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The Star Wars Guide to Emperor Removal

What George Lucas taught me about the 1912 abdication of the last emperor of China, Puyi


The Star Wars Guide to Emperor Removal

What George Lucas taught me about the 1912 abdication of the last emperor of China, Puyi


On February 12, 1912, the Qing Dynasty ended.  On that date, Empress Dowager Longyu, adopted mother of the young emperor Puyi, and the boy’s father, Prince Chun, agreed on behalf of Puyi to abdicate the throne in favor of the new Republic of China.

But emperors are never easy to be rid of and to make sense of the circumstances of Puyi’s abdication, we thought it best to consult the galactic experts in emperor removal: The Rebel Alliance of George Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy.

Here then is the Star Wars guide to emperor removal.

“You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. …We must be cautious.”

That’s a pretty good description of the Qing court circa 1911. Reformers and revolutionaries may have breathed a little easier when the death of the Empress Dowager Cixi ended her near half-century grip on power. Unfortunately, she took the sitting emperor with her into the great beyond and left behind the three-year-old son of her closest flunky to mind the dragon throne. The result was a crisis of poor leadership, cronyism, incompetence, and corruption that made the denizens of the Mos Eisley Space Cantina look like paragons of civic virtue.

The result was a loss of confidence in the leadership of the Qing court, especially on the part of local and provincial elites. Attempts by the central government to increase its power over the provinces, including nationalizing railways and other industry, only made thing worse.

“Aren’t you a little short for a Stormtrooper?”

There were numerous groups in China at the time hoping to take advantage of the widespread discontent with Qing rule. Perhaps the most well-known organizer of revolutionary societies and cells was Sun Yat-sen, titular leader of an alliance of revolutionary groups committed to the overthrow of the Qing court and the establishment of a republic.

The problem was that for all of his skills as a fundraiser, organizer, and spin doctor, Sun was a horrible revolutionary. Almost every uprising in which Sun played a leadership role failed spectacularly. He just wasn’t a man of action.

“Sir, the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately 3,720 to 1.”
“Never Tell me the Odds.”

On October 1911, revolutionaries within the Qing army rebelled in the city of Wuhan, seizing a munition depot and the office of the governor-general.

It was the most improbable of uprisings. Most of the units in the city had been transferred to Sichuan to suppress protestors in that province angry over the central government’s decision to nationalize the local railway. With few troops left in Wuhan to quell the growing mutiny there, the governor-general of Hubei decided to flee along with the provincial military commander. As a result, the revolutionaries met with little resistance. By lunchtime, the rebels were in control of the city.

It probably helped that Sun wasn’t anywhere near the uprising when it happened. He read about it later in the newspaper while on a fundraising trip to the United States.

“Uh, we had a slight weapons malfunction, but uh… everything’s perfectly all right now. We’re fine. We’re all fine here now, thank you.” (Winces.) “Uh, how are you?”

The uprising was an improbable success, especially since it started by accident. A few days before the uprising, members of the revolutionary cell were building bombs in their headquarters. Building bombs is dangerous. They have a tendency to explode. When they do, the explosion will attract unwanted attention to the secret revolutionary headquarters. Which is what happened. After the blast, the police launched a series of raids and found a list of names. Facing likely execution, the revolutionaries whose names were on the list had little choice but to start the uprising.

“I’ve got a very bad feeling about this.”

Sixty years before, when the Taiping rebels stormed out of the south, overwhelming the Qing military and posing an existential threat to the dynasty, local elites took it upon themselves to form their own provincial armies in defense of the established order. That was then. In 1911, the provincial elite had lost what little faith they had in the Qing government. Nobody was coming to the rescue, and one by one the provinces of China began to secede from the Qing Empire. By the end of November, 15 provinces had declared independence.

The Qing Empire, which had ruled from Beijing for 267 years, began to crumble. Behind the vermilion walls of the Forbidden City, Prince Chun, and the Empress Dowager Longyu realized the dynasty was in deep trouble.

“Who’s the more foolish; the fool, or the fool who follows him?”

Once the revolution had gained sufficient momentum, Sun Yat-sen made his triumphant return to China. Whatever is his limitations as a military leader, Sun was a charismatic politician and the most famous republican revolutionary in China. In late December 1911, Sun was elected provisional president of the Republic of China on January 1, 1912, the official first day of the Republic.

At the same time, there was still an emperor and a Qing government. Neither was going away easily. As Sun was preparing for his triumphant return, the emperor’s father, Prince Chun was preparing to hand over the reins of government to perhaps the most powerful military official left standing in North China, Yuan Shikai.

“I’m rather embarrassed, but it appears that you are to be the main course at a banquet in my honor.”

Yuan Shikai was the Forrest Gump of bad decisions in modern Chinese history. Sino-Japanese War. 100 Days Reforms. Boxer Uprising. Somewhere in each of these debacles was the beady eyes and twitchy walrus mustache of Yuan.

Knowing the dynasty’s days were numbered, Yuan approached Sun and the Republican government, based in Nanjing, with a deal: Yuan would convince the Qing court to voluntarily abdicate in exchange for the presidency of the Republic.

Sun Yat-sen agreed in principle but only if Yuan also publicly declared his support for the Republic and as president support an elected parliament and a new constitution.  Yuan said yes and Sun was happy. Smiles all around while Yuan eye-humped the presidential gavel like a starving schnauzer staring at the last pork chop.

“I suggest a new strategy, R2: let the Wookiee win.”

Yuan began a series of tense discussions with representatives of the Qing court. Most of the Manchu princes and imperial clan had little interest in abdicating. They feared, not entirely without reason, the possibility of anti-Manchu violence and the desecration of temples and tombs associated with the royal family. To get the princes to focus a bit, Yuan convinced 50 of the remaining generals in the Qing armed forces to declare their support for the Republic. One of these generals, Duan Qirui, who would a few years later succeed Yuan Shikai as President, tactfully suggested that if the Manchu nobility had any questions, he could bring his troops into Beijing to answer them on behalf of the new government.

By the end of January 1912, the Qing court was out of options. Empress Dowager Longyu complained to Yuan, “I know the country is public property and not the private possession of the Manchus, but since the Manchus have a heritage of more than 200 years, I only ask that the status of the imperial family is not degraded.”

“If they follow standard Imperial procedure, they’ll dump their garbage before they go to light-speed. Then we just… float away.” “…With the rest of the garbage.”

The government in Nanjing offered favorable terms for abdication. The young emperor would retain his title and be granted a stipend of 4 million taels of silver annually. He would be allowed to remain in the Forbidden City (originally the Republic government wanted to ship him off to the Summer Palace). The tombs of his ancestors would be protected and provisions made for the continuation of the imperial sacrifices.

It was as good a deal as the Qing court was going to get. On February 12, 1912, Prince Chun and Empress Dowager Longyu formally agreed and affixed the imperial seals to the document ending 268 years of Qing rule in China. Today, the abdication edict is on display in the National Museum of China.

“Only at the end do you realize the power of the Dark Side.”

With the formal abdication of the emperor, Yuan Shikai took over as president of the Republic of China. Upon taking office, Yuan vowed, “Never shall we allow the monarchical system to reappear in China.” Yeah, right.

Within three years, Yuan disbanded parliament, ordered the assassination of Sun Yat-sen’s protégé, outlawed Sun’s new political party (the Kuomintang), and forced Sun into exile once again. In 1916, Yuan tried to make himself emperor, an unfortunate experiment in hubris that ended only when the provinces of China once again threatened mass secession.

“It’s a Trap.”

As for Puyi, allowed to remain emperor of an empty palace, he grew up in decaying splendor. Finally, in 1924, the warlord Feng Yuxiang expelled Puyi and his family from the Forbidden City. After a few days at his father’s mansion on the shores of Houhai in Beijing, he moved to the Japanese Concession in Tianjin where he plotted his return to the throne, any throne, and developed a good working relationship with members of the Japanese government. Ultimately, Puyi would re-emerge in 1932 as the emperor of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo.  Let’s just say, the force was never strong with this one.

In 1925, a year after Puyi’s hasty departure and 13 years after the end of the Qing Empire, the Palace Museum opened in the Forbidden City.


Cover image is a mashup from Sogou and china.com.cn