Representations of History in Chinese Film and Television


Historical Background

The First Sino-Japanese War was a war fought between Qing dynasty China and Meiji Japan, initially over the control of Korea but then moving on to Manchurian soil. Japan was attracted by Korea’s strategic location and its natural resources, but Korea had traditionally been a tributary state to China. The Convention of Tianjin of 1885 had been a first arrangement between China and Japan over the Korea question insofar as both the Chinese and the Japanese were granted an equal status in Korea from then on. This agreement worked until the uprising of the Tonghak movement in Korea in 1894. [1] The Korean Emperor felt unable to cope with the Tonghak rebels and – in accordance to old tributary relations – asked China to send troops to help suppressing them. When the Japanese – according to the Convention of Tianjin – were informed by China of this move, they, too, sent their own expeditionary forces to Korea. After the quelling of the rebellion, the Japanese refused to withdraw and tensions mounted to the point that the two countries soon engaged in the First Sino-Japanese War.
One early main battle was the so called „Battle of the Yalu River” or “Battle on the Yellow Sea” between the Chinese and the Japanese navies which took place on the 17th September of 1894. The Japanese fleet under admiral Itô Yûkô attempted to prevent the landing of Chinese troops that were protected by a fleet under admiral Ding Ruchang. The battle on the Yellow Sea, at the mouth of the Yalu River that marks the border between Korea and China, was the largest naval engagement of the First Sino-Japanese War. Even though the Chinese had numerous foreign advisors and instructors, and also had bigger (though slower) ships, the Chinese lost the battle and finally the whole First Sino-Japanese War. The reasons were, among others, serious coordination problems and corruption among officials and the military on the Chinese side. On the Japanese side, a spirited army and a unified government stood behind the war effort. The Chinese artillery was not well prepared for its job in the battle, neither personally nor technically. Some of their ammunition they had received from Tianjin, the military headquarter of the Chinese Beiyang Navy, had been even filled with sand because of corruption. Consequently the Chinese soon ran out of ammunition and the Japanese, seeming much inferior to the Chinese at the beginning, came out victorious. [2]


[1] The Tonghak movement (literally: “Eastern learning” as opposed to “Western learning”, i.e. Christianity) was a Korean indigenous religious movement founded by Ch'oe Cheu in the early 1860s. It staged an uprising in 1894, being motivated by religious fervor as well as by indignation about the corrupt and oppressive government.

[2] A recent extensive treatment of the war in English is Paine, S.C.M.: The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

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© 2007 Gotelind Müller-Saini