Battle of Red Cliff: A Historical Chinese War Film

A few days ago, I wrote about watching movies in the Russian language. It has provided some insights into the society at the peak of the Soviet Union. I was equally interested to know more about China while studying an online course from Harvard University. Alongside India, China is one of the oldest civilizations on earth, yet there is very little knowledge about it in the public domain. In the same way, Chinese language movies are also not very popular.

It was difficult to find movies in the Russian language, but it was even more difficult to find movies in the Chinese language with English subtitles. Many years ago, I watched the historical drama “Battle of Red Cliff”. It is made in 2 parts and is very long for a normal movie length. It is so good that I watched it a number of times. This movie was based on a battle, sighted as one of the largest naval battles in history. People like ‘Zhu Ge Liang’ ‘Zhou Yu’ who were part of this battle are very famous in China. The incidents depicted in this movie are also part of many plays, series, and chinese literature.

This movie is set in the early 3rd century of imperial China. It was before the period of the 3 kingdoms. This movie described events during the reign of Emperor Xian of the Han Dynasty. His power was weakening with no control of the various warlords, who are de-facto ruling their respective territories. One of the most powerful warlords ‘Cao Cao’ defeated many others and brought the northern part of the empire under his control. Following this victory, Emperor granted him enormous powers with unchallenged authority.

Cao Cao then set his sight on other powerful warlords in the South. Though these war-lords swore allegiance to the Emperor, their rise could pose a direct threat to the emperor in the future. Cao Cao convinced the emperor to act against these warlords. Emperor granted him a huge army to march towards the Southern Part of the Han empire and brought these remaining warlords under the emperor’s control. In the hindsight, it was Cao Cao who was aiming for the throne and wanted to use the emperor’s weakness to eliminate any potential adversaries. (Insert a map here)

Cao Cao & his large army marched towards the South. Over the years, he has crushed many regional warlords until 2 of them joined hands to resist this victory march. These 2 warlords and their armies were no match for Cao Cao’s large army but they defeated Cao Cao. This movie is all about this battle. You have to watch this movie to know more about this, but I can tell you what I liked about this movie.

Ancient China: Set in the 3rd century, this movie touched so many inner aspects of society. The cuisines, family structure, and marksmanship. It is interesting to note that every individual was expected to learn to ride a horse. Family ties were important, bureaucracy was high, and education was given huge importance. I noted the high importance given to literature and science. The presentation of the power struggles in this movie was impressive.

Role of Women in Society: This movie has given a lot of emphasis to female characters. It did highlight the traditional role played by women in 3rd century China. Society was very much patriarchal, polygamy was normal, and women are restricted to household work.

One of the lead female characters in this movie is excellent at riding horses, sword fighting, and carrying out spy work. Played by the famous Chinese actress ‘Zhao Wei’, this character broke all the taboos. She had her own all-female armed guard unit. She has also shown her bravery on the battlefield. But, despite all those qualifications, she was not allowed to make her own decisions. Especially, in terms of her choosing her life partner. Her efforts to take control of her own life choices were beautifully depicted in this movie.

Grand Scale: I have been obsessed with the Roman empire for over a decade. I studied many books, watched documentaries, and visited historical places linked with this empire. But that was before, I started reading more about Chinese history. The battles in China were equally grand, fought with sophisticated weapons, and many times involved a large naval force. This movie was shot on a very grand scale and reflected the grandness of such battles in 3rd century China.

Music: This movie showcased many traditional Chinese musical instruments. Background music too was one of the finest while touching the ancient nature of the movie.

Chinese movie stars: Before this movie, I had no clue about any the Chinese film personalities beyond Jackie Chan. After this movie, I did learn about many others. That’s good to have more diversity.

In the end, I can just say that if you got bored of Hollywood, Bollywood, and any other woo; it is a good time to consider watching Chinese movies. And if you are a fan of history, then ‘Battle of Red Cliff’ can be a good place to start. Some of the links to know more about this movie


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