The trailer for director Zhang Yimou’s upcoming film, The Great Wall, seems to have upset many of its viewers. In the movie, American actor Matt Damon gets top billing as one of the men garrisoned at the Great Wall during the Song dynasty (960-1279). Critics are calling it an example of Hollywood’s “whitewashing” of Asian characters. But let’s play the devil’s advocate and ask if it’s totally inconceivable that a Caucasian man could lead an army in ancient China?
During the early years of the Tang dynasty (618-907), non-Han Chinese soldiers were actually preferred by the government because they were perceived to be better fighters. The prestige and geographic reach of the Tang Empire meant it wasn’t difficult to recruit them. Most of these peoples from other parts of Asia were similar to the Han Chinese in appearance, but there were also Turks, Persians and possibly men from the Levant and further west. They were often described in contemporary records as hirsute with light-coloured, deep-set eyes, light hair and high-bridged noses. Many settled in China and assimilated into the Han population; some even rose to high positions in government.
So it’s more plausible for a Matt Damon lookalike to have fought as a soldier during the Tang dynasty instead of the subsequent Song dynasty, when China was a less cosmopolitan and more insular state.