The Last Emperor (1987)

Puyi: ‘Do you think a man can become an Emperor again?’
Johnston: ‘Yes’

China after 1911 witnessed a rush of unprecedented optimism that welcomed foreign ideas like republicanism, democracy and freedom. Using the Georgian calendar, driving mobile car and wearing western suit became a sign of culture and modernity – a final victory of the civilized West. In another secluded place, the high red wall insulated an ancient culture from this rush, trying, rather obstinately, to protect the old traditions in keeping the lunisolar calendar, riding horses and wearing Qing robes. This is the Forbidden City.

The Inner Court within this Forbidden City which itself is a city within the Peking city resides a person representing these futile or noble, depending on how you see, attempts. He was hailed as the Lord of Ten Thousand Years but was stripped off any effective power by the age of 6. He was the absolute lord in his own court but a powerless commoner beyond the red wall. He is Puyi – the last emperor of China.

Yet he did not wish to bind himself as a mere puppet. He not only installed personal telephone and bought private car but cut his Manchu pigtail and dismissed all the eunuchs, finally dismantling the inhuman system that has existed more than two thousand years. In short, he tried to reform the old suffocating Forbidden City.

As Reginald Fleming Johnston, the first and the last foreign Imperial Tutor, has said in the Twilight in the Forbidden City, he wished to educate Puyi as a gentleman – one that merges English and Chinese virtues. A little anecdote from the book showed his first ‘cultural shock’: he asked for a receipt when the imperial eunuch requested ‘tips’ to lead the way in the Forbidden City. It is, however, a mistake to overstate Johnston as a completely foreign English gentleman, as the film has done. Before becoming the Imperial Tutor, he has worked in China for more than 20 years and has studied extensively the Chinese literature, constantly quoting Chinese classics to justify policies.

Back row far right: Johnston
Front row left to right: Wanrong, Puyi

‘The emperor is the loneliest boy on earth’ said Johnston in the film. Indeed, Puyi spent his life as a prisoner, literally and metaphorically. Two pungent scenes in the film illustrate this very well. When his mother, Consort Jin, suicided, swallowing ball of opium, he ran to the great gate. Seeing the emperor, instead of opening, the imperial guards, startled and hurried to close it. The Emperor, only a young adult then, cried and demanded to open it immediately. They just kowtowed. According to the imperial rule, emperors can not leave the Forbidden City.

In another scene, he has already accepted the invitation from Japan to become the emperor of the Manchukuo, a puppet state set up by the Japanese in 1932, without realizing just as in the Forbidden City, he was to be a mere paper emperor. To further control and demoralize him, the Japanese killed his newly born son and drove away Wanrong, the Empress. He again ran to the gate, stopped not by respectful imperial guard but rude Japanese soldiers. For the second times, he witnessed the leaving of a dear one but was helpless to do anything.

Between 3 and 7 July 1928, Guomindang General Shuen raided the Tomb of Qianglong, one of the greatest emperors in Qing dynasty, and Empress Cixi, snatching the pearl inside her mouth and then offering it to the wife of Chiang Kaishek. Puyi, having been expelled from the Forbidden City and now a mere commoner, can only hide in shame. In this dilemma of revenge but lacking the power, he accepted the tempting invitation from Japanese to become emperor, believing he could outwit them.

Bernardo Bertolucci’s film is not great for showing a disastrous end of a monarch like the execution of Tsar Nicholas II by the Bolsheviks or great heroic deeds done by national founding fathers like Gandhi or Ho Chi Minh. He showed an idealistic person locked in the age of republicanism, bound by his imperial obligation, trapped by destiny and finally ruined by his own naivety. This is a film showing a dragon lost his wings and crippled – Puyi, the last emperor of China.

Puyi’s handwriting

Extended reading: Forbidden City in Rains,  Life in Forbidden City: Eunuch

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3 thoughts on “The Last Emperor (1987)

  1. […] of Reginald Fleming Johnston – the first and the last Imperial Tutor of China – in the Last Emperor. The Johnstone in the Last Emperor movie was curious with his Manchu court robe. However […]

  2. […] reading: The Last Emperor (1987), Life in Forbidden City: […]

  3. […] Extended reading: Forbidden City in Rains, The Last Emperor (1987) […]

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