People either obey a powerful government official or rebel. A rebellion does not typically include continued loyalty to the sovereign. The French Revolution demonstrates this point. Yet in China in the 1910s as the Qing dynasty lost power, the authority of the emperor became more complex—or maybe it had been so throughout the dynasty.
Early in the second act of the film, The Last Emperor(1987), the Manchu boy-emperor can do whatever he pleases in the Forbidden City. Behind the massive red walls, he orders one of his eunuchs to drink ink. The man dutifully complies, knowing that he will die from the poison. The boy gave the grave order simply to prove to his emperorship to his younger brother, who had been shouting, “You are not the emperor! You are not the emperor!” The order instantiates absolute power on a human scale—the sort that Thomas Hobbes prescribes for a sovereign king or assembly in the bloody seventeenth-century Europe. Even in being the final say on theological interpretation, Hobbes’ ruler, or ruling body, has absolute sovereignty.
For the last emperor—the last Manchu ruler of the Qing dynasty, which began in 1644—sovereignty is limited to the Forbidden City. Even as he is master of all therein, the Ming dynasty falls to a series of two brief republics—representative democracy in China—and a chaotic period in which warlords contended for greater influence. The teenage emperor cannot very well leave the confines of his city’s walls under such circumstance; his absolute sovereignty is thus limited.
In the scene in which the emperor makes a run for the exit, his own guards beat him to the outer door and close it before him. He orders them to open it, but they do not. Interestingly, they kneel to him and bow their heads in obedience—yet with their swords held upright in front of them. This strange mix of loyalty and refusal may strike the Western viewers as odd. In Mutiny on the Bounty, the rebellious crew-members to not pay captain Bly homage as they ignore his orders. Such a stark “black and white” dichotomy concerning power does not fit The Last Emperor. On the one hand, the very young emperor orders a servant to drink ink, yet five or ten years later the emperor’s guards refuse to re-open the outer door as per the emperor’s order. This strange comparison suggests how artificial human power can be. That is to say, sometimes the authority that some people say they have is exaggerated, even false, yet in having their way those weak birds of prey may exercise their presumed entitlement nonetheless.
For the emperor’s servant to actually drink ink just because a six or seven year-old boy gives the order as some part of a puerile sibling-rivalry suggests that the servant takes human institutionally-dependent authority too seriously. An adult of sound mind would never agree to die as part of a child’s game; yet if other adults are bent on enforcing even such an absurd manifestation of power as coming from legitimate authority, the servant may have died anyway. In other words, when the ludicrous is taken seriously by some adults, the real adults—the stronger ones—may find the lunacy all too real, for practical purposes. Hence, a kid can get away with telling a servant to drink ink even as the guards pledged to obey the emperor refuse his more substantive order to let him through, out of the world of make-believe. Sadly, that world can be all too real.