The real battle at Lake Changjin

Society & Culture

The film "The Battle at Lake Changjin" depicts a great Chinese victory against an American aggressor. But the real battle was anything but glorious, fought in freezing temperatures with wildly high casualties on both sides. The legacy of the battle was nothing less than the recasting of international relations in the 20th century.

Korean War - the Battle of Changjin Lake - U.S. and China
Illustration by Alex Santafé

This Week in China’s History: November-December 1950

This year’s highest grossing movie is not the latest installment from the James Bond or Marvel franchises, nor is it a Bollywood extravaganza. It is a war film, sponsored by the Chinese government, that tells the story of one of the most important battles of the Korean War. The Battle at Lake Changjin (长津湖 Chángjīn hú) is also the most expensive Chinese film ever made and the highest-grossing Chinese-language film ever (surpassing Wolf Warrior 2). Though historical accuracy in a movie like this is never quite the objective, the incident that is the foundation of the movie — the real Battle of Changjin Lake — and its implications, which echoed through the second half of the 20th century and beyond, is worth exploring.

American sources refer to the battle as the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, using the Japanese transliteration that was written on U.S. maps. Whichever orthography we use, this artificial lake in North Korea, some 50 miles from the Chinese border and nestled among 6,000-foot mountains, was the setting for a fight that reshaped the histories of not only both Koreas, China, and the United States, but really the entire 20th century.

When he sent his armies to invade the South in June 1950, North Korean leader Kim Il-sung did not anticipate that the United States would intervene. The reason for that expectation stemmed from declarations by American officials early in 1950 that the United States was done with the Chinese Civil War — and with the legacy of World War II in Asia more generally — drawing a defense perimeter that included Japan (then occupied by U.S. forces) but explicitly excluding Taiwan, Vietnam, and Korea. Kim was able to use these statements to persuade both Máo Zédōng 毛泽东 and Joseph Stalin to support, at least tacitly, the North Korean invasion, and he expected to unify the peninsula within weeks, maybe even days.

Though not quite that fast, the plan seemed to work. By early August — just six weeks after the war began — South Korean forces, supported by hastily assembled United Nations troops, had been pushed south into a small perimeter around the city of Pusan.

The invasion, however, prompted the United States to reconsider its defensive posture in East Asia. Korea (and Vietnam and Taiwan) were redefined as vital strategic interests, and American troops were rushed to Korea via Japan. An amphibious assault at the city of Inchon turned the tide. In just two weeks, the United Nations (almost entirely the U.S.) armies had fought back to the 38th parallel, where the war had begun.

Dismissing Chinese warnings not to push farther north, the UN/U.S. armies did just that. North Korean troops were in disarray. By mid-October, the war seemed nearly over, with just the opposite result of what looked imminent in August. The war, U.S. commanders boasted, could end by Christmas. Late in November — with temperatures approaching 40 degrees below zero at night, presaging what would be one of the harshest winters recorded — United Nations forces took up positions around the Chosin Reservoir as they approached the Chinese border.

That was one side of the story: pushing north to eradicate what was left of the North Korean army.

Another side of the story was in motion, too, with very different motives and objectives.

Chinese warnings about crossing the 38th parallel had not been idle, but they were complicated. As historian Sheila Miyoshi Jager describes in her book Brothers at War: The Unending Conflict in Korea, when confronted with the American advance, Mao had reneged on an earlier pledge to assist Kim Il-sung in the event of an American attack. Stalin urged Mao to reconsider. For two weeks, many fates teetered on an edge as Mao considered his options. On October 8, the day after UN forces crossed the 38th parallel, Mao cabled Kim that Chinese support would be coming; on October 19, soldiers of the Chinese People’s Volunteers began crossing the Yalu River into North Korea. They first engaged UN forces about a week later, but encounters were brief. American intelligence estimated that no more than 35,000 Chinese troops were in Korea. The actual number, by the end of October, was a quarter of a million.

The Chinese soldiers advanced only at night, camping camouflaged during daylight hours, and were either overlooked or ignored by United Nations intelligence units as they covered the 100 marching miles from the border to Chosin Reservoir. On November 27, they attacked. Under cover of night, blowing bugles and armed with machine guns and grenades, the Chinese forces inflicted heavy casualties on the surprised Americans. The sub-zero temperatures made the surprise even more brutal, as many weapons and munitions were frozen. Withdrawing during the day, the attacks resumed each night, and it soon became clear that the Chinese numbers were far greater than expected.

For two weeks, both sides fought one another and the elements. Outnumbered and surrounded by an often unseen adversary, American soldiers struggled with frostbite, dead batteries, frozen supplies, and the unceasing stress of temperatures that stayed below zero for days on end. Some 8,000 American, South Korean, and British marines and soldiers froze to death, nearly half of their total casualties for the battle.

The Chinese forces suffered even more. Most of the winter uniforms intended for the People’s Volunteers never arrived, leaving the soldiers with canvas shoes and little more than thin cotton scarves to wrap themselves in; bombing by UN planes had disrupted food supplies. Estimates vary, but as many as 50,000 Chinese died in the battle, half of them from exposure.

The Battle at Lake Changjin depicts the battle as a great Chinese victory, a patriotic story of aiding an aggrieved ally and defending China’s borders. But assessing victory in the real battle is thorny. Without question, what happened at Chosin Reservoir turned the tide of the war, and though the Chinese did not achieve their goal of destroying the United Nations forces, they did drive them out of North Korea. Some American units were eliminated, victories celebrated as the greatest Chinese triumphs of the entire war.

From the American side, the escape and evacuation is celebrated as heroism. The battle produced more medals of honor than any engagement other than the 1944-45 Battle of the Bulge. Facing long odds and outnumbered four to one, the marines managed to break out of their containment and fight their way to the eastern coast at Hungnam, where an air and sea evacuation took some 100,000 American and South Korean military personnel (and nearly that many civilian refugees) to the south. Survival was no small victory, but prospects for a quick end to the war were lost, along with 23,000 square miles of territory. The evacuation at Hungnam was the last time American or South Korean troops would fight in North Korea. The war would last for another two years, but the front would remain around the 38th parallel, right where it had started.

The conflict rent the Korean peninsula, dividing many families and destroying many lives in a war that lingers until today. For China, the United States, and the world, the ramifications were also immense.

For the People’s Republic, the ability to mobilize hundreds of thousands of soldiers and push American forces out of North Korea was confirmation of their ability to project power abroad, as Chinese soldiers defended their borders against the world’s most powerful army. Politically, what happened in Korea intensified Mao’s leadership. As historian Sargent writes, “Domestically, Mao’s ‘far-sighted’ and ‘brilliant’ decision to confront the American ‘imperialists’ in Korea would lead to his complete monopoly on power and the radicalization of China’s political and social affairs.” It seems unlikely that Mao could have accrued the political capital needed for totalitarian policies like the Great Leap Forward without his success in Korea, and success in Korea depended on Chosin Reservoir.

The greatest legacy of all was nothing less than the recasting of international relations in the 20th century. The Cold War was an abstract idea until Chosin Reservoir, but the battle — as brutal as any ever fought — showed that it was very real, and convinced Americans that fears of dominos or red hordes were not exaggerated, and any amount of money spent opposing them was justified. The arms race and the global cold war can be said to have started in the frozen hills around Chosin Reservoir.

For the (mostly) Chinese audiences flocking to see Lake Changjin, the appeal is not the geo-strategic implications of a battle, but an action movie of soldiers fighting far from home against a powerful enemy to defend their national interests. And ironically, it is just in this way that the film itself is being deployed: a powerful piece of propaganda that can show viewers the effectiveness of the Party in defeating even its most powerful enemies, an emphatic end to the “Century of Humiliation” that had begun with the Opium War. As rumors of lab leaks, Olympic boycotts, and economic tremors confront them, the Party expects Changjin Lake to tell a story of the People’s Republic fighting an international system determined to hold it down (in Chinese textbooks, South Korea is deemed to have started the war as a pretext for an American assault against China).

And the story is not to be challenged: when journalist Luō Chāngpíng 罗昌平 used his private Weibo account to question the movie’s version of events, he found himself detained by Chinese police and his account shut down. Luo was charged under a recently enacted law that makes it a crime to defame political martyrs. As the movie’s tagline explains, 祖国不会忘义 zǔguó bù huì wàng yì — The motherland will never forget.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.