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The Last Emperor

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The movie, The Last Emperor, is a startling movie as it details the life of China’s last emperor of the Qing dynasty and the social and political changes the country was revolving through during his lifetime. The direct correlation between the man and the country is so interlinked that it is almost impossible to conceive one without the other. The impact of political change, war and social evolution becomes blatantly clear as the dynasty’s power falls and the new government takes control.

His reign as Emperor was over before it began since his father abstained for him as the ruler of China in 1912 when he was barely five or eight years old. He grew up within the walls of the Forbidden City unaware that it was all he ruled. The People’s Republic of China had already taken form and though still in its infancy, the birth pains that China would go through within the next thirty-seven years (1912-1949). Puyi would only go so far with that growth before his bloodline of being Manchurian would go that much farther against him. Many felt that Manchuria was not part of China but simply part of the Qing Empire, that had begun after the fall of the Yuan dynasty and the end of the Ming dynasty, in the  with the acquisition of Manchuria, Mongolia and Taiwan. He had been displaced as the Emperor through the agreement signed in 1912, which ended all monarchy rule and he was restricted to live within the Forbidden City with an annual income of four million to manage it. It had been sealed by his father, the regent Prince Chun and the PRC. By the mid to late 1920’s, Puyi and his family were removed from the Forbidden City and sent to find asylum wherever they could. They took the offer of the Japanese consulate.

Influenced greatly by his English tutor, Puyi reached out to the western world as in its own way so did China. Many ancient traditions were tossed aside by the politicians themselves as they strove towards a more “modern China”. Feeling safe to seek sanctuary with another Emperor, Puyi attempts to revive himself as Emperor of Manchuria. Plagued by accusations that Manchurians were not Chinese, the man is simply caught in the middle of political strife of world proportions. As the advent of WWII approaches, Puyi finds himself to be no more than the political puppet or pawn of the Japanese government. He was condemned to fail from the beginning and though he seems to be a compassionate and intelligent man, he is still accustomed to his raised status as a monarch. He ignores the evident circumstances around him as he feels himself “safe” under Japanese protection. He becomes increasingly aware of his false status as his household is stripped of more and more privileges and weapons of protection.

By the end of the war and as Manchuria is being overrun by the Russian invasion, Puyi becomes a “war criminal” as is placed in a prison in 1950. In Puyi’s eyes, the governor of the prison becomes his teacher as Puyi is undulated with his flaws and mistakes and his denial of any action against China in his behavior. He is finally released in 1959 as a far more humble man and lives out his remaining days as a quiet gardener until his death in 1967.

From 1912 until 1967, China has evolved and re-evolved. The PRC fell apart and all western influence was shunned but during that time most of its histories had been written Chinese born Westerner descendants. In a time following, China became reclusive from the world and all outside influence was discouraged until finally in the 1970’s the country began to open itself up once again to the world. Literature and art had been highly disdained for many years but in the last part of the Twentieth Century, China has once again risen as a country of modernization and social influence. It has gained world acknowledgement through its social struggle of the Twentieth Century into the country it is today. It has adopted an attitude of wisdom and being far more open-minded that allows it to progress forward.

Just as Puyi, the Last Emperor, had to face change, then so did his country as well.


The Last Emperor, film by Bernardo Bertolucci

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