Born Too Late

The Last Emperor

a film directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

Twilight in the Forbidden City (1973), out of print

by Reginald F. Johnston. with a preface by the Emperor
London: Victor Gollancz (1934); reprinted by Scholarly Resources

From Emperor to Citizen: The Autobiography of Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi

translated by W.J.F. Jenner
Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 2 vols, 496 pp.

From Emperor to Citizen: The Autobiography of Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi

reprinted with new general and chapter introductions by W.J.F. Jenner, afterword by Simon Winchester
Oxford University Press, 502 pp., $10.95 (paper)

The Last Emperor

by Edward Behr
Bantam, 336 pp., $9.95 (paper)

The Last Manchu: The Autobiography of Henry Pu Yi, Last Emperor of China

translated by Kuo Ying Paul Tsai, edited, with a revised preface and epilogue and Paul Kramer
Pocket Books, 310 pp., $4.95 (paper)

A Dream of Tartary: The Origins and Misfortunes of Henry Pu Yi

by Henry McAleavy
London: Allen and Unwin, out of print

Pu Yi: J'étais empereur de Chine: L'autobiographie du dernier empereur de Chine (1906–1967)

Paris: Flammarion (1975); reprinted by Editions J'ai lu, (1987), 600 pp., fr30

Pu Yi
Pu Yi; drawing by David Levine

The Last Emperor is a spectacular film photographed in brilliant color. It is also a moral drama with controversial political overtones of great ambiguity. It spans sixty years of history, between the Manchu dynasty’s final decrepitude and the disaster of the Cultural Revolution in the People’s Republic. It leaves us with a question: Did Pu Yi, the last emperor of the Ch’ing dynasty (1644–1912) and the only emperor of Japan’s puppet state of Manchukuo (1931–1945), really find a new life in Mao’s China? Or was it simply a variation on his life’s theme of puppetry? Was he not in fact the world’s champion puppet—first under the Ch’ing court, then under the Japanese militarists, finally under the Chinese Communists? The answer is by no means as self-evident as we may tend to think.

Quite aside from the enigma of Pu Yi, Bernardo Bertolucci and his Anglo-Italian producers had the Peking government’s collaboration to exploit the visual grandeur of the Forbidden City. Great aesthetic potential was always there in the vast courtyards and the broad horizontal spread of the three throne halls. Their white marble stairs and balustrades, red walls, and yellow tiled roofs under the formerly unsullied blue sky of North China formed a setting that awaited action. Bertolucci has brought back the ranks of richly dressed officials who used to fill the scene on state occasions. He has used billowing red and yellow curtains as moving backgrounds for the intricate finery of court dress.

Thanks to the help of the Chinese during filming in 1986 the silk gowns, jewels, scarves, footwear, and headdresses of the hundreds of eunuchs, palace ladies, priests, and servants have a seemingly impeccable autnenticity. When six hundred or more eunuchs and officials in long rows, each on his mat in the great courtyard, perform the three kneelings and nine prostrations of the full kotow at the strident command of an usher, the Forbidden City comes alive again as a setting for rituals of abject servitude. Ever since 1912 the millions of tourist photographers who have responded to the archictectural magnificence of the site have tried to imagine it peopled and in use. Bertolucci has now done it on film.

Against this opulent background we see the eunuchs and female consorts of the court and even the emperor, all under the thumb of the imperial institution. For a thousand years, as a holdover from classical antiquity, the Son of Heaven had symbolized China’s cultural unity and preeminence. Pu Yi was a final pebble caught under this juggernaut.

His career falls into half a dozen clearly defined phases. Born in 1906, he was made emperor in 1908 at the Chinese age of three (the observant Chinese credit the individual with one year of age at birth). As the Hsuan-t’ung Emperor of the Ch’ing he reigned for less than four years until his abdication in 1912, but went on being…

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