had been.
Although Wanrong did reunite with her husband, it was hardly a loving homecoming. By this time, she thoroughly detested Puyi—welcome to the club at last, girl—and the royal couple had decidedly chilly relations. Indeed, they hadn’t even eaten a meal together for the better part of three years. Unfortunately, though, Puyi wasn’t Wanrong’s only enemy.
Thanks to her less-than-enthusiastic response to their offer, the Japanese had no love lost for Wanrong either. They even excluded her from her own coronation on March 1, 1934, fearing she was a loose cannon who would go off script and end up purposely humiliating Puyi. To be honest, I’d have done the same. Eventually, though, Wanrong had finally enough—and the results were explosive.
Poor Wanrong was seriously reconsidering her commitment to her marriage, so much so that she attempted to become a runaway Empress and flee from Manchukuo. Uh, multiple times. Practically any official who happened to come to the state around this time got a desperate visit from the consort, begging them to secret her out. If only she had escaped, her fate might have been much different.
Isolation and unhappiness aren’t great for your mental health, and they did an absolute number on Wanrong. The consequences were devastating. At this point in her life, Wanrong became fully addicted to the haze poppies provided her. She consumed her substance of choice in staggering quantities, spending all her extra allowance on it and living in a heartbreaking stupor. In other words, there was nowhere to go but down.
It’s safe to say that the fairytale was over for Wanrong, and now her relationship with Puyi went from frigid to scathing. She became infamous with the servants for performing bitter pantomimes of her husband, putting on dark glasses that imitated his own and aping his jerky, awkward movements. This wasn't a good idea, and Wanrong made other bad decisions.
When all her chances for freedom and happiness slipped from her fingers, Wanrong rebelled in a much more scandalous way. Bored and lonely, the Empress struck up an affair with two of Puyi’s aides, a man named Li Tiyu and another named Qi Jizhong. I mean, it wasn’t like Puyi was paying attention to her. But as anyone could tell you, she was playing a dangerous game.
In 1940, Empress Wanrong received utterly shocking news. After years of her childless and icy marriage, she was pregnant…and the baby was most certainly not Puyi’s. Instead, one of her steamy dalliances with Li Tiyu had landed her with a bun in the oven, and now the Empress had to face the music. What ensued was a tragedy worthy of the opera.
Illegitimate child or not, Wanrong fought for her baby tooth and nail, confessing all to the Emperor and then demanding that he either outright acknowledge the child as his own, or else let it live outside of the Imperial system in peace. Two totally viable options, and Wanrong likely thought she had a chance to make her baby happy. Fate, however, had other plans in store.
Instead of helping out his wife in any way, Emperor Puyi committed one of the most horrific betrayals in Chinese history. The moment the baby, a little daughter, was born, the Emperor ignored Wanrong’s wishes entirely, and instead had his aides snatch the girl from her mother’s bosom and then kill the newborn. Yes, really. And he wasn’t finished.
According to one version of events, Puyi never even told Wanrong about the true fate of her baby. Right after her childbirth, he whisked her away to the hospital without her daughter, and when she came back, he lied and said that he was having an outside nanny look after the newborn. Thing is, this option is so much better than what really might have happened…
Other sources claim that instead of keeping the truth from Wanrong, Puyi mercilessly let it all hang out. The Empress’s response was gut-wrenching. Riddled with grief over the loss of her innocent child, some people say Wanrong gave in completely to addiction, existing in a numbed state for the rest of her life. That life would not last much longer.
In the remaining years Wanrong had, the once-polished girl transformed into a rebel. Totally through with the patriarchy, she stopped washing her face and her hair, and started to display defiant manners, often obviously chowing down on outrageous amounts of food at dinner parties without any regard for "dainty" manners.
Wanrong didn’t stop at gorging herself on food in order to forget, either. By this point, she was consuming so much poppy and living at such limits that her eyesight began to fail her, and she would often hide her face with a fan and then peer out of the cracks, hoping to get a closer look at people. And what the heck was Puyi doing to help her in all this? Well…
Even though Puyi had ruined Wanrong’s life, get this: He was the one who was considering divorcing her—though to be fair, Wanrong was too checked out to even bother with divorce proceedings. Humiliatingly enough, Puyi probably would have gone forward with the split if he didn’t fear causing chaos in his kingdom. Ah, the best-laid plans.
In 1945, Wanrong’s world came crashing down around her ears. The Soviet invasion of Manchukuo kicked off, and Puyi abdicated the heck out of his puppet throne. With the Russians going around imprisoning practically everyone from the state, the royal family knew they had to flee. But here’s where Wanrong’s tale goes from heartbreaking to outrageous.
Emperor Puyi had some trouble finding a way out of Manchukuo, but he eventually chartered a flight out to save his sorry behind. There was just one gaping problem: He didn’t take Wanrong with him. There wasn’t enough room on the plane for everyone, and his advisors convinced him any women weren’t worthwhile enough to bring on board.
So on August 16, 1945, Puyi waved goodbye to his wife, ignoring, as he put it, her "blubbering". It was the last time they’d ever see each other.
As proof of how much hope they had for their future—and how far they had to fall—Puyi and Wanrong took up the Westernized names "Henry" and "Elizabeth" when they were first expelled from the Forbidden City. Why hopeful? Because Puyi intended to be as great as King Henry VIII, and he wanted Wanrong to be like Queen Elizabeth I.
After a lifetime of pain, Wanrong still had an ounce of strength left in her, and she tried to flee to Korea with a group of other royal women. It ended in a cruel twist. Chinese guerrillas picked them up and threw them behind bars in the cold January of 1946. Wanrong was out of luck and out of options…and there was one more complication.
When Puyi abandoned her, Wanrong had a preciously small stash of her substances left, and after months in an isolated cell, her supply was completely empty. Soon enough, the former Empress of all China started experiencing harrowing withdrawal symptoms, becoming increasingly frail and unfettered to reality. And yet somehow, it only got worse.
Because everyone knew she was the former Empress, Wanrong’s cell became a public arena for people from miles around the country to drop in and watch her like a zoo animal. This was mortifying enough, but because of Wanrong’s severe withdrawal symptoms, her cruel audience also had front row seats to her complete mental breakdown…
For days on end, Wanrong would hallucinate better years as Consort, thrashing around and demanding from people more clothing, food, and baths. Yet her most tragic utterance was yet to come. One day, Wanrong was so delirious, she began keening and screaming for her long-lost daughter. Instead of sympathy, however, Wanrong only got more cruelty.
In the last days of her life, Emperor Puyi’s sins hung heavy over Wanrong’s head. The guards all hated the puppet emperor, and so they gave his wife no quarter and showed no kindness to her. One guard, after seeing her raving and moaning on the floor, only told one of her companions, "This one won’t last," and suggested they shouldn’t even waste meals on her.
Why did Puyi and Wanrong have such a miserable marriage? The answer may lie in their wedding night. After the two wedding ceremonies were over, Wenxiu, Wanrong, and the Emperor made their way over to the Palace of Earthly Tranquillity inside the Forbidden City. This is where Emperors had traditionally consummated their marriages in the domineering Dragon Bed. That’s when it took a bizarre turn.
It’s a matter of official historical record that when Emperor Puyi gazed upon Wanrong and Wenxiu in the bed, he…turned tail and ran like the dickens out of the room. Now, this is somewhat to be expected—and even preferred—given that they were all a bunch of inexperienced teenagers. But historians suggest an even more unsettling reason for Puyi’s actions.
Today, many experts believe that Emperor Puyi harbored gay or bi desires, but was forced to display more culturally acceptable tendencies. Which, well, would suck. But don’t go getting too empathetic for the guy: Puyi liked to show his love by hiring and then mistreating pageboys, and he also had a really big thing for very young girls.
Poor, beautiful Wanrong’s end was as ugly and heartbreaking as they come. On June 20, 1946, she finally expired from malnutrition and the effects of her withdrawal. Tragically, we don’t even know where her remains are; one story claims the guards wrapped her body in cloth and dumped it in the hills north of the encampment. But there is a glimmer of happiness amidst this darkness.
Puyi may have left Wanrong to the wolves, but her family didn’t forget about her. Although her younger brother Runqi could never find her body, he did perform a ritual burial for her decades later, in 2006, to finally lay her soul to rest. Mourners also buried a hand mirror that belonged to the former Empress of China. Rest in peace, Wanrong. You deserve it.
When Puyi heard about Wanrong’s passing, his response was so disturbing it’s impossible to forget. The former Emperor, now miles away, only found out about her end three years later, via a letter from one of Wanrong’s companions in her cell. Reportedly, he was absolutely emotionless at the news. Ouch. Thanks, bud.
It’s undeniable that Puyi was a horrific husband and all-around terrible person to Wanrong, but despite his coolness at her passing, there are traces of a bottomless, unfathomable remorse inside him. In an interview for his memoir Emperor to Citizen, there was one thing he absolutely refused to talk about: The slaying of Wanrong’s newborn child.
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