The cast for a 30-part series made in China 20 years ago to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Korean War was said to number more than 100,000 people. But the series was never broadcast on concerns that it might fan unnecessary acrimony in Washington.
Over the years veterans from the army have demanded the release of the drama, which recalls a conflict more commonly titled in China as ‘The War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea’. But Chinese studios avoided filmmaking about the war, the sole direct confrontation between Chinese and American troops, during the post-Mao era.
Fracturing relations between Washington and Beijing seem to be changing perceptions on how the conflict is remembered, especially as the nation reaches the 70th anniversary of China joining the war this month (on October 25).
Productions and commemorative events have been airing thick and fast this month. For Peace got a primetime slot on state broadcaster CCTV’s main channel this week, with Xinhua reporting that the six-part documentary was given the explicit approval of the Central Military Commission – that is to say, the Party organ that controls the People’s Liberation Army. A week earlier, CCTV started showing a separate, 20-part documentary on the war on the Korean peninsula.
Both series feature declassified files in explaining that China’s decision to join the conflict – less than a year after Communist forces defeated the KMT in China’s civil war – was crucial to the one year-old republic’s sovereignty. Both tend to bypass the consequences of that decision – such as how the war left China diplomatically isolated for nearly three decades.
In strictest terms China and the US were not formally at war – the Chinese sent ‘volunteers’ to take on troops from the United Nations. Chinese forces fought courageously against opponents equipped with far superior firepower. The official count of casualties puts the number of Chinese deaths at nearly 200,000, with many military historians blaming one of the main tactics: the “human wave attack”.
The decision to stay silent about the sacrifices made by Chinese troops now seems to be a thing of the past. Indeed, making its debut this weekend is another Korean War drama called Sacrifice – or Jin Gang Chuan in its Chinese title. It is co-directed by three acclaimed figures, including Guan Hu, whose The Eight Hundred has given the post-Covid movie industry a major boost (see WiC507). Wu Jing, the lead actor in Wolf Warriors 2, stars, with talk that Sacrifice might become the highest grossing Chinese movie ever, bettering the Rmb5.7 billion take of Wolf Warriors 2 (see WiC376).
In fact there are three more movies based on the conflict debuting in the same window. Chinese President Xi Jinping also weighed in on Monday to applaud the bravery of Chinese soldiers during the conflict as a source of “precious spiritual wealth” that should inspire the nation to “prevail over all enemies”. He made the remarks at an exhibition marking the 70th anniversary of a conflict in which 40,000 Americans were killed.
Less mentioned in the newly released documentaries and films is the Korean perspective on their civil war. That has proved to be a sensitive subject in China too, with leading South Korean boyband BTS running into heavy flak after comments from one of its members about the shared pain of South Korean and American war veterans.
Chinese netizens were quick to take offence, claiming that the band had humiliated China by not recognising the sacrifices of its soldiers.
Expecting a boycott from furious consumers, South Korean firms with major business interests in China reacted swiftly by pulling BTS-related promotional materials from their online stores. “BTS touched the ‘red line’ of history and national sovereignty… Chinese netizens believe that the nation should come before their idols. This should also serve as a signal to other foreign artists,” warned Reference News.
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