Historical films, such as ‘The Eight Hundred’, have been a big hit with Chinese audiences
Historical films such as ‘The Eight Hundred’ have been a big hit with Chinese audiences © CMC Pictures

A Chinese television show set during the country’s second world war battle against Japan has been cancelled following an outcry from nationalist critics who said it failed to respect history.

Thunderbolt Warrior, a drama about the Eighth Route Army, the main Communist forces that fought the Japanese, was besieged online after it aired two weeks ago on Hunan television, one of China’s most popular channels.

Detractors of the show derided its decision to cast young stars to play the roles of army leaders. They described the casting as excessive pandering to younger viewers and said the portrayal of heroes as flirtatious, mansion-living, cigar-smoking and coffee-drinking hell-raisers was inaccurate if not “slanderous”.

The People’s Daily newspaper, the official Communist party mouthpiece, said in an editorial on Sunday that it was fine to appeal to young viewers “but respecting history is a prerequisite”.

The show was taken off streaming platforms on Monday and its staff released a long statement on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging platform. They expressed “deep regret” but pointed out that many Communist leaders during the second world war were young, hot-blooded revolutionaries.

Since assuming power in 2012, President Xi Jinping has made official party historical narratives sacrosanct and warned against “historical nihilism”. In 2018, a law was passed criminalising the slander of “heroes and martyrs”.

The party has tightened control over official narratives as China moves to overtake the US as the largest entertainment market in the world.

In October, Artisan Gateway, a consultancy, estimated that China’s 2020 box office had eclipsed the US. That gap was expected to grow for the remainder of the year, as cinemas return to full capacity in China while some US theatres remain closed because of coronavirus.

Historical dramas featuring heroic troops are often big hits among Chinese viewers. In September, The Eight Hundred, a war epic about a band of soldiers who held off Japanese invaders in Shanghai, overtook Sony’s Bad Boys for Life to become the top grossing film of 2020.

The influence and size of China’s market — and its sensitivity to perceived slights against the country’s leadership or history — have made international production teams wary of angering Chinese audiences and censors.

But pandering to Chinese authorities has also exposed entertainment groups to criticism at home. Disney, the world’s largest entertainment company, came under fire after its live-action remake of Mulan filmed scenes in Xinjiang, close to an extralegal “re-education” camp used to intern Uighurs and other mostly Muslim peoples.

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