You may have heard that "Twilight in the Forbidden City" is the book that Bernardo Bertolucci's movie "The Last Emperor" is "based" on. If at all, however, this is true only with regard to the first part of the movie (the book was published in 1934, just as Pu-Yi had ascended the throne of "Manchukuo"), and actually, the book should not be read or understood in this limited sense at all. Primarily, this is the personal account of a British diplomat and scholar of the Chinese history, society and culture who, at some point in his career, was appointed to the (for a westerner: virtually unprecedented) position of tutor to China's last monarch. True, those who have seen Bertolucci's movie will recognize individual events described in this book, such as the emperor's birthday and wedding ceremonies (Bertolucci obviously used Johnston's description of the birthday rituals as a model for the spectacular coronation ceremonies at the beginning of the movie – as Johnston had not yet been made tutor at that point, he could not give an eyewitness account of that event), and Johnston's constant battle with the corrupt and reactionary palace eunuchs, as best exemplified by the fight over the emperor's glasses (without which Pu-Yi arguably would have lost eyesight before long).
But Johnston's book is not merely a biography of the emperor. Rather, it is an account of the last period of the Manchu empire, and of the Chinese society in the second half of the 19th and the first decades of the 20th century. In addition to the author's personal impressions gained inside and outside the imperial palace, up to and including Pu-Yi's dramatic flight from the Forbidden City in 1924, which ultimately ended in the Japanese legation, the book also renders Johnston's view of the role of the major foreign powers at the time (Japan, Russia, the U.S., Germany and, of course, his native England), and the emperor's predecessors and their politics, such as the powerful empress dowager Tzu-Hsi (named "the Venerable Buddha"), the reform attempts of the unfortunate emperor Kuang-Hsü (which earned him, at the age of 28, lifelong humiliation, imprisonment and ultimately death in a tiny and windowless building within the imperial palaces), the Boxer Movement, and the brief and likewise unlucky interlude of the reign of Pu-Yi's father (Kuang-Hsü's brother), Prince Chun.