Chinese actor William Chan as Genghis Khan (left) and a villain (right) from the new movie Genghis Khan (Photos: VCG)
A recently released movie about Genghis Khan, founder of the Mongol Empire, has aroused resistance and boycotts from a vocal group of Han people who refuse to admit that Genghis Khan is a hero to them.
"We are receiving messages from audiences who say that there are people buying [fake reviews] to slam the movie maliciously, in an attempt to mislead the audience before the movie was put on screen," said a statement on the movie's official Weibo account.
Genghis Khan, whose Chinese title literally means "God of War," has irritated a number of Han people who said Genghis Khan and his successors killed millions of Han people, China's majority ethnic group, during their conquest and reign in China.
On Chinese review platform Douban, the overall score for Genghis Khan is currently a record low of 3.6, with the majority of viewers giving it a one star out of five. Before the movie was screened on April 28, many netizens gave the movie negative comments on Douban.
Some wrote that they found the movie unacceptable because it depicts Genghis Khan as a national hero, which does not show any respect for history.
It is said that the majority of viewers who made negative comments about the movie are people claiming to be Huanghan, literally meaning "imperial Han" - a group of proud Han people who believe the Chinese government has given ethnic minorities too many privileges at the cost of the interest of Han people.
The Mongol Empire, founded by Genghis Khan, annexed China following the collapse of the Song Dynasty in 1279 and ruled China for about a century. The Mongol reign was called Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) in Chinese history.
Huanghan first emerged online several years ago in safeguarding Han culture and are very proud of their ethnic identity. They usually praise everything related to Han and hold grudge against the government affirmative action policies favorable to ethnic minorities.
In order to maintain unity among ethnic groups and to avoid offending the 6.5 million ethnic Mongolians living in China, China's history textbooks gloss over the cruelty of the Mongol conquest, which hurts the feelings of the Huanghan.
"Some people may feel it is no big deal, but we don't think so," Huanghan Zhiwei, who said he is a Huanghan, told the Global Times. "I will not watch the movie, and I will ask my friends and relatives to boycott it too."
As the boycott proceeds, other Chinese continue to swarm to local theaters across the country to watch the movie, which boasts several well-known actors and has thus far grossed more than 37 million yuan ($5.82 million) at the domestic box office.
Many moviegoers thought that it is not a serious historical movie, but rather a fantasy film combining scenes similar to those seen in Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. "It is totally fine if you change the name of Temujin (Genghis Khan's birth name) to any other name you want. The story still holds water," commented a moviegoer online.
But Huanghan refuse to back down on their beliefs even if it is a fictional fantasy film. In spite of its reported problems, including shabby special effects, the name Genghis Khan is the film's biggest sore spot (and, ironically, also its biggest selling point).
"Don't use the name of Temujin if you just want to tell a fantasy story unrelated to historical facts," Huanghan Zhiwei said. "You need to bear the heaviness [of history]."
Many have expressed their dislike of the Mongol ruler and his successors, as historians have estimated that they killed millions while enlarging the territory of the Mongol Empire. "I'm from Changzhou (in East China's Jiangsu Province). At the end of the Song Dynasty, my whole city was butchered by a Mongolian army (under the order of Kublai Khan, Genghis Khan's grandson)," a netizen wrote on Weibo.
Genghis Khan has been praised as a hero who contributed greatly to unifying China. Chairman Mao praised him as a "proud son of heaven" in one of his well-known poems. But not everyone buys the historic view any more.
Several Huanghan told the Global Times that their boycott of the new film was voluntary in nature. They simply refuse to pay to watch the movie and will make their opinions known online and through word of mouth.
They attribute the boycott also to a group of patriotic Chinese who, after the movie was first thrown into controversy by Huanghan, discovered that the French producer of the movie, Jean Jacques Annaud (director of Seven Years in Tibet) may support "Tibetan independence."
"Huanghan started the first round of the boycott, and the French producer helped enlarge it to a larger scale," said Tiexue Huanghan.
Pride or chauvinism?
Through their boycott, Huanghan hope to safeguard Han people and fight for a more "equal" environment for Han. "It is just a response to the current national ethnic policy," Tiexue Huanghan, who is also a Huanghan, said of the film's boycott.
People who claim to be Huanghan have grown dissatisfied with China's current ethnic policy, claiming that it favors ethnic minority groups, such as a favorable scoring policy in the gaokao, China's national college entrance examinations.
"Only when you treat every ethnic group equally can you unite them. Providing preferential treatment to one group usually means discrimination against another," said Tiexue Huanghan, adding that most Huanghan are patriotic and work toward the good of the entire country.
While many refuse to watch the movie simply because it is about Genghis Khan, Tiexue said he feels it is unfair that a movie about a Mongol ruler is being screened while several other movies and TV series about Han heroes have been blocked from being shown on screen due to unknown reasons.
Tiexue became a Huanghan several months ago after he found people insulting Han culture in the name of slamming extreme Huanghan. "Han culture is the root of the Chinese culture that we are obliged to safeguard," Tiexue told the Global Times.
Meanwhile, a feeling of unfairness makes them particularly sensitive to things related to other ethnic groups.
Last year, a 19-year-old man was sentenced to one year in prison for "stirring up ethnic hatred" after he spread online a video showing him treading on a portrait of Genghis Khan in a Mongolian-style yurt.
The case infuriated many Huanghan, who feel the punishment was too severe.
"A fine would be enough. The problem is, Genghis Khan is deified in that local area," said Tiexue. "Meanwhile, Han heroes are thrown into oblivion."
Tiexue joined the group supporting the young man, posting articles on social networks and making phone calls to the local government of the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region to speak up for the man. "We just hope for a more equal environment for every ethnic group," said Tiexue.
Enhancing ethnic education
Huanghan do not always enjoy a good reputation, as there are extreme ones who regard Han as superior to other ethnic groups. Based on their extreme mindset, these people are criticized online as a group that "hates to see a unified and peaceful China and tries to stir up conflicts among ethnic groups."
"Most Huanghan are patriotic. But there are also separatists who speak and act in the name of all Huanghan," said Tiexue. He admits that those extreme ones could be easily used by people with evil intentions.
Xiong Kunxin, an ethnic studies expert and a professor at Tibet University in Lhasa, regards the whole thing disapprovingly. He told the Global Times that Huanghan are more or less related to Han chauvinism, which is criticized by the Chinese government as narrow nationalism.
"Some people don't have a thorough understanding of history. Chinese history was made by all ethnic groups. In the Yuan Dynasty, China unprecedentedly enlarged its territory. We also should recognize the achievements of the Yuan in unifying the country," said Xiong.
Xiong added that, in recent years, some people have grown discontent with favorable policies for ethnic minorities because they do not really understand the essence of China's ethnic policy.
"Given the development gap between Han and other ethnic minority groups, equality among the ethnic groups in our country does not mean that they are equal in anything. Instead, it means providing favorable aid and support to ethnic minorities so that we all achieve a state of equality in the end," said Xiong.
"China has been carrying out ethnic education among ethnic minorities in remote areas. Now we should also start ethnic education for Han people, so that they can understand our policy better," Xiong added.