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Burial Plot of China's Last Emperor Still Holds Allure

  • Stephanie Ho

China this week marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the revolution that ended the country's last imperial dynasty. The abrupt end of the Qing dynasty meant that when the last emperor died in 1967, there was a dilemma over where to bury him. It took decades to find his final resting place, and the ultimate solution is an example of modern China's pragmatism.

Bai Jiashi, 68, is a Manchu who is distantly related to the former Qing imperial family. During the Qing dynasty, his family acted as caretakers for the imperial tombs.

"It was like pie from the sky - similar to state welfare now," said Bai. "Every month, two carts would come from the Forbidden City in Beijing, bringing money and grain, rice and silver."

Bai says the villagers knew the Qing dynasty was finished when the carts stopped coming.

The end of the dynasty was much more complicated for China's last emperor, known widely as Puyi. He was only five years old when the October 1911 Xinhai Revolution marked the beginning of the end of his reign.

After the tumult of the revolution, Puyi was propped up by Japan as emperor of Manchukuo, a puppet state the Japanese controlled in northeastern China. He was later imprisoned under the Communist government. After he was declared reformed, he spent his final days as a gardener.

Puyi died in 1967. An imperial gravesite had been chosen for him, but Hualong Cemetery caretaker Wang Yulai says the former monarch's ashes never made it there.

"That plan was already there and had been decided from the start," said Wang. "And then, the Qing dynasty ended and the tomb wasn't built. In September 1995, Puyi's ashes were transferred from the Babaoshan cemetery to here."

Hualong is a privately-owned cemetery next to the western Qing imperial tombs on the outskirts of Beijing. Puyi's ashes were moved here in 1995 and the cemetery is now marketed to wealthy Chinese as an imperial resting place. His grave gives the claim authenticity.

"He was a citizen who no longer had the status of an emperor," explained Jiang Tao, a historian at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "The Qing imperial tombs had become cultural heritage. How could they bury him there? How should he be identified? The People's Republic of China surely would not recognize him as an emperor and bury him as an emperor."

Manchu villager Bai is resigned to how things have turned out. He says regardless of which party is in charge, the Qing dynasty will never come back. He is unhappy that ethnic Manchus are no longer taking care of the Qing imperial tombs, but he says having China's last emperor buried near his ancestors is, after all, an appropriate solution.