Da taijian Li Lianying (Li Lianying, the Imperial Eunuch) (1991)





Director:     Zhuangzhuang Tian.

Starring:     Wen Jiang (Li Lianying), Xiaoqing Liu (Empress Dowager Ci Xi), Fan Xu (Concubine Zhen), Xu Zhu (Prince Chun).

Li Lianying was a eunuch who ran the household staff  in the waning days of the Empress Dowager of the Qing Dynasty; under reign of Emperor Guāngx (aka Zai Tian), 875-908



Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film.

There are many untold stories in the Forbidden City.  This is one told by a man who lived inside it."

1893.   Changchun Palace.  The Empress Dowager says that the Emperor has been sick for a long time.  If he dies, what will they do?  Eunuch Li Lianying says that the Empress is six months pregnant.  And it is said that some imperial concubines are pregnant too. The Empress Dowager says but it is not known if these women can give birth to a boy.  Even if a boy is born, it takes many years for a boy to grow old enough to be a king.  Lianying suggests that they ask the Queen to run the country.  The Empress asks what if Empress Tongzhi comes to the throne?  The woman says, on the other hand, she is the Grand Empress Dowager.  Ordinarily she would be retired to spend her last years in some hidden palace.  The Empress Dowager gets up to leave.

Lianying says he has some more ideas to share.  He says he thinks it best to choose a successor from the Emperor's generation to reign behind the curtain.  He adds:  "The Qing dynasty can't live without you."  And this would be a great service to the people and the nation.  The Empress Dowager did listen to him, but right now she dismisses him and the servant leaves the room. 

The servants tells the other servants that the Empress Dowager has gone to bed. 

1874.  Yangxin Palace.  A mother has lost a son.  The mother recalls some good memories of her son and cries.  Today they have to select a new emperor.   The mother says she hopes the new emperor will run the country as Emperor Tongzhi did.  The new emperor should have a strong name such as Guangxu. Another woman says she wants to choose Zai Tian, son of Prince Chun Yixuan, as emperor.  One of the advisers, a man, tells the Empress Dowager that he thinks it would be a mistake to chose Zai Tian as emperor because the fellow is too young.  The Empress Dowager defends Zai Tian as a possible selection.  She then asks elder sister.  She agrees. 

1874.  Taihe Palace.  A little boy walks up to the throne and sits down.  Very soon he wants to leave and a servant has to hold him back.

1910.  Qingtung Mausoleum. An old man, Li Lianying, smokes a pipe as a young fellow sleeps in a bed.   Li remembers back to an embarrassing event at his job.

Flashback.  1885.  North China Navy.  An instructor tells His Lord that what they are looking at is the sea chart of the Qing Dynasty.  The three important coastal defenses are at Weihai, Yantai and Lvshun.  In these years Japanese invaders always ship to China's coastal defense areas. 

Liangying pampers an old man, Prince Chun.  The man laughs and says that Lianying is an imperial envoy sent by the Empress Dowager. 

Lord Bo tells Liangying that the navy review for tomorrow has them setting sail from Tianjin.  Lianying and His Lord will take a break in Longkou.  Lianying interrupts the news bearer to say that His Lord won't be going tomorrow.  His Lord gets very seasick. 

Lord Bo asks Lianying if he has any news from the Empress Dowager for him?  Lianying says the Emperor will be getting married in two years.  At that time the Emperor will be running national affairs.  The Empress Dowager will have to get a retirement place.  She would like to have repaired the Shanhai.  That's why she sent His Lord and himself to the navy here.  He is to tell the navy that the court has insufficient money, so she wants to draw on half of the annual military fee paid by the navy.  Lord Bo explains that the Imperial Chinese Navy has just taken shape and is still very small.  He says if half of the the investment fund for the navy is taken away, it's a major blow to the navy. 

Liangying explains that Your Lord is wrong.  The navy should be grateful that the Empress Dowager is investing in the navy.  And she hardly ever asks for help.  He goes on to say that they can't disappoint the Empress Dowager. 

After dealing with the navy matter, Lianying finds himself accused of  interfering with politics and taking bribes.  So Lianying will be deposed and will wait for the trial.  Lianying asks Prince Chun for help, but the Prince just ignores him. 

The Empress Dowager inquires about Lianying's behavior as observed by Duke Chungin.  The Duke says Lianying was on his best behavior.  Well, what about the charges that the man interfered with the military and politics and disguised himself as a duke?  The Duke says he can't remember Lianying ever disguising himself as a duke.  The young Emperor says these things were misunderstandings, but what about the bribery?  The Duke says even if the man was interested in accepting bribes, he never had any time to even be available to be bribed.  The Empress Dowager says and yet the scholars find faults and want to frame loyal servants. 

Two young female servants bring Manager Li some snacks as per the instructions of the Empress Dowager.  Manager Li says he doesn't want anything.   The women ask him to eat the food or what will they say to the Empress Dowager?  Li still does not want to take the snack.  And now the Empress Dowager herself comes into the room.  Li gets on his hands and knees to receiver her.  She observes that he has been reading and takes a look at the book.  She then says this day is the day of his 40th birthday.  What will he do to celebrate?  Li says he forgot about his birthday.

The Empress Dowager says that Manager Li has been wronged in recent days, so she has ordered the chef to fix Li's favorite snack.  The snack is now brought in.  And a decree is read:  "Li Lianying, general manager of the rear palace went to patrol the navy with Chunqin Duke.  He works day and night for the Qing dynasty.  He is an example for servants in the palace.  He resumes his post and is given a reward of 500 taels."  Manager Li starts crying. 

Back to 1910.  And now as an old man Li start crying again recalling the memory of the day he received a special decree in his honor.

1898.  Changchun Palace.  The Emperor comes to speak with the Empress Dowager.  He wants to talk about the ideas of men like Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao dealing with constitutional reform.  They have a newspaper that advocates bringing in western trends to enrich China and bring prosperity to the people. 

Juhua, niece of Manager Li, comes over to the royals and the Empress Dowager introduces her to the Emperor.  The Empress Dowager explains to Li that even if the Emperor likes Juhua, she can not be selected as an imperial concubine. Li says he knows that his niece is too low to marry the Emperor, but he was hoping the Dowager Empress could arrange an engagement to a duke perhaps.  The problem is that Juhua is not from an imperial clan.  The Empress Dowager says Li Juhua will stay with her, but she doesn't like depriving Juhua of a chance to be married. 

Li is very upset and says he was shameless in approaching the Empress Dowager about the welfare of Juhua.  And now he feels he has hurt Juhua's chances for a higher position in life.  "I have ruined your whole life."  Juhua is not nearly as upset as her uncle.  She says it's a great blessing just to be here in the palace and she never dreamed of becoming an imperial concubine. In fact, she says she would like to stay here in the palace without marriage for life. 

Li has a relative that has come to ask for some help.  The harvest crop has been lost. The man says he wants his eight year old boy to become an eunuch living in the palace.  Li gets very angry and has the man and his son thrown out.  Juhua tells servant Xiaosan to give the two 50 taels and then have them leave. 

1898.  Jingfu Court.  The Empress Dowager performs a dance with a sword, while a white woman plays a violin for her. 

A message upsets the Empress Dowager.  She tells Li that Guangxu wants to kill her.  Li says he finds that hard to believe.  The Empress Dowager tells him to contact Yuan Shikai immediately and ask him to come to Beijing as soon as possible. Furthermore, she wants to go back to the Forbidden City. 

Li tells the Emperor that the Empress Dowager has gone back to the palace.  And it's Li who has to tell the Emperor:  "You can't leave the Forbidden City now.  Her Empress Dowager ordered me to keep you here." 

1899.  Xianyuan Palace.  Li announces to the Emperor that by orders of the Empress Dowager the Emperor is confined here to reflect on his guilt.  The Emperor protests, but Li just backs away from the Emperor.  Li walks across the bridge and his men then tear down the last section of the bridge so the Emperor cannot leave his little island. 

Li has a very unpleasant task.  Wearing a glove, he has to keep slapping a woman in the face until she says she is guilty of intervening in politics, putting the Summer Palace in danger, wanting to murder Her Empress Dowager, acting against family rules, dressing up like a man and walking along the streets, taking photos in imperial robes and disguising herself as the emperor and being lawless.  The woman says she is guilty after 39 slaps.  Now the Empress Dowager tells Li to find out the names of those informers working for His Majesty.  In addition, he is find out who is linked with the Tan Sitong's Strong Study Association and get the names of the imperial maids and eunuchs who propose revolution.  All these people will be flogged to death. 

Li has to pronounce the death sentence on a small courtyard filled with people.  The condemned will now be beaten with sticks until they are dead.  Li does not like seeing this. 

The doctor visits the Emperor.  He can find nothing really wrong with the Emperor and he tells the Emperor he will get better.  The Emperor replies:  " I will never get better, thank you very much."  After the doctor leaves, the Emperor asks Li if he can arrange a meeting for him and concubine Zhen?  Li says he dare not. The young Emperor cries over being so isolated and begs for a meeting with Zhen.  Li cries and says he will find a way out for him. 

By boat Li and another man row the Emperor over to see concubine Zhen. 

1879.  Li Lianying's House.  Li gets married.  The bride is placed onto his bed while he lays there.  He gets very angry at his bride.  He hits her and calls her all kinds of curse words.  He says he wants to know what motivates her to marry a man who is asexual.  He says he doesn't ask for sex.  He has been deprive of his sexual organ.  The woman cries and says she has been forced to do this.  He says he's a miserable eunuch and she is shameless. 

1900.  Changchun Palace.  Li brings news that the foreigners have invaded into Lanfang.  The Empress studies a map.  She then sends Li to fetch Zhen for her.  Li brings Zhen and then is excused.  The empress in private tells Zhen that the foreigners are invading the capital and they will take it over.  So, they will have to find a safe place for them to go to.  Zhen now starts talking about the Emperor and what will happen to him.  The Empress Dowager says Zhen is bordering on the crime of interference with politics.  And for that crime she can be put to death.  Now Zhen lets it be known that she is three months pregnant.  The Empress now wants to know how and when did Zhen get pregnant.  The Empress Dowager now gives the order to dump this mad woman Zhen into the well. 

Zhen pleads not to be thrown down the well, but it is hopeless.  She is dropped head first through a very narrow opening into the well. 

Li tells the Empress Dowager that the foreigners are getting very close.  In the court the ground is littered with gun shells.  She tells Li to get the members of her family ready to leave the palace. 

The Dowager Empress dresses down to get away from the Forbidden City.  She tells her people that after she leaves everything will be left in charge of General Yu Jinan.  She then says she will return soon.  She and the Emperor and the others are taken out of the Forbidden City by cart. 

The Empress Dowager has to sleep on hay in the barn with the others. 

The next morning they travel on. 

The next day they have a long conversation with a great grandmother who is 107 years old and her family

1908.  Paiyun Palace.  The Empress Dowager does return. 

The Empress Dowager is very ill.  The Emperor comes over to see her even though he is very sick too.  He gets to the end of his bridge and here comes the Empress Dowager. They look at each other from afar. 

The Emperor dies in his bed. 

After having some food to eat, Li carries the Empress Dowager on his back in piggy-back ride fashion.  She remembers how Li carried her over a very shallow river to the opposite bank of the river.  She wants to take a long piggy-back ride and Li obliges.  While still on Li's back the Empress Dowager dies. 

1909.  Chuxiu Palace.  Li asks to be able to retire now.  He is given permission to retire. 

Li is now very old.  He goes for a walk.  While walking he falls down and dies. 


Good movie.  For an eunuch, Li's life serving the Empress Dowager was a full one.  It was a very exciting time with key events happening such as the First Sino-Japanese War, the 100 Days' Reform, the coup, The Boxer Rebellion and the foreign take over of the Forbidden City.  A lot of death sentences were handed down by the Empress Dowager even sometimes for rather minor infractions. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:


Qing Dynasty

1875-1908  --  reign of Guāngx or Zai Tian.  He was the 11th Qing Emperor.  He ruled, under Empress Dowager Cixi's influence from 1889 to 1898.

1894  --  outbreak of the First Sino-Japanese War. During the war, despite being emperor, Guangxu was often by-passed by the courtiers who instead went to the empress dowager. China suffered an humiliating defeat.

late 1897 --  the Germans used the murders of two priests in Shandong Province as a pretext to occupy Jiaozhou Bay, prompting a "scramble for concessions" by the other foreign powers.

1898 (June)  --  Guangxu began the Hundred Days' Reform, aimed at a series of sweeping political, legal and social changes.  Some historians think that the emperor is the first Chinese leader to implement policies of modernization and capitalism.

1898  --  Cixi launched a coup, after which the Emperor was put under house arrest until his death.

1900 (August 14)  --  during the Boxer Rebellion, Emperor Guangxu, along with his aunt, his empress and some other courtiers, fled Beijing as foreign troops marched on the city to relieve the legations which had been besieged.

1908 (November 14)  --  Guangxu dies at age 37, a day before the death of Empress Dowager Cixi. Empress Dowager Longyu reigned in cooperation with Prince Chun.




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