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Movie Review: Whose story does the beautiful "Hero" tell?
Brian Marple, The Epoch Times
9/30/2004



Director Zhang Yimou’s Hero is playing around the country to widespread critical acclaim. It is undoubtedly one of the most visually beautiful movies of our time. However, American audiences may not fully appreciate what message comes wrapped in this beautiful package.

Hero rewrites history’s judgment on the movie’s central figure, the Emperor Qin – a ruthless leader who unified China through the most brutal means – by depicting him as a tough but benevolent and misunderstood monarch, in the process also changing the story of the failed assassination attempt on him as well.

The historical Emperor Qin was known for his cruelty. The movie does refer to his practice of slaughtering entire villages. It is silent about the tortures he employed, the draconian legal code that involved the cutting off of limbs, his burning of books and suppression of schools of thought, or such incidents as the burying alive of hundreds of scholars who had objected to his rule.

The reason for the differences between the historical Emperor Qin and the movie’s retelling may be found in the needs of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The Assassination: Tyrannicide or Fealty?

Even before unifying China, the then-King of Qin was hated and feared by both rivals and subjects alike. The neighboring state of Yan (replaced with “Zhao” in the movie) knew that the state of Qin aimed eventually to attack. Officials in the Yan kingdom hired an assassin to kill the King of Qin and help them escape imminent defeat. Jing Ke, the man selected for the job, had to find a method to bring himself close to the King to complete his mission. Pan Yuqi was a disgruntled Qin official who had fled to the state of Yan to escape from the King of Qin’s tyrannical rule. He so hated the King of Qin that he offered to allow himself to be killed in order that Jing could gain access by bringing his head to the despot. Jing killed him and brought both Pan’s head and a map of the state of Yan that the king coveted, hiding in it a dagger with which to assassinate the tyrant.

The King of Qin indeed allowed Jing Ke in his presence, and as the king opened the map offered to him, the assassin deftly procured the knife hidden in the map scroll. Unfortunately, Jing’s initial thrust was not strong enough, grazing but not wounding the king. The king was then able to unsheath his sword and parry any of Jing’s successive thrusts. The assassin had no choice but to hurl his weapon at the monarch, but missed. He was later executed.

In Hero, the assassin (played by Jet Li) has the opportunity and the skill to dispatch the King, yet decides against it. After abandoning his decision to kill the king, he is executed, and then buried as a hero. Zhang Yimou in effect replaces the deaths of two men who were willing to give up their lives to end tyranny, with the death of one man who dies in acknowledgment of the right of that tyrant to rule.

The Jet Li character is called “Nameless.” He was raised as an orphan in the state of Zhao after the King of Qin’s soldiers had murdered everyone in his village. Everything has been taken from Nameless, and his entire life has been devoted to the quest to kill the king. His is the toughest imaginable case for the possibility of loyalty to the King of Qin.

Nameless chooses loyalty, and his own death, after a long conversation with the King of Qin. The king asserts that Nameless’s quest is only negative, he acts out of hatred and revenge. He reveals that he himself is misunderstood, that the king’s strength is used for the sake of unifying a great Chinese nation, a nation that will comprise “everything under heaven” (this crucial phrase was translated in english as "our land"). And the king asserts that the truest understanding of Nameless’s martial art is to choose peace, which the king asserts is also the end of what he does. Attaining universal empire will finally bring peace to China.

The king’s speech in effect asserts there are no claims the individual might make that the state must honor. A powerful, unified China, which finds its strength in his kingship, should be the object of everyone’s devotion.

The CCP and the Emperor

Like the Emperor Qin, Mao Zedong, upon winning the civil war against Chiang Kai Sheik, unified China. Mao was an open admirer of the Qin Emperor. In one poem, he wrote, “Please don’t slander Emperor Qin Shihuang, sir.” Mao praised the Emperor’s suppression of Confucianism. This often-hated emperor came to be seen as a symbol for the Communist Party.

Since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, the Chinese Communist Party has used China’s state controlled media to make the claim that the Communist Party exists for the sake of a great and unified China. Love of China and love of the Party are conflated, and love of China is taught to be of supreme importance.

This propaganda campaign has been an extraordinary success. The generation of 1989 peacefully asked for democracy; today’s young Chinese riot in the streets following the United States’ accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. The claims made for democracy appear to have been buried, their place taken by a virulent form of patriotism.

Zhang’s movie fits the CCP script very neatly. It appropriates China’s history, its founding moment, the unification by the Emperor Qin, and uses that history to teach the very same lessons that CCP has taught: the need to give up individual claims (what we today call rights) for the sake of a great and powerful China under the rule of a strong leader (the CCP).

The leaders of the CCP wish the viewers of the movie to forget some other parallels with the Emperor of Qin. Similiar to the Qin Emperor, the People’s Republic of China is one of the most brutal and reviled governments in the world. Just as the Emperor of Qin suppressed Confucianism and persecuted those who objected to his rule, the CCP persecutes and tortures all of those with views and beliefs differing from the Party, including Falun Gong practitioners, house Christians, Uigher Muslims, union organizers, and democracy activists.

But the CCP does want other parallels to be drawn, if only implicitly. As I left the theater, I overhead a couple discussing the fate of Taiwan. Hero is, for domestic audiences, a straightforward justification for conquering that small island nation, and for international audiences, an extended explanation for the need for China to fulfill its destiny. Of course, the ambition to rule “everything under heaven” need not stop with Taiwan.

Zhang Yimou Returns Home

Director Zhang Yimou’s Hero is playing around the country to widespread critical acclaim. It is undoubtedly one of the most visually beautiful movies of our time. However, American audiences may not fully appreciate what message comes wrapped in this beautiful package.
Hero rewrites history’s judgment on the movie’s central figure, the Emperor Qin – a ruthless leader who unified China through the most brutal means – by depicting him as a tough but benevolent and misunderstood monarch, in the process also changing the story of the failed assassination attempt on him as well.

The historical Emperor Qin was known for his cruelty. The movie does refer to his practice of slaughtering entire villages. It is silent about the tortures he employed, the draconian legal code that involved the cutting off of limbs, his burning of books and suppression of schools of thought, or such incidents as the burying alive of hundreds of scholars who had objected to his rule.

The reason for the differences between the historical Emperor Qin and the movie’s retelling may be found in the needs of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The Assassination: Tyrannicide or Fealty?

Even before unifying China, the then-King of Qin was hated and feared by both rivals and subjects alike. The neighboring state of Yan (replaced with “Zhao” in the movie) knew that the state of Qin aimed eventually to attack. Officials in the Yan kingdom hired an assassin to kill the King of Qin and help them escape imminent defeat. Jing Ke, the man selected for the job, had to find a method to bring himself close to the King to complete his mission. Pan Yuqi was a disgruntled Qin official who had fled to the state of Yan to escape from the King of Qin’s tyrannical rule. He so hated the King of Qin that he offered to allow himself to be killed in order that Jing could gain access by bringing his head to the despot. Jing killed him and brought both Pan’s head and a map of the state of Yan that the king coveted, hiding in it a dagger with which to assassinate the tyrant.

The King of Qin indeed allowed Jing Ke in his presence, and as the king opened the map offered to him, the assassin deftly procured the knife hidden in the map scroll. Unfortunately, Jing’s initial thrust was not strong enough, grazing but not wounding the king. The king was then able to unsheath his sword and parry any of Jing’s successive thrusts. The assassin had no choice but to hurl his weapon at the monarch, but missed. He was later executed.

In Hero, the assassin (played by Jet Li) has the opportunity and the skill to dispatch the King, yet decides against it. After abandoning his decision to kill the king, he is executed, and then buried as a hero. Zhang Yimou in effect replaces the deaths of two men who were willing to give up their lives to end tyranny, with the death of one man who dies in acknowledgment of the right of that tyrant to rule.

The Jet Li character is called “Nameless.” He was raised as an orphan in the state of Zhao after the King of Qin’s soldiers had murdered everyone in his village. Everything has been taken from Nameless, and his entire life has been devoted to the quest to kill the king. His is the toughest imaginable case for the possibility of loyalty to the King of Qin.

Nameless chooses loyalty, and his own death, after a long conversation with the King of Qin. The king asserts that Nameless’s quest is only negative, he acts out of hatred and revenge. He reveals that he himself is misunderstood, that the king’s strength is used for the sake of unifying a great Chinese nation, a nation that will comprise “everything under heaven” (this crucial phrase was translated in english as "our land"). And the king asserts that the truest understanding of Nameless’s martial art is to choose peace, which the king asserts is also the end of what he does. Attaining universal empire will finally bring peace to China.

The king’s speech in effect asserts there are no claims the individual might make that the state must honor. A powerful, unified China, which finds its strength in his kingship, should be the object of everyone’s devotion.

The CCP and the Emperor

Like the Emperor Qin, Mao Zedong, upon winning the civil war against Chiang Kai Sheik, unified China. Mao was an open admirer of the Qin Emperor. In one poem, he wrote, “Please don’t slander Emperor Qin Shihuang, sir.” Mao praised the Emperor’s suppression of Confucianism. This often-hated emperor came to be seen as a symbol for the Communist Party.

Since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, the Chinese Communist Party has used China’s state controlled media to make the claim that the Communist Party exists for the sake of a great and unified China. Love of China and love of the Party are conflated, and love of China is taught to be of supreme importance.

This propaganda campaign has been an extraordinary success. The generation of 1989 peacefully asked for democracy; today’s young Chinese riot in the streets following the United States’ accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. The claims made for democracy appear to have been buried, their place taken by a virulent form of patriotism.

Zhang’s movie fits the CCP script very neatly. It appropriates China’s history, its founding moment, the unification by the Emperor Qin, and uses that history to teach the very same lessons that CCP has taught: the need to give up individual claims (what we today call rights) for the sake of a great and powerful China under the rule of a strong leader (the CCP).

The leaders of the CCP wish the viewers of the movie to forget some other parallels with the Emperor of Qin. Similiar to the Qin Emperor, the People’s Republic of China is one of the most brutal and reviled governments in the world. Just as the Emperor of Qin suppressed Confucianism and persecuted those who objected to his rule, the CCP persecutes and tortures all of those with views and beliefs differing from the Party, including Falun Gong practitioners, house Christians, Uigher Muslims, union organizers, and democracy activists.

But the CCP does want other parallels to be drawn, if only implicitly. As I left the theater, I overhead a couple discussing the fate of Taiwan. Hero is, for domestic audiences, a straightforward justification for conquering that small island nation, and for international audiences, an extended explanation for the need for China to fulfill its destiny. Of course, the ambition to rule “everything under heaven” need not stop with Taiwan.

Zhang Yimou Returns Home

Zhang Yimou’s early films were not patriotic epics. While some of his films were set in pre-communist China, one was openly critical of the Cultural Revolution. Many of them were banned in China. Recently, however, Zhang’s fortunes have changed, as he has been working on a number of projects the government favors, such as a video advancing Beijing’s claims for the 2008 Olympics.

The release of Hero was announced at a press conference held at the Great Hall of the People, something unheard of. The involvement of the Chinese government allowed Zhang to raise the unprecedented sum of $30 million US he needed to make the movie. Hero was of course shown in China, and the Chinese government is said to have taken a hand in promoting it world-wide.

Zhang’s current movie, House of Flying Daggers, is showing in China right now, and doing a huge box office. One reason for this: the Chinese government conveniently banned a number of U.S. summer blockbusters, thinning the competition.

One might say that Zhang Yimou has returned to China a hero.

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