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In the 1987 film The Last Emperor, Pu Yi is removed from power and taken away from the Forbidden City. As a child, he had a pet cricket that he kept in a tiny cage in a secret compartment in his throne. Pu Yi returns as an adult and finds the (60 year old!) cricket alive and well in the secret compartment in the old throne. How did that work? Did he imagine the cricket to be alive, or was there somebody behind the scenes that maintained the old throne and its tiny resident(s) so that there was always a live cricket in the cage inside the throne? Or is there another explanation?

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    I believe crickets only live a few weeks, also it's my understanding that they reproduce sexually so unless their were a pair it couldn't be a descendent.
    – Liath
    Commented Sep 4, 2013 at 8:45
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    Are you sure this isn't just a device? Logically, there is no way a cricket could survive, as @Liath explains. It would make more sense that the cricket living symbolizes the emperor living on. Just a thought. Commented Sep 4, 2013 at 10:21
  • Unless it's REALLY REALLY cold in the throne room!
    – Liath
    Commented Sep 4, 2013 at 10:41

3 Answers 3

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Crickets are not long-lived, with a lifespan of only around three months. The use of the insect is symbolic. The cricket was kept as a pet in a cage, a situation not unlike Pu Yi's, as he was caged within the Forbidden City. The symbolism of the cricket in the final scenes could be interpreted in a multitude of ways:

  1. The release of the cricket is a metaphor for the freedom that Pu Yi enjoyed as a simple gardener unfettered by the weighty duties of Empire. It provided him with some closure.
  2. The fact that he proved to the boy that he was indeed the Son of Heaven by showing him the secret compartment, indicates a vain yearning for days of glory and power. The presence of this flicker of nostalgic yearning is confirmed by the fact that the cricket is still alive.
  3. The release of the cricket could also symbolise the release provided by death, accentuated by the sudden disappearance of Pu Yi from the room. The visit as a tourist was something of a final goodbye.
  4. By handing over the cricket to the young communist guard, the Last Emperor is handing the baton of power (and all that comes with it) to the next generation.

It's up to the audience to decide which interpretation is the best fit. But what is certain is that the scene is symbolic.

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This is only a guess, but I think the cricket (kept in a box by Henry Pu Yi) was a metaphor for China. Even though Henry Pu Yi's life was transformed by the end of the monarchy in China...and China was transformed...my interpretation of the cricket scenes at the beginning and the end of the movie is that the cricket represents China...specifically China's transformation into Red China. Even though China went through political upheavals, a devastating civil war, World War II's carnage, China survived. The cricket is China itself.

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Quite what the makers of The Last Emperor intended to symbolise by the cricket I shall leave for others to dwell on, but it's worthy of note that The Imperial City was lousy with insects and the real Pu Yi developed an interest in them at an early age, as he mentions in his autobiography, From Emperor to Citizen: The Autobiography of Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi, on which the feature film was based.

Up to the age of ten I was far more interested in a big cypress tree that grew outside the Yu Ching Palace than in my books. In summer there were always ants crawling up and down this tree. I got very interested in them and would often squat by their tree so absorbed in watching them or feeding them crumbs of cake and helping them to move their food that I would forget my own meals. Later I developed an interest in crickets and earthworms, so I had many an ancient porcelain bowl and urn brought over for me to keep them in. I was never very keen on my schoolbooks, and when reading them became intolerably tiresome my only thought was of going out to see those friends of mine.

Crickets are, as has been noted, not long-lived. Any that he found in childhood would have long since died.

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