History of the World According to the Movies: Part 12- China

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Perhaps no western movie encapsulates Chinese history more than the Award-Winning film, The Last Emperor, which accounts the life of the boy emperor Puyi whose life was profoundly affected by the governmental changes that embarked China in the early 20th century. Interestingly, he ended his days as a gardener under the Communist regime.

In many ways, Chinese history is about as old a civilization itself since it has existed with much of its culture intact for thousands of years though developed separate from Mesopotamia. However, this has not been the same in recent years with imperialism, the collapse of the last dynasty, the time of the republic, Communism, and whatever China has now. However, China is nevertheless consists of a rich history with dynasties, invasions, intellectuals, scandals, wars, and court intrigue. Two of China’s dynasties have been under foreign rulers such as the Yuan of Kublai Khan and the Ching under the Manchurians. China has also been credited with inventing things like paper, gunpowder, and fireworks. Still, movies about Chinese history tend to reflect that of a very large country that resides a billion people on earth. And yet, China is home to so many other cultures, traditions, and languages than what the Chinese government would like to admit. Nevertheless, many movies based in China aren’t a stickler for accuracy since they tend to be based on historic legends chronicling real life incidents (like Romance of the Three Kingdoms.) Still, even movies about a country with a glorious past still has inaccuracies which I’m willing to list.

First here’s a guide to the Dynasties to determine the time periods (and that everyone understands what I’m talking about):

Xia (c. 2100 B.C.E. – c. 1600 B. C. E.) -may be mythical but it’s inscribed in Chinese historical records.

Shang (c. 1700 B. C. E. – 1046 B. C. E.) -earliest Chinese Dynasty as far as archaeologists are concerned.

Zhou (1046 B. C. E. – 256 B. C. E.) – longest dynasty in Chinese history as well as the one where a lot of Chinese culture aspects are based. Also, Confucius, Sun Tzu, Laozi, and many of the early Chinese thinkers lived in this period. Many of their ideas would soon influence later Chinese thought in years to come.

Spring and Autumn Period (722 B. C. E. – 221 B. C. E.)- Zhou power is decentralized and wanes as feudal lords vie for local power in their own region sometimes with the king being ruler in name only.

Warring States Period (476 B. C. E. – 221 B. C. E.) – China is divided and local entities are fighting against each other. Zhou Dynasty falls, while the state of Qin eventually takes over.

Qin Dynasty (221 B. C. E. – 206 B. C. E.) – mostly encompasses the reign of Qin Shi Huangdi, first Emperor of China and builder of the first Great Wall. Fell a few years after his death.

Han Dynasty (206 B. C. E. – 220 A. D.) – one of the defining Chinese dynasties which established the Han Chinese culture. Confucianism becomes China’s official philosophy as well as saw the invention of paper and advances in metallurgy. Had a brief overthrow for 14 years but was later restored. May have had contact wit the Roman Empire. China was divided for decades after collapse.

Three Kingdoms Era (220 A. D. – 280 A. D.) – China is divided into three kingdoms and a period of feuding warlords. Romance of the Three Kingdoms covers this and is seen as a very famous time period in China.

Jin Dynasty (265 A. D. – 420 A. D.) – ruled Northern China and is famous for its decadent court, defeats by nomads, and line of incompetent emperors. Area was soon divided into sixteen kingdoms after it fell.

Southern and Northern Dynasties (420 A. D. – 589 A. D.) – a period of civil war and division but saw the development of Chinese Buddhism and pagoda. Han Chinese heavily colonized and developed the south while the north was constantly at war.

Sui Dynasty (589 A. D. – 618 A. D.) -united the country after centuries of fragmentation, set up a long lasting government system and coinage, and extended the Great Wall. Fell after two generations.

Tang Dynasty (618 A. D. – 907 A. D.) – encompasses China’s Golden Age of civilization as well as when gunpowder is discovered. Becomes a cultural influence in Korea, Vietnam, and Japan with embassies as far away as the Byzantine Empire.

Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period (907 A. D. – 960 A. D.) – another period of unrest and civil war. Former based in the north, latter in south.

Song, Liao, Jin and Western Xia Dynasties (960 A. D. – 1279 overlapping) – though one of contending dynasties, war, and eventual Mongol Conquest, was a period of great technological innovation as well as economic and cultural prosperity.

Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368) – basically this is Genghis Khan’s family and founded by his grandson Kublai Khan. Of course, they wanted to run China their own way so brought their own bureaucrats from the West who were mostly Muslim (though western Mongols brought Chinese administrators). Great period  for Chinese literature and drama.

Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) – last ethnically Chinese dynasty which built the most current Great Wall standing today. Famous for novels, porcelain, isolationism, and flourishing economy and urban life. Yet, marred by political troubles, national disasters, civil unrest and corruption by eunuchs.

Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911) – China’s last dynasty founded by the ruling family of Manchuria. China takes it’s largest form. Early years mark great conquest and prosperity. Later years marred by European Imperialism, opium, civil unrest, delusions of nationalistic grandeur, failed policies, and other things. Still, this is the dynastic period most covered in movies since documentation was more readily available.

Dynastic Periods:

The Forbidden City stood in Beijing around the time when China was under assault by the Huns. (The Forbidden City was built during the Ming Dynasty and by that time the Huns were integrated in Chinese society. Also, Mulan existed during the Han Dynasty.)

Fireworks were used in China during the Han Dynasty. (It was during the Sui.)

China was fighting the Huns during the later Han Dynasty. (The Huns were invading Europe at the time and hailed from Russia. The “Huns” depicted in Mulan were probably Mongols who were habitual invaders anyway and they were called the Xiongnu. However, they wouldn’t take over China until the 1200s.)

Chinese Imperial horsemen rode using stirrups on their horses. (They would’ve done no such thing. The Mongols, on the other hand….)

The Chinese Imperial Army rode on Arabian horses. (Maybe but no common peasant would own one. Mulan could never have such a majestic horse like Khan.)

Gunpowder existed during the Han Dynasty. (It was invented during the Tang.)

Chinese people were free to hug the Emperor. (No one would really be permitted to hug the Emperor, since his subjects had to keep respectful distance.)

Mulan was discovered as a woman after she was wounded and was kicked out accordingly. (She’s actually said to expose her breasts willingly to her fellow soldiers who were totally cool with it. Oh, and she had been a general for a while, served in the army for 12 years gaining great respect, and had literally saved the Empire before that, too. Of course, while China has had a reputation for treating women harshly, this only comes later since the Chinese had no law to execute any woman impersonating a man to join the military, at least during the Han Dynasty.)

Marco Polo actually went to China. (There’s some debate about this. The Yuan Dynasty kept pretty meticulous records even of those of foreign visitors far less important and illustrious than the Polos, and he’s not in them. However, there were other non-Chinese explorers who went to China during the Middle Ages. Still, Polo never mentioned things like foot binding, chopsticks, tea, gunpowder, or the Great Wall {though it might’ve disintegrated by that point}. Not to mention, they said that he didn’t understand much of Mongolian or Chinese at all such as the units. Thus, he may just have been a “conman” who might’ve tried to pass the stories of other foreign travelers as his own.)

The Eight Nation Alliance put down the Boxer Rebellion which wasn’t really about imperialism. (It was so about Imperialism and though the Boxers were violent and attacked civilians, they really had something to rebel against. I mean it was imperialism that basically got much of their country hooked on opium as well as make China a ruined mess, basically.)

Those who took part in the Siege of Legations were actively chose to stay in order to make a principled stand during the Boxer Rebellion. (They were more than willing to get the hell out of there but couldn’t because the countryside was swarming with Boxers.)

Chinese men had to shave their hair in a pigtail during the Mongol invasions. (This isn’t until the Qing Dynasty. Before then, they wore their hair long and bound it together on the top of their head or under a hat.)

Marco Polo was the first European in China. (He was the first to write a detailed account of it, assuming he did visit it. Also, he’s said to have traveled with his father and uncle {who weren’t there first}. There’s said to be Roman embassies in China during the 3rd and 4th centuries, but its fuzzy. )

Marco Polo only traveled from Venice with a servant. (He traveled with is father and uncle assuming he did go to China.)

Kublai Khan was a single dad with a daughter. (He’s said to have 4 wives and 22 sons. He’s also said to have at least 2 daughters, one who became a Buddhist nun and another who married a king of Korea. Neither ran off with Marco Polo, however.)

Everyone in Song China spoke Mandarin Chinese in what is now Central and Western China even by non-Chinese. (Only in Manchuria. Mandarin Chinese wouldn’t be spoken in mainland China until the Qing Dynasty. And those living in present day Central and Western China who aren’t Chinese would speak a Turkic dialect.)

Cao Cao was a scheming chancellor who ran China with an iron fist through the young Han Emperor. (Though he’s represented in Chinese media as a cunning and deceitful man, he was said to be a brilliant ruler who did a lot of good in the realms of education and agriculture. He also wrote poetry.)

Liu Bei was a compassionate and righteous leader endowed with charismatic potency who built a state on the basis of Confucian values though he was kind of a weeping wreck. (He was actually a competent commander while some of the strategies in popular media attributed to Zhuge Liang were actually his own. Not to mention, he was warlord and more Legalist than Confucian though he came from modest means rising through the ranks. And though he’s depicted as a loyal servant to the Han Empire, he probably would never have ascended to becoming emperor of his own state without the Han collapse. Also, he’s said to make a lot of mistakes like irrationally leading a disastrous attack on Yi Ling, slamming his infant son to the ground which doomed his future empire. Nevertheless, he’s a popular folk hero in China as well as has a cult following as a deity.)

Zhuge Liang was a wise and competent administrator who can perform fantastical achievements like summoning advantageous winds and devising magical stone mazes. (Sure he was a brilliant guy but he wasn’t the supreme tactical and strategic genius he’s depicted in Chinese media. He was actually more of a top political and domestic administrator.)

Zhang Fei was a blundering drunkard with a short temper who can be of hindrance on the battlefield though still smart enough to utilize great strategies. (He was the most strategically accomplished of Liu Bei’s main generals.)

Guan Yu was a righteous and loyal warrior. (His image is perhaps one of the most altered and aggrandized in Chinese pop culture, especially in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which is like the Chinese equivalent to the works of Homer.)

Xiao Qiao was a badass who walked right into enemy territory and had tea with Cao Cao. (We don’t know much about her and it’s very unlikely this ever happened.)

Qin Shi Huangdi was a ruthless despot who ruled China with an iron fist making the country a cyrpto-totalitarian legalistic dystopia. (Of course, this is China’s first Emperor and mostly responsible for what makes China the country it was during the later Dynastic years. However, he’s depicted as such villain in Chinese media that his would-be assassin and a concubine who conspired against him are shown in much more favorable light than he is. Still, his reputation may have to do with the fact that his dynasty was overthrown three years after his death despite the fact that archaeological findings relating to his dynasty may reveal that the Qin Emperor may not have been as brutal as previously thought. Nevertheless, his fear of assassination may be perhaps justified.)

Kung Fu broadswords and jians were often used in a lot of Chinese battles. (These swords were first made in fairly modern times. Neither were used in ancient Chinese combat.)

Guan Yu used a Gundao during the Three Kingdoms Era. (He more likely used a dagger axe since these weapons came out in the Ming era.)

Dowager Empress Cixi was a dominating and power hungry evil matriarch. (She’s certainly no saint and certainly did a lot of morally reprehensible things, there’s still debate on whether certain things about her are true or just stemmed from Chinese politics using her as as scapegoat.)

The Tang Emperors lived in the Forbidden City. (It wasn’t built until the Ming Dynasty.)

Emperors were all noble, wise, and grandfatherly. (Sometimes they were anything but.)

Big hulky brocade wearing brutes used to mow down peasants by the thousands with flashy musou attacks. (I’m not sure this is possible.)

Fair maidens were either skilled enough to kick butt in martial arts or supernatural creatures in disguise. (Hey, didn’t they have something called footbinding? I’m sure the latter is certainly not true. Still, how did some of these women managed to learn kung-fu after having their feet crushed? I mean some of these films take place after the Song Dynasty at least. Seriously, footbinding could really get in the way with a young girl’s martial arts training. And it doesn’t help that many of these martial arts wielding waif fus are from prominent families where footbinding would definitely be practiced. Of course, most Chinese families were peasants, but if a family could afford a well off lifestyle without doing manual labor, you can bet the girls would have had their feet bound.)

Tang Empress Wu Zetian imprisoned Di Renjie for eight years for opposing her rule. (She had him demoted to a province for three over another official accusing him of contempt. He later helped run the government under her, which makes him more of court favorite than anything. Of course, this guy is best known for getting his own western detective series.)

Empress Wu Zetian was a ruthless tyrannical ruler willing to off family members. (Maybe but she was probably no worse than her male counterparts. Chinese historic record tends to be biased against strong female rulers.)

Modern:

Chinese villages were ruled by wise and benevolent landlords who were loyal to their country during World War II. (Actually, they weren’t nice guys to China’s vast peasant population and exploited them whenever they could. Also, many of them did cooperate with the Japanese during World War II.)

The Ip Man was a bourgeois martial arts teacher who escaped from the mainland to flee the Japanese during the invasion as well as worked as a laborer. (He was actually a police officer who supported the Kuomintang and fled to Hong Kong to escape the Communists. Also, he never worked as a laborer before becoming Bruce Lee’s teacher. However, this doesn’t stop the Chinese from portraying him this way in the movies.)

Simplified Chinese characters came in around the 1930s. (They were introduced after the Communists came into power in order to improve literacy.)

British journalist George Hogg led 60 orphan boys through China fleeing from the Japanese secret police and nationalists who wanted to conscript some of them with an Australian nurse. (He was actually assisted by friends from New Zealand, particularly a known Communist named Renwie Alley who’s absent from a film relating to this incident.)

Puyi was a playboy and had a lot of sexual interest in women. (Evidence in his romantic interest in women is scant {to the point he was rumored to be gay} though he had five consorts which he referred to as his wives “in name only.”)

Puyi was a tragic hero, especially in his private life. (He flogged eunuchs as part of his daily routine by age eleven. During his reign in Munchukuo, he went nuts, became obsessed with consulting oracles, injected himself, and beat servants for trivial offenses.)

Traditional Chinese music was endorsed by the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution. (Traditional Chinese music was illegal in China during the Cultural Revolution considered as one of the four “Great Olds.” Western music was considered “bourgeois.”  Actually the only music allowed in Maoist China were Socialist slogan songs. How horrible.)

Mao Zedong was depressed about his legacy as well as bored with his political life by the 1970s. Yet, he was more interested in why Henry Kissinger was such a ladies’ man. (Contrary to Nixon, he may have been more optimistic about his legacy than how it turned out, yet he had a good reason to be depressed about his legacy since so many people in China got killed under him and the fact that he left China in terrible shape. Not only that but his wife would be jailed after his death. But at least China was unified and the Chinese people had better lives so he remains a controversial figure. As for Kissinger, yeah, I’d probably wonder the same thing. Yet, we need to understand that Mao was married four times and had terrible hygiene habits like not brushing his teeth and going 25 years without taking a bath according to one account. He was also a chain smoker. Yet, he’s said to have a lot of sexual partners.)

Bruce Lee started taking martial arts lessons after having a childhood nightmare. (Contrary to Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, he started training at 13 after being beaten up by a street gang. He would also get into a lot of fights as a teenager that his mother decided to ship him off to America. Also, he had been taking occasional acting jobs since he was a child since his dad was an actor and singer in the Cantonese Opera Company. Yes, one of the biggest martial arts stars ever had a dad who was an opera singer.)

Miscellaneous:

China has always consisted of homogenous Han Chinese. (Han Chinese usually live in the southeast of China and even they were a mixed lot before the Sinicizing Han Dynasty. China is also home to Manchurians, Muslim Uighurs, and Buddhist Tibetans. Actually China has been quite a bit multicultural than it usually makes itself out to be.)

Older and/or wealthy or noble Chinese women could walk in a normal fashion unassisted by a cane. (Since their feet were bound as children, they couldn’t without wobbling unassisted. Also, some of those women who could walk unassisted were Manchurian, not Chinese.)

Chinese traditionally wore a qipao that opened at that side. (The Manchurians did. Chinese robes open at the front. The modern qipao doesn’t look like something pre-20th century Chinese would wear at all.)

The Great Wall has always looked the same. (It was renovated several times from the Qin to Ming Dynasty.)

China has always been a unified entity. (There have been times when it hasn’t, particularly between dynasties.)

Chinese people had good hygiene and dental care. (It depended on status naturally. Since most of China has comprised of poor peasants for most of its history, this wouldn’t be the case. Also, Mao Zedong was notorious for having poor personal hygiene {he had green teeth} as well as certainly didn’t practice safe sex {most of the women he slept with got infected with STDs because of him}. Oh, and every day he used to take a swim in one of China’s major rivers {take it what you will}.)

Chinese people were very polite and courteous prudes. (Just because their Confucian ethic encourages them to be nice to others doesn’t mean the country has exercised in polite behavior in society at least by Western standards. I mean there’s a No Spitting campaign there and some of their literature can get quite spicy. Also, some of the things Chairman Mao once said can put Howard Stern to shame.)

Chinese aristocrats had Fu-Manchu mustaches. (Well, maybe some did.)

Chinese people didn’t eat any weird things. (Uh, much of what you see in a Chinese restaurant doesn’t really consist of what someone in China would eat.)

Kung-Fu fights were a common occurrence. (Of course, most of the movies set in historical China are kung-fu movies despite it being a culture of intellectuals. You were more likely to hear government officials staging Chinese philosophy debates than kick punching each other. Seriously, how often would kung-fu fights occur during that time?)

China was an isolated entity for much of its existence until Europeans arrived there. (It’s said that the West knew of China’s existence for centuries even before Marco Polo {even if he didn’t actually go there}. Sure China was isolationist at times but it also engaged in foreign policy with other entities, just not European. Then you have the Zheng He voyages during the early Ming Dynasty.)

Family and filial piety was the most important thing in Chinese society. (Yes, but apparently there were emperors who didn’t see it that way. And then there’s Dowager Cixi poisoning her nephew.)

Funerals were modest affairs in China. (Actually Chinese people spend much more on funerals for family members than most Americans spend on weddings, especially in Taiwan. Oh, and it’s not uncommon to hire strippers for those occasions either.)

China had samurai in the 19th century. (Samurai were exclusively from Japan. However, China did have ninjas though.)

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