Empress Wanrong, also known as Empress Xiaokemin, was married to the last Emperor of China and the Qing Dynasty. She was born on 13 November 1906 in Beijing into the Gobulo clan; her father was the Minister of Domestic Affairs for the imperial court. Tragically, her mother died after giving birth to her from childbed fever. She was raised by her stepmother, Hengxiang, who treated her just as if she were her own. Wanrong had two brothers: one full, older brother, Runliang and a younger, half-brother, Runqi.
Surprisingly, her father wanted her to have the same education as her brothers. He was a strong supporter of gender equality. Therefore, she attended an American missionary school where she was able to learn English. She was said to have an incredible wit and intelligence. Her father’s high status later allowed her to be a possible choice for Emperor Puyi’s bride.
Even though the Republic of China overthrew the Qing Dynasty in 1911, the Imperial Family was allowed to keep their titles and were afforded special privileges. As a result, the last Emperor of China, Puyi, was granted permission by the Chinese government to have a royal wedding in the Forbidden City to Wanrong in 1922.
The union was arranged, and his family had him select his bride from a series of photographs. Due to the bad quality of the images, Puyi could not see the women very well. He chose Wenxiu, who would later become his concubine. His family did not approve as they found out that she was only 12-years-old. So, they suggested Wangrong instead. In the end, Wangrong was chosen as his first wife and Wenxiu as his second to go along with tradition.
In preparation for the wedding, Wangrong was put through courses to teach her how to act like a royal and Empress. It was said that she cried many times before her marriage because she was aware of the loss of her freedom that was about to take place. She wed Puyi on 30 November.
Her worry and sadness before the wedding were just a foreshadowing of her miserable marriage and life as a royal. Because of the many rituals in the Forbidden City, she would stay up during all hours of the night in preparation with a tutor. The couple would not have any children to brighten up their marriage. Wanrong’s opium addition did not help matters. She was granted permission to take it by the Emperor to help with the supposed mental illness that she had. Not only would she end up addicted to this drug, but she would also go on to become addicted to smoking tobacco.
Puyi and Wangrong were forced out of the city by Feng Yuxiang in November 1924. They would go to Tianjin, where they lived in peace for a time. During this period, the Emperor adopted a Western name, and the Empress followed. They chose to be called Henry and Elizabeth. In the early 1930s, Puyi was installed as Emperor of the Japanese puppet state, Manchukuo. Unfortunately, their lives were then carefully monitored by the Japanese.
When Puyi was away, Wangrong had affairs with two of his aides and with one of them she had an illegitimate daughter. The Emperor ended up in trouble with Japanese when this was discovered, but Wangrong begged Puyi for her child’s life. She pleaded with him to acknowledge the infant girl as his, but he refused. Inhumanely, the baby was then killed after its birth for only being born and against her mother’s wishes. There have been two different stories on Wanrong’s reaction to her daughter’s murder. One says that the Emperor lied to her that the child was being raised by a hired nanny, while the other says that her opium addiction only got worse after learning about her daughter’s death.
In 1945, the Soviet Union invaded Manchuria, where Manchukuo was located. Puyi left his wife behind and ran. As a result, she was captured by Chinese Communist forces while attempted to escape to Korea at the beginning of 1946. From there, she lived in different internment camps, and she would end up suffering effects of withdrawal from her opium supply that had run out. She was cared for by her sister-in-law and began to hallucinate as part of the withdrawal. However, the prison separated Wangrong from her sister-in-law, and she would die from the effects of opium withdrawal and malnutrition on 20 June 1946 at the age of 39. Puyi, when told three years later, could not have cared less that she had died.
To this day, her burial location is not known and remains never found. There is a monument dedicated to her close to Beijing in the Western Qing Tombs. Her brother conducted ritual burial for her there in 2006.