Poem / Are you my mother?

by Michael Shaw
edited by Jamie Miura

The Last Empress of China, Wanrong,

died alone of starvation,

in a lonely cage,

addicted to opium


and covered

in her own shit, piss, and vomit. Although

Her Imperial Majesty died in 1946, she

had given up as early as 1940, when her

illegitimate daughter was poisoned,

killed before her eyes,

shortly after her birth.

It is said that, as she screamed deliriously

in her prison, (“This one won’t last long”)

she would cry for someone,

anyone to bring back her baby.

Wrapped in a piece of cloth, her small body

was left to rot in the hills,

the endless mountains of the countryside.

When her husband,

the Dragon Emperor,

Lord Xuantong of All Under the Heavens

(may he live ten thousand years),

heard of his beloved’s fate,

he neither said nor felt a thing.

Years later, in his autobiography, he could

only say that she had died

“a long time ago.”


The last Emperor of China, Puyi, is a well-known character as his life has been studied in great detail through his transition from God-King to citizen. At the age of three, Puyi became the Emperor of all China. By the end of his life, Puyi was a private citizen in Communist China. In comparison, there is much less information about the life of the last Empress, Wanrong. She was just a child when she was forced to marry Puyi, and ultimately died at the age of thirty-nine in inhumane conditions.[i]

The title of the poem, “Are you my mother?” refers to my internal conflict with Chinese identity as a Chinese-Canadian. What kind of China am I supposed to feel attuned to? The glorification of the past makes me feel sick inside. The decisions that led Wanrong to become last empress were made for her by others. She was the last empress of China; she died in a pool of her own fluids in the dark only seventy years ago. I wrote the poem to say, “Someone remembers,” and to give her some kind of memorial. If my parents grew up in Communist China, which inherited the mantle from the Qing, what does that make me, or any of us?

[i] Edward Behr, The Last Emperor, (New York, Bantam, 1977).

Michael Shaw
is an English Literature student in his final year, minoring in East Asian Studies. Having neglected the other half of his identity for more than two decades (to great detriment), he has turned to history to try and fill in the gaps, only to find it wanting. He spends much of his time analyzing old texts and trying to memorize basic Chinese characters in an effort to recapture what was lost.


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