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In ancient China, before the reign of the first emperor, warring factions throughout the Six Kingdoms plot to assassinate the most powerful ruler, Qin. When a minor official defeats Qin's three principal enemies, he is summoned to the palace to tell Qin the story of his surprising victory. Written by
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I was orphaned at a young age and was never given a name. People simply called me Nameless. With no family name to live up to, I devoted myself to the sword. I spent ten years perfecting unique skills as a swordsman. The King of Qin has summoned me to court, for what I have accomplished has astonished the kingdom.
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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).
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 unsheathe 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.
The Jet Li character is called "Nameless." 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").
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. 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.
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. Similar 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.
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