Hero and Mao

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 10:21 am

I’m a little late to the Hero bashing party, but this post (Bourdieu Boy via Notes of a former native speaker) got me to thinking. I agree that Hero was a somewhat disappointing movie for me because despite being visually impressive and having some great fight scenes it was fundamentally about finding an accommodation with authoritarianism. I was very surprised how many of my American acquaintances missed this, which seemed obvious to me. I mean, it’s the story of Jing Ke. He’s supposed to try and kill Qin Shihuang and fail. Everybody knows that. When he agrees not to kill him its like the Crying Game. That’s what sort of made the growing tension work for me, even though I had heard what was going to happen in the movie before I even saw it.

I actually kind of like the movie because of this, and, as Bourdieu Boy points out, it is a much more Chinese movie than Crouching Tiger. You may not like Zhang Yimou’s answer, but the question of how one lives with authoritarianism is an interesting one for Chinese people. I always find teaching 20th century China to American students tricky because it is often hard to get them to understand the dilemmas Chinese faced. If you had to choose between national power and individual freedom what would you pick? What sacrifices would you, personally, be willing to make to bring political freedom or food to your fellow citizens? The usual answer, of course, is that as Americans we want power, political freedom, wealth, personal liberty and cheap gas and we expect to get them all for nothing. I like the American option too, of course, but it is not really a relevant choice when talking about Chinese history.

The other difference in how someone from China might view the film is that it has a whole different resonance if you know the original story. This is one of the things that usually messes up these Chinese history movies for foreigners. I remember watching, I think it was The Emperor and the Assassin and when Lao Ai Li Ao [thanks to JR for the correction] came on stage I was impressed with his general creepiness. In a Chinese movie for western consumption he would need a scene of vileness to establish his character, just like the bad guy in an action movie needs to do something violent at the beginning to establish what they are. Of course for a Chinese audience all he has to do is step on stage and say “Hi, I’m Lao Ai.” In Hero the “try to kill the Emperor” option is always there even if the movie never states it. You can sort of feel the tension of the debate between the two options throughout the movie even if it is not there for those who don’t know that history. In the same way a non-traditional performance of Shakespeare is always happening in the context of Elizabethan drama no matter what you do with it.

8 responses to “Hero and Mao”

  1. K. M. Lawson says:

    Interesting comments Alan. I had my own initial griping session about Hero back on this posting ( http://muninn.net/blog/2003/05/hero.html ).

    Funny you should mention it just now. Yesterday we started reading the Assasin-Retainer chapters of the Shi Ji (except the Jing Ke chapter which was excluded because of its length) for our classical Chinese course and our teacher asked us what we thought of Hero. Her only comment was, “It just doesn’t look Chinese!”

  2. Alan Baumler says:


    I had a lot of the same problems with the movie that you mention in your post. I am always reluctant to assume that a Chinese audience is going to see these things the same way I do, however. Somewhere I have a cassette that caused a huge argument between me and a couple of Chinese friends. It was a heavy metal version of the old Maoist anthem 社会主义好 I kept insisting that it was a parody. They kept insisting that it was an attempt to recycle Maoist propaganda for a new generation. (It rocked in any case.)

    Certainly for Westerners the First Emperor is an evil Oriental Despot. In fact, that is probably why he is the only Chinese emperor a Westerner is likely to know. He has a much more varied reputation in China. Mao like him a lot, which of course does not save him from being a despot, but the May 4thers in general re-evaluated him. If nothing else someone the Confucians hated could not be all bad. Even Ssuma Qian gave him mixed reviews.

    After the First Emperor became ruler, he united all six States. He melted down the spears and used the metal to cast bells, putting aside shield and armor. He assumed an exalted title, calling himself Emperor, making a show of military might and relying on force. The Second Emperor succeeded to the line, but Ziying surrendered and became a prisoner. Thus I made “The Basic Annals of the First Emperor of the Qin”

    I suppose this is worth a post of its own

  3. JR says:

    For some reason I don’t remember a character named Li Ao from The Emperor and the Assassin. I remember a Li Si but not a Li Ao. When I hear Li Ao I think of the taiwanese politician.

  4. Alan Baumler says:

    I’m not sure if it was Emperor and the Assassin either. It might have been Emperor’s Shadow or one of the many other movies on the first Emperor. Lao Ai (not Li Ao 李敖 from Taiwan, thanks for the correction) was a man who came to the attention of the First Emperor’s mother because of his physical attributes and supposedly had several children with her. He usually fits into the First Emperor story as a particularly slimy individual and a personification of the evils and dangers of family-based politics.

  5. lirelou says:

    I greatly admired the visual artistry of the film, but likewise found the message not-too-subtly political. Instead of Mao, I read the Emperor as representing the Party. You see, no matter what evil the Party does, it is for a good cause, and their hearts are pure. So they should not be condemned. But, of course, what are the chances of a film that says quite the opposite ever getting made in China? (or Vietnam, or any other authoritarian state?)

  6. Andy Meyer says:

    “Hero” is not necessarily based on the story of Jing Ke. There is another assassin tale in the Zhangguo ce that I think served as the basic template- “The wrath of commoners (Anecdote #381, pp. 421-22 in the Crump translation).” In that story Tang Ju, an emissary of Anling, has an interview with the King of Qin. The King is haughty and threatens Tang Ju and his master with “the wrath of the Son of Heaven.” Tang Ju counters with a verse describing “the wrath of commoners- “If a man of honor is enraged/ Two corpses lie upon the ground/ Blood will flow five paces round/ The Empire will be in mourning gowned.” He then brandishes his sword, upon which the King repents and Tang Ju departs.

  7. Alan Baumler says:

    I agree that the movie is probably influenced by other stories, but I’m not sure that really changes the point. Tang Ju is victorious, in that the King repents, which of course did not happen in real life. I think the Jing Ke story is to an extent about the limits of virtue in the face of power. Jing Ke’s failure to kill the Emperor is somewhat ridiculous. Ssu-ma goes to great lengths to establish Jing Ke’s nature, and then goes to great lengths to put his two characters in a position where Jing Ke really can’t fail. “At that moment Jing Ke seized the King’s sleeve with his left hand, while with his right he snatched up the dagger and held it pointed it at the King’s breast, but he did not stab him. ” he does fails because, as he puts it “I tried to threaten you and extract a promise that I could take back to the Crown Prince.” (trans from Watson)
    One way of reading this is that there is not much heroism and virtue can do in the face of authority. Even Jing Ke can’t bring himself to stab the Emperor. He, unlike Tang Ju, can’t bring back a promise, but even if he did, what would that matter to Qin Shihuang? For Ssu-ma Qin is a rightful Son of Heaven, and accommodation is certainly an option. I think that to some extent the movie is exploring the accommodation option (and yes, it is ultimately just an action movie) but that for a Chinese audience the defiance option is always there as a subtext even if it is never stated.

  8. laijon says:

    Hi Sir,

    I am trying to translate the Jing Ke story, both historical and fictional figure.


    And I hope you could review my work give some editing advice.



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