Hero (英雄)

Director: Zhang Yimou

Written: Feng Li, Bin Wang, Zhang Yimou

Country: China, Hong Kong

Year: 2002

“Hero” on Amazon.

Movie “Hero” is yet another cinematic re-imagination of The First Emperor of China, the King of Qin, Qin Shihuangdi. The other famous films are – “The Emperor’s Shadow” (1996) and “The Emperor and the Assassin” (1998). In the West, he is best known through the archeological discovery of Terracotta Warriors, an underground army of stone. The film, directed by Yimou Zhang (“Raise of the Red Lantern”, “Ju Dou“, “Story of Qiu Ju“, “House of Flying Daggers“), is loosely based on the recorded historical event of Jing Ke’s assassination attempt against the Emperor. “Hero” was introduced to USA audiences by Quentin Tarantino just after two years from the official release in China (actually a year after it was released in my country), and received high appraisal from most critics. “Hero” carries the name as “perhaps the most beautiful movie ever made”. However, it also caused some political debates and suffered criticism for being anti-human rights and pro-nationalism.

The visual splendor of the movie is beyond words. Every camera angle, every focus and every blur is precise. It is another masterpiece of cinematographer Christopher Doyle (“2046”, “In the Mood for Love”, “Chungking Express”). Add a soundtrack made by Tan Dun and you have a perfect blend of story, vision and music. Moreover, it is heights of wuxia genre (Chinese martial arts movies, more about it in the review of “Dragon Gate Inn”) having, in my opinion, some of the best fight scenes put on film (my personal favorite is one in the Chess Court)

Zhang Yimou "Hero"
Music and swordsmanship are said to be based on the same principles and share the same idea of spiritual perfection: The perfect tune makes no sound. Zhang Yimou “Hero”


The story of the movie is set in Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.E.), seven states were in constant warfare and struggled for power. The Kingdom of Qin rose and conquered all, unified China as an Empire (this is where the title “China” comes from – Qin Dynasty). Leader of Qin was a ruthless and cruel warlord and had many attempts of assassination against him plotted by other states. In the movie, we see Nameless Hero (played by Jet Li, who, ironically, plays Emperor of Qin later in the movie “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor”) entering the palace of Qin. He claims to have killed three famous assassins who were after the King’s life. As a reward Nameless receives land, gold and privilege to drink 10 paces from the King. While doing so he tells the King how he had defeated such powerful opponents. The warlord does not believe his story and tells his own version. Basically the whole movie is the same story re-told from different perspectives, each color-coded in different style. When the stories change, the atmosphere, intensity and relation between Nameless and the King change too. (Spoilers) The King of Qin sees through Nameless plan to assassinate him, because the candle flames in front of the King’s seat (the candles act like mini Terracotta Warriors) are sensitive to murderous intent. After some time he can see Hero wavering and we receive another detail of the story. The other assassin, Broken Sword (Tony Leung) had a chance to assassinate King of Qin, but changed his mind. He wrote two characters for the Nameless in attempt to dissuade him from his plan: 天下 tianxia, all under one Heaven. “The people have suffered years of warfare. Only the King of Qin can stop the chaos by uniting all under Heaven.

One person’s suffering is nothing compared to the suffering of many – he said. Nameless changes his mind, does not kill the King of Qin and consequently sacrifices his life for the greater good of天下.

The controversy of the movie is that King of Qin, probably the most despised historical figure in Chinese History, is redeemed and shown in very positive light. Many of the reviewers connected this to political propaganda of China’s Communist Party, pro-totalitarianism, even calling movie “homage to Triumph of the Will”.  The director denied such claims, the similar story as with his other movie “Rise of the Red Lantern” and in this case too I stand at the side of director. While looking from the point of XXth century history, it is easy to shove the movie under “All Communist Propaganda” umbrella, looking back to the history of the actual depicted era, the Warring States Period, its political and philosophical circumstances, may give a different light to it.

Most Chinese philosophy schools were primarily concerned about how to govern a state (having in mind also that if one has good theories, one would get a position in King’s court). Most popular philosophy schools traditionally were Confucianism and Daoism. Warring States Period was a time a third major philosophy school came to power – Legalism. They had very grounded, practical approach to things. Their ideas about human nature resemble those of Skinnerian behaviorism theories, saying that humans can be made to do anything through rewards and punishments. Human nature is fundamentally evil and egoistic. That is why a successful state must have objective, universal laws, harsh and public punishments. It promoted agriculture and discourage so called “unproductive” activities like scholarship, trade and crafting of luxury goods. (*most information here and further is based on prof. Grant Hardy’s lectures from The Great Courses). In the movie there are references to Legalism: how King of Qin despises the fact that there are 19 ways to write a character for a word “sword” jian, and says that he will unify the written system; at the end of the movie the King has to execute Nameless against his own wishes, because the law of Qin says so, and it is universal and inescapable.

The rise of Legalism is also connected to new ways of warfare – instead of aristocratic, honorable fights, there were armies of thousands conscripts. This new warfare required new philosophy therefore Sunzi’s (or Sun Tzu) “Art of War” became a new handbook. It promoted deception, spying and other activities that traditionally would be seen as dishonorable.  In the light of these changes, Confucian and Daoist philosophies may have seemed too idealistic and impractical, while the Legalist school was just right (though Sunzi and Legalist ideas do have a lot in common with Daoism, but I will not go into details).

Using new statecraft methods of Legalism and warfare of Sunzi, King of Qin managed to conquer the other six Kingdoms, unified China, built the foundations of The Great Wall, standardized measures, weights, laws and the script. Even though his dynasty lasted just for 14 years, he is called The First Emperor and “the man who made China”. So why is he still a bad guy?

One of main reasons behind certain views towards the King of Qin is the source of where we get historical data and how it goes through many different interpretations. Most of early Chinese history is written by historiographer Sima Qian, who has a very negative perspective on the Emperor. But even throughout China’s history images were not the same, for example Tang Dynasty poets romanticized the Emperor as a Great Warrior. Li Bo wrote:

The King of Qin swept through the six directions, his tiger gaze so courageous! Brandishing his sword, he parted the floating clouds, and the feudal lords all came Westward.  (Source: The China Beat blog)

A very good article discussing this issue is “Selectivity in Imagining the First Emperor” or “Looking at us looking at Sima Qian looking at the First Emperor” from The China Beat blog. The clever title itself reveals difficulties interpreting history. In the article they go into detail describing three different images of the Emperor.

Firstly, the Emperor’s self-image, which is revealed by archaeological discoveries like terracotta warriors and mountain inscriptions. One of the inscriptions says:

Thus he clarifies human affairs, and brings concord to father and son. With sagacity, wisdom, humaneness, and righteousness, he has made manifest all principles…. Farming is put first and non-essentials are abolished, and it is the black-headed people who are made wealthy.

Through these artifacts we see that Emperor himself did not want to be seen as a cruel and cold conqueror, but as a thoughtful leader, who did what the circumstances made him do, all for the greater good. This is exactly the perspective as the movie. It is beautifully illustrated though the scene where King of Qin reveals the meaning of calligraphy of character jian (sword) written by Broken Sword:

It just dawned on me. This scroll of Broken Sword’s isn’t about sword technique, but about swordsmanship’s ultimate ideal. Swordsmanship’s first achievement is the unity of man and sword. Once this unity is attained even a blade of grass can be a weapon. The second achievement is when the sword exists in one’s heart when absent from one’s hand, one can strike an enemy at 100 paces even with bare hands. Swordsmanship’s ultimate achievement is the absence of sword both in hand and in heart. The swordsman is at peace with the rest of the world. He vows not to kill and to bring peace to mankind.

Zhang Yimou "Hero"
Calligraphy plays a very important role in Chinese culture and in this movie. Zhang Yimou “Hero”


Secondly – the perspective of historiographer Sima Qian. He lives a century after Qin and sees him as a tyrant and opportunist who succeeded just because of favorable circumstances. Even the State of Qin is described as cruel, backward and uncultured, for example their music being barbaric (music was very important for Confucian thinkers). From Sima Qian’s perspective, Qin rule was the lowest bottom of declining culture since fall of Zhou dynasty. His own government, Han Dynasty, was a worthy successor and the rightful rulers. However, there is no mention of the fact that Han inherited a lot of Legalist statecraft ideas when they took over and that their rule was based on mixture of Legalism and Confucianism. Also, Sima Qian’s only negative perspective on the First Emperor and the effort to show him in dimmest light possible is seen as one-sided. Not to say anything bad about the great historian, we are reminded that:

Grand historiographer is really a story teller; as Dawson rightly points out, Sima Qian is explaining ‘traditions’ (zhuan 傳) about people and not unfolding histories in the modern Western sense. (Source: The China Beat blog)

Zhang Yimou "Hero"
The King of Qin and his terracotta candles. He refers to himself as 寡人 gua ren, which can be interpreted either as “lonely person”, who lack other people or a “person lacking morals”, who lacks “ren”, the main Confucian moral principle. Zhang Yimou “Hero”


And the third lens is our own. How different we look upon history and judge it from the point of XXIst century. The First Emperor is re-imagined in cinema, television and computer games, the closer to historical records the image is constructed, the dimmer it is. Moreover, if China’s history had no Mao Zedong and communist rule – how different would be the interpretation of Yimou Zhang’s film?

The article from The China Beat blog mentions “Hero” and explains the story that:

One of the four famous assassins named Broken Sword has realized through his study of calligraphy that a thing endures when it returns to a state of simplicity” – a very Daoist interpretation.

King of Qin promised simplicity in terms of天下. I would add another philosopher to interpret actions of Broken Sword and Nameless: Mencius, who live in the same Warring States Period. He was actually from Confucian school of philosophy, but our assassin heroes are also more Confucian/Dao background. According to Confucius, Heaven 天 (it is a moral structure of the universe, a kind of non-personified deity in Chinese beliefs) gives mandate to rulers if they are good to people, and takes it away when government is corrupt. Mencius furthered this idea saying that when Heaven gives approval to a different family, the rebellion against former rulers is justified. Therefore the conquest of Qin can be seen as justified by the Heaven and therefore not to be interfered with.

All in all, the movie itself, with its undetermined plot, stands as a cinematic monument for the fact how uncertain the history is and how varied are the perspectives on it. And the political criticism of the film is another evidence of the main idea behind it, making “Hero” even more monumental.

Agne Serpytyte

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