The Last Emperor

I know I saw Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor when it first came out, but now that I’m in China and know more of its history, I couldn’t pass up a friend’s offer to lend it to me.

The story is told in flashbacks as Puyi, China’s last emperor, reflects on his life now that he’s imprisoned by the Communists. He symbolizes all they hate about old China, but Puyi can’t really help that.

I vividly remembered Puyi, the tot who became emperor when his father was killed, getting taken from his home to the palace. I wonder why his mother didn’t live at the palace since her husband was the emperor. I’ll have to look that up. The film than continues by showing the folly of having a young boy assume the emperor’s throne. Now I’m sure someone else, like the Lord Chancellor was actually calling the shots, but that wasn’t in the film.

Since no one can correct the emperor, even when he’s 3 or 4, Puyi soon becomes a brat. He’s never able to leave the vast grounds. It isn’t until he’s seven that he’s able to see his brother, one of the few people who will talk straight with him. It’s quite bizarre to see this boy treated with such deference by hundreds of grown eunuchs, who indulge his every whim.

In 1912, China became the Republic of China led by Sun Yet Sen, yet we stay with Puyi, who’s shocked to learn that he’s no longer the emperor of China, he’s just the emperor of the Forbidden City and he can’t leave. I don’t fault the film with sticking with Puyi’s biography, but the events in his life made me curious about the wider history of China, which I know in outlines.

Throughout his life, Puyi seemed to be a puppet. Though he was allowed to have his way in trivial matters around the palace, he never governed. He talked of wanting to choose a wife who spoke English and French, but the dowager chose for him. In the film he seemed to get on well with is wife and his concubine, but according to an article in The Guardian, Puyi was pretty asexual and certainly not a big family man.

I found the parts with Mr. Johnston, the emperor’s tutor, played by Peter O’Toole, who can perform such a role with the needed aplomb, most interesting as Mr. Johnston was the only character with any force, the only one to question or challenge the emperor. He did so tactfully, but most kowtowed as they wanted the emperor to have his way, while they feathered their nests with goodies from the imperial storehouses and coffers. How that money and the opulence of the majestic lifestyle continued after the Republic took over mystifies me.

When the Communists arrest and interrogate Puyi, he had my sympathy, but I still yearned for a hero who would take action. .I wondered why he never left China. He seemed to have been conditioned early on to never go beyond the familiar.

He did flee the Forbidden City and lived in the Japanese legation and later Manchuria, where he thought he’d actually rule, but he was just a puppet for the Japanese. To me it was clear that once Japan surrendered he needed to leave. he was inert, either unwise or paralyzed to take action. The film with its majestic setting and costumes cries out for an epic hero. There’s a tension in this film that Puyi never was that sort of hero. And he suffered for that.

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Lost on Planet China

lost china

After reading J. Maarten Troost‘s Lost on Planet China: The Strange and True Story of One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation Or How He Became Comfortable Eating Live Squid, I’m putting his earlier books at the top of my “to read list.”

When Troost and his wife outgrow their home in California, they consider moving to China. But first Troost feels the need to investigate. Would China be the place to bring up his two boys? Thus he sets off on what must have been months of travel all around the Middle Kingdom.

Soon after arriving in polluted Beijing, it’s clear that Troost isn’t exposing his sons to the PM 2.5 laced smog that passes for air in China. No. He’s a good father.

Yet he’s also a traveler and he wants to see what makes this empire tick. So he travels through China stopping in Tai an, Qingdao, Nanjing, Shanghai, Tibet, Chengdu and many other exotic, perplexing, fascinating, crowded, polluted (and less so in a few, a very few instances) cities. All the while Troost delights with his wit, perception and insight. Here’s a sample of his prose describing a trip to a traditional market;

And then, as if we were lost in some grim Humane Society nightmare, we began to wander past stalls selling frogs, chickens, eels, turtles, cats, scorpions –big and small- – dogs in cages, ducks in bags, and snakes in bowls. There were 2,000 stalls in this market, and this, apparently, was where Noah’s Ark unloaded its cargo. If you were planning a dinner party and looking to tickle your guests’ palate with a delicately prepared Cobra heart, perhaps followed by some bunny soup and sauteéd puppy, the Qingping Market is for you.

Now there is some wit and exaggeration, so if you’re looking for a literary journey with a stodgy, politically correct anthropologist, this book isn’t for you, but I’d rather travel with Troost than a disciple of Margaret Mead.

Troost experiences the full China – the majesty of the Forbidden City, come ons from the prostitutes, the cute pandas, the karaoke on the Yangste River Cruise, the constant haggling, the bandit taxi drivers, the expat pot heads in Yunnan, the cheerful Tibetans, and the hordes who’ll knock down their great grandmother to get to their assigned train seat.

He weaves in history and politics with a light touch that makes it memorable and interesting. You’ll learn a lot about bargaining and patience on the road from Troost.

Longmen Caves

West side

The Longmen Caves drew me to Henan. I’d seen photos of this UNESCO World Heritage Site and found the caves with the tens of thousands of sculptures mesmerizing and mysterious. UNESCO’s site briefly explains their historic and cultural significance stating,:

“The grottoes and niches of Longmen contain the largest and most impressive collection of Chinese art of the late Northern Wei and Tang Dynasties (316-907). These works, entirely devoted to the Buddhist religion, represent the high point of Chinese stone carving.”

Though it’s a bit difficult to get to Luoyang as there are fewer trains then for destinations like Beijing or Qingdao, my friend and I were up for the journey.

Once we got to Luoyang, getting to the caves was simple. Our hostel was on a main street and a bus that went down it took us to the caves. In fact, three public buses go to the caves so you can get there for just 1 rmb, with no hassle.

The tickets are pricey at 120 rmb. Bear in mind that it’s 40 rmb to see the Forbidden City. Towns like Luoyang or Taian charge hefty entrance fees because “we only have this one site.” Well, overseas tourists can afford it, but a lot of Chinese folks can’t. That’s a shame. I wonder if they have free days. They want to limit the crowds but some free days with reservations could work.

See how their heads are missing

Many of the figures have been vandalized either as art theft or during periods when Buddhism fell out of favor. During some eras monks would have to follow Confucian practices. Since they were celibate, the younger monks were considered “sons” to the older “fathers” and that’s how they stayed on good terms with the powerful.

I learned that the West side of the river was used by pilgrims, while the east side, where there are fewer carvings, was for monks’ exclusive rites.

Our guidebook said that some of these missing hands and faces are in major museums. We did see signs that told visitors that the rest of the statue was in Canada, Boston or New York, etc. Some museums have returned the pieces and they’re housed in Luoyang’s terrific museum.

Beijing Taxis: A Justified Rant

Eighty yuan!

There’s a lot to like about Beijing, but their taxi drivers aren’t among them. Now I grant you I’ve had a few nice taxi drivers in my trips to Beijing, but I’ve also had horrid ones. The new trick is that a taxi will stop when you flag it down, but will keep his door shut not letting you get in until he’s found out where you’re going and decided if you’ll allow him to not use his meter so that he can Shanghai you (“Beijing you” should be the new term.) After a long day waiting an hour in an unnecessarily disorganized ticket line and then walking through the magnificent Forbidden City, my companions who were over 65 (one of whom had the extra weight of a cast on her arm) needed a cab back to the hotel.

We didn’t want to go on a crowded bus so we walked to the corner past the Forbidden City and tried to get a cab. The few that stopped asked us where we were going. None, until the last one, would let us in the cab. We weren’t that far away so we weren’t desirable rides. If we’d gotten a cab at our starting point, it’d been about 25 yuan more or less.

After each rejection, I took a photo of the license plate of the offending cabbie. I’m ready to write my complaint letter. I just need to know where to send it.

On our last attempt we were able to get into the cab. I naively thought that would give us the edge we needed. Take us here with the meter. The jerk never gave in. We sat and sat. He had no cab identification whatsoever. I did take his photo for what that’s worth.

There were Chinese people who were trying to get cabs and after a conversation, outside the cab, were left on the curb. So it’s not just foreigners who’re seen as marks.

We wound up walking a while then stopping, flagging a cab and trying to convince the driver to use the meter as he’s supposed to. They all wanted over $12 for a ride that should cost $3. None of us were so tired that we were willing to be cheated on that scale. In the end we found ourselves at The Grand Hotel. We stopped for a drink and then the bell boy got us a cab. The fare was 14 yuan. A big difference. The moral of the story is use public transportation and get a hotel near the sights.