The Puppet Manchurian Palace of Puyi in Changchun

The Puppet Manchurian Palace of Puyi in Changchun

Like many rapidly developing Chinese cities, Changchun might seem like a place that barely existed thirty years ago; in fact, the history of Changchun in the 20th Century is inextricable from that of China itself. During World War II, Changchun was the capital of Japanese-controlled Manchuria and the site of the Imperial Palace of the Manchu State, once the home of Puyi, China’s last emperor. The Puppet Emperor’s Palace, as it is now known, has been opened to the public and together with the nearby History of the Occupation of Northeastern China Museum, it is a rousing and well-maintained reminder of a time when China was far from the economic juggernaut it is today. History buffs, fans of courtly drama and political intrigue, and anyone with a thing for dioramas are sure to have a good time.

Patriotic Chinese wax figures are buried alive at the History of the Occupation of North-eastern China Museum.

A bit of history
In 1908, at the age of two, Puyi became the emperor of China. However, his reign was a short one and he was forced to abdicate the throne four years later when China was made a republic. Nonetheless, he continued to live a royal life in the Forbidden City as a non-ruling emperor until 1924, when he was expelled and moved to Tianjin. There he came into contact with the Japanese, who were then pursuing a policy of colonialist expansion in North-eastern China and in 1934, Puyi moved to the Imperial Palace of the Manchu State in Changchun to serve as emperor of Japanese-controlled Manchuria.

But Puyi was emperor in name alone, reduced to signing whatever laws and proclamations the Japanese put before him and kowtowing to Hirohito, then emperor of Japan. His thirteen suffocating years in Changchun, lived under constant Japanese surveillance, ended in 1945 at the close of World War II when he was captured by the Soviets while attempting to escape to Japan. Puyi would later spend over a decade in prison as a Chinese war criminal in Liaoning and Heilongjiang before he was declared “fully reformed” and released in 1959. He lived his final years in Beijing, where he wrote his autobiography “The First Half of My Life” (also known as “From Emperor to Citizen”), in which he expressed his full support for the Communist Party.

Parts of “The Last Emperor,” Bernardo Bertolucci’s Oscar-winning, lightly fictionalised account of Puyi’s life, were filmed at the Puppet Emperor’s Palace and the film makes a fine prelude to a visit.

The Puppet Emperor’s Palace: scene of drug abuse, marital infidelity and the last emperor’s daily struggles with constipation.

Up in the Palace
The Puppet Emperor’s Palace consists of a large campus of stately buildings through which visitors wend their way from restored bed chambers and government offices to Buddhist shrines and a small garden. There are also a dozen shaggy horses in a small corral where Puyi practiced his riding, in imitation of the superior abilities of emperors past. The exhibits are generally well restored and the explanations of most have been capably translated into English. However, while the décor appears suitably aged and there are no obvious anachronisms, not all the objects on display are original.

Rooms of note include the opium den of Wangrong, Puyi’s first wife, complete with a wax figurine of the lady supine upon a sofa and a long pipe in her outstretched hand. There is also Puyi’s bathroom, where due to a delicate constitution the emperor apparently spent much of his time, as well as his walk-in medicine cabinet, the size of a small pharmacy, through whose various contents he attempted to manage his poor health. A large exhibit devoted to the whole span of Puyi’s life, including video reenactments and period photos, is also worth checking out, though the explanations are mostly in Chinese.


He may have been a powerless figurehead and a country-betraying traitorous dog, but at least Puyi rode in style.

But it is the details and daily reality of Puyi’s life in the palace that provide the most entertainment value — such as how he was divorced by two of his wives, a first for a Chinese emperor, or that Wanrong went mad from her opium use — and for this the English- and Chinese-speaking guides prove excellent expositors. From the explanations behind Puyi’s pocket-lacking pool table to the throne room where he forced his underlings to kneel before him, the guides are a wealth of knowledge and a visit to the palace would be incomplete without retaining their services.

An emperor becomes a citizen with excellent posture.

A Patriotic Education
Exiting the Puppet Emperor’s Palace, one is confronted by a large steam locomotive that, according to its accompanying explanation, was unearthed on accident from beneath a bridge in north-eastern China, painstakingly restored, and placed here for perhaps no good reason beyond lack of anywhere better to put it. However, just beyond that is the seemingly more relevant History of the Occupation of North-eastern China Museum, a comprehensive multi-media testament to Japanese imperialism in China that is sombre, stirring, and, at last, buoyed by the martial speeches of the Communists and the recording of a mother’s last wishes to her child. Past the main hall, with its dedication to the mothers of China in the gigantic form of an old woman’s wrinkled, weather-beaten face carved directly into the wall, visitors proceed chronologically through the stages of Japanese conquest, from the events that precipitated the formal invasion to the educational and religious imperatives enacted by the Japanese once they were in power. Of course, Chinese resistance to and eventual victory over the Japanese is given its due as well.

A monument too big to be swept under the rug.

The history is well told, mostly through contemporaneous photographs and war propaganda, and though all of the audio and video material is in Chinese, there is a written English explanation at the beginning of each section. Note that though guides do not personally accompany visitors through the low-lit halls and passageways of the museum, audio recordings in English or Chinese can be rented from the front desk. As for those who have never shed a tear over a declaration of war or some battle-worn uniform, there are also some very effective dioramas dispersed throughout. In one, the bodies of malnourished children line a small grave. In another, weapons and tools hang unused in a rudimentary torture chamber. And in the two most fully-realized examples, Chinese men — their muscles strangely defined — melt into one another within a testing chamber for biological weapons, as Japanese scientists watch impassively from outside and an entire room is taken up by a full-scale recreation of Japanese soldiers terrorizing a Chinese village.

And then at the end, wax doves are released by wax children beside an eternal flame, which on closer inspection turns out to be coloured cloth, backlit and blown from underneath by a fan.

Museum of the Imperial Palace of the Manchu State 伪满皇宫博物院View In Map
Address: 5 Guangfu Lu, near Shanxi Lu, Kuancheng District, Changchun
地址: 长春宽城区光复路5号
Tel: 0431 8286 6611
Opening hours: Winter: Mon-Sun, 8:30 - 17: 00, Ticket office closes at 15:40
Summer: Mon-Sun, 8:30-17:30, Ticket office closes at 16:20
Tickets: Entrance: 80 RMB, Students: 30 RMB (Ticket applies to the Puppet Emperor’s Palace and the History of the Occupation of North-eastern China Museum)
English-speaking guide: 100 RMB, Chinese-speaking: 60 RMB
English language audio guide: 20 RMB, Chinese language: 10 RMB
Getting there: Take the 264 bus directly to the museum entrance. Alternately, take the 318, 225, 80, 236 or 279 bus to 陕西路 (Shanxi Lu). Then walk straight for 500 meters—approximately ten minutes—to reach the park gates.

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