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Chinese History in Contemporary Literature and Film

Chinese history can appear to the layman as an uninterrupted series of dynasties, periods, invasions and reunifications, all mostly indistinguishable from one another. It can be useful to turn to the portrayal of Chinese history in contemporary literature and film to provide a more narrative perspective than a list of dates and dynasties. Alternatively, a passing familiarity with history can provide a sense of context with which to better enjoy popular works set in Chinese history.

The Judge Dee books of Robert Hans Van Gulik serve admirably as an example of works that bring Chinese history to life. They are a set of mystery novels and short stories detailing the work of Judge Dee, a T'ang dynasty magistrate (magistrates were responsible for bringing criminals to justice as well as judging them). They are good reads and work well as mysteries, as well as being interesting historical perspectives. Judge Dee was a historical person, but Van Gulik's stories are based on stories written about him from the Ming dynasty.

Entering more recent times, George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman and the Dragon is an entertaining work of historical fiction which follows its protagonist, Harry Flashman, a cowardly and surprisingly peripatetic Victorian gentleman soldier, as he wins undeserved kudos for being in the right places at the right times. Part of a series, this book covers his adventures in China at the time of the Taiping rebellion as he travels along with Elgin's 1860 Peking expedition, culminating with the destruction of the Summer Palace. Noted historical personages making appearances are the Taiping leader Hung Hsiu-ch'uan and the not-yet Empress Dowager Tz'u-hsi. Fraser's books, although obviously works of fiction, are filled with a wealth of historical detail backed up by copious footnotes and references to primary sources.

Covering even more recent ground is the film The Last Emperor, which is the story of the life of Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi, the last emperor of China. It is interesting mostly for its portrayal of Imperial life within the Forbidden Palace, and the conditions within Communist China during the Cultural Revolution.

In the category of works that are perhaps better appreciated by being placed in a historical context (rather than being noted for historical accuracy) are many period pieces of Chinese and Hong Kong cinema, most of which are excuses to watch martial arts virtuosos at work. Among the most popular of these are the films about Wong Fei-Hung, which include Jet Li's Once Upon a Time in China series, and Jackie Chan's Drunken Master 2. Wong Fei-Hung was a historical person, a martial arts master, teacher, and physician. He lived from 1847 to 1924, so any films involving him would be set in the declining days of the Qing empire and mostly involve plots against the hated Manchu rulers or the Western barbarians of Victorian England. There have been over one hundred films involving Wong Fei-Hung, and it is in fact these films which have taken a moderately famous teacher, one of many, and turned him into a folk hero. There are many many other kung fu films set in the Qing dynasty, probably both because being more recent they would be more accessible to the audience, and because any story of struggle against Manchu Imperial rule fits in nicely with Chinese national pride and Communist values.

Text and pictures Copyright 2000 Philip Greenspun.

PhotoCD scans by Advanced Digital Imaging.