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 a walled-in emperor without power until 1924. The thousand or so eunuchs, consorts, tutors, and other denizens of the Forbidden City lived off his stipend from the Chinese Republican government while the enterprising among them sold off the treasures of the Ch’ing palace. In his Westernized playboy interlude between 1924 and 1931 Pu Yi lived in Tientsin with a smaller court and stipend, seeing some pretty vile warlords but falling more and more under Japanese control. From 1931 to 1945 he headed Japan’s puppet state of Manchukuo, after 1934 reigning over a shoddy court as Emperor Kang-te. In 1945 the Soviets stockpiled him for five years as a war criminal, handing him over to Mao’s China in 1950 for reconditioning. Finally, in 1959, as a new man re-created by Maoist thought reform, he was pardoned and returned to civilian life in Peking, where he died in 1967.

This career is an extraordinarily symbolic but otherwise inconsequential one. Pu Yi grew up as a make-believe emperor not allowed out of the Forbidden City and entered history mainly as Japan’s puppet. Once the Ch’ing dynasty had ended in 1912, however, its last emperor did not represent an important ethnic minority, because the Manchus in North China were generally assimilated into the Chinese population. One die-hard warlord entered Peking and restored the dynasty for a moment in 1917, but otherwise Pu Yi had no particular public to represent except his former stipendiaries and ex-Ch’ing officials. He tried to find a historical niche for himself as the protagonist of the Manchu people, but their homeland of Manchuria had already been overrun by Chinese migration and had become China’s Northeast.

From the start of his film Bertolucci reshapes history the better to serve his own purposes. The Last Emperor begins with the middle-aged and worn Pu Yi arriving in Chinese Communist hands in 1950 and at once attempting suicide. He evidently cuts only the veins in his wrists, not his arteries, and is easily saved. This seemingly neat device helps to unify the film since scenes of his earlier life appear as flashbacks. Unfortunately, however, suicide is entirely out of keeping with Pu Yi’s imperial character and self-image. His writings record constant fears but no thought of killing himself. He lacked the necessary decisiveness. The incident seems cooked up: good drama, perhaps, but bad history.


Back at the palace in 1908, when Pu Yi is hardly three years old, history is warped again: a fattish old dame (not at all withered and wizened) says to him in effect, “Me Empress Dowager, you Emperor now,” and immediately passes out. Pu Yi’s memoir says that at his enthronement he sat crying for his amah, but in the film he marches imperiously about to look at the courtiers like a boy of at least five or six. Still, by taking artistic license Bertolucci presents a striking scene.

In Pu Yi’s palace phase the eunuchs steal the show. A gang of corpulent, agile, fawning servitors (actually recruited from the People’s Liberation Army), they are the boy emperor’s constant companions. They dress him, bathe him, and carry him about. Indeed, in a few seconds of film they manage an imperial defecation that must set a record in this line. When the proceeds are quickly shown to the eunuch inspector of imperial feces, the event has more than gastrointestinal significance. One begins to wonder whether and when the emperor ever learned to go to the toilet by himself.

The Son of Heaven is pauperized in personal experience at the same time that he learns to wield his petty absolute power. “Drink this ink!” he says to a eunuch, who immediately does so to escape a flogging. Pu Yi never sees his mother and has a warm physical relationship only with his comely amah, or wet nurse, who suckles him almost uxorially until he is eight years old. Emotionally starved, he relieves the boredom of palace protocol by having eunuchs bastinadoed. This palace ritual inherited from the Ming court was performed with light or heavy bamboo staves on the bare buttocks of the prone victim. Once the skin was broken, blood would spatter, but Bertolucci has foregone this scenic possibility.

Pu Yi’s adolescence is ameliorated by his having between 1919 and 1924 an English tutor, Reginald Johnston, on loan from the Colonial Office. Johnson’s book of 1934, Twilight in the Forbidden City, stresses the gross corruption of the imperial household, including the eunuchs, who pillaged the dynastic treasures. Johnston describes how he got Pu Yi a bicycle, some badly needed spectacles, and even a telephone. Pu Yi started phoning around and had a guess-who-this-is sort of conversation with China’s top liberal of the day, Dr. Hu Shih, who came to see him. Johnston subversively got Pu Yi to cut off his queue; but Johnston believed in royalty and empire, preferably that of Queen Victoria. His affectionate loyalty toward His Majesty led him somewhat pathetically to hope history would give Pu Yi his chance to sit on a real throne.

In addition to Johnston’s book, Chinese and Japanese memoirs and pulp romances, on which the researchers for The Last Emperor have obviously drawn, had already created a legend during the 1950s and 1960s. The main source soon became Pu Yi himself, some of whose reminiscences began to appear through interviews published in Chinese as early as 1957. By that time the imaginative British sinologist Henry McAleavy had found that the academic history of modern China then being turned out was dull stuff. Summaries of Li Hung-chang’s official reports to the court of the Empress Dowager could be cranked out endlessly, each paragraph dropping a footnote as it moved along, but who cared? McAleavy found more vitality in the informal “raw history” (yeh-shih) buried in obscure Chinese and Japanese memoirs and essays. These were the kinds of sources that an earlier oddball, Sir Edmund Backhouse, had been led to by his Chinese and Manchu friends when he was preparing the materials that his coauthor, the journalist J.O.P. Bland, would write up as Annals and Memoirs of the Court of Peking and China under the Empress Dowager.

Though by no means the scalawag that Sir Edmund turned out to be, McAleavy followed his lead and in 1963 published a fascinating summary of insider gossip and personal history of the late Ch’ing court, A Dream of Tartary: The Origins and Misfortunes of Henry Pu Yi. McAleavy featured a Japanese Manchu adventuress of the imperial Aisin-Gioro clan, who turns up rather inexplicably in The Last Emperor to lead Pu Yi’s empress astray. The Chinese and Japanese sources cited by McAleavy quote correspondence of Pu Yi and provide details of court life—for example, the “curtain game” shown in the film, in which Pu Yi on one side and eunuchs on the other press against each other’s hands.


Meanwhile, from Pu Yi’s prison confessions a first draft of a memoir had been put together by 1955 and revised by 1960. After his pardon, this was rewritten mainly by Li Wenda, a forty-year-old government editor (who is now given copyright as coauthor). From Emperor to Citizen: The Autobiography of Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi was published in a small Chinese edition in 1964 and a larger English edition for consumption abroad in two volumes in 1964 and 1965. The translator was an Oxford-trained sinologist, W.J.F. Jenner, then employed by the Foreign Languages Press in Peking. Now a professor of Chinese at the Australian National University, Jenner has supplied a general introduction to Oxford University Press’s 1987 reprint as well as introductions to each of the book’s sections.*

The presentation of the Bertolucci film itself has been accompanied by publication of a three-hundred-page paperback by Edward Behr, who lives in Paris and is currently cultural editor of Newsweek International. Behr was in Peking in 1964 making a documentary and got a glimpse of Pu Yi’s “gaunt, stooped figure” and “tired, wan smile.” His reporting on the spot in Peking in 1986 was assisted by an American-Chinese interpreter who had graduated from Wellesley and by introductions from the film producers. The resulting book is parallel to but independent of the film. Among those he interviewed were most importantly Pu Yi’s younger brother, Pu Jie, now in his eighties, and Jin Yuan, who had been governor of the remolding center at Fushun where Pu Yi spent nine years.

Mr. Behr seems to exemplify certain tendencies in Gary Hart’s America. Right off, on page 2 of his foreword, he tells us that those who had known Pu Yi best “were extremely reluctant to talk about his sex life to a stranger like myself…. Time and again, as I pressed otherwise cooperative and even loquacious intimates of Pu Yi’s life and times to tell me more, I inwardly raged at their protective discretion—while also, to some extent, sympathizing with it.” Behr concludes that “Pu Yi was bisexual and—by his own admission—something of a sadist.” He adds that “though there was nothing effeminate about Johnston, his sex drive appears to have been completely sublimated…. Johnston is also completely silent on the subject of Pu Yi’s sexuality. Like most conventional Britons of the time, he regarded the whole subject as taboo.” Times have changed, to be sure. Let us not fall behind. Don’t we need a rule that reporters on sex must tell us their qualifications? How can we evaluate Mr. Behr’s testimony on this important subject unless we know his own experience and preferences?

On the other hand, Mr. Behr seems careless about proofreading and/or the historical record. For example, the Hundred Days of reform did not occur in 1880, the British did not take Chinese territory at Canton in 1898, the Peking Legation Quarter was not set up in 1860, the province of Anhwei was not the Empress Dowager “Tzu-hsi’s home base,” Lord Palmerston in 1855 did not say he would have to strike “another blow for China,” he said in China, “Weihawei” [sic] was not “one of the oldest British owned Chinese colonies after Hong Kong.” Such howlers and misunderstandings indicate that Mr. Behr is not a trained historian. This is corroborated by his enthusiastic acceptance of David Bergamini’s Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy, which makes Emperor Hirohito the mastermind and chief operator of Japan’s implacable drive to take over half the world—a theory long since discredited. Evidently books are like people: if they exist they can be quoted. As a result Mr. Behr’s book is full of the most fascinating details he could find and it is fun to read. It is the fullest account available in English, but on any given point you should keep your fingers crossed.

All writers agree that Pu Yi was a stunted personality. Jenner feels he “never became a person in his own right and…tried to please his masters at every stage in his life.” He was “cruel to underlings.” With the five women he was married to, first and last, “he was unable to perform sexually.” His original empress died of opium, his original concubine got a divorce. Behr sees Pu Yi as “weak, neurotic and profoundly flawed,…a professional survivor, bending to the wind,…a coward most of his life. But he was also an innocent.”

If we now return to our original questions—Did the Chinese Communists really remold Pu Yi? Were they justified in touting him as a successfully reformed war criminal?—two points may be suggested. First, the memoirs follow most confessions made inside Mao’s prisons in exaggerating the evil deeds of the old life and the idealistic appeal of the new. But Pu Yi was not an intellectual unjustly and grotesquely victimized for his class status and foreign taint like so many other victims with whose careers we have become acquainted. On the contrary he fit very well the definition of a war criminal and real enemy of the people. There was a lot in his life that he could feel remorseful about. He could quite properly have been classed among the Japanese war criminals about whom he gave perjured testimony at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal in 1946. Consequently the “leniency” and “forgiveness” of the Communists was a great deal more genuine and substantial in his case than in most.

According to Pu Yi, one turning point came when his cell mates, who had rejected him for his incompetence in handling his daily life unaided, finally accepted him as a human equal and companion. Why should he not feel renewed by this unique experience? We tend to see Maoist conversions as purely manipulated false fronts, and we are for the most part right to do so. In the case of this longtime would-be emperor it could have been valid. He seems to have been an ideal candidate for the treatment. We can imagine that he might really have preferred Maoist citizenship to being a ghostlike Son of Heaven, especially of course when the ghostly aura would stay with him as a citizen. We can understand why the new rulers in Peking under Mao decided that Pu Yi’s conversion would make good propaganda, and why their successors under Deng Xiaoping have collaborated in making this film.

Second, the superb cast of The Last Emperor create their own version of Pu Yi’s history. John Lone as the mature Pu Yi, Peter O’Toole as Johnston, Ying Ruocheng (who starred in Peking’s Death of a Salesman) as the prison governor Jin Yuan are probably all more human and engaging personalities than the historic figures they represent. They show us a Pu Yi who is more intelligible and appealing to a Western audience than the original scion of the Aisin-Gioro clan.

The New Yorker’s reviewer (November 30, 1987) said that The Last Emperor is too passive in its portrayal of Pu Yi, “a historical pageant without a protagonist.” The long-suffering Pu Yi, who took to reciting Buddhist sutras, might agree. He was raised, too late, to be a ritual autocrat, just when his kind of autocracy was about to be supplanted by party dictatorship. He could represent only a dead past. Critics should broaden their sights. The main character in this film is the Manchu dynasty itself, and it took a long time dying.

This Issue

February 18, 1988