In 1950, Puyi has been kept in custody for five years, since the Red Army captured him during the Soviet Union entry into the Pacific War in 1945. In the recently established People’s Republic of China, Puyi arrives as a political prisoner and war criminal at the Fushun Prison. Soon after his arrival, Puyi attempts suicide, but is quickly revived and told he must stand trial.
42 years earlier, in 1908, a toddler Puyi is summoned to the Forbidden City by the dying Empress Dowager Cixi. After telling him that the previous emperor had died earlier that day, with her last words, Cixi tells Puyi that he will be the next emperor. After his coronation, Puyi, frightened by his new surroundings, repeatedly expresses his wish to go home, which is denied. Despite having scores of palace eunuchs and maids to wait on him, his only real friend is his wet nurse, Ar Mo, who accompanied him and his father to the palace on the Empress Dowager’s summons.
The next section of the film continues the series of chronological flashbacks showing Puyi’s early life intermixed with his imprisonment in the 1950s. His upbringing is confined entirely to the imperial palace, which he is not allowed to leave. When he is about ten, he is visited by his younger brother, Pujie, who tells him he is no longer Emperor and that China is a republic; that same day, Ar Mo is made to leave him. In 1919, the kindly Scotsman Reginald Johnston is appointed as Puyi’s tutor and gives him a Western-style education. Puyi becomes increasingly desirous to leave the Forbidden City. Johnston, wary of the courtiers’ expensive lifestyle, convinces Puyi that the best way of achieving this is by marrying; Puyi subsequently weds Wanrong, with Wenxiu as a secondary consort.
Now the master of his own home, Puyi sets about reforming the Forbidden City, including expelling the thieving palace eunuchs. However, in 1924, he himself is expelled from the palace and exiled to Tianjin (then spelled Tientsin) following the Beijing Coup. He leads a decadent life as a playboy and Anglophile, and when the Japanese invade Manchuria he sides with them. During this time Wenxiu divorces him, but Wanrong remains and eventually succumbs to opium addiction. In 1934 the Japanese crown him “Emperor” of their puppet state of Manchukuo, though his supposed political supremacy is undermined at every turn. He remains nominal ruler of the region until his capture by the Red Army at the end of the Second World War.
Under the “Communist re-education programme” for political prisoners, Puyi is coerced by his interrogators to formally renounce his forced collaboration with the Japanese invaders for war crimes during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Finally, after a heated discussion with the camp commandant and upon watching a film detailing the wartime atrocities committed by the Japanese, Puyi recants his previous stance and is considered rehabilitated by the government; he is subsequently set free in 1959.
The final minutes of the film show a flash-forward to 1967 during the rise of Mao Zedong’s cult of personality and the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. By now, Puyi has become a simple gardener who lives a peasant proletarian existence. On his way home from work, he happens upon a Red Guard parade, complete with children playing pentatonic music on accordions en masse and dancers who dance the rejection of landlordism by the Communists. His prison camp commander, who helped him greatly during his rehabilitation, is forced to wear a dunce cap and a sandwich board bearing punitive slogans, and is one of the political prisoners now punished as an anti-revolutionary in the parade.
Puyi later visits the Forbidden City as an ordinary tourist. He meets an assertive little boy wearing the red scarf of the Pioneer Movement. The young Communist orders Puyi to step away from the throne. However, Puyi proves to the boy that he was indeed the Son of Heaven, proceeding to approach the throne. Behind it, Puyi finds a 60-year-old pet cricket that he was given by palace official Chen Baochen on his coronation day and gives it to the child. Amazed by the gift, the boy turns to talk to Puyi, but the emperor has disappeared.
In 1987, a tour guide is leading a group through the palace. Stopping in front of the throne, the guide sums up Puyi’s life in a few, brief sentences, concluding that he died in 1967.