As a first generation Chinese born Canadian, my knowledge of the country of my heritage is unfortunately limited. What little knowledge I have of the history of ancient China all the way through to the end of the Cultural Revolution and Tianamen Square, comes from nearly a decade of Chinese school, Chinese primetime programming and my parents who were born and raised in Canton.
That being said, I’ve always jump at the chance to see Chinese movies with recognizable figures from within the Hong Kong & Chinese cinema attached to them that provide a fictional account of an important event or figure in Chinese history. Case in point, the Wong Fei Hung series with Jet Li in the lead role is and will always be among my absolute favorites in Chinese films as is Jet’s Fong Sai Yuk series. If you’ve never seen Ip Man or Ip Man 2, Donnie Yen’s portrayal of Bruce Lee’s Wing Chun Sifu is absolutely spectacular.
Considering that good quality and well-executed Chinese films (usually in my native Cantonese, though I’m not opposed to Mandarin) are what I love from Hong Kong & Chinese cinema, I was naturally drawn to The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake. My colleague showed me the trailer while we were at work and I was instantly drawn into the story. My colleague was able to catch the film on the opening night of the Film Festival and he had nothing but rave reviews for the movie. He was certain that I would feel the same way.
As I mentioned before, my knowledge of Chinese history is rather limited. Growing up, I’d always heard the expression that China prior to and during the Second World War was like a ‘bucket of loose sand’, too busy fighting within its own borders and in conflict with its own people to band together as one nation and have pride in China as a country, refusing to bow to foreign interests. And based on what the film showcased, I would say the expression was correct.
The film begins with a series of flashbacks detailing the life of Chinese feminist, writer and anti-Qing Empire revolutionary Qiu Jin that continue on throughout the movie, along with several snapshots of significant moments in Chinese history. Among those moments were several disadvantageous treaties that China had signed between 1840 and 1880, including the four treaties of Tientsin after the Second Opium War which allowed Britain, France, Russia and the US to establish embassies in Beijing, a closed city at the time as well as the right for foreign vessels including commercial ships to navigate the Yangtze River. China was also forced to pay an indemnity of 8 million taels of silver each to Britain and France.
Also included was the Treaty of Aigun in 1858 that saw Russia gain territory from China including the left bank of the Amur River, pushing the border back from the Argun River. The treaty also gave Russia control over a non-freezing area on the Pacific coast, where Russia founded the city of Vladivostok in 1860.
There were also several rebellions between 1840 and 1880 in China as well. The Taipeng Revolution from 1850 to 1864 alone caused 20 million deaths, one of the deadliest military conflicts in history. It was into this chaos that Qiu Jin, played by Huang Yi in the film, was born in 1880. The daughter of a governor, she defied convention even as a child by refusing to have her feet bound and spoke often with her father about fighting to make China a better country, to rise above the corruption and to take pride in being Chinese again. To Qiu Jin, even at a young age, it didn’t matter to her that she was a woman, she could fight to make China a better country, as long as she put her mind and her heart into it. An act of defiance close to home saw her rescue a mute child bride from her abusive in-laws and the child bride follows her as her best friend and confidante for the rest of her life.
After her arranged marriage to Wang Tianjun (in a surprise appearance by Hong Kong/TVB actor Kevin Cheng, in my mind), Qiu Jin reluctantly comes into her role as wife and mother to two children, though her beliefs and her actions couldn’t have been more different from her husband’s. He fits the role of the spoiled, entitled, rich husband of China’s upper middle class to a T, not bothering to leave a card game to inquire on the health of welfare of his wife after the birth of their daughter as a prime example. Qiu Jin passed the time by making the acquaintance of other women such as herself who believed in equality and women’s rights and writing poetry that outlined her love and despair for the state of China’s affairs.
After buying an office in Beijing to soothe his wife’s growing desires to see real positive change in China, Wang Tianjun slipped into the role of the money-making official who leaves the wife and children at home to spend time in brothels. Qiu Jin eventually realized that just writing poetry to inspire the people isn’t enough; she wants to do more to inspire change in the country and to be surrounded by like-minded people who are also sick of the mindless corruption of Chinese officials and an Empress Dowager who only cared for her own luxury.
In order to do this, Qiu Jin goes to Japan in 1904 (in what to me seems like a twist of irony, given China’s later history with Japan) and meets a group of young people who also wish to affect change in China, led by Xu Xilin, a man who would become a confidante and good friend. As they marched in a student demonstration in the streets of Japan protesting Qing Dynasty reforms that affect Chinese students in Japan (which was an eerie precursor to Tianamen Square, in my mind), they were met with resistance and beaten by military officers. This event pushes one of Qiu Jin’s revolutionary compatriots in the group to commit suicide and causes their group to run into direct opposition from fellow Chinese students who see nothing to be gained from upsetting the status quo.
Qin Jiu returns to China a year later and started publishing a women’s magazine in which she encouraged women to gain financial independence through education and training in various professions. She encouraged women to resist oppression by their families and by the government. At the same time, she also tried to regain the role of mother and wife, only to discover that her children no longer recognize her and that in her absence, her husband had grown from a spoiled child to devoted father. Accepting that her place was no longer with her family, Qiu Jin steps up her involvement in the revolution by taking over as headmaster of Datong school in Shaoxing, previously led by Xu Xilin, a school for sports teachers that was a cover for the actual military training academy for revolutionaries. Xu Xilin purchased an official rank and became head of police HQ of Anqing in Anhui province, where he plotted and succeeded in the assassination of En Ming, a Manchu official (governor in the film), but which led to deaths of all other revolutionary members in his group and his own eventual capture and execution.
As the entire film takes place in flashbacks, we’re able to see exactly how Qin Jiu is captured and her subsequent treatment in prison, how she is tortured with thumb screws for information she refuses to give and how she manages to find a kindred spirit in one Manchu official, who is sympathetic to her cause. He too, agrees that the Chinese government has been corrupt for too long, but sadly believes that Qin Jiu’s efforts and those of her revolutionary compatriots will not succeed, at least, not at this juncture. The minor official’s hands are unfortunately tied by orders from the Imperial Court and he is forced to execute Qin Jiu for her involvement with the revolutionaries in the end. Unable to live with the guilt, he commits suicide soon after.
Overall, I’d say that it was an eye-opening film, one that really opened my eyes to the struggle that women in the later 19th and early 20th century China had to go through for equality and a measure of self-control over their own lives. It was a surprise to see so many familiar faces in a Mandarin film, including long-time Hong Kong film actor Anthony Wong, who played the official sympathetic to Qiu Jin’s cause.
It was tragic to see that neither Qiu Jin nor Xu Xilin lived to see their efforts at changing how the Chinese government governed its own people succeed, but history has proven more than once, that that is the end result for most revolutionaries. Those that sacrifice their lives to the cause outnumber those who live, but their sacrifice often inspires more people to stand up for what they believe in. That’s the message to take away from this film, that their efforts, though successful in some way and futile in others, were ultimately about more than just striking back at the enemy, it was about inspiring more people.
It’s thanks to the early efforts of people like Qiu Jin and Xu Xilin that the Chinese people started to ‘wake up’ so to speak and stop acting like a ‘pile of loose sand’, as the expression goes. It is because of the efforts of these two extraordinary individuals who stood up for what they believe in that China started on the road to regain its national pride.