China rewrites history of Hong Kong

Teresa Poole in Peking on the early release of film epic that aims to spike British guns at handover

"You like to eat bleeding food," shudders the Emperor's envoy as he cuts into the large rare steak put before him by the uncouth Westerners.

"I understand that Chinese cuisine is unrivalled in the world; I cannot say the same of your cannons," retorts the victorious British officer, chewing his way through a slab of meat as he demands that Peking hands over Hong Kong - adding that it would make a timely present for Queen Victoria's upcoming birthday.

History may be written by the winners, but it can always be rewritten some 150 years later when the original sovereign power regains possession of its territory. The Opium War, the most expensive mainland Chinese film ever made opened yesterday in China, expansively portraying the heinous behaviour of the British in forcing the ceding of Hong Kong in 1842.

The 100 million yuan epic (pounds 7.7m), with a cast of 50,000 extras and a fleet of Victorian warships, is China's blockbuster version of one of the more shameful episodes in British history.

The film tells the story of how China tried to stop imports of opium by the British East India Company and other traders, only to be met by the force of Her Majesty's Navy. Superintendent Charles Elliot is the villain determined to teach China a lesson, and Denton (played by Bob Peck) an evil opium trader. The venal Chinese Qing dynasty officials, who grab every available bribe from the British in return for letting in the drugs, complete a cast of miscreants.

Against this line-up, our hero is Commissioner Lin Zexu, the honest official who was determined to rid China of the scourge of opium, unaware that foreign powers had such might to unleash on the Middle Kingdom. "When a nation uses iron to eat their food, we should take notice of them," he remarks ruefully, perceiving some possible connection between knives and forks and the manufacture of heavy-duty cannons. China "should not be a frog at the bottom of the well", is his advice for the weak Emperor at the end of the film after China has been roundly beaten and Hong Kong lost.

China's leaders are said to be delighted with the film, which was directed by 73-year-old Xie Jin. Over the next few weeks, the film will open at hundreds of cinemas in China and Hong Kong, and an edict has gone out that Chinese embassies around the world should show the film on 1 July, as part of their Hong Kong handover celebrations.

Chen Zhigu, general manager of the film production company, said shooting the film was "the embodiment of a national soul. It is a determination of the proud Chinese to do what their ancestors have never done, and it is a great effort to sweep away the humiliation".

It is one of the many propaganda weapons to be unleashed by China. "Our original plan was to show the film in Hong Kong in July, but the central leaders ordered it must be shown in June as part of a strategy. Because now the British are holding big celebrations there; they will invite the most famous singers, and send for the most luxurious pleasure-boat to ferry the British leaders back home. They will hold banquets and say 'It is I who gives Hong Kong as a gift to you'. This film, as a personal expression of Mr Xie's point-of-view, will tell people the way in which the British stole Hong Kong. They were robbers," said Mr Chen.

The film has opted for broad rather than detailed historical fact, and the big budget demands of the wide screen have encouraged certain embellishments designed to delight a Chinese audience. The serene and beautiful Chinese opium addict who is forced into prostitution is shown rejecting first Denton ("Why not? I am also a man"), and then Elliot, whom she tries to stab with a pair of scissors. The Qing court sentences her to death for endangering the peace treaty with the British.

When the British parliament is shown debating the case for war, the House is divided between the hawks and those, like one MP, who pronounce Confucius far greater than Aristotle or Socrates. "It will take us generations to understand China. We may be able to defeat but not conquer them," he warns, sentiments which appear regularly these days in the People's Daily.

Humour is the unexpected ingredient in this enterprise. During peace negotiations, the English interpreter says with exasperation: "They are always like this; this is so typically Chinese. They never say yes, and they never say no."

In the end, the brutal British get Hong Kong, while Commissioner Lin is banished by Peking to China's far north-west border. The Emperor prostrates himself before his ancestors, devastated at having yielded Chinese soil to the barbarians.

But as the final credits begin to roll, there is every reason to expect the Middle Kingdom to avenge the historical injustice. The camera pans across the dark, rainswept courtyard of the Forbidden City and halts on the statue of a lion - whose eyes start to glow an intense, menacing electric red.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
health
News
science
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
News
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
people
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
News
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Sport
football
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power