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Every October, during the weeklong National Day holidays, it’s become a tradition for people in China to go to the movies. And there’s always a new patriotic flick or two in the movie lineup. This year was no exception.

The “Battle at Lake Changjin” is a Hollywood-style war movie with A-list actors, cutting-edge special effects and some pretty gruesome fight scenes. It’s about a brutal battle of the Korean War. In China, people often refer to it as “the war to resist US aggression and help Korea.” The three-hour long film has set box-office records.

The film glorifies the Chinese troops that defeated the Americans — a fact disputed by historians — in a decisive battle that ended up being a turning point in the war. The historic parallels between the Korean War and the 21st century stand-off between the US and China is a big reason for the film’s popularity.

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Unlike Hollywood war movies, there isn’t a single protagonist. The heroes are really the soldiers of China’s People’s Liberation Army, who went to war without enough warm clothes, food or weapons in brutally frigid temperatures.

Last year, China overtook the US as the biggest film market in the world, with local blockbuster hits commanding bigger shares of ticket sales. While Marvel films like “Shang-chi” and the “Legend of the Ten Rings” lead box office sales in the US, in China, propaganda films like “Battle at Lake Changjin” have people flocking to the theaters.

Li Min, a working mom, said her grandparents would tell her stories of their time in the Korean War, but that they never seemed real to her until she saw the film. That’s why she wanted to take her 9- and 14-year old kids to see the movie.

“It’s important for them to remember history. ... I want them to understand that the comfortable life they have now was only won through the blood and sweat of those who came before us.”

Li Min, working mom who took her children to watch "Battle at Lake Changjin"

“It’s important for them to remember history,” she said. “I want them to understand that the comfortable life they have now was only won through the blood and sweat of those who came before us.”

Some filmgoers said the movie was a little too “Hollywood” for their taste — not true enough in terms of the grim reality of the soldiers who fought and died on the Korean Peninsula. But many said they were truly moved by the film.

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This is a battle where 50,000 Chinese troops died, either in combat or by freezing to death. Wu Xinbo, director of Fudan University’s Center for American Studies, said that even today, people are well aware of the sacrifices that Chinese soldiers made to win the battle.

“The battle is always painted as a kind of symbol of the heroism, the spirit of sacrifice and the spirit of discipline on the part of the Chinese military."

Wu Xinbo, director, Fudan University Center for American Studies

“The battle is always painted as a kind of symbol of the heroism, the spirit of sacrifice and the spirit of discipline on the part of the Chinese military,” he said. 

Last year marked the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War. Since then, there’s been a slew of films, documentaries and TV series for release in China about the war.

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Zhao Ma, a professor of Chinese history at Washington University in St. Louis, said 12 films have been produced about the Korean War in just the past year. It’s a significant uptick in films about the war in such a short period of time.

“The Korean War in China's national memory really shifted to a kind of a nationalist mission. ... So, [the] Chinese state or the party remains at the center in this narrative … the entire war is kind of just a salute to this glorious Chinese party and glorious Chinese state.”

Zhao Ma, professor of Chinese history, Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri 

“The Korean War in China's national memory really shifted to a kind of a nationalist mission,” he said. “So, [the] Chinese state or the party remains at the center in this narrative … the entire war is kind of just a salute to this glorious Chinese party and glorious Chinese state.”

To call “Battle at Lake Changjin” a propaganda film is not a stretch. It was actually commissioned by the government. But Katherine Chu, a political science professor at California State University, said that people in China don’t necessarily see “propaganda” as negative.

“We call this a propaganda film, but I think from the Chinese perspective, they actually see this film is ... educational because they thought that they could learn some history about the past of their country.”

Katherine Chu, political science professor, California State Univeristy

“We call this a propaganda film,” she said, “but I think from the Chinese perspective, they actually see this film is ... educational because they thought that they could learn some history about the past of their country.”

She said the film taps into nationalist sentiment that the government under Xi Jinping’s leadership is trying to foster among young people.

“It just … inspired a new generation,” she said. “You have to do the same thing [for] defense, to keep China safe.”

The film, which takes place at the start of the Cold War era, has become popular amid the current political standoff between China and the United States.

Professor Ma, from Washington University, says this is intentional. The two countries are not at war, of course, but it’s no secret that the relationship is deeply fraught.

“The tensions with the United States really escalated at a dizzying pace in 2020,” he said. “The relationship is [in] freefall and nobody knows where the bottom is.”

Wu Xinbo from Fudan University’s Center for American Studies said this resonates with audiences in China. And the movie also has a pretty clear message for Americans, too.

“The US should never underestimate China,” he said. “Under the US pressure the Chinese people would even more strongly support the government and Communist party. If the US really treats China as a strategic rival, or even an enemy, I think the US should be prepared to pay a very high price for that,” he said.

In other words — remember this moment in history when the American military met Chinese troops on the battlefield — and lost.

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