Learn Chinese Culture from Amazon Prime Video!

There are a LOT of Asian films on Amazon Prime Video right now, and you could stay busy for years.

But there is also some kind of Chinese documentary series available about people who are famous in both Chinese literature and history. This could help a lot when you’re trying to follow a kung fu movie or understand when it takes place. I’m sure it’s meant as a sort of Cliffs Notes for students.

Amusingly, the documentary series is called in translation, “Well-Known Cultural Literates of China.”

The one I first came across is about good old Cao Cao (aka Tsao Tsao in the older transliteration). This guy is the hardworking, clever baddie in Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Chinese opera, and is legendarily known for breaking at least seven Confucian rules of family duty, either out of duty to his country or blind ambition. (This is known in Hughart as “the Seven Sacrileges of Tsao Tsao.”) OTOH, in real life he may or may not have been bad; but he certainly did have his good side in either case. (Even in Three Kingdoms, this is true.) He apparently did write good poetry.

Communist China has long been trying to reform his bad reputation, based on perceived similarities between Cao Cao and Mao. Obviously Mao Zedong was an epic villain who had literally millions executed and even more people killed by his incompetent policies; so even a villainous Cao Cao looks pretty good next to Mao.

(I just want to know who to root for in operas and anime. So determining the villain in a history I don’t know much about, and the primary sources of which I can’t read, is not all that important to me! Still, it’s good to know that there is a debate.)

This documentary is sort of a low budget version of a History Channel-type production. It came out in 2007. Subtitles are in English, with the translation generally okay but sometimes confusing. Audio is in Chinese. (Mandarin? Cantonese? I have no clue.) There are a fair number of Chinese academics interviewed on the show, many of whom get very excited at times about the good parts. (One guy has an awesome model of a medieval Chinese warship on his bookshelf.) The documentary includes readings (in appropriate historical places) of a few pieces of Cao Cao’s poetry. This is pretty cool, because I’ve read a lot about 4 character lines and Tang Dynasty poetry, but I’ve never heard it read by anybody.

The documentary also includes Cao Cao’s second and third sons by his second wife, who were also fairly famous historical figures and poets. (They’re collectively called “The Three Caos.” Which sounds in English like a barnyard, whether you pronounce the family name correctly or incorrectly….) One became Emperor of the country of Wei, but wasn’t very nice to his brothers. The other became a genteel prisoner for life, but wrote great poetry for the ages. Both died in early middle age.

I enjoyed it, although I wish Amazon Video would stream a little faster. (Generally the best way to watch Amazon Video is to download it onto a tablet, and then watch it online or offline. Offline puts a 48 hour-7 days time limit into play, however.) It really could have used more maps of where the towns were/are.

I don’t know if this documentary series is propagandized or reasonably factual, but it is probably worth watching. I’m the kind of person who wants to know at least a little about other countries’ history and literature (or at least I hate feeling totally ignorant!), so this is about my speed.



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4 responses to “Learn Chinese Culture from Amazon Prime Video!

  1. Probably propaganda, but I’m snagging it for the kids anyways. We’re burning through The Naked Archaeologist a bit too quickly.

    • Well, they may be a bit subtitle-y for the youngest, but the Chinese art and the reenactments may carry it through. (Hey, I’m willing to stare at snapping banners, handsome horses, and random towns.) Also, there are two 23 minute documentaries per “video” in this series so when the credits roll the first time, there’s still another video coming.

      • They’ll probably be wondering why they’re not speaking Japanese. 😀 We’ve been watching subtitled anime their whole lives.

      • I’m glad they’re acclimated, then. My little cousins, back in the day, were torn between asking five thousand questions per minute, and suddenly wanting me to shut up and not answer any questions. (Unfortunately it took them a bit longer to learn to read fast enough for subtitles, but then they were okay.)

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