Before Mao Tse-tung created today’s unified China under communist rule the country was a weak state ravaged by foreign powers, a weakness exemplified by Puyi, the last Emperor of China.

Anyone who has seen Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (highly recommended if you haven’t) knows the basics: the strangely pampered childhood after his rise to the throne at two years of age, his mentoring by the Imperial household’s eunuchs, his weak government overthrown by the invading Japanese who made Puyi their puppet, and his forced “reformation” under the communists turning the last Emperor of China into an everyday citizen of the People’s Republic.

Scene from the movie “The Last Emperor”

One major error in the movie is the central love interest centering around Puyi’s wife. According to many witnesses, Puyi was gay. Mocked from his youth for his feminine figure, his stereotypically awkward glasses, and his preference for men, Puyi’s homosexuality is openly discussed in modern China. His own sister-in-law wrote in her memoirs that he lived with a pageboys as his concubines, and many say he never consummated his marriage.

While traditional China accepted homosexuality as a normal aspect of the human condition, people in Puyi’s time said he and his wife Gobulo Wan Rong could not have children because he was infertile, a common way of talking around homosexuality. There is even a later story of the estranged Empress getting pregnant by her chauffeur, the baby killed at birth.

I find Puyi fascinating as a gentle man born into a central role in a tragic history. I cannot imagine what his life was like, but I can imagine the quiet life he might have led if born into more normal circumstances. His surviving relatives gathered recently for a touching discussion of their famous relation. A niece says he was such a playful man that, “he was just like one of the kids,” and so humble the other children who knew him did not believe he had ever been the Emperor. They laughed about how this man, raised in such mind-bending privilege, could not even use money correctly for everyday transactions.

Some tender souls are born into ill-fitting circumstances. It is strange to think of the cosmic karma that created a life as extravagantly odd as Puyi’s. My empathy goes out to anyone who struggles to fit into life wherever their birth takes them.