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Chinese history

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Title: 中國歷史名人: 智勇雙全的軍事家
Translated title: Chinese Historical Figures: Wise and Brave Strategists
Language: Chinese
Year: 2009

It’s difficult to review books I don’t fully understand. If the problem isn’t language (like in Gravity’s Rainbow), it’s okay, but that is the problem, well, let’s say its hard to give the book a fair evaluation. Still, this is what I will try to do.

To begin with, the format of this book is quite neat. It’s the first of four books in a series portraying famous persons in Chinese history, giving each around twenty pages or so, with smaller stories of other characters interspersed between chapters. This volume deals with great generals and soldiers. Rather than focusing on the persons and their lives in general, though, the text depicts famous instances in which the person was involved. This is a book for children, so this kind of design might be preferable. In the chapter about Sun Tzu, little is mentioned about his impact on future generations, what he achieved during his lifetime and so forth: Instead, the emphasis is placed on the time when he first became a general and some episodes during his career. As a grown-up, I find this a bit unsatisfactory, since I would have like to know some more basic facts.

Sadly, my Chinese is too poor to fully appreciate this book. Indeed, I would have had to use a dictionary in almost every sentence to understand, which wasn’t something I was prepared to do at the time. As it was, I understood the general meaning of most passages, but seldom any detail. Here it what the book looks like:

Rating this book is perhaps stupid, but I will do so anyway, based on the parts I did understand. The idea is good, the stories are interesting and entertaining, which merits a good grade of say four snails or so. However, the pictures are fairly ugly and as I said above, I think the presentation lacks some basic presentation of the character in question. Settling for a rating of three snails perhaps doesn’t seem fair, but it does reflect my opinion of this book.

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Title: 荊柯刺秦王
English title: The Emperor and the Assassin
Directed by:
Chen Kaige
Written by:
Chen Kaige, Wang Peigong
Year: 1999

The Emperor and the Assassin takes place a couple of hundred years BC, in what in Chinese history is called the Warring States Period, which ended with the Qin dynasty being inaugurated, unifying China. The film is focused on the king of Qin and his endeavour to unity all peoples under heaven (I do not know how much of the story is historically correct, except for the basic setting). Through war and terror, he strives to achieve his goal, but as dark secrets are revealed, the woman closest to him begins to plot his downfall to end the madness.

This film is brilliant in many ways, and I will briefly touch on three things here. Firstly, the acting is absolutely marvellous. This extends not only to the main roles (especially Lady Zhao), but also to many of the supporting roles. The acting feels genuine and unique in a way I have seldom come across. Secondly, the movie is visually a pleasure to watch, with beautiful scenery, expertly captured down to the smallest details. Thirdly, the story is entertaining because, at least to my mind, it is not obvious how it will develop. Also, the director and script writers do leave a lot to the watcher, meaning that I will probably like The Emperor and the Assassin even more if I watch it a second time.

Perhaps the film is a bit too long (almost three hours), but I also feel that the three hours are necessary to develop the story and the characters. The language spoken is Mandarin Chinese, which is part of the reason why I chose to watch The Emperor and the Assassin, but with good subtitling there should be no problems. I recommend this movie to everyone who is interested in a unique and entertaining vision of the lives of a few individuals in a chaotic episode of China’s history.

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