The classic Chinese films I’ve watched in Mandarin are mostly historical war epics. Fortunately, I enjoy this genre. Most recently, I watched The Warlords, which happens to be free on Amazon Prime. I enjoyed it, and would call it a good movie, if far from the quality of Hero or even The Emperor and the Assassin. I’m also glad to watch this genre because I gain insights into Chinese history.
The Warlords seems to be historical fiction, but to understand the context, I had to look up the Taiping Rebellion. I will admit that I was completely ignorant about this portion of Chinese history, which is amazing considering that at least 20 million people died in this 19th-century military conflict. This figure is astonishing. Consider that in the American Civil War, which cost more American lives than World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam War combined, about 620 thousand people lost their lives (only 3% the amount in the Chinese conflict). The Taiping Rebellion, also a civil war, occurred in the same historical period as the American Civil War, though it lasted about three times longer.
The Taiping Rebellion also reminded me a bit of a violent internal conflict in Brazilian History, the War of Canudos, though, again, the Chinese conflict completely dwarfs the Brazilian one in terms of sheer loss of life. The War of Canudos was also a 19th-century episode (in this case, end of century) inspired by a spiritual leader who attained the status of a prophet. Antonio Conselheiro, having suffered personal disappointments, wandered the backlands of the Brazilian northeast for many years before settling down and attracting a large community of followers. Eventually, the federal government became alarmed and sent successive military campaigns to destroy the community. The military was rebuffed on multiple occasions by the ragtag group of ardent, if malnourished followers until it finally succumbed to the modern weaponry, including machine guns, of a large and professional expeditionary force.
Similarly, The Taiping Rebellion was initiated by Hong Xiuqan, a poor but studious Chinese man who suffered personal disappointments, in particularly failing to pass extremely difficult imperial examinations, before becoming a prophetic spiritual leader. Hong came into contact with Christian teachings, and a number of visions led him to proclaim that he was the younger brother of Jesus and that God had given him the mission of destroying wrongful forms of worship, including Confucianism and Buddhism. Like Antonio Conselheiro, his tens of thousands of followers rang alarm bells in the central government, which dispatched professional troops to destroy the movement. These troops were handily defeated, as their Brazilian counterparts would be later by Conselheiro’s followers. A key difference seems to be that Hong became a more proactive political figure, introducing social and bureaucratic reforms that appealed to a wider public, and even went on the offensive militarily. As a result, the conflict became much broader and longer lasting.
This post has little to do with learning Mandarin, but I hope it shows how my experimental method can expand one’s cultural and intellectual horizons, in particular through viewing quality Chinese movies.