China’s growing assertiveness has become increasingly visible in recent years. These developments were most recently demonstrated by the success of the Chinese Korean War epic, The Battle at Lake Changjin (长津湖). Released on China’s National Day holiday on the 1st of October, the film recounts the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir in 1950, where the 9th People’s Volunteer Army under Peng Dehuai and Song Shilun drove the American-led United Nations forces out of North Korea, contributing to the stalemate that the war would become []. The film grossed U.S. $750 million at the Chinese box office, muscling out the latest James Bond outing, No Time to Die, as the highest grossing film of the year so far. It is the success of the film that is indicative of the political, social and economic shifts in China in recent years.
The Battle at Lake Changjin follows on the heels of a wave of patriotic war films that have been notable successes at the Chinese box office. Possibly the most notable example of this was 2017’s Wolf Warrior 2 (战狼2), where a former Chinese soldier, Leng Feng (Wu Jing), battles American and European foes in a fictional African nation as he hunts for the killers of his former commanding officer and lover.
The success of these films has demonstrated a notable break from the previous, more stilted state of Chinese military cinema, which had largely relied upon more professional younger actors and appealed more to older audiences. One of these is the greater quality of the action sequences, stunts and acting, with the directors of these new forms of Chinese war films seeking to thrill their audiences, in contrast to the staid fair that characterized previous films. This stands in direct contrast to previous efforts, such as 2017’s Founding of an Army (建军大业), which relied heavily on the photogenetic appearance and star power of its cast and drew criticism from Chinese netizens on the social media platform, Weibo, as well as the families of those covered in the film, such as Ye Daying, the grandson of the renowned general, Ye Ting, who called Founding of an Army “a reproach and distortion of revolutionary history” [].
Another variation has come in the form of government involvement in these productions. While the state-owned China Film Group Corporation continues to be involved with the production of these new form of films, what has been notable is the involvement of private companies, most notably the social media giant, Tencent. This even extends to the cast, most notably in the case of 1921, which drew upon participants from online talent shows and influencers from the social media platform, Douyin, to play the role of key figures in the founding of the Communist Party of China. It is this development that illustrates the involvement of private firms in what had previously been a largely state run endeavor as well as the changing nature of star power, which has changed as a result of social media.
In addition, the box office success of these films has also illustrated the rise of nationalist sentiment in China as well as pointing to wider developments in China’s foreign relations, with the release of Wolf Warrior 2 coinciding with the modernisation and expansion of the People’s Liberation Army. All point to a China that is willing to stand up to its foes at home and abroad. However, the relationship between cinema and foreign policy has not been without precedent as Hollywood has demonstrated.
From Humiliation to Pride
The success of these films have been illustrative of the role of historical legacies in Chinese politics. This has been reflective in the choice of historical experiences invoked by Chinese cinema as well as Chinese officials. Previously, these typically focused on the period of China’s humiliation, as demonstrated by the glut of films covering China’s struggles with Japan during the Second Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945.
Within this context, the setting of The Battle at Lake Changjin is a departure from this in recounting the Battle at the Chosin Reservoir. In doing so, the film’s directors have invoked a time where China was able to go toe-to-toe with the United States and emerge triumphant. Such a message has resonated with Chinese audiences against the backdrop of an increasingly contentious Sino-American relationship, which explains the film’s success.
This is also invocative of the famous words often attributed to Mao Zedong that “the Chinese people have stood up”, with China’s intervention in the Korean War being an action representative of Mao’s bold claim. In keeping with Mao’s words, the film’s release has also coincided with a wider sense of pride in China’s identity, as illustrated by the popularity of the Hanfu (汉服) among Chinese millennials as well as the use of China’s past glories as a source of national pride []. It is these wider trends that are reflective of how the Chinese perceive China’s role today.
Domestically, these films demonstrate the continued importance of historical legacies in the governance of China. This comes at a time where the Central Committee of the CPC has been tasked with reviewing a draft of a resolution that defines the party’s ‘major achievements and historical experiences.’ In doing so, the CPC’s actions further illustrates the role of historical legacies in cementing political legitimacy. Such a move was further demonstrated at the premiere of 1921, where footage of China’s most recent achievements, such as China’s ventures into space, were shown in a not so subtle way to link the CPC to China’s recent success. This in turn presents the CPC’s discourse of an ubroken lineage between the founding of the party and China’s growth as a Great Power.
However, this narrative has not been without its’ issues, as the reception of 1921 among other films have demonstrated. This was demonstrated by a hotline set up to report comments of ‘historical nihilism’ online being bombarded with complaints about 1921. These run the gamut from complaints over the casting of ‘immoral’ individuals to play key figures in the party’s history to the accusation that the film breached party values. This was further expressed by the hashtag #boycott1921 which gained 3.6 million views before being removed. Even seemingly safe subjects have been subject to controversy as demonstrated by audience reactions to The Eight Hundred, which drew criticism for seemingly glorifying the nationalist Guomindang while ignoring its’ class oppression and misdeeds. It is these aspects that illustrate how China’s nationalist fervour is not only the preserve of the CPC.
The Power of the Chinese Market
The success of films such as Battle at Lake Changjin and 1921 are not so much testaments to the power of the Communist Party but rather to that of the Chinese consumer. This was most notably demonstrated by the role of Chinese millennials in the success of these films, whose economic and consumer clout has led to them being labelled as the ‘new baby boomers’. In addition, these films have also been demonstrative of the consumer habits of this generation as well as the Chinese market as a whole, which is turning away from foreign brands in favour of domestic ones.
It is this shift that raises questions for Hollywood and other Western brands. Previously it had long been believed that brand recognition along with a few token casting choices and gestures towards China was enough to capture the wallets of Chinese consumers, who had become integral to the global success of several major pictures, most notably the Marvel series. However, the success of Battle at Lake Changjin has questioned the feasibility of this, with a local production muscling out one of the biggest and most widely recognized franchises in Hollywood to become the highest grossing film of 2021. As a result, this requires a rethink of how to recapture the Chinese consumer.
The success of patriotic war films in China has indicated a growing national consciousness in Chinese society, which has manifested itself in China’s growing confidence and sense of national pride. All these point to a poised and assertive nation that is willing to flex its economic and military muscle as demonstrated by the more combative stances taken by Chinese diplomats who engage in the aptly named ‘Wolf Warrior diplomacy’, which also shows a case of the silver screen influencing present geopolitics. It is of the success of these films that illustrates how Chinese nationalism has been a concerning but lucrative force. In addition, while these films demonstrate the necessity of controlling the past for political legitimacy, it is the control of China’s future that is the bigger question, the answer for which can be found in these.
 Philip J. Greer, Chosin Reservoir: The Battle That Stalled a War, Sabre and Scroll, Vol.9 No.3, Winter 2020, p. 169
 Mimi Lau, Film about founding of China’s military slammed by grandson of one of its central characters, South China Morning Post, 28th July 2017 (https://www.scmp.com/news/china/society/article/2104519/film-about-founding-chinas-military-slammed-grandson-one-its)
 Pan Xiaodie, Zhang Haixia and Zhu Yongfei, An Analysis of the Current Situation of the Chinese Clothing Craze in the Context of the Rejuvenation of Chinese Culture, Advances in Social Science, Education and Humanities Research, Vol. 466, p.504
Tom Harper is an independent researcher specialising in China’s foreign relations. He received his PhD from the University of Surrey and has previously taught at Neijiang Normal University.