Erdet Wenxiu – The Imperial Consort who divorced the Emperor (Part one)




Erdet Wenxiu
(public domain)

Erdet Wenxiu (formally known as Imperial Consort Shu) was the second wife of Puyi, the last Emperor of China. She was the last Imperial Consort of China to live in the Forbidden City. However, she shocked the world when she dared to divorce Emperor Puyi. Never was there a consort who had divorced an Emperor. This event became known as The Consort’s Revolution. Erdet Wenxiu became a feminist icon and was a symbol of women’s rights in a patriarchal society.[1] Because she was an influential figure that sparked a feminist movement, I have written four articles that led to the significant historical event and her aftermath. Erdet Wenxiu’s decision to divorce was not easy. In this article, I will detail the Imperial Consort’s life in the Forbidden City to the day of her expulsion.

On 20 December 1909, Erdet Wenxiu was born in Beijing. She was from a prominent Manchu family. Her father was Duanhong, and her mother was Lady Jiang. She had a younger sister named Wenshan and an older half-sister. Her father died in her infancy, and she was raised by her mother. Her widowed mother struggled to make a living.[2] Wenxiu had to sell her embroidery pieces to help her family.[3] When she was eight years old, Wenxiu became a student in a primary school. She was a hardworking student and excelled in all her subjects.[4]

In 1921, Wenxiu became a candidate for the position of Empress Consort to Emperor Puyi. When Emperor Puyi saw Wenxiu’s photograph, he immediately liked it and wanted to make Wenxiu his Empress.[5] However, he was met with opposition from the Dowager Consorts. They wanted Wanrong to be the Empress because she was more beautiful and was from a wealthier family.[6] In the end, Emperor Puyi had no choice but to make Wanrong his Empress.[7] However, the Dowager Consorts let Wenxiu become his Imperial Consort.[8]

After Wenxiu was chosen as the Imperial Consort, her family never again lived in poverty. Emperor Puyi gifted them a mansion. Wenxiu dropped out of school and stopped selling her embroidery pieces.[9] Instead, she spent most of her days learning the rules and etiquette of the Forbidden City.[10] Because Wenxiu was a Consort, she had to arrive at the Forbidden City before Empress Wanrong.[11] On 29 November 1922, a grand procession was held for Wenxiu.[12] Many important officials personally escorted her to the Forbidden City.[13] Wenxiu was carried in a golden palanquin. She wore a beaded hairpin in her hair, and her clothes were made of satin and silk.[14] Once she arrived at the palace, she had an audience with Emperor Puyi and gave him three kowtows.

On 30 November 1922, Wenxiu and Wanrong were married to Emperor Puyi. During her wedding, she wore two ceremonial robes (which can still be seen today in the Beijing Palace Museum).[15] The first robe was an apricot silk robe that was embroidered with golden dragons and cloud bats.[16] The second robe was made of azurite silk, embroidered with a double golden dragon and cloud bats.[17] She wore these ceremonial robes three times, which were her wedding, Emperor Puyi’s birthday, and Chinese New Year’s Day.[18] After her wedding, Wenxiu had to kowtow to the Empress. However, Emperor Puyi said that she did not need to make the formal greeting.[19] This made Wanrong greatly dislike Wenxiu.[20] The Empress believed that the Imperial Consort should always pay respects to her.[21] It also showed that Wenxiu’s status would always be inferior to Empress Wanrong.[22] Therefore, they would never get along.[23] The Empress and the Imperial Consort would spend their wedding night alone.[24] During the first days of her marriage, she would spend her days alone in Changchun Palace. This was because she was the Consort and not the Empress.[25]

On 4 January 1923, Wenxiu was officially bestowed the title of Imperial Consort Shu. Imperial Consort Shu quickly earned the reputation as a virtuous Consort.[26] She spent her time teaching the palace maids to read.[27] She had a fondness for Chinese operas and liked to listen to their records on a gramophone.[28] She liked to act and sing. She loved flowers and created a beautiful garden in her Changchun Palace. Emperor Puyi became fond of her because Imperial Consort Shu had a passion for books.[29] The couple would spend their time discussing literature. Emperor Puyi also liked her because of her soft character.[30] Emperor Puyi made her take lessons in English.[31] Whenever he left the palace, he frequently took Empress Wanrong and Imperial Consort Shu with him.[32]

Empress Wanrong and Imperial Consort Shu were often at odds with each other. Empress Wanrong saw Imperial Consort Shu as a threat to her position.[33] Empress Wanrong did not like that Imperial Consort Shu’s birthday was celebrated in the palace and rewarded the noble lords with gifts.[34] These privileges were solely reserved for the Empress.[35] The two began to have intense fights. These fights often caused great distress to Emperor Puyi because he could not tell which wife was in the wrong.[36] Because Empress Wanrong had a higher status, Emperor Puyi began to side with her.[37] He began to spend more time with his Empress and rarely visited his Consort.[38] As Imperial Consort Shu began to fall from favour with the Emperor, the Empress began to bully her.[39] Empress Wanrong sent Imperial Consort Shu taunting letters that asked how it felt to be lovesick and often made fun of her losing favour.[40] Because Emperor Puyi ignored her, Imperial Consort Shu was bullied by her own palace servants.[41] Imperial Consort Shu had to tolerate her humiliation. She often became lonely and miserable. She viewed her life in the palace as a living death.[42]

On 5 November 1924, Emperor Puyi, Empress Wanrong, and Imperial Consort Shu were forced by Feng Yuxiang, the leader of the Republic of China, to leave the Forbidden City. Therefore, Imperial Consort Shu lived in the imperial palace for two years. However, Imperial Consort Shu did not want to leave the Forbidden City to become a prisoner.[43] She packed her poems, Emperor Puyi’s letters, and jewellery. Then, she went to the main palace. In front of the altar, she bowed three times, took scissors, and was about to cut her own throat when her palace eunuch stopped her.[44] When Emperor Puyi learned of his Consort’s actions, he was deeply moved by her loyalty to the Qing Dynasty.[45] Imperial Consort Shu regained the Emperor’s favour again.[46] As she was leaving the Forbidden City, Imperial Consort Shu looked at the flowers around the palace and shed an abundance of tears.[47]

Erdet Wenxiu was chosen by Emperor Puyi to become his Imperial Consort. However, her life in the Forbidden City was very unhappy. She was often bullied by Empress Wanrong and her own servants. She was mostly neglected by Emperor Puyi. Despite her sufferings, she was still loyal to the Qing Dynasty, which deeply moved Emperor Puyi. Erdet Wenxiu cried as she was leaving the Forbidden City, knowing that she would never see it again. Unfortunately, there would be more miseries that were still awaiting her. These troubles would lead her to divorce the Emperor.

Read part two here.

Sources:

iNews. (n.d.). “Wenxiu: 13-year-old married Puyi 16-year-old, 22-year-old ran away filed for divorce: living together for nine years, not lucky” Retrieved on 21 September 2022 from https://inf.news/en/history/e45d88f73b5b6c726b76f9c2b975b7a2.html.

Ma, Y. (2010). Women Journalists and Feminism in China, 1898-1937. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press.

Titus, F. (2012). Old Beijing: Postcards from the Imperial City. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Publishing.

Wang, Q. (2014). The Last Emperor and His Five Wives. (Translated by Jiaquan Han et al.). Beijing, China: China Intercontinental Press.


[1] Ma, 2010

[2] Wang, 2014

[3] Wang, 2014

[4] Wang, 2014

[5] Wang, 2014

[6] Wang, 2014

[7] Titus, 2012

[8] Titus, 2012

[9] Wang, 2014

[10] Wang, 2014

[11] Wang, 2014

[12] Wang, 2014

[13] Wang, 2014

[14] Wang, 2014

[15] Wang, 2014

[16] Wang, 2014

[17] Wang, 2014

[18] Wang, 2014

[19] Wang, 2014

[20] Wang, 2014

[21] Wang, 2014

[22] Wang, 2014

[23] Wang, 2014

[24] Wang, 2014

[25] Wang, 2014

[26] Wang, 2014

[27] Wang, 2014

[28] Wang, 2014

[29] iNews, n.d., “Wenxiu: 13-year-old married Puyi 16-year-old, 22-year-old ran away filed for divorce: living together for nine years, not lucky”

[30] iNews, n.d., “Wenxiu: 13-year-old married Puyi 16-year-old, 22-year-old ran away filed for divorce: living together for nine years, not lucky”

[31] iNews, n.d., “Wenxiu: 13-year-old married Puyi 16-year-old, 22-year-old ran away filed for divorce: living together for nine years, not lucky”

[32] Wang, 2014

[33] iNews, n.d., “Wenxiu: 13-year-old married Puyi 16-year-old, 22-year-old ran away filed for divorce: living together for nine years, not lucky”

[34] Wang, 2014

[35] Wang, 2014

[36] Wang, 2014

[37] Wang, 2014

[38] Wang, 2014

[39] Wang, 2014

[40] Wang, 2014

[41] Wang, 2014

[42] Wang, 2014

[43] Wang, 2014

[44] Wang, 2014

[45] Wang, 2014

[46] Wang, 2014

[47] Wang, 2014






About Lauralee Jacks 183 Articles
I am a former elementary teacher in Tennessee. I have a bachelor’s degree in Liberal and Civic Studies from St. Mary’s College of California, a master’s in Elementary Education from the University of Phoenix, and a doctorate in Educational Leadership from the College of Saint Mary. Because my family are from East Asia, I have a passion for historical Chinese and Korean television shows. I always wanted to separate fact from fiction in dramas. Writing articles from History of Royal Women gives me a chance to dig deeper and explore these royal women as they might have been in real life. Also, it gives me a chance to look at the history and culture of where my family originated. I love researching East Asian royalty because they rarely get enough attention in the West often being overshadowed by European royalty. I find these royal women to be just as fascinating and their stories deserve to be told. Thus, I am excited to write for History of Royal Women!

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