From Map to Movie: A Cinematic Cartography of China

April 4, 2022, 1:17am

by Chia Jie Lin

This essay was written by one of the curators for the Mapping the World: Perspectives from Asian Cartography exhibition as a response to The Last Emperor by Bernardo Bertolucci, part of the Orienting Paradise programme

In The Last Emperor (1987), Italian film director Bernardo Bertolucci offers an imaginative retelling of Puyi’s life, from his enthronement at the age of three and his short-lived time as the puppet emperor of the Japanese-controlled Manchukuo (Manchuria), to his life in prison and eventual release. Through Puyi’s eyes, we witness the last years of the Qing dynasty, marked by political and social upheaval, and the emergence of the People’s Republic of China.

Foreign films like Bertolucci’s are certainly not the first imaginaries of the Qing empire and the lives of the imperial family. For centuries, the geographical contours and diverse views of this “Central Kingdom” (中国, zhongguo) had been charted and depicted in visual culture. This ranged from imperial “All-Under Heaven” maps to scenic paintings as well as portraits of Qing emperors and their consorts.

We owe this wealth of material culture to Chinese artists, archivists, and cartographers, including the longstanding cultural exchanges with their European counterparts. For one, Yosefa Loshitzky and Raya Meyuhas have remarked on “Italy’s continued fascination with China”, in part driven by the latter’s ability to offer, as famed scholar of East-West cross-cultural studies Zhang Longxi once described, “a better reservoir for its dreams, fantasies, and utopias” to the West.[1]

Bertolucci, the first Western director allowed to film in the Forbidden City, follows a long line of Italian intellectuals who made it to China, establishing Sino-Italian exchanges. Among them is Venetian merchant Marco Polo (1254-1324), the first Westerner to introduce China to the West. Almost three centuries later in 1582, Italian Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) would arrive in Macau to spread Catholicism to China. In 1601, he became the first-ever European to enter the Forbidden City in the Ming capital of Beijing. As an advisor to the Wanli Emperor (r. 1572-1620), Ricci introduced trigonometry to the court, assisted in court astronomy and translated European mathematical texts into Mandarin.[2]

Ricci’s crowning achievement, however, lay in his cartographic efforts. In 1602, he worked with Chinese official Li Zhizao (1565-1630) to produce the Kunyu Wanguo Quantu (坤舆万国全图, or “Map of the Myriad Countries of the World”).[3] This groundbreaking map was the first to combine European and Chinese cartographic knowledge; it presented a new vision of the world to China in the early 1600s and left a legacy on East Asian cartography.[4] Ricci was not the first nor the last Jesuit in China. From 1552 to 1800, as many as 920 European Jesuits arrived in China, furthering knowledge exchanges between the East and West.[5]

In Orientalism (1978), Edward Said wrote that “the Orient was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences”.[6] Indeed, as early as the 14th century, China was already an exoticised object of the Western gaze, exemplified in publications like The Travels of Marco Polo (c. 1300). In Bertolucci’s own words, by the late 20th century, “China had become the front projection of our confused utopias.”[7]

From Ricci to Bertolucci, these imagined visions of China in both map and movie are similarly symbolic. They offer ways of seeing the world and both ascribe meanings to spatial realities and imaginaries that transcend time and space.

Cinematic Cartographies

“A frame for cultural mappings, film is modern cartography.”

– Giuliana Bruno, Atlas of Emotions, 2002

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the rise of photography and film offered new ways of mapping empires. Early photographers captured topographical views of landscapes, complementing the work of mapmakers. By the 1850s, photographers were employed as members of survey units, usually of a European colonial nature, while photographs were incorporated into the map production process.[8] In China, photography served similar “colonial ambitions of seeing” as in other parts of Asia. Yet it was also locally appropriated within the Chinese visual economy — as a means of “reproducing manugraphic (hand-drawn) visual productions” in the vein of Chinese traditional painting.[9]

In film, aerial views and 360-degree panoramic shots captured landscapes and locations extensively, resonating with cartography and early photography.[10] But more than that, films also function as cultural maps, each with their own set of political, emotional, and narrative symbolics. In Atlas of Emotions (2002),media scholar Giuliana Bruno has suggested that film “is a mobile map – a map of differences, a production of socio-sexual fragments and cross-cultural travel”.[11] Film transcends maps to capture more than just the cartographic; it maps out a myriad of human emotions, expression, and memories.[12]

The filmmaker, in this case, Bertolucci, doubles as a cartographer, charting and reimagining the intricate human relationships and stories within the geospatial boundaries of the Forbidden City. As the first director to film this imperial city, he is likewise its first ever “cinematic cartographer”, following, again, a long line of cartographers, both Western and Chinese, that have historically mapped the City. Bertolucci, however, is a cartographer of a different nature. What he has captured is not ‘history’, but his own imagined Forbidden City. As he notes, “I am a storyteller, I am not a historian… To history I prefer mythology. Because history starts with the truth and goes toward lies. While mythology starts from lies and fantasy and goes toward truth.”[13]

Filmic acts of mapping permeate the scenes of The Last Emperor, both within (Puyi’s world) and beyond it (in Bertolucci’s vision). The limits of Puyi’s world are mapped by his voyeuristic eunuchs and Dowager Consorts who dictate where he could go and who he could meet, as well as the camera. What strikes me is the scene of his first lesson as emperor: learning the layout of his new home. A eunuch uses a miniature model to teach him the names and functions of the different buildings in the palace – the emperor’s sleeping quarters, the location where court is held, and more – to provide the boy with his bearings, all right before bath time. Yet when young Puyi later sees his wet nurse at the door, he runs to her and cries, “I want to go home, I want to go home.”

A eunuch teaches the young emperor the layout of the Forbidden City.
image still from The Last Emperor (1987, dir. Bernardo Bertolucci), Courtesy of Hanway Films

Fast forward to his youth: a pre-teen and then adolescent Puyi traverses the Forbidden City in a variety of ways – seated on a palanquin (mostly), running from his retainers and scaling walls. His world expands when Scottish academic and tutor Reginald Johnston introduces Western imports to him. (In history, Johnston was known for being the only foreigner allowed to enter the Forbidden City’s inner court, which was reserved for the emperor’s personal use. Interestingly, this dynamic is reminiscent of Flemish Jesuit Ferdinand Verbiest’s (1623-1688) time as an official in the court of Emperor Kangxi (r. 1661-1722). Verbiest, who served as director of the Imperial Observatory from 1669 to 1688, was frequently summoned to instruct the latter in European mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy.)

Puyi (right) and his younger brother Pujie (left) scale a wall.
image still from The Last Emperor (1987, dir. Bernardo Bertolucci), Courtesy of Hanway Films
Reginald Johnston presents a bicycle to Puyi.
image still from The Last Emperor (1987, dir. Bernardo Bertolucci), Courtesy of Hanway Films

Under Johnston’s tutelage, Puyi learns to ride a Western bicycle. This newfound skill improves his mobility within the City and allows him to escape, even if briefly, from the oppressive and undivided attention of his retainers. Due to myopia, Puyi begins wearing prescribed spectacles, much to the chagrin of the eunuchs and Dowager Consorts. Yet despite these attempts to seek freedom, the emperor and we, the audience, are taught, again and again, his limited place in the world.

Curious about the outside world, a teenage Puyi rides his bicycle up to the Meridian Gate (午门, wumen). He gets only a short glimpse of the world outside for a few moments before the guards scramble to shut the doors. The bicycle is later shown to be caned by a eunuch for being “nothing but trouble”.  As Johnston describes, “The emperor has been a prisoner in his own palace since the day that he was crowned and remained a prisoner since he abdicated… he’s the only person in China who may not walk out of his own front door. I think the emperor is the loneliest boy on Earth.”[14]

Imperial guards shut the Meridian Gate, barring a teenage Puyi from leaving.
image still from The Last Emperor (1987, dir. Bernardo Bertolucci), Courtesy of Hanway Films
Beyond the walls of the Forbidden City, modernity beckons, but the emperor cannot access it.
image still from The Last Emperor (1987, dir. Bernardo Bertolucci), Courtesy of Hanway Films

Throughout the film, Puyi’s surroundings are limited by tall walls and forbidding doors that lock him in⁠—from the Forbidden City to the Japanese embassy in Beijing, then Manchukuo, and finally a prison. This sense of entrapment reaches a climax when Empress Wanrong, Puyi’s last link to his fallen dynasty, is forced to leave after her newborn child is murdered by the Japanese. Puyi chases after the car, but the gates close on him once again, trapping him in his latest prison that is the Imperial Palace of Manchukuo. Though his eunuchs have long been dismissed, his new captors are the Japanese—the puppet masters of Manchukuo.

Empress Wanrong leaves the Imperial Palace of Manchukuo.
image still from The Last Emperor (1987, dir. Bernardo Bertolucci), Courtesy of Hanway Films

A Vision of Imperial Order

The vivid depictions of the Forbidden City in The Last Emperor call to my mind a map of Beijing in the National Library’s ongoing exhibition, Mapping the World: Perspectives from Asian Cartography (10 Dec 2021 – 8 May 2022). The “Latest Complete Map of the Inner and Outer Capital of Beijing(最新北京内外首善全图, Zuixin Beijing neiwai shoushan quantu) – henceforth referred to as the “Map of Beijing” –shows a bird’s eye view of the Qing imperial capital at the turn of the 20th century. This map draws from earlier maps of the city, most notably Emperor Qianlong’s Complete Map of Beijing (乾隆京城全图, Qianlong jingcheng quantu), produced in 1750 as the earliest and most complete map of the city.[15]

Latest Complete Map of the Inner and Outer Capital of Beijing (最新北京内外首善全图), Ziqiang Publishing House (自强书局), China, c. early 20th century, lithograph, ink on paper and mounted on hanging scroll, courtesy of MacLean Collection, Illinois, USA

In 1420, Emperor Yongle (r. 1402-1424) established the Ming capital of Beijing on the site of Dadu (大都), the winter capital of the former Yuan dynasty (1279-1368).[16] As the materialisation of Yongle’s ambitious imperial vision, the Ming capital was a symbol of power, prestige, and moral redemption.[17] Beijing thus became the locus of imperial power till the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911.

During the Ming and Qing dynasties, Beijing was planned in alignment with the four cardinal directions along the north-south axis and follows the cosmic meridian line passing through the north and south celestial poles. Zoning across the city allowed access to certain groups of people while excluding others. The Inner City (内城, Neicheng) encompasses the Imperial City (皇城, Huangcheng) which surrounds the innermost Forbidden City; the Neicheng also contained the government quarters, located to the south-east of the palace complex. During the Qing dynasty, the Inner City housed the Eight Banners (八旗), under which Manchu society was organised.[18] The Outer City (外城, Waicheng) was added in the 1500s to house commercial and entertainment quarters and accommodate the area’s burgeoning population; during the Qing dynasty, it was where Han Chinese citizens lived and worked.

The Forbidden City is centred on the main north-south axial avenue at the heart of Beijing, paralleling the cosmic centrality of the emperor, or “Son of Heaven” (天子, tianzi), around which the world revolved. The Mandarin name for the Forbidden City, Zijincheng (紫禁城), translates literally to the Purple Forbidden City, referencing the celestial Purple Enclosure—a region of sky near the north celestial pole (thought to be the pivot of the sky) containing stars historically associated with the Chinese emperor.[19]

Access to the Forbidden City was barred to most subjects of the empire, earning it its moniker.[20] Only the emperor could enter any section at will, and government officials and even the imperial family were permitted limited access.[21] From the 15th to 20th centuries, the layout of the palace complex remained largely constant.[22]

The urban architecture of Beijing conjured a vision of imperial order and conveyed the political might of the emperor, who sat in the seat of power at the heart of empire. Likewise, historical maps of the city convey the same elements of architectural and political symbolism.

The Map of Beijing depicts the Inner City at the top and the Outer City at the bottom. Every alley (胡同, hutong) is labelled by its name, offering a detailed snapshot of the city at the point of the map’s production. On closer look, we see that the Forbidden City is depicted at the very heart of Beijing—mirroring the emperor’s place at the centre of the empire and the cosmos.

Map detail showing a close-up of the Forbidden City within the Imperial City, which is located within the Inner City. To the south is the Outer City.
Latest Complete Map of the Inner and Outer Capital of Beijing, Ziqiang Publishing House, China, c. late 19th century, lithograph, ink on paper and mounted on hanging scroll, courtesy of MacLean Collection, Illinois, USA.

The Last Emperor: Centre of what world?

The eunuchs pay their respects to a newly crowned Emperor Puyi at the Palace of Heavenly Purity (乾清宫, Qianqinggong). On the Map of Beijing, this location corresponds to the Gongyuan (宫院), indicated at the northern end of the Forbidden City.
image still from The Last Emperor (1987, dir. Bernardo Bertolucci), Courtesy of Hanway Film
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The emperor’s centrality emerges as well in The Last Emperor. Puyi takes centre stage in every scene and “commands attention no matter where he is”.[23] When he approaches within the Forbidden City, his servants avert their gazes and turn their bodies away, reflecting his imperial dominance. Decades later in prison, a dethroned Puyi is still kowtowed to and served by his fellow inmates.

But as cultural critic Rey Chow puts it, Puyi’s centrality is the product of a “doubled gaze”. His command of attention is passive, “indistinguishable from the experience of being watched and followed everywhere” and reflects “the absolutely forlorn inner existence of a man whose outer environment bespeaks the most extraordinary visual splendor”.[24] Bertolucci’s re-imagination of the Qing emperor differs in this regard from Chinese cartographic efforts (e.g. the Map of Beijing) which conjure a vision of imperial order that asserts the emperor’s political power.

Interestingly then, the Map of Beijing contains a historical thread explored in The Last Emperor: that of the waning political heart of the Qing empire. By the late 19th century, China’s defeat to the British in the Opium Wars (1839-1842), peasant revolts and economic crises, among other factors, had precipitated the decline of the Qing dynasty and its imperial order.[25] The Map of Beijing, produced during Emperor Guangxu’s (光緒, r. 1875-1908) rule, reveals fractures to this imagined imperial order and reflects the import of Western modernity, exemplified by the presence of an embassy zone (北京使馆区) close to the Forbidden City, as well as railway tracks and ticketing offices. The embassy zone was established in 1901, a year after the Eight-Nation Alliance – comprising Germany, Japan, Russia, Britain, France, the United States, Italy, and Austria-Hungary – invaded northern China, including Beijing. The goal of the military coalition was to suppress Chinese attacks against foreign legations in Beijing during the anti-colonial and anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901). The presence of the embassy zone on the map allows us to date it to the early 20th century. The embassies depicted include those who participated in the invasion as well as other countries like the then-ascendant Empire of Japan.

Map detail showing the embassy zone (middle-right) located south of East Chang’an Street, and two railway ticketing offices (火车卖票房) near the bottom-left. In the film, as in reality, the Japanese embassy is the first place that Puyi goes following his expulsion from the Forbidden City in 1924.
Latest Complete Map of the Inner and Outer Capital of Beijing, Ziqiang Publishing House, China, c. late 19th century, lithograph, ink on paper and mounted on hanging scroll, courtesy of MacLean Collection, Illinois, USA.

Like Puyi, Emperor Guangxu himself was a disenfranchised emperor, having had his power curtailed by Empress Dowager Cixi (慈禧太后) throughout his reign. After failing to stage a coup in 1898, he was put under house arrest and effectively removed from power. Guangxu is popularly believed to have been poisoned to death by Cixi, which in turn paved the way for Puyi’s ascension in 1908.

Plural Cartographies

The Map of Beijing’s earliest predecessor, Qianlong’s Complete Map of Beijing, is not free from Western influence. It was produced in 1750 by Chinese official Hai Wang (海望), court painter Shen Yuan (沈源) and yet another Italian Jesuit brother – Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766).[26] Castiglione served as a court painter for three consecutive Qing emperors – Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong. Also known as Lang Shining (郞世宁), the missionary combined European painting styles with Chinese traditions to paint landscapes and imperial portraits. From Matteo Ricci to Giuseppe Castiglione, the continued contributions of European Jesuits to Ming and Qing maps of China reveal pluralistic perspectives that have shaped Chinese cartographic traditions.

Yet the Western contribution in these cases merely informed, and did not dictate, Ming and Qing world views. Up till the 20th century, Chinese emperors and mapmakers continued to imagine the world on their own terms – a world where China was the Central Kingdom (中国, zhongguo) – in “All Under Heaven” maps of the empire. Likewise, maps of Beijing made by Chinese and Manchu mapmakers were products of self-representation, serving administrative functions, and communicating political power.

In contrast, Bertolucci’s own gaze appears in full force in The Last Emperor. As Rey Chow has critiqued, China is cast “in a feminized, ethnicised and exoticised position in relation to a Western gaze”.[27] The gradual erasure of women, feminisation of the Forbidden City and by association, the symbolic castration of Puyi, as well as voyeurism of the eunuchs and Dowager Consorts, among other orientalised elements, show how Puyi’s life is reframed through a Western lens. China, bound up in the persona of Puyi, becomes the primitive “Other” that is feminised, scrutinised, and coerced into submission. The film is a mapping of Bertolucci’s own aesthetics of desire; the Italian auteur explains the reasons for his interest in producing the film:

“First of all, the challenge of remaining Italian in China. I think it is a very Italian movie, The Last Emperor. It is very operatic, like Italian opera, and I think it one [sic] of my more Italian movies. I am a bit fed up with reality in my country – even here, everywhere in the West, and so I go looking for a cultural atmosphere which has not been completely invaded and polluted and suffocated and killed by consumerism monoculture. And that’s why China is okay.”[28]

From the map to the movie, these imagined visions of China thus carry their own set of symbolisms. Despite their historical resonances, these re-imaginations ultimately depart from each other. In contrast to maps like the Map of Beijing, which reflect a Chinese world view, Bertolucci and The Last Emperor are, borrowing Zhang Longxi’s words, “obviously not concerned with China per se but with learning about the self in the West”.[29]

The writer thanks Chung Sang Hong for his valuable inputs.


About the Writer

Jie Lin is an assistant curator at the National Library Board, Singapore. She has co-curated Human x Nature: Environmental Histories of Singapore (2021) and Mapping the World: Perspectives of Asian Cartography (2021)During her time at Yale-NUS College, she majored in Anthropology with a minor in Global Antiquity (a fancier way of saying ancient history). Her research interests include Chinese popular religions and subaltern histories of Singapore.


The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.


Footnotes

[1] Loshitzky, Yosefa, Raya Meyuhas, and Bertolucci. “‘Ecstasy of Difference’: Bertolucci’s ‘The Last Emperor.’” Cinema Journal 31, no. 2 (1992): 26. https://doi.org/10.2307/1225142.

[2] Fairfield University, “Matteo Ricci, S.J. (1552 to 1610) and his contributions to science in China,” Scientists, accessed 8 March 2022, http://www.faculty.fairfield.edu/jmac/sj/scientists/ricci.htm

[3] University of Minnesota Libraries, “1602 World Map of Matteo Ricci,” Archives and Special Collections, James Ford Bell Library, accessed 8 March 2022, https://www.lib.umn.edu/collections/special/bell/ricci

[4] A Japanese version of this map, known as the Konyo Bankoku Zenzu, is on show at Mapping the World: Perspectives from Asian Cartography (10 Dec 2021 – 8 May 2022)at the National Library Building.

[5] Mungello, David E. The great encounter of China and the West, 1500–1800. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2012, p. 37

[6] Said, Edward. “Introduction,” in Orientalism (Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1978), 1.

[7] As cited in Loshitzky, Yosefa, Raya Meyuhas, and Bertolucci. “‘Ecstasy of Difference’: Bertolucci’s ‘The Last Emperor.’” Cinema Journal 31, no. 2 (1992): 26. https://doi.org/10.2307/1225142.

[8] Nick Dykes, “Maps and photography: a brief history, part 1,” British Library Maps and views blog, accessed 8 March 2022, https://blogs.bl.uk/magnificentmaps/2020/06/maps-and-photography-a-brief-history-part-1.html

[9] Moore, Oliver. “Photography in China: a global medium locally appropriated.” IIAS newsletter 44 (2007): 6-7.

[10] Sébastien Caquard & D. R. Fraser Taylor, “What is Cinematic Cartography?,” The Cartographic Journal, 46 (2009):1, 6, DOI: 10.1179/000870409X430951

[11] Bruno, Giuliana, Atlas of emotion: Journeys in art, architecture, and film, Verso, 2002, p. 71

[12] Sébastien Caquard & D. R. Fraser Taylor, “What is Cinematic Cartography?,” The Cartographic Journal, 46 (2009):1, 6, DOI: 10.1179/000870409X430951

[13] As cited in Chow, Rey. “Seeing Modern China: TOWARD A THEORY OF ETHNIC SPECTATORSHIP.” In Eleftheriotis, Dimitris, and Gary Needham, eds. Asian cinemas: A reader and guide, p. 180. University of Hawaii Press, 2006.

[14] Emphasis in italics is my own. 

[15] “乾隆京城全图,” Baidu百科, accessed 18 March 2022, https://baike.baidu.com/item/乾隆京城全图/10230528

[16] Campbell, Aurelia, What the Emperor Built: Architecture and Empire in the Early Ming (University of Washington Press, 2020), pp. 3. Prior to becoming Yongle’s capital, Beijing had served as the capital city of previous Chinese dynasties, such as the Khitan Liao (906-1125), the Jurchen Jin (1115-1234), and the Mongol Yuan (1279-1368).

[17] Ibid, pp. 21.

[18] For more information, please read Zhu, Jian Fei. “A CELESTIAL BATTLEFIELD: THE FORBIDDEN CITY AND BEIJING IN LATE IMPERIAL CHINA.” AA Files, no. 28 (1994): 48–60. http://www.jstor.org/stable/29543922.

[19] Baratta, Norma Camilla, and Giulio Magli. “The Role of Astronomy and Feng Shui in the Planning of Ming Beijing.” Nexus Network Journal 23, no. 3 (2021): 772.

[20] ‘Forbidden City’, Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Forbidden-City, 5 October, 2021.

[21] Campbell, What the Emperor Built, 21

[22] Zhu, “A CELESTIAL BATTLEFIELD: THE FORBIDDEN CITY AND BEIJING IN LATE IMPERIAL CHINA”, 51.

[23] Chow, Rey. “Seeing Modern China: TOWARD A THEORY OF ETHNIC SPECTATORSHIP.” In Eleftheriotis, Dimitris, and Gary Needham, eds. Asian cinemas: A reader and guide, p. 175. University of Hawaii Press, 2006.

 AL CHINA”, 51.

[24] Chow, Rey. “Seeing Modern China: TOWARD A THEORY OF ETHNIC SPECTATORSHIP.” In Eleftheriotis, Dimitris, and Gary Needham, eds. Asian cinemas: A reader and guide, p. 175. University of Hawaii Press, 2006.

[25] Harris, The Decline and Collapse of the Qing Dynasty, Owlcation https://owlcation.com/humanities/Decline-and-the-Collapse-of-the-Qing-Dynasty

[26] Koainkahokurenrakubuseimukyokuchousashitsu. “乾隆京城全図.” NII “Digital Silk Road” / Toyo Bunko. doi:10.20676/00000211.

[27] Chow, Rey, “Where Do We Go From Here: The Global Visual Economy,” Decolonizing Culture: Where do we go from here?, Issue 199, 31 October 2018, Frieze, accessed 18 March 2022, https://www.frieze.com/article/where-do-we-go-here-global-visual-economy

[28] Baschiera, S, “From Beijing with love: The global dimension of Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor,” Journal of Italian Cinema & Media Studies, 2(3) (2014), 399-415. https://doi.org/10.1386/jicms.2.3.399_1

[29] Sklarew, B.H. & Spitz, E.H. (1998) ‘Interview with Bernardo Bertolucci’. In Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor: Multiple Takes, Sklarew, B.H. et al (eds.) Detroit: Wayne State University Press, p. 49.


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