Home > TV and anime > The Young Warriors or Shao Nian Yang Jia Jiang (2006)

The Young Warriors or Shao Nian Yang Jia Jiang (2006)

It has been intriguing to watch the high-profile re-emergence of the phrase, “blood and treasure”, a phrase used to describe the costs of war. Every society, no matter what its size, must always be conscious of how much it spends on militarism. In the modern context, the loss of young men and women is less obvious in the NATO countries and their allies as they pursue the war against terror in Iraq and Afghanistan. Recruitment into the army now draws on a significantly more limited section of the poor and, at the sharp end most likely to be sent into battle, the children of the political and business elite are unlikely to be exposed to danger. Because of this, the loss is less visible in the pro-war media, and there’s a smaller political price to pay for the occupying governments. When it’s reported, the loss of life among the occupied is sanitised as unfortunate collateral damage. Innocent civilian deaths are dehumanised in reports reaching the foreign media. Locally, of course, this carnage is not going to win the hearts and minds of citizens, but rather encourage recruitment into the ranks of armed resistance to the foreign occupying forces. But this has always been the balancing in the use of force by an occupying army.

As reported here, I have been watching more TV of late and here is the first of an occasional piece or two about some of the more interesting dramas. As to The Young Warriors, let’s get the confusion about the name out of the way. This is sometimes known as Young Warriors of the Yang Clan. Made in China, the original title is transliterated as Shao Yang Jia Liang and, allowing for the required adverts, this is 43 hour-long episodes.

From start to finish, the story is a gentle musing on the meaning of ambition and honour. All the characters are placed on a scale of integrity from zero to one-hundred percent. The writers then leave everyone twisting in the wind while they all work out the dynamics of their relationships. The primary source of conflict comes from the enduring confrontation between the Song Empire, ably defended by the Yang family, and the Liao Empire whose military leader is the young and gifted Yelu Xia. Given that both sides strive for victory in their dispute over territory, there’s always the potential for one or both sides to cut corners. But, if duty and honour are the Yang’s strength, they are, ultimately, its weakness. The family so stubbornly refuses ever to consider failing to defend their Emperor or to retreat in battle that it leads them into serious physical and emotional difficulties.

The Song Emperor has come to power by killing his older brother, allegedly for the greater good. The Prime Minister Pan Ren Mei is typically corrupt and ambitious to become Emperor but, for all that, still has some loyalty to the Empire. If there is no Empire, he cannot become its Emperor. Thus, he must walk a narrow line between loyalty and disloyalty. The Liao eventually decide they will never win by fair means and so empower Tian Ling as their key strategist. He only cares about winning and has no moral inhibitions.

Thus everything is in a permanent state of potential destabilisation. In military terms, the balance favours the Yangs on a conventional field of battle. In the Song court, the Emperor has the problem of balancing the self-righteous patriarch of the Yangs against the Prime Minister. In Liao, Yelu Xia is given Tian Ling as an advisor and finds his conscience troubled at the machinations he is expected to build into his campaigns. That said, the core to the serial is the young warriors of Yang as they go through their rites of passage into the world of military duty and marriage. Needless to say, they rapidly become pawns in the greater conflict and their training is, of necessity, accelerated so they develop the skills to survive or not as the case may be. It should be said that the plot develops in a way that is reasonably unflinching albeit that, when there is death, it tends to be milked.

Thematically, we get into complicated emotional territory. When a military leader takes his sons into battle by his side, does he owe a duty to the wives to bring them back safe? Even if the father does favour his sons and keeps them from the thick of the battle, do they have the sophistication to live with the knowledge they were saved by their father rather than by their own efforts. Which is better? That you survive to return to your wife or death in the knowledge this will devastate your wife and the rest of the family? Now scale this up.

In overall military terms, the key question for both sides depended on the social structure of militarism. In those times, there was a military elite with families and individual pugilists trained to fight at the highest levels. Around them is a small group of competent fighters, but the mass of the army is conscripts whose actual fighting skills are very limited. It was to overcome these problems that spears and bows were developed to enable less skilful peasants to defend themselves by keeping the enemy at arm’s length where they were less dangerous with a sword. Add in explosives and you can kill the dangerously skilful even further away from your vulnerable troops. Despite this, large numbers of the unskilful can be lost in every battle. Over time, this is a serious drain on the resources of both sides. If too many men are lost, who will till the land and produce the goods both Empires need to prosper. So a good general is the one who keeps most of his troops alive and sufficiently uninjured to be able to continue fighting.

It turns war into endless campaigns of attrition where the one with the biggest losses withdraws until strength can be rebuilt. Why, you might ask, would withdrawal not trigger invasion? Well, a few heroes might beat an enemy army in one battle, but they cannot invade and hold the enemy country where an entire population awaits them. If they do cross the border and resort to the use of excessive force, all this does is alienate more of the locals and increase resistance. So the calculation of blood and treasure always favours a balance of power between relatively equal warring states. The balance is only broken when states can be merged through marriage or superior numbers and better technology. In all this, we have to remember that armies are the political tools of the ruling elites with only a few social classes between them and the peasants. There are times when even ambitious Prime Ministers welcome the presence of a Yang family to keep them safe in their beds. There are times when even a Yang must learn how to retreat both politically and militarily.

Overall, this is a fascinating watch. While not historically accurate, there’s enough in the fiction both to represent the reality of leadership in ancient China and to demonstrate its relevance in modern times.

For a film sequel, see Legendary Amazons or Yang men nv jiang zhi jun ling ru shan.

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