12 May 2003 | brower8
Long and well worth every moment
The last Emperor of China, Pu Yi, we now understand, was never anything more than a puppet. He wielded absolute power within his real realm -- a gilded cage of a palace -- but could never shape events except for tragedy to himself or to others.
We see his life as one unlikely person, the one person that one would have most expect to have been insulated, in a gigantic tragedy -- that of China between the chaotic beginning of what might have been a long reign and the destructive Cultural Revolution of Mao, with coups, warlord rule, World War II, and the Marxist Revolution culminating in the rise of Mao. One recognizes that the pathologies of imperial China never truly died, but merely took new forms in the cult of the Leader. That the scenery is beautiful and hedonism among elites is rife hardly conceals the fact that China was a political Hell.
Pu Yi, once the Emperor of the great (but decrepit) Chinese Empire, becomes Emperor of the Forbidden Palace in 1912 before he is expelled in one of many violent revolutions (this one in 1925) in China. We see him doing a few things right, like reforming the Palace bureaucracy from a den of thieves into something honorable. He gets a superb adviser in Reginald Johnston, who gave him the confidence to be a political figure -- even a good one -- in the happiest time of his life. Johnston leaves as Pu Yi is expelled from the Palace, and eventually falls under the spell of the Japanese, who rip Manchuria from China and find someone willing to rule it in an enlightened manner -- himself. The Prime Minister of his choosing is killed, and Pu Yi becomes a puppet ruler of a contemptible entity. It's just like the old days, only the intriguers are worse -- far worse. The decrepitude of the system sets in at the first moment. As Emperor he can only accede to what his Japanese overlords demand.
At the end of the war he is arrested by the Soviets because he dallies too long on unfinished business -- and after the 1949 Revolution he is sent back to China as a war criminal and traitor. Rather than being executed (as one might expect) he is sent to prison as a convict.
As a prisoner he is incarcerated with some of his former underlings -- war criminals of the Manchukuo puppet state -- who have learned to ape the ideology of their captors, and he runs afoul of those 'fellow' inmates. Ex-fascists make the most fervent communists. All in all, he simplifies and becomes a very ordinary man in a society that punished anyone who challenged anything that the regime didn't want people to challenge.
Pure puppet? Not quite. A dupe who never left when the going was good -- if the going was ever good -- and that is exactly what the Imperial role made him. In childhood the ruler of the greatest empire (in population size, that is) on Earth -- in a premature old age, a cipher. Then again, what else did most Chinese ever become in China during the first two thirds of the 20th century become -- ciphers, old before their time, wrecks of no fault of their own, just to survive.