“The Last Emperor” is a Chinese 1987 epic film, directed by Bertolucci Bernardo. The film is based on the life of Emperor Pu Yi, who was the last individual to reign as Emperor in China. It derives most of its narrative from Pu Yi’s autobiography titled “From Emperor to Citizen: The Autobiography of Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi”.
In this book, the former emperor documents his journey from being an Emperor to an ordinary Chinese citizen. The movie depicts events that took place over a period of 60 years. During this time, China underwent radical transformation due to the significant social-political events that occurred over the time span.
The film begins in 1950 in a Chinese Prison, where Pu Yi has been taken as a political prisoner. After a failed attempt to end his life, the Emperor begins to have flashbacks of his earlier years. His first memories are of how he became the Emperor after being named successor to Empress Dowager Ciwi who was dying. This was in the year 1908 and Pu Yi was only 2 years old. Following this declaration, the young Pu Yi moved to the Forbidden City, which was the official home of the emperor.
The film shows Pu Yi’s early life where many eunuchs and private tutors served him. It then illustrates how Pu Yi was forced to give up power after the Chinese Revolution of 1911. After this, he continued to serve as a figurehead and was allowed to maintain his luxurious lifestyle in the Forbidden City. However, a warlord banished the Emperor from the Forbidden City in 1924 forcing him to live in exile.
After 6 years in exile, Pu Yi moved to Manchuria, which was his native land. While in this region, the Japanese occupational forces reinstated him as a puppet head. His reign ended when Russian forces captured him at the end of the Second World War. The Russians kept him under arrest up to 1950 when he is returned to communist China.
Here Pu Yi underwent reeducation under Mao’s reign. At the end of the reeducation efforts, he took up the occupation of a gardener and lived a humble life. While living the life of a simple gardener, Pu Yi was able to visit the Forbidden City as a tourist and he looked at the Dragon Throne, where he once reigned from, with mixed emotions.
The film has a number of major characters: Emperor Pu Yi, who is the film’s central figure; Emperor’s wife, Wanrong Gobulo, who comes from a royal background and stays with Pu Yi until the end of World War II; Scottish Reginald Fleming, who served as the tutor to the young emperor and provided Pu Yi with knowledge about the outside world and inspired the young emperor to travel outside the Forbidden City; and Chen Baochen, the emperor’s personal advisor and tutor, who remained loyal to the Qing dynasty even after it collapses.
The film covers events that took place between 1908 and 1967. This gives the film major social-historical dimensions, since China underwent a number of significant changes in this turbulent period.
The first major event covered by the film is the succession of Empress Dowager Cixi by the 2-year-old Pu Yi. The film then addressed the 1911 revolution that marked the start of modern China as it abolished the monarchy and established a republic under president Dr. Sun Yat Sen. This event led to Emperor Pu Yi being forced to give up his official powers.
The film then records that the emperor was forced out of the Forbidden City in 1924. At around this time, the 13-year-old Chinese Republic was experiencing some problems as the ruling party was becoming more authoritarian in nature.
The problems experienced by the state escalated when the ruling Kuomintang party split with the Communist Party. The Kuomintang banned the Communist Party and imprisoned most of its top leaders. This led to the Communist Party making plans to overthrow the Kuomintang and bring about a Communist Revolution in China.
The realities of Japanese expansionist trends in Asia during the 1930s are highlighted in the film. It documents how Japan was able to take over the region of Manchuria and govern over it from 1931 to 1945. Emperor Pu Yi was installed as the puppet ruler in order to add legitimacy to Japanese rule. Pu Yi was responsible for signing a number of treaties that increased Japanese power in the occupied territory. This puppet state ended after the Allied forces defeated Japan and the Second World War came to an end.
Another significant period covered by the movie is the Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong. Mao took leadership of China in 1949 and set out to eliminate the old establishment and replace it with a strong Communist State. During the first years of his rule, China experienced the Cultural Revolution that had a major impact on the social and political environment in the country.
The revolution was started by peasants in the countryside who wanted to do away with the decadence of the rich. One of the ways in which the new order was brought about was by destroying the property owner class and re-educating the upper class. The Emperor was one of the individuals who underwent reeducation in Mao’s China.
In my opinion, the film succeeds in capturing the social and political environment in China during the lifetime of Pu Yi. It succeeds in demonstrating how the country underwent a transformation due to significant events including the 1911 revolution, the Japanese invasion, the Second World War, and the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949.
The film effectively highlights the dramatic changes that China underwent from monarchy to republic. This transformation is best exemplified by the Forbidden City, which was once owned by the Emperor, but later becomes a public area.
The film does not place equal weight on all the important issues it addresses. An issue that emerged strongly in the film was the wastefulness of the imperial era. The film demonstrates that the emperor never performed any activity for himself. Pu Yi was forced to learn how to perform basic tasks for himself through reeducation.
The issues that are not well demonstrated by the film are the negative aspects of the reeducation that took place during the Cultural Revolution. The film does not make it clear that during this period, hundreds of thousands of landowners were disposed or executed. Many intellectuals in the country were sent to the rural areas where they engaged in hard labor as a form of reeducation.
The most important thing that I learnt about China from this film was that there was an extreme level of extravagance by the Emperor during the monarchy days. The film clearly displays the lavishness of the Forbidden City, where Pu Yi lived. The palace is enormous in size, and it is filled with expensive furniture and ornaments.
We are shown hundreds of servants who do everything for the Emperor and kneel before him in respect. This information made me understand why the Chinese people carried out a revolution against the monarchy and formed a republic, which later on became the Communist State of China. The oppressive socio-political environment advanced by the monarchy fueled the revolution that made Pu Yi the last emperor.