In December of 2011, a movie called The Flowers of War was released, and added to the list of historically based films about The Rape of Nanjing by Japanese troops in 1937. Like most other films about this subject it was produced in China, but it differed in some important regards. Besides being partially in English, and intended for an English speaking audience it also had a major Hollywood star brought to bear. In the film, Christian Bale stars as a man who disguises himself as a priest while trying to save a group of Chinese women. Bale was a good score by the government backed movie industry in China, but some critics have called the film propaganda.
Taiwanese-American Ang Lee also touched on the subject of the 1937 atrocities in his brilliant 2007 film Lust Caution, but this film is mainly about the relationship between a Chinese resistance agent, and her collaborator lover. Other films on the subject include City of Life and Death (2009) and Nanking (2007).
Besides the many films, there is to this day very real tension between China and Japan over the terrible atrocities carried out in China by the Imperial Japanese during the World War 2 era. During the Rape of Nanjing, historians estimate that between 250,000 and 300,000 people were killed. At times, the Chinese have been outraged over the Japanese honoring their war dead in traditional ceremonies, or when Japanese historians or officials attempt to downplay the atrocities or the casualty figures in Nanjing. Despite the peaceful nature of Japan today, and how many years have gone by since WW2, my sympathies were always completely with the Chinese on this issue. Then one day I watched a despicable film.
In the 2007 film The Warlords, Jet Li stars as warlord Qingyun fighting the religiously fanatical Tai Ping rebels in 1870. After watching his army being destroyed due to a corrupt Qing Dynasty warlord refusing to help, he wanders until he joins a group of bandits. Once he persuades the bandits to help fight the Tai Pings, he wins victory after victory in some of the most visually stimulating battle scenes to come out of recent Chinese war epics.
In the latter part of the film, Qingyun lays siege to Suzhou, which lasts for a year. His soldiers starve; are riddled with disease, but in the end the city falls after Erhu (one of Quinyun’s officers) negotiates the surrender with the Tai Ping prophet that involves the latter losing his life in exchange for the life of his men.
When Quinyun is faced with feeding and housing 4,000 prisoners of war though, he decides it’s more prudent to execute them. He quarrels with Erhu, who made a promise that the men would be safe if they surrendered. Quinyun argues that millions in Nanjing are in need of rescuing, and has the prisoners mowed down with volleys of arrows. By this point in the film, the welfare of the people of Nanjing is a primary concern of Quinyun. When he does take the city, it seems bloodless in the film. The war is over by then, but he continues the fight on the political battlefield for the city, gaining a three year moratorium on taxes to help them rebuild.
At the end of the film, Quinyun is assassinated due to conspiring, corrupt officials.
The character Quinyun is based on an actual historical figure named Zeng Guofan. As in the film, he raised a private army and gained a military reputation fighting Tai Ping rebels that culminated in his forces taking the Tai Ping capital of Nanjing. The Tai Ping rebels were a Christian sect that had its beginnings when a man with no real power named Hong Xiuquan had visions in 1836. Their leader claimed to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ, and established his Heavenly Kingdom in Southern China. He spread his new form of Christianity in his territory; established communal property, got rid of binding the feet of women, even allowed women to become administrators and military officers. Smoking opium was prohibited, along with things like alcohol, tobacco, gambling, polygamy, prostitution, and the sale of slaves. However, his rule was mainly through direct military control, and it was very theocratic and often violent. Oddly, there was also a very strict separation of women and men, even after they had been married.
The failure of The Warlords to acknowledge the Muslim rebellion that occurred during that of the Tai Pings, or the Western mercenary officers who were instrumental in the defeat of the later, isn’t surprising considering the Chinese patriotic mood of the film. As in most dramatized history films; including movies made by Hollywood, liberty is taken to make the film more compelling. One can hardly expect complete accuracy in any movie, but the line where a movie crosses into the realm of propaganda must be considered real. With the Chinese government involved in some of the most popular movies with Western audiences these days, it’s something that warrants consideration.
The great deception of the film lies in the desperate struggle of Quinyun to save Nanjing. All the sacrifices from his starving men in the trenches of Suzhou, to the emotional torment of having to execute the prisoners; which is portrayed in the film as something Quinyun and his men were horrified to do, to the division between the friends leading the army, were all justified by the need to save the great city of Nanjing.
In history, the city of Suzhou was captured shortly before the liberation of Nanjing, vaguely similar to events in the film. Suzhou surrendered after a bloody quarrel between the Taiping defenders, which resulted in the gates being opened for the imperial army. Zeng Guofan had nothing to do with the liberation of the city though, as it was taken by a Chinese general named Li Hongzhang with vital support from the Ever Victorious Army, led by the famous British mercenary Charles Gordon. There was no year-long siege as portrayed in the film, with starving defenders and besiegers alike. This is more similar to what happened in Nanjing; not Suzhou, and was led by the real-life figure Jet-Li’s hero was based on. In June of 1863, imperial generals Zen Guofan and Zen Guoquan began the long process of taking the outlying areas of Nanjing. The city wasn’t completely encircled until March of 1864, making the true siege of Nanjing only several months, with the final assault coming on July 18th – still, disease and starvation were a problem on both sides. Trenches and tunnels were also a feature of battle, lending to images of Suzhou in the film. During the siege, the Tai Ping prophet Hong Xiuquan died in Nanjing (not Suzhou), either from choosing to take poison or sickness. It was the beginning of the end for the Tai Pings.
The final attack took place after explosives placed under the Taiping Gate by tunnelers destroyed it and much of the city’s wall in a massive blast that killed people miles away with the stone it sent into the air. When the city fell, about half the population of the city was massacred. Some estimates of the dead defenders; soldiers and civilians alike, are as high as 200,000. This is a number that is in the same ballpark of the high estimates of the Japanese atrocities in 1937.
This terrible destruction and murder in Nanjing oddly contrasts the goal of Quinyun in the film to rescue Nanjing at any cost, and it’s not surprising considering the Chinese government’s control over much of the film making there. Zeng Guofan used to be considered a villain by most Chinese historians until the Cultural Revolution, when perception of him began to change. Both Mao Zedong, and Chiang Kai-shek had high regard for his abilities in military and political affairs. He became a sort of ruthless hero of China decades before The Warlord ever hit the screens.
What makes one act of propaganda worse than another, and what even is the difference between propaganda and simple dramatic license? In truth no one can be sure what a script writer is thinking, or even if the writer truly was free to write what was desired – especially in communist China. However, when the Chinese government for decades tries to define a nation like Japan over past outrages committed against it’s people, and makes a decision to prop up a mass-murderer of the same level as the Imperial Japanese in 1937, then special note has to be taken of the stench of that propaganda, especially considering that the Chinese people had the moral instincts to realize the villainous nature of General Zeng Guofan in the first place, once the smoke had cleared.