The fall of the Qing Dynasty and the forced conversion of the “Son of Heaven” into an ordinary citizen has been a popular topic for biopics. But while films typically begin in the palace, the drama Citizen opens in the Fushun War Criminals Management Center.
On the stage, Aisin-Gioro Puyi is shown falling into illusions where he still believes himself the emperor of China. His imagined dialogues with the former concubines Wan Rong and Wen Xiu reflect a profound inner struggle to adapt to his new identity as a citizen of New China.
“It’s a setting that helps the audience probe deep into the character of Puyi,” said Feng Yuanzheng, the actor who plays the emperor in middle age. “Puyi is a role that is virtual on stage but real in history.”
“I’ve been reading Puyi’s own writings and watching TV adaptations of his life since middle school. There are huge differences between the stories on the big screen and his own experience,” Feng said. “Stories about the last emperor rarely give us insight into his inner feelings. That’s why Citizen is innovative in exploring and expressing this part of history.”
The second most important figure in the play is Wen Xiu, the first imperial concubine to “divorce” an emperor in Chinese history.
“Wen is not an easy character to play,” Feng said. “She is a noble young lady from a traditional background who is entranced with personal freedom and independence. Actress Mao Junjie does an amazing job showing how her powerful character butts heads with feudal tradition.”
The Beijing Times said Citizen leaves a stronger impression of Puyi’s life than any other historical drama. “Its scenes of Puyi being given a common name by Chairman Mao and an old lady kowtowing when he shows up at the People’s Congress reflect China’s stages of social development,” it wrote.
But for all the praise, Citizen has been mired in controversy.
Jin Youzhi, the last emperor’s 86-year-old brother formerly known as Aisin-Gioro Puren, penned a letter of letter of protest against Wang Qingxiang, the historian who consulted on Citizen’s script.
“The way Wang has chosen to depict myself and my brother has almost no factual basis,” Jin wrote.
“Moreover, some of the pictures and photos he provided to the publishers were borrowed from my family and published without permission.”
But while the old generation quarrels over alleged copyright infringement, viewers seem to be enjoying one of the most immersive stage depictions of the end of imperial China.
Since its premier on September 18, Citizen has been winning high reputation from the audience.
Through October 7
22 Wangfujing Dajie, Dongcheng