We Need to Talk About the Virulent Racism of "The Great Wall"
Spoilers follow for the film so boring that TK fell asleep during it.
The Great Wall arrived this weekend after months of growing concern over the inherent problems of race in the film. We need to have a very adult and mature conversation about race and representation in film, so please, if you can’t handle that, I’m going to need for you to bow out of this thread up front.
I’m talking, of course, about the film’s insistence on using the flimsy charade of mindless bloodthirsty lizard people from space as a racist metaphor for the glorious Mongol people.
Every school child knows that the Great Wall was built to keep the barbarians of the steppes out of China proper. This interpretation is deeply flawed in a historical sense, as it did little to ever function as a true fortification, and only really served as an occasionally manned and enormously overbuilt set of border markers. But that cliched common knowledge is what is salient here, because it betrays the precise rewriting of history that this Chinese written, funded, and produced film is trying to accomplish.
It is a political hit job trying to reframe the greatest catastrophe in Chinese history, the greatest failure of its generals and soldiery, and by extension the greatest triumph of Mongol history, into a noble Chinese victory against overwhelming and inhuman odds.
The reality was the opposite on every single count. The Mongol conquest of Chinese was absolute and complete. And in particular it was a legendary achievement of intelligence and tactics against a foe with enormous numerical superiority, fighting on its home soil. The crushing of China is ranked as one of the most incredible feats of generalship in the history of the world. It was a total and unequivocal humiliation of the most powerful country in the world.
But, sure, they were just bloodthirsty alien lizards who were dumb enough to beat their heads against the Maginot Line’s big brother.
And to release such a film in today’s political climate is of course no coincidence, with the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia bulging at the seams, with a population almost ten times that of independent Mongolia across the border. This sort of historical revisionism, trying to portray the Mongols as dull and violent brutes that require the civilizing hand of China is especially galling today. It is an act of thinly veiled propaganda aimed at justifying the slow creep of imperialism.
The Mongols, who established the largest empire in world history in the span of barely a generation, who annihilated China and rode circles around their silly Great Wall and gunpowder toys, who once conquered Russia with a scout force that just rode north to see if their new maps were correct, the goddamned howling hordes of destruction themselves who were known from the Pacific to the Atlantic with names in every language that were variations on “the scourge of God”? Displayed as nothing but dumb berserkers who throw themselves in their hordes upon China’s mighty symbolic wall.
For shame, China, for shame.
And let us not forget that ending, the implication that all the armies of the Mongols could be stopped in their tracks by their leader keeling over dead just at the moment when complete victory was at hand.
Oh goddamnit Ögedei.
Dr. Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.
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