When I first saw Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987), it struck me as a remake of Doctor Zhivago. Both narratives begin in glamorous and archaic empires that fall to Communist revolutions. Of course, that could just be due to the fact that the Chinese Revolution was something of a remake of the Russian Revolution. But there are parallels specific to the two films, both of which depict Communism as recapitulating the old forms of despotism but as vulgar and brutal farces, stripped of all refinement. Both films also end on a note of hope. But what gives cause for hope is the reemergence of precisely what Communism sought to abolish. Thus both Doctor Zhivago and The Last Emperor are not just anti-Communist films, they are reactionary anti-Communist films. But in the case of The Last Emperor, this is hard to square with the fact that director Bertolucci was himself a Communist.
The Last Emperor tells the story of Puyi, who became the last emperor of the Qing dynasty in 1908 at the age of two. He was deposed in 1912 after China became a republic, which nobody bothered to tell him. He was allowed to rule on as emperor within the Forbidden City of Beijing, from which he was expelled in 1924. He then took refuge in Tientsin, where he plotted to regain his throne. Eventually, he threw in with the Japanese, in 1932 becoming the head of state of Manchukuo, the name given to Japanese-occupied Manchuria. In 1934, he was crowned emperor of Manchukuo. In 1945, he was captured by the Red Army. In 1950, he was turned over to the People’s Republic of China for trial and rehabilitation. In 1959, he was declared rehabilitated and released. He spent the rest of his life as a worker and citizen in the People’s Republic of China. He died of cancer in 1967.
The Last Emperor is based primarily on Puyi’s 1964 autobiography, From Emperor to Citizen. The script was written by Bertlolucci and his brother-in-law Mark Peploe. The Last Emperor was the first Western film to be shot within the Forbidden City. The cast included John Lone as the adult Puyi, Joan Chen as his Empress Wanrong, and Peter O’Toole as his tutor Reginald Johnston. Ryuichi Sakamoto played Japanese agent Masahiko Amakasu and composed the bulk of the music. There were nearly 20,000 extras. The Last Emperor was a critical success. It also did well in theaters, despite its 163-minute running time. It won nine Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, as well as many other awards.
The Last Emperor works simply as a dazzling, exotic costume drama. It is astonishing to learn that at the dawn of the twentieth century, China was ruled by an absolute monarchy that had not changed much in more than 2,000 years. The emperor was revered as a quasi-divine being who mediated between heaven and earth, a conduit by which higher order infused a world perpetually haunted by chaos. The emperors had multiple wives and were attended by an army of eunuchs, who were not only castrated but had their sexual organs entirely removed, usually when they were children. The only intact man who could sleep in the palace was the emperor. When the emperors died, they were bedecked in jewels and entombed like pharaohs.
But it gets stranger yet. Even though the emperors had absolute power, they were little more than prisoners. They were never alone and were not allowed to do anything for themselves. This is dramatized most effectively on Puyi’s wedding night, when besides the empress, he was attended by six ladies in waiting who disrobed them as discreetly as possible.
Beyond that, the emperor had no contact with the world other than his courtiers and eunuchs, who used their control of information to shape policies. When a teenaged Puyi took on a Scotsman, Reginald Johnston, as his tutor, he knew almost nothing of world history or geography. The courtiers were so opposed to anything modern that they tried to veto eyeglasses for their nearsighted emperor.
However, this system became most bizarre when children became emperors. Child rulers are inevitable in monarchies, but they also reduce it to absurdity.
Hereditary monarchy has many benefits. Every social order needs a supreme executive. In normal circumstances, laws can be enforced and policies can be executed by bureaucrats, police, and judges. But in exceptional circumstances, where decisions cannot be based on settled laws and practices, executives need some discretionary power. And when the entire system is threatened by exceptional circumstances, one needs a chief executive who can decide what to do.
Sometimes terrible things have to be done to preserve society. Rioters need to be shot, for instance. But in such circumstances, ordinary policemen and officials fear to do what is necessary because their offices are conditional, and they can be blamed and punished for their missteps. Thus it is important for there to be someone who can take full responsibility during a crisis. Such a decision-maker cannot answer to any other mortal. He must be guided only by his sense of what is required by the common good. And since the common good can sometimes require killing, the decider must be immune from punishment for his actions. In short, the whole political order depends on a decision-maker who is above the law and immune to it.
An executive who can be removed from office, however, cannot employ unpopular measures even to save the nation. Thus the best executive rules for life.
But how does he attain his office? If an executive is elected—especially if the election falls during a crisis—he cannot risk doing anything unpopular either, even if it is necessary to preserve society. Thus the best executive cannot be chosen, for that means he is beholden to those who choose him, not to the public good. The best executive, therefore, must simply be born. (Or he can be chosen by lottery.) Hereditary monarchy is thus one of the best ways to confer the fullest package of executive powers.
Unfortunately, it often confers such powers upon unworthy parties. For when ultimate authority, responsibility, and immunity from punishment are reposed in the hands of a child—who is unable to understand statecraft and make decisions for himself and who cannot be held responsible for his actions, much less the actions of his underlings—monarchy becomes a farce. Decisions have to be made by other people—regents—who lack the ultimate authority or immunity of the sovereign.
The last three Chinese emperors were children when they were crowned. During the reign of the first two—the Tongzhi Emperor and the Guangxu Emperor—power was largely in the hands of the Dowager Empress Xixi, the mother of the former and the aunt of the latter. When the Guangxu Emperor began to reform China, Xixi overthrew him in a palace coup and went back to running the country. When Xixi was dying, the Guangxu Emperor was poisoned. Puyi was placed on the throne, under the control of Xixi’s faction, so that no reforms could take place even after her death.
But a new level of farce was reached in 1912, when Puyi’s regents abdicated in his name—and didn’t even bother to tell him. After all, he was a child. He wouldn’t understand. Under the articles of abdication, Puyi remained emperor within the walls of the Forbidden City. The rituals of the court continued unaltered, although they were now completely detached from the mechanisms of government.
Why did this farce continue? Part of it, surely, was superstition. The Chinese seemed unable to shake the belief that the Qing still enjoyed the Mandate of Heaven. Another part of it was the hope that the emperor would be restored, which did happen briefly in 1917. But the main part of it was probably corruption. The court provided a living for thousands. What else was a eunuch going to do in the twentieth century? The Forbidden City was a vast treasure house, which the courtiers were systematically plundering. When the teenaged Puyi ordered an inventory of the treasury, it was burned to the ground to cover the theft.
But the corruption of the Qing court came from the very top. What is corruption anyway? The purpose of government is to serve the common good. Every office should play that role. Of course, every office is staffed by officials, and every official is a mere mortal, who has his own private ends.
The only office where there is no divide between private and public interests is a hereditary monarch. His whole life, from birth to death, is dedicated to the public good. Thus he serves as an example to everyone else. But when the monarch is a puppet of scheming courtiers serving who knows what ends while merely going through the motions of serving the public good, it only makes sense for more humble functionaries to start looking out for themselves as well.
Of course they keep going through the motions of government. But their hearts are not in it. The regime has been hollowed out. It no longer serves its purpose. A hollowed-out regime can last a long time if it is not tested. When it is tested, we see whether its functionaries are willing to pull together and do what is necessary for its survival. But China was in the throes of a century of humiliations. Eventually, under the stress of foreign interventionists, domestic rebellions, ambitious politicians, and rogue generals, the regime simply collapsed.
The Last Emperor begins in 1950 when Puyi arrives at a Chinese Communist prison. But as the film unfolds, we learn that he was basically a prisoner since the age of two, when he was made the emperor.
It is astonishing that the Communists did not kill Puyi. Mao’s regime was the bloodiest in human history. What would have been one more life? Yes, the Communists believed that man is born good, does wrong only because of society, and can be reformed. But murdering their opposition was quicker and easier. There’s never been any shortage of Chinese.
Perhaps Puyi was spared for propaganda purposes. If he could be reformed, then anyone could. But Puyi was not the only Qing to be spared by the Red Chinese. His father, Prince Chun, died in Beijing in 1950—in a palace, not a prison. Many descendants of the Qing royal clan live in China to this day. Perhaps they were protected by the Mandate of Heaven after all, or at least a lingering belief in it.
It was to break with such traditions that the Cultural Revolution was launched, but on Bertolucci’s depiction, it simply ended up recapitulating the old regime as farce. One of the most spectacular scenes of The Last Emperor is Puyi’s coronation, in which thousands of Chinese nobles assemble to kowtow to the new emperor. At the end of the movie, we see hysterical Red Guards parading thought criminals through the streets and demanding they kowtow to Chairman Mao.
The end of The Last Emperor is enigmatic. The elderly Puyi buys a ticket to visit the Forbidden City as a tourist. Thinking he is alone, he tries to sit on this former coronation throne. A young boy in the red kerchief of the Pioneers stops him. Puyi tells him that he was once the emperor of China. To prove it, he rummages under the throne’s cushions and finds a cricket cage that he had hidden there. The cricket cage first appears during the coronation, when it is presented to Puyi by an official, Chen Baochen. When Chen opens the cage, the cricket emerges. Its crouched posture makes it look like it is kowtowing to the emperor too. When the boy opens the cage, the cricket reemerges. When the boy looks back at the throne, however, Puyi has disappeared. This is, of course, pure fantasy. Crickets only live a couple months. So this is a magic cricket.
How do we interpret this ending? First, we can ask what the cricket means. The cricket represents the reemergence of something that has gone into hibernation for a very long time. The kowtow, of course, is a symbol of imperial authority, brought back by the Red Guards. But is such authority good or bad? If Bertolucci were a liberal, he should say it is bad. But Bertolucci is supposedly a Marxist, and Marxists never had any problem with state power and its symbols.
Second, we can ask what it means to end with magic as such. Ultimately, Bertolucci doesn’t view history through Marxist lenses. Instead, he views it aesthetically. And as an aesthetic spectacle, he finds Communism lacking. The most visually spectacular parts of the film are from Puyi’s childhood: his meeting with Xixi who pronounces him the new emperor, his coronation, and his wedding. In Tientsin and Manchukuo, Puyi and his court embraced modern dress and décor, with equally spectacular results. Bertolucci portrays the People’s Republic of China, however, as utterly drab and vulgar, and not just the prisons. At the end of the Red Guard scene, we are serenaded by massed accordions and treated to some proletarian ballet. Even as degenerate drug addicts, the Qing at least had style.
One can criticize Communism from the Left, but by turning history into an aesthetic spectacle and ending with a poetic flourish, The Last Emperor repudiates Communism from the Right.