35 Years of “The Last Emperor”

The Last Emperor, 1987 Dir. Bernardo Bertolucci. Starring John Lone, Joan Chen, Peter O’Toole. Now streaming on The Criterion Channel.

The Bertolucci of 1900—where the liberated peasants of Emilia dance beneath a great red banner, and the director seems to be tracing his own radical progress—has moved on, outliving so much hope and disappointment. -David Thomson

Opening with Thomson’s 2008 essay, originally published with the Criterion Collection edition of the picture, seems especially appropriate given our political moment. With the ascendancy of China and the reactivation of Cold War antagonism as a result, we have seen a vigorous debate, oftentimes in Counterpunch, about the nature of their governance, their aims on the world stage, and the “meaning” of political developments like the seemingly-endless tenure of President Xi.

The Last Emperor is a painful, somber reflection of an older man looking back in solemnity on the foolish political adventurism of his youth. When he was interviewed by Rolling Stone in June 1973, director Bernardo Bertolucci told Jonathan Cott:

Marxism can contain opera. In the 1800s, opera was still extremely popular. I think that Godard in his first film was a right-wing anarchist; now he’s a left-wing anarchist. To me, anarchists are dangerous to the fight of the masses. We have to make a distinction between Maoism in Europe — which is a neurosis of the petit bourgeoise — and Maoism in China, where it’s a great fundamental reality… Considering the world situation today — and the European situation in particular — armed revolution isn’t possible. The revolution is being made day by day in the parliament.

In May 1976, he premiered 1900 at Cannes, a picture utterly intoxicated with the sort of Romantic, operatic, and apocalyptic notions of class struggle that informed the affinities he expressed to Cott about Chinese Maoism, which at the time seemed to augur for many radicals a renaissance of Marxist-Leninism worldwide. But within less than six months of Cannes, Mao was dead and the Gang of Four were being renounced in the name of Deng Xiaoping’s “market socialism” faction. By 1987, the Italian Communist Party and parliamentary Eurocommunism were in terminal decline, finally imploding in early 1991 and taking with it an entire generation’s dreams.

Later, in a 2010 retrospective discussion of his career with New York Magazine’s Vulture, his commentary on two scenes in 1900 and Emperor that echoed one another provides further explication:

When we shot the trial of the padrone [<Italian landlord> at the end of 1900], I’d seen two or three photographs from 1949, when Mao had got hold of China. There were many trials against Chinese padrones. I remember I had seen this photograph of farmers in a circle, and the landowner sitting in the middle. So when I shot it, I thought it was something that had a relationship with the Chinese revolution. So in a way I was dreaming of China when I was doing 1900. And that dream would become reality eleven years later… Before shooting the [Red Guard] parade scene [set during the Cultural Revolution at the close of Last Emperor], I put together four or five young directors whom I had met, [including] Chen Kaige — who also plays a part in the film, he’s the captain of the guard — and Zhang Yimou. I asked them about the Cultural Revolution. And suddenly it was like I was watching a psychodrama: They started to act out and cry, it was extraordinary. I think there is a relationship between these scenes in The Last Emperor and in 1900. But many things changed between those two films, for me and for the world.

This is the overall message subtly inscribed into The Last Emperor. The biography of Pu Yi, whose tenure on the throne began as a toddler and ended when he was six years old, only to be followed by repeated disastrous attempts to reclaim power over the course of China’s journey towards the declaration of the People’s Republic, is a hearty rebuttal to the entire generation of radicals who mistakenly over-determined the meaning of “Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought” at the expense of Chinese nationalism within their understanding of the Chinese Revolution.

Were millions of peasants and workers across the Middle Kingdom overjoyed by the emancipation from colonialism and brutal warlord exploitation brought about by the Communists? Quite obviously.

But that was mistakenly construed by far too many Western radicals (including Bertolucci, as evinced by his quote to Cotter) as a de jure embrace of the entirety of the Communist program, and particularly Mao’s doctrinaire attempt to mechanically transplant Stalin-era Soviet industrial policy into a country with wildly different assets and deficits in national wealth. Instead, as the success of Deng demonstrated, it was a matter of political convergence which finally broke apart with the death of Mao, the only political figure in Beijing who was able to get away with the antics and chaos of the Cultural Revolution. Long vilified as a “revisionist” and “capitalist roader,” Deng was installed with mass popular acclamation and the Gang of Four were ousted unceremoniously overnight without any late-night military coup or violent uprising, as would be seen in the case of Chile’s Pinochet. In one scene, prisoners are gathered in a Communist reeducation camp, monotonously singing “East is Red,” the song that captured the hearts of many Western Maoists during the Cultural Revolution, like a funeral dirge. This is further emphasized throughout by the characterization of the Chinese Communists, which can be subdivided into two types. The sympathetic prison governor Jin Yuan (Ying Ruocheng) is an honest, anti-colonial Chinese patriot, not necessarily beholden to any ideology besides commonsense decency in the rubble of China after the war. When he authorizes Pu Yi’s release, he quips with dark humor “You see, I will end up living in prison longer than you!” By contrast, an unnamed interrogator (Ric Young), clearly a doctrinaire Communist, as well as the numerous Red Guards in the sequence set during the Cultural Revolution, are monotone fanatics.

In his recent Criterion essay about Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (another epic about the political and social ambiguities and nuances within the dialectics of national liberation), Barry Michael Cooper writes this useful insight:

Lee assembled Malcolm X as a tetraptych: a four-“paneled” layout of a cinematic painting… Analogous to what Bernardo Bertolucci achieved in The Last Emperor and Paul Schrader did in Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Lee’s Malcolm X tetraptych…is a vivid construct of contrasts that underscores a complexity of absolutes.

All of these points about characterization add up to this: Pu Yi (John Lone) is a cipher, described by Thomson as “a handsome but empty young man [who] will become an amiable zombie if everyone leaves him alone.” To call him an antihero absconds the ultimate reality of his character, a stand-in for the Chinese nation, willing and able to conform to the political currents and developments that will increase his welfare and riches. In this sense, Bertolucci pays tribute to costar Peter O’Toole, who 25 years earlier had delivered another ambiguous, non-heroic epic star performance with Lawrence of Arabia. In David Lean’s classic, Lawrence mutates from a prim, somewhat erratic, and foppish English gentleman-officer into a creature that has been perverted and warped by British imperialism, demonstrated by the paternalism it imposes upon his relations with the insurgent Arab nation seeking liberation from Ottoman domination. There is something meta-textual at work in having O’Toole tutor Lone in how to become a Western gentleman. The tutor-student relationship can be read as guidance in the creation of the morally-ambiguous protagonist who is otherwise so anathema to the audience expectations of both the historical epic genre and the normative Romantic archetypes expected of every Hollywood film.

This is why it is no accident that the film does not close with the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. Instead, it flashes forward to 1987, well into the Deng era, where Anglophone Chinese tour guides lead Western visitors into the throne room of the Forbidden City. Pu Yi is long dead but China is not. It has emerged onto the world stage as a formidable, modern, and independent nation-state, unencumbered by the indignities of both Western imperial domination and doctrinaire Maoist austerity. Rather than aspiring to the absurdity of the “New Socialist Man” (yet another Western ideological imposition placed as a burden upon the people), China has contemporary technology and living standards alongside their dignity, restored as an independent polity. The journey of Pu Yi through the twentieth century is the journey of China and its nation-state. “Communism” is merely one of several modes of governance that have come and gone, a lesson that commentators today would do well to learn from. The Chinese Communist Party is not still in power because of Leninism. Instead, it is because it is truly the least-miserable governance system that is portrayed on screen.

This underwrites the central metaphor of the character arc. Throughout the film, Pu Yi comes into contradiction with the carceral reality of his circumstances.

First he is the baby emperor, far too immature for his responsibilities and consigned to a stunted growth in the Forbidden City. It is no accident that the film only portrays two kinds of rulers from the throne, symbolizing the final days of the imperial system. Lisa Lu plays the Dowager Empress on her death bed, a barely-cognizant, heavily-ornamented figurehead lacking any genuine power. Richard Vuu plays the toddler king, a spoiled brat whose “power” consists of cruel, disgusting pranks on his obsequious courtiers. What does their monarchical power consist of? The terminal adjective of the title takes on new meaning in this sense; not only is this the story of the final person to hold the Chinese throne, it is the end-point of governance for a system that could not be revivified. This brings certain irony to the heavy emphasis in the cinematography during these scenes upon the color red, associated with life and vitality in Chinese culture.

Within the second carceral contradiction, he is the figurehead, neutered by the Kuomintang and the Republic of China. When the Republic of Sun Yat Sen is declared, Pu Yi continues his existence on the throne, only slowly realizing, thanks in part to the help of his tutor Reginald Johnston (O’Toole), that he in fact is as sterile as the eunuchs of the Forbidden City, prisoner of a sclerotic court system that maintains the symbolic throne so to continue to parasitically leech from the imperial coffers. This parasitism is emblematic of the warlord system itself, which in turn Mao took advantage of when organizing in the countryside after the Long March.

The third carceral contradiction is when he is the quisling-puppet of Japan, installed on the phony throne of Manchuria. Here the cinematography emphasizes the creams and oak browns of Western bourgeois modernity during the Roaring Twenties, an era of gilded largesse that masked a long period of vicious, racialized violence worldwide. As a collaborator with the fascist Japanese, trading a puppet throne in Manchuria for ignorance of the genocidal campaign launched by Tokyo, the most notable scene for me is Pu Yi’s singing of the jazz standard “Am I Blue?,” and particularly the background detail of the accompanying band, made up of white men wearing ghastly blackface. Today, as I read words of high praise for President Xi’s initiatives, such as the Belt and Road program, I am forced to wonder what role Beijing plans to play in raw material acquisition systems worldwide. In the age of “ethical consumption,” do we see a Chinese Communist effort to impose mandates upon Congolese minerals, so essential for electronic device manufacturing, in order to exclude from supply lines elements like cobalt that were mined with child labor? Flaws and all, the old Soviet Union by contrast played a progressive role in campaigns boycotting apartheid-era South Africa’s industries and exports.

In the fourth carceral contradiction, Pu Yi is the GULAG prisoner, justifiably held responsible for providing support for Tokyo’s genocidal campaign during the war. The cinematography here emphasizes grays and steel blues, corresponding with the stark circumstances of the early years of Communist power consolidation. What is particularly noteworthy in this circumstance is how closely Bertolucci worked with the Beijing government in production of the picture. Producer Jeremy Thomas offered these comments on working with the Chinese Communist Party in a 2006 interview:

There was a kind of approval process of the screenplay but it was less difficult than working with the studio system. They made script notes and made references to change some of the names, then the stamp went on and the door opened and we came. And they let us have help with the [People’s Liberation] Army and the studios, full support.

This should bear certain guidance for many radicals. Here is an epic motion picture made with full endorsement, approval, and cooperation of the Chinese Communist Party. The picture enacts the Chinese party’s line about Mao’s legacy, 70% right and 30% wrong. Its nuanced, ambiguous treatment of political prisons, even in the case of a demonstrably rotten war criminal like Pu Yi, is not a mistake. China was itself imprisoned by the straitjacket of Communist dogmatism, just as was the Emperor, the living embodiment of the Chinese nation.

All this culminates with Pu Yi’s final days. It is in complete marginalization and anonymity as a simple urban gardener that he is finally liberated. Furthermore, the irony of his escape from the jaws of the Cultural Revolution despite embodying the tabooed “Four Olds” targeted by the Red Guards is hard to ignore. Does this ultimately prove a certain truth about the ultimate goal of socialist liberation despite the grave errors of the 20th century Marxist-Leninist dogmas?

Here is where critical comments by Dr. Lin Chun, provided in an anthology edited by Vijay Prashad titled Communist Histories, are instructive:

Neither globalist uniformity as opposed to internationalism, nor culturalist particularism antithetical to socialism, can be the future for universal emancipation. The only plausible position will still find recourse to the communist original. In the end, socialism is not a national variant to pluralize globality or modernity or capitalism. The global nature of capital and capitalist unilateral integration necessitates the universality of its opposition; nothing less, and nothing of an ethnocentric disposition, can possibly be up to the role. Meanwhile, as socialism cannot have a foothold and grow only ‘in one country’, socialist nationalism has to be simultaneously internationalist. In other words, socialism is also the only assurance against chauvinism and expansionism… The point here is simply that nationalism needs to be checked by socialism and internationalism. In other words, nationalism could be empty or reactionary without the constitutive role of a democratically organized people, which is proudly multicultural and equal… Instead of [contemporary Chinese] neo-Confucianism that tends to be Han centered, or capitalist globalism that promotes market values and profits over needs, socialism remains the only global prospect capable of protecting and developing a social contract of universal liberation and welfare.

In other words, the ambiguity of Pu Yi’s fate is precisely akin to that of China in the new century. To propose, as some Red nostalgics do, that the Xi government augurs a rebirth of the glories of 20th century Communism sans the depravities of Stalinism is to demonstrate how absolutely nothing has been learned. Bertolucci and Pu Yi end the film as wisened old men, having learned a great deal from the emancipation of the Chinese nation after a fraught six decades.

From a personal perspective, I can furthermore describe how I come to these opinions. My late aunt, eldest sister of my mother, married into a Chinese American family. Through a number of circumstances too complicated to describe, both of our families ended up living in a suburb of Providence from the late 1980s onwards. My uncle ended up having a very successful immigration law practice that serviced Chinese nationals as they came to Providence for collegiate studies at Brown, Johnson and Wales University, and the Rhode Island School of Design. My mother was my uncle’s paralegal for the first ten years of my life and so our families were extremely close, spending Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays together often during that decade. (In fact, I ended up going to an all-male Catholic prep school due in no small part to the fact my two older cousins went there first!) A decade ago, one of those cousins, a Catholic priest, spent several years in mainland China working at a historic Catholic university. He described how the majority of the population sees the Communist Party as merely a placeholder for governance over a civilization with a 5,000 year continuous memory. When your nationality’s political history goes back to before when Europeans stopped pooping in caves, that certainly adds a certain dimension of bemusement to European arguments that the Chinese nation succeeds or fails based on dogmatic adherence to an ideology barely past the century-long existence mark like “Marxism-Leninism.”

The Last Emperor made an impact on that part of my family, dignifying their heritage with the nuanced complexities that are so often absent from Beijing apologists and antagonists.

We never ask complex questions about China that should be. For instance, whatever happened to international proletarian solidarity? Did Deng or his successors ever think about the consequences of creating a business environment that hollowed out America’s industrial core and led directly to the political nightmare we are currently living through? It was not an accident, the Chinese national banking system intentionally courted US businesses to offshore their production facilities, often with ultra-low interest rates that made the deal too good to pass up. There is no denying that, after the bloodbaths in Korea and Vietnam, where China sent soldiers to fight Americans, the US working class had been willing and able participants in the imperial plunder.

It is in rewatching Bertolucci’s picture that we can begin to truly contemplate such contradictions.

Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.