Wenxiu, Last Consort Of China Facts
When Wenxiu married Emperor Puyi of China and became his Imperial Consort, she likely imagined a life filled with luxury. Instead, she got tragedy.
1. She Was High Class, Low Money
When Wenxiu was born in 1909, it didn’t look like she would become the next Imperial Consort of China. Although she was part of a fairly respectable Mongolian clan, her family lived in genteel poverty, and Wenxiu often helped them make an income by selling goods. But then everything changed.
When she was just 11 years old, the current Emperor of China, Puyi, began looking for a bride—and Wenxiu was about to meet her fate.
2. She Was In A Bride Search
Thanks to her family connections, Wenxiu was on a long list of suitable candidates to marry Puyi. This, however, was an extremely undignified process: The dowagers of Puyi’s court controlled the search, showing him photographs of women he had never met and heavily advising on his choices. But that’s exactly when it got surprising.
3. She Was The Emperor’s Favorite
As it happened, Puyi’s eye landed right on Wenxiu’s photo—which, yes, is more than a little creepy when you consider that she was all but pre-pubescent and Puyi was a teenager at the time. Nonetheless, he stumped for the young girl as his bride from the very beginning, even in a sea of other photographs. What he got back was a biting insult.
4. They Thought She Wasn’t Good Enough
With the Emperor of China making Wenxiu his first choice, it should have been smooth sailing for her to get to the throne. But then came the plot twist. Some of the dowagers disapproved of Puyi’s choice, arguing that Wenxiu wasn’t from a good enough or rich enough family, despite being in the bridal pool anyway. Instead, they wanted Puyi to pick a girl his own age, who was also from a better family: Wanrong.
Ouch. But if you think that hurts…read on.
5. People Thought She Was Ugly
It wasn’t enough for the dowagers to disparage poor Wenxiu’s family background, oh no. They also went in for her looks, with one of them claiming she was essentially too ugly to become a full Empress of China. To add insult to that injury, Wenxiu’s rival Wanrong was classically beautiful. Still, Puyi didn’t want to budge on having Wenxiu in his life, so he came up with a humiliating solution.
6. She Got A Bitter Consolation Price
Eventually, Puyi caved and chose Wanrong as his future empress—but obviously, Wenxiu’s story doesn’t end there, or we wouldn’t be telling it. See, Puyi’s new plan was to marry Wenxiu after Wanrong, making her his secondary consort. Gee, thanks. It was the beginning of a destructive, horrific love triangle. You don’t even know the half of it yet.
7. She Got A Cinderella Story
When Wenxiu heard the news that she was to be an Imperial Consort of China, her life changed fast. Her once-poor family now had masses of funds flowing into their accounts, and Puyi even gave them a mansion in thanks for their daughter. Wenxiu, meanwhile, dropped out of school and stopped worrying about making ends meet. But the dark side soon showed itself.
8. She Had To Learn To Submit
Consort or not, Wenxiu was entering an imperial marriage, and that mean a gauntlet of etiquette training. For weeks before the wedding, she learned how to act around Puyi and his court, as well as how to carry herself like the wife of an emperor. Disturbingly, this involved a lot of learning how to kowtow in front of the ruler to show her submission.
This would all be an omen of the nightmare to come. When she finally arrived at Puyi’s palace in the Forbidden City in Beijing, it got very real, very fast.
9. She Was Second Best
Etiquette now controlled every part of Wenxiu’s life, which had turned into a heady mixture of luxury and humiliation in equal parts. Although she arrived first of the wives at the Forbidden City, this was because she was a mere consort and thus only a prelude to Wanrong’s greatness. Likewise, she came decked out in silks…and went right to a formal meeting with Puyi, where she did a series of kowtows in submission.
Still, at least Wenxiu had now met her future husband up close. Yet if she knew the full depths of his depravity, she might have run the other way that instant. In any case, she should have.
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10. She Was Entering A Nightmare
Puyi, as it happened, was a complete and infamous headcase. He had been the Emperor of China since he was a toddler, was surrounded by people rushing to fulfill his every whim, and had never known a humble day in his life. It was a recipe for a spoiled sociopath. Soon, Puyi delighted in flogging his eunuch servants any chance he could get.
This was what Wenxiu was walking into. But nothing could have prepared her for the true horrors of her marriage.
11. She Had A Double Wedding
In 1922, Wenxiu married Puyi in a ceremony that was the opposite of romantic. For one, she was barely old enough to understand what romance was, but for another, Puyi had only just come from his marriage ceremony to Wanrong. Yes, that’s right, he married the two women on the same day. Everybody wants efficiency from a wedding, right? It did not get better.
12. Her Husband Played Mind Games
Wenxiu might have been second-rate in the eyes of Imperial etiquette, but Puyi still preferred her to his official empress…at this point, anyway. He showed it in a cruel way. When Wenxiu met the new Empress Wanrong, she was supposed to kowtow to her as she did Puyi. However, in a show of favoritism, Puyi waved Wenxiu off doing it—and struck up a life-long rivalry in the process.
13. She Made An Enemy
Wanrong probably knew the rumors that Wenxiu had been Puyi’s first choice as empress, and this one moment confirmed all her worst fears. Although Wanrong was top dog to the court, it seemed that Wenxiu would always be first in Puyi’s heart. Wanrong instantly despised Wenxiu for it, and made it clear she wanted nothing to do with her.
In truth, both of these women were playing a losing game, they just didn’t know it yet.
14. She Was Isolated
Soon, Wenxiu settled into the enormous and cavernous Forbidden City. But in these deluxe surroundings, she went through brutal treatment. The Chinese court’s formal etiquette struck again, and Wenxiu’s apartments were remote and isolated, fitting her status as the meager consort. The consolations she did have, however, came with a price.
15. She Made A Connection
Puyi made an effort to see his consort and favorite wife during his time, and Wenxiu came out of her shell little by little. A soft, shy girl, she liked Chinese operas, listening to records, and singing. In particular, she liked to read—a pastime the emperor also enjoyed, and the two of them began to read together.
Puyi even let Wenxiu’s birthday become an official palace celebration, which wasn’t the “done” thing for a consort. But not all her time with Puyi was good.
16. Her Emperor Was Annoying
In addition to being a full-blown sadist, Puyi also had a child-like view of the world—and not in a good way. He was constantly playing stupid, cruel pranks on everyone from his servants to his wives, and got so addicted to the telephone that he would call people up at all hours, strangers included, just to hear their voices.
He was hardly a stable partner for Wenxiu. Is it any wonder disaster was looming?
17. She Had A Powerful Rival
Each hour that Wenxiu spent with Puyi made her sister-wife Wanrong that much more envious and angry. In particular, Wanrong hated when Puyi elevated Wenxiu’s status by doing things like celebrating her birthday. After all, she was empress, not Wenxiu. Soon, the empress’s deep jealousy over Puyi’s favoritism took on epic proportions—and it hit a fateful breaking point.
18. She Was In The Middle Of A Feud
Eventually, Wenxiu and Wanrong began arguing openly, staging loud, spiteful fights for everyone in court to see. For Wenxiu, it was the exact wrong thing to do. Puyi was the opposite of emotionally mature, and these brawls left him uncertain of what to do and caught between which of his wives was right. So instead, he simply betrayed Wenxiu.
19. Her Husband Betrayed Her
Faced with arbitrating between his wives, Puyi chose the path of least resistance and fell back on tradition: Wanrong was his empress, so Wanrong must be right. The consequences were devastating for Wenxiu. Puyi began to pull back from their close relationship, and she became even more lonely than before. Only, that wasn’t the end of it.
20. Her Own Servants Scorned Her
Once Wenxiu fell out of Puyi’s favor, the rest of her life fell apart, too. She no longer had his protection, and so the whole palace turned against her. Her own servants would now bully her, taking the hint from their ruler that Wenxiu was weak and vulnerable. However, the worst torment didn’t come from them or Puyi. It came from Wanrong.
21. She Got A Nasty Letter
One day, Wenxiu was sitting in her lonely chambers when a letter arrived at the door. The contents were bone-chilling. It was from Wanrong—and she’d written just to crow over her. In the message, the Empress of China wrote sarcastically and sneeringly: “I haven't seen you for days. Are you still feeling sorry for yourself? I do want to buy a mirror for you to admire yourself in it”. The empress didn’t stop it there, either.
22. Her Sister Wife Was Deranged
Wanrong was obviously a sore winner, but she wasn’t finished. The empress now began penning poetry, not just prose, that mocked Wenxiu, sending the verse over for the consort to read and weep. In these, Wanrong would specifically make fun of Wenxiu’s loneliness in lines that described Wenxiu “sitting alone in the empty room”.
Only, Wanrong didn’t really know what she was dealing with. Wenxiu handled these bitter messages with her own quiet cunning.
23. She Gave A Cutting Comeback
Wanrong was older and in some ways more experienced than Wenxiu, but the empress still lacked the consort’s cunning. So Wenxiu came up with her own revenge. She waited for one of Wanrong’s more caring letters, then responded to it by helping to fix Wanrong’s typos. It was a victory, but ultimately a shallow one. Worse was coming for Wenxiu.
24. She Was In Despair
Don’t forget: Wenxiu was still incredibly young at the time, and her existence on the margins of royal life slowly started to break her down. Soon, the utter loneliness of her palace life was nearly unbearable. She went on to call the Forbidden City a “macabre grave,” and admitted, “The nights were so long and so horrible, and the loneliness in my heart was hard to be got rid of”. Only, she wasn’t the only one.
25. She Was A Puppet
No matter who Puyi was putting his attention on, neither of his wives could come out on top; after all, he would later describe Wenxiu and Wanrong as only “furniture” or “tools,” and he was hardly loyal to either of them. Wanrong, despite her victory over Wenxiu, soon realized this—and Wenxiu watched as she went right into a total breakdown.
26. Her Sister Wife Had A Meltdown
Wanrong always had something of a fragile mind and constitution, and life as Puyi’s (almost) one-and-only wasn’t quite the balm she was hoping for. After months of enduring his sole affections, Wanrong began smoking opium to help with the stresses of being empress, which then developed into a full-blown dependency. Not that Wenxiu was doing better herself.
27. She Had Dark Thoughts
While Wanrong’s despair led her into dark fantasy worlds, Wenxiu’s coping mechanisms were far more brutal. By now deeply depressed, she sometimes drank herself into oblivion…but that was on a good day. In Wenxiu’s writing from this time, there are several mentions of her thinking about harming herself. Still, she tried to soldier on—and went right into a massive upheaval.
28. The Government Stripped Her Of Her Titles
In 1924, just two years into Wenxiu’s marriage to Puyi, her entire life got turned around. That year, China went through a coup, and suddenly Puyi was no longer emperor—meaning Wenxiu was no longer a consort, either. More than that, the new government wanted Puyi and his wives to get the heck out of the Forbidden City. Chaos ensued.
29. She Left Her Palace In A Hurry
The government wanted the Imperial family out, and they wanted them out now. In what was surely already a horrific, stressful time in Wenxiu’s life, they gave her, her husband, and Wanrong just three hours to vacate. Yet while Puyi and Wanrong began frantically packing up their entire lives, Wenxiu had a completely different idea. A very dark one.
30. She Tried To Take Her Own Life
Wenxiu had been living with despair for so long, and this new turn of events threw her right off the deep end. With life as she knew it over, Wenxiu put a shocking plan into motion. She went to the main palace, bowed in front of the altar with a pair of scissors in her hand, and very nearly sacrificed herself right then and there.
Thankfully, one of the servants stumbled upon her and stopped her. It had a surprising result.
31. She Fell Back Into Favor
When Puyi heard about what Wenxiu had done, he took it as a sign that she was so loyal to his crumbling empire, she’d almost died for it. Suddenly—though briefly—she was back in his favor. When the throuple left the Forbidden City and settled in a courtier’s mansion, Wenxiu might have had some hope for her new life without royal titles. But this was no glorious rebirth.
32. She Had A Brief Golden Age
For a little while, Puyi, Wanrong, and Wenxiu operated as a semi-functional unit, with Puyi asking Wenxiu’s advice on certain things and spending time with both women. Even this, however, had tension: When Puyi would buy one of his wives a gift, the other would quickly ask for the same thing, too.
Clearly, the old issues were still there. But when it unraveled, it was more painful than ever.
33. She Had A Dark Premonition
Puyi was too proud to take his exile lying down, and he soon linked up with the Japanese to get his power back. Wenxiu had a dark feeling about this. She believed that the Japanese were just going to use and discard Puyi (Spoiler: She was right) and brought up her concerns in public to her husband. His response was so disturbing, it’s impossible to forget.
34. Her Husband Crossed A Horrific Line
Puyi was incensed that Wenxiu would question his supreme wisdom—and in public, no less. In a fury, he took a feather duster and beat her right then and there. Wenxiu was horrified and humiliated; for all that he’d been a terrible spouse, Puyi had never laid a hand on her before. Her rival Wanrong, meanwhile, was beside herself with glee.
It was the beginning of another extremely dark period for Wenxiu. One that would force her end game.
35. She Lost The Battle
Soon after Puyi’s explosive episode, he threw all caution to the wind and moved Wenxiu, Wanrong, and himself to the Japanese-controlled city of Tianjin. It was a declaration that, whether Wenxiu liked it or not, their fates lay with the Japanese. Still, this wasn’t enough for Puyi. He had to make Wenxiu hurt in other ways.
36. He Kept Her Isolated
Puyi made sure every aspect of Wenxiu’s life was filled with denigration. While he and Wanrong—who was haughtier than ever in her renewed victory—lived on the second floor of the house together, Wenxiu lived just off Puyi’s parlor on the first floor. You might think Wenxiu would be used to this by now, but really it just became her breaking point.
37. She Made A Terrible Mistake
One day, Wenxiu was minding her own business in the house’s garden. Then suddenly, she made a fatal mistake. She happened to spit on the ground just as Wanrong was passing by, an accidental act of supreme rudeness according to Imperial etiquette. Wenxiu was already the black sheep of the family, and Wanrong wasted no time tattling to Puyi about it. His punishment broke her.
38. Her Husband Locked Her Up
Puyi not only refused to believe Wenxiu when she told him it was an accident, but he was also furious she would even try to “lie” like that. For days, he locked her up in a room as punishment, sending only servants to visit so they could pressure her into admitting she’d done everything intentionally. Then when she finally “confessed” under duress, he still kept her locked up. It was the final straw.
39. She Went To Desperate Measures
Driven nearly to madness, Wenxiu made another attempt on her life with a pair of scissors. Once more, a servant stopped her from completing the act—but the similarities to the first incident end here. Instead of eliciting admiration from Puyi, the ex-emperor was even more angry at Wenxiu, thinking it was a trick to gain his sympathy. So Wenxiu sent out a bigger cry for help.
40. He Finally Broke Her
Wenxiu was well and truly at the end of her rope now, and one day she did manage to stab herself with a pair of scissors, albeit in a superficial fashion. Puyi, now alarmed that she hadn’t just been playing a game, sent for Wenxiu’s sister Wenshan to talk to her and get the situation under control. You know, because God forbid Puyi actually changed his behavior.
Even so, this was a turning point Wenxiu could never go back from.
41. Her Sister Gave Her An Ultimatum
Little did Puyi know, this one act drove Wenxiu from him forever. Wenxiu’s sister was aghast at the way Wenxiu was living, and immediately urged her to leave Puyi by any means necessary. As Wenshan put it, Wenxiu could either choose divorce in this situation, or she could choose death. From that point on, she began plotting. Puyi, meanwhile, only dug his heels in further.
42. Her Husband Excluded Her
Instead of showing Wenxiu any scrap of empathy, Puyi only excluded her further. For example, he would often take Wanrong out on the town and leave Wenxiu home alone to stew in her own sadness. Eventually, as Wenxiu remembered, “Though we lived in the same building, we didn't visit each other if there was nothing important. We seemed to be strangers with each other in the street”.
It got so rough, Wenxiu started getting help from unexpected quarters.
43. Her Rival Tried To Show Mercy
It was clear there was something deeply broken in the royal family, so much so that even Wenxiu’s bitter enemy Wanrong tried to course correct for Puyi’s cruelty. One day, Wanrong suggested to Puyi that they all eat dinner together. It was futile: He merely sneered, “You mustn’t, if you call her here, I won’t eat”.
But one of his last cruelties to Wenxiu was his worst.
44. Puyi Gave Her One Final Insult
Wenxiu had no gas left in her tank, and one day after enduring yet more bullying from a servant loyal to Puyi, she scolded the man. It set off a chain reaction. Puyi heard it and took it as a personal slight. In retaliation, and knowing full well Wenxiu’s despairing thoughts, he put out an edict for her to die. Things had gotten dark.
There was really only one thing Wenxiu could do…and she finally did it.
45. She Made A Great Escape
Ever since her sister’s visit, Wenxiu had been secretly planning the best way to divorce Puyi. In 1931, she finally took her chance. Feigning an “outing” with her sister, she escaped from the house and drove right to a hotel where a score of lawyers was waiting. Soon after, she officially filed for divorce from the former Emperor of China. The fallout was unimaginable.
46. She Divorced An Emperor
Forever after, Puyi and Wanrong referred to Wenxiu’s escape and divorce as the “treason,” and they treated her with absolute scorn throughout the legal proceedings. Puyi, furious at the shame Wenxiu was bringing him, also refused all her demands for the split. But even he couldn’t stop it—the divorce went through, and Wenxiu was free.
As a cherry on top, Wenxiu was about to realize just how big a bullet she had dodged.
47. They Fell Apart Without Her
Wanrong and Puyi began to fall apart almost immediately after Wenxiu left—after all, they didn’t have their convenient scapegoat around anymore. Puyi, who was never able to take responsibility for anything, blamed Wanrong for driving Wenxiu away, and now became cold and distant to his empress. But there were even bigger ramifications.
48. She Got A Bloody Vindication
Soon after Wenxiu’s exit, Puyi fulfilled his alliance with the Japanese and became a puppet ruler in the Japanese-held state of Manchukuo. Just like Wenxiu predicted, it was a horrific disaster and tragedy. Puyi’s power collapsed within years, forcing him to flee in 1945. Only, that was far from all: When he escaped, he callously left Wanrong behind for the wolves.
Wenxiu’s old rival Wanrong perished in prison just a year later, hopelessly addicted to opium. Wenxiu, meanwhile, ended up in a very different life.
49. She Lived A Normal Life
Wenxiu’s escape from her gilded cage led her into a much different life—though it was also a familiar one from her childhood. Now simply a civilian, she worked as a schoolteacher and married a military man, Liu Zhendong, just two years after Puyi’s fall from power in Manchukuo. Sadly, however, this different life also came with its own kind of tragedy.
50. She Left With Love
Sadly, the end of Wenxiu’s life was one of quiet pain. Eventually, she and her husband fell into poverty, and at the end of her life, they slept in a house together that was only 10 square meters. Wenxiu passed on September 17, 1953, when she was just 43 years old, less than a decade after Wanrong’s own passing. There was, however, one consolation.
Throughout it all, she did have her loving husband by her side. It was something Puyi could have never given her, and it was a far better end than what Wanrong got.
51. She Had A Bizarre Wedding Night
Wenxiu’s “fairy tale” life as an imperial consort was a sham—but few people know it all started on her wedding night. Reportedly, Puyi led both Wenxiu and Wanrong to his inner chambers that evening, only to take one look at them on the bed and run from the room. To this day, historians can’t be sure what exactly drove Puyi to flee, though many point to his immaturity.
However, there might have been a more scandalous reason for his disgust.
52. Her Husband Had A Big Secret
Many people closest to Puyi believed that he had desires for men more than for women. As one of his servants said in a veiled reference, Puyi preferred the “land-way” to the “water-way” when it came to his romances. It must have been an incredibly difficult situation for him and may partly explain his attitude to his wives. Still, I’d forgive Wenxiu for not having much sympathy.