History vs Mystery

There will never be a 100% historically accurate Confucius movie. It would be in a dialect of ancient Chinese that literally nobody could understand. The manners and customs would be more alien than the wildest science fiction, and the character motivations truly inscrutable. And no matter how careful the scholarship, it would be open to attack from all sides, because the original source material is already riddled with holes, assumptions and later interpolations.

Our prime source for Confucius, The Analects, is a grab bag of anecdotes and quotations, assembled long after the famous philosopher’s death. A diligent scholar can rearrange the stories in a rough chronological order, revealing a narrative basis for Confucius’s life: his early career as a civil servant, his early successes, his fall from grace in his native state of Lu and his years of wandering. Take things to extremes, applying true academic rigour to the materials, and the historical Confucius evaporates altogether.

Hence, literally any biography of Confucius must involve dramatic licence. As with the First Emperor of China, we are forced to work from the thinnest of material, little more than snatches of overheard dialogue: a cluster of old sayings, and a few incidental details about the history of the period. Hu Mei’s film Confucius, starring Chow Yun-fat, is a brave effort that meticulously walks a difficult tightrope between historical accuracy and entertainment. Continue reading

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