Sunday Morning at the Movies: The Last Emperor

The Academy Award winning film from 1987 is titled The Last Emperor and it concerns the long and tortured life Puyi, the final Emperor of the Chinese Qing monarchies before the Nationalist and then Communist powers took control of the country. The Communist powers are who rules China to this day.

Puyi was raised in the tradition of the Chinese monarchies, with great deference, and he was watched over by the literal eunuchs of the Forbidden City and by the fierce Empress Dowager, but as the Japanese crowded in on the weakened Chinese, Puyi embraced both the Japanese and many aspects of Western culture and this was held against him when the Communists finally took over the country in 1949. Many in his family were murdered and he escaped death at the hands of the vengeful Communists only because Mao Zedong, the Communist ‘Emperor,’ realized that Puyi was more valuable as a live commoner broken by the Chinese Communist Party than as a dead and possibly martyred monarch. He died in obscurity in 1967 just as the Chinese were launched into yet another suicidal cultural experiment conceived by Mao.

Seeing what the Chinese were willing to do to their own monarch is instructive regarding the nature of the Chinese today. Mao and his progenitors, which includes President Xi, the current Chinese ruler, were animated by what the Chinese refer to as the ‘century of humiliation’ which culminated in the Chinese Civil War that brought the communists to power in 1949. Puyi was a player in the back half of that long period of ruin, but the Chinese have forgotten nothing and are even now motivated by the memory of that period. If they take the next logical step and attack Taiwan, it will be an action motivated by the memory of what to them is the recent past.

The period began in the early 19th century when the western powers, led by the then-dominate British, were trying to open the Asian markets to trade. Both the Japanese and the Chinese perceived that the dominate westerns powers, with their religion of Christianity, were powerful and would overwhelm their weakened societies, and so an effort was made to keep the Anglo-Saxons and anyone else who came along, out of their territory. They saw what had happened in the Philippines with the Spanish, and they knew about what had happened in Indonesia with the Dutch, and they knew about India with the British, and they wanted no part of it. The Western wave that had started with Columbus in 1492 and swept over the Americas was now pushing further West into Asia and the Japanese and Chinese were determined not to give in to it.

For the Japanese, a forced opening of the country was accomplished by Admiral Perry when American warships steamed in to Tokyo Bay in 1852 and 1853. This era of ‘gunboat diplomacy’ was defined by diplomatic endeavors backed up by conspicuous displays of naval power. The Japanese ended their isolationist policies at that point and began to orient themselves to the outside world. This was to have disastrous effects on the Chinese in the years to come.

For the Chinese, the same kind of diplomacy had reached them a decade early when the British arrived in warships. In 1839, the ‘century of humiliation’ began with the First Opium War which was a war between the British and Puyi’s predecessors in the Qing Dynasty. It was a trade dispute regarding the import of opium from British-controlled India into China. The British wanted this trade open and the Chinese did not. The war was a disaster for the Chinese and led to the treaties that granted the British territorial control of parts of coastal China including Hong Kong. British Union Jacks are symbols of protest in Hong Kong now.

What followed was more war and disaster for the Chinese. The Chinese lost the Second Opium War in 1856 to both the British and the French, and in due time, the Chinese fought and lost to the French when the French seized Indochina, later known as French Indochina, which was a ‘colonie d’exploitation’ that included Vietnam and Cambodia. The American war in Vietnam flowed from this poisonous period.

In 1894 came the first war with the now-outwardly focused Japanese. The Chinese lost this war, as well as more territory when the British pushed from India into Tibet in 1903.

Finally there came the full Japanese push in to China in 1931 which carved Manchukuo as a Japanese puppet state. The Japanese had taken Korea, much of the islands in the South Pacific, and in Manchukuo, a big hunk of Chinese territory. They seized upon the disposed Chinese Emperor, Puyi, and made him the ruler of Manchukuo but at the same time, made him complicit in Japanese war crimes, which were as ghoulish as they were common.

The Japanese were ultimately defeated by the Western powers, primarily the United States in 1945 and then the Communists prevailed over the nationalist forces in 1949 and thus, the ‘century of humiliation’ came to an end. The British, French, and Japanese forces had been vanquished and everything that has happened since, including the humbling and hobbling of Puyi, has been a mopping up operation on the part of the Communist Chinese and that cleaning up and retribution period is what we are currently in. This is, by extension, still a dangerous period in which the Chinese are looking for national revenge.

The Chinese have rapidly expanded their economy and technology by both innovating and stealing. They have retaken Hong Kong by treaty and violated that treaty with restrictions on Hong Kong’s citizens. They violently put down a demonstration for democracy in 1989, just as the Soviets were falling. They have built a formidable military that is seeking to rival US power. They have recently celebrated the 100 year anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party and in a speech made by Xi, wearing the garb of Chairman Mao, declared that China would “crack their heads and spill blood” of anyone who tried to interfere with China again, as had been done so regularly in the past. The Chinese consider the ‘century of humiliation’ to still be a powerful motivator and they are not done taking scalps in retribution.

The next step in making amends for the ‘century of humiliation’ is not difficult to understand; it is retaking Taiwan, where the defeated nationalists fled from Mao’s forces in 1949. Taiwan is unfinished business for the Chinese but if they take the huge island by force, they surely will come into conflict with the US and Japanese combined determination save Taiwan.

Puyi is long gone by the Communist forces of China are not. What happens next is a huge and critical unknown but it won’t be disconnected from the recent past. The past is never done. Not knowing it doesn’t mean it’s not there.

The Last Emperor trailer
Puyi tries to become a Western gentleman
The real Puyi testifies at the war crimes trial after the War
Chairman Mao speaks to the party and they wave their Little Red Books, which was a sort manual he wrote
Xi and the CCP are still taking revenge for the long century of humiliation