During filming of the immense coronation scene in the Forbidden City, Queen Elizabeth II was in Beijing on a state visit. The production was given priority over her by the Chinese authorities and she was therefore unable to visit the Forbidden City.
According to director of photography Vittorio Storaro in Visions of Light (1992), he used the phases of light to represent different stages of the emperor's life. Red, the color of the blood that starts the flashback and the opening doors it cuts to, represents birth. Orange is the warm color of his family and the forbidden city. Yellow is the color of the emperor's identity and the sun. Green, the color of the tutor's bike and hat, represents knowledge. The forbidden city only has the first three colors because it is a limited portion of reality.
Over 1,000 schoolchildren were brought in to play Red Guards in the 1967 Cultural Revolution march. Bernardo Bertolucci had problems instilling the right amount of anger in them, as none of them knew of the attitudes of the Cultural Revolution.
Most of the exterior and interior scenes of Puyi's mansion during his years as a puppet emperor for the Japanese, most notably the "Coronation Ball" scene, were filmed at the Imperial Palace in Changchun, where he lived from 1934 to 1945. The mansion is now a museum.
The first feature film granted permission by the Chinese government to be filmed in the Forbidden City. A documentary produced and directed by Lucy Jarvis for NBC Films Ltd. in 1973 named "The Forbidden City" was the first ever film permitted to film within the Forbidden City.
Bernardo Bertolucci proposed the film to the Chinese government as one of two possible projects - the other was "La Condition Humaine" by André Malraux. The Chinese preferred this project, and made no restrictions on the content.
In real life, when Puyi met Empress Cixi, he screamed in terror. He later described seeing an eerie yellow curtain with an ugly thin face behind it. She was displeased, and had one of her servants offer him candy. When he screamed even louder, she had him taken away. She died the next day.
Two thousand soldiers had the front of their heads shaved in order to play Qing banner men. They were persuaded to do so by their officers who convinced them that it show friendship to the Italians and British. They were given a bonus of $3.50.
Hairdresser Giancarlo De Leonardis imported 2,200 pounds of human hair to make the elaborate wigs needed for the court. For the coronation scenes, his staff spent 10 days training 50 Chinese to pin wigs and plaits onto 2,000 extras in under two hours.
The 250-acre Forbidden City, built in the early 15th century with high walls up to 50 feet thick, provided an excellent soundproof filming environment, although the Chinese crews weren't used to making films with live sound.
An Italian chef was brought in to cook for the international cast. He brought with him 22,000 bottles of Italian mineral water, 450 pounds of Italian coffee, 250 gallons of olive oil and 4,500 pounds of pasta.
The scene depicting the buildings containing imperial treasures that were burned down refers to the burning of the Palace of Established Happiness, a fire that was most likely set to keep the emperor from learning how much treasure had already been stolen. The scene depicting the emperor playing tennis refers to this same area, which was turned into just such a recreational ground after the fire.
Ying Ruocheng, who played the governor of the prison in the movie, is a Manchurian himself. His grandmother's family name is also Aisin-Gioro, she's a member of the royal family of Qing dynasty. Ying is actually a Manchurian name, simplified from Heseri, which also is an important family in Qing's history. At the time when the movie was made, Ying was the deputy minister of the culture ministry of Chinese government.
When Johnston is having lunch with the emperor, one of the eunuchs informs Johnston that he has been granted by the emperor the right to be carried in his own chair. According to Johnston's "Twilight in the Forbidden City," this right is actually quite distinctive. After the revolution that essentially removed the emperor from power, the north gate (or Shin-Wu Min) of the Forbidden City became the main gate through which courtiers and others expecting to have direct access to the royal household would pass. (Formerly they would pass through the south gate.) The western entrance (of the three entrances comprising the north gate) was where they entered. Most people who were to have any business in the royal areas of the city were expected to be on foot as they were entering sacred territory. However, some were granted the right to enter on horseback, and still others were bestowed the higher honor of being carried in a chair. According to Johnston, imperial tutors were always granted the higher right. He goes on to say: "Those who possessed either of these coveted rights were free to ride or to be carried in their chairs as far as the inner gates that led directly to the precincts of the throne-hall."
Yuan Jin: the real-life Chinese prison governor who was responsible for the real Puyi's rehabilitation, appears in the scene where Pu Yi receives his pardon. Yuan Jin calls Pu Yi's name ("Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi!") over the microphone. As Pu Yi steps forward, the pardon is read aloud by Ruocheng Ying, who plays Yuan Jin's role in the film. John Lone shakes hands with Yuan Jin before receiving the pardon.