(The Naval Battle of 1894)
(Feature film, PR China, 1962)
The Chinese movie „Jiawu Fengyun“, directed by Lin Nong 林農, produced by Changchun Film Studios and launched in 1962, is one of the most successful historical movies in China. It is known as the official film on the First Sino-Japanese War (in Chinese called Zhongri Jiawu Zhanzheng 中日甲午戰爭, August 1894 to April 1895 – a war fought between Qing dynasty China and Meiji Japan, initially over the control of Korea). The movie is based on historical personalities and events related to this war in its early phase and is still officially recommended for use in school.
In 1894, the Qing dynasty was in grave trouble, because Japan was about to provoke war with China in order to settle the question of supremacy in Korea. Within the Qing court, some officials (in general portrayed as corrupt) downplayed the danger of a Japanese attack. These officials were headed by Li Hongzhang who advocated a policy of non-resistance. Even as the Japanese started attacking the Chinese, Li Hongzhang insisted on his policy of appeasement. On the other hand, there were other patriotic officials and military commanders, like Deng Shichang, who wanted to fight Japan to death. Deng commanded the battleship Zhiyuan which was involved in the first major sea battle against the Japanese, targeting the Japanese most prestigious battleship Yoshino, but unfortunately Deng Shichang and his crew ran out of ammunition. The Zhiyuan, without being able to defend herself any more, drove full speed and tried to ram the Yoshino. Being hit by a Japanese torpedo, she sank before achieving her aim, though. Deng Shichang with his crew thus died a martyr’s death.
The film confines itself to narrating the outbreak and earliest phase of the First Sino-Japanese War – a war that historically consisted in a single chain of Chinese defeats which deeply humbled China internationally – with a focus on one tragic person, Deng Shichang. His figure embodies the hope of the “masses”, thus presenting him as a war hero to the Chinese audience with the aim of arousing patriotic fervor. In this way the viewer is left with the impression of an unfortunate war which could well have been won if passionate patriots like Deng Shichang would have had their way. Therewith the problem lingering in the background of who was responsible for the great Chinese empire’s surprisingly swift defeat by the “small islands” of Japan is eased by referring to the tragic hero as being blocked by the rampant corruption of the “feudal” system.