The Movie HERO and Chinese Taoist Philosophy            You-Sheng Li (edited 25/2/08)

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In Chinese history, intellectuals were Confucian in the

government office but Taoist at home. Taoism became the guiding

philosophy of Chinese spare time activities, including fine arts such as

painting, music, calligraphy, and various ways to keep us in good health

such as medicine and physical exercises. Typically Taoists were nonofficial

hermits who devoted their talents to admiring nature and the

Chinese landscape. The moral spirit of Chinese swordsmanship was to

cut the throat of social power and wealth to help the poor, therefore nonofficial.

Martial arts are also a form of physical exercise. As a result they

have been deeply influenced by Taoist philosophy, which is the hidden

message the movie Hero is trying to convey. It is impossible for a

Westerner to fully understand and appreciate this movie without some

basic knowledge of Chinese Taoist philosophy.

The first principle belief of Taoism is the so-called the united

One of nature  and man. In other words, the human world and the

natural world are one world, and humans should stay as part of Nature.

In the modern scientific view, the whole universe including humans and

animals are made of the same atoms, but Taoist philosophy emphasizes the

spiritual side. The ideology of a good swordsman is that he is acting on

behalf of both nature and man, or God in the Western terms, but not for

himself. This is contrary to modern Western philosophy where self actualization

or individual freedom in the human world is the ultimate goal. God, the world,

and I are three entities in the Western view, but they are one,

the big One in the Taoist view.

The movie Hero is the story of five swordsmen. There are four

assassins headed by Nameless, played by Jet Li, and their target is the king

who is also the fifth swordsman. There are three minor characters; an

elderly blind musician, an old calligraphy master, and Moon, the maid of

one of the swordsmen named Broken Sword. These eight characters present

different facets of the ideal image of a Taoist hero, or the Chinese

traditional hero. The story is told and retold by Nameless to the king, and

each of his retellings conflicts with the previous ones but brings the

fighting sides closer to a spiritual unity of humankind and the universe,

giving another dimension to the movie’s complexity and its high level

of ideology.

When Nameless fights his duel with the assassin Sky, a

trembling white-bearded musician gropes back to play his final tune for

the two. 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. This is a direct quotation from the first founder of

Taoism, Lao Tzu, and it also alludes to the movie’s final conclusion that

a perfect swordsman uses no weapon. During their duel, the two stood

still face to face for a whole hour with their eyes closed to fight each

other fiercely in their minds. To an ordinary audience, this plot may

sound mysterious and remote. This obscurity is a unique feature of

Taoism as practiced by mystics in ancient China. Some Taoist monks

and nuns sat meditating the mysterious nature of the universe

as a religious practice. It is worthwhile to notice that in the primitive primary
society, dispute was often resolved by demonstration of power rather than a real fight.

When Nameless comes to fight Broken Sword and Snow, the

third and fourth swordsman and swordswoman who happen to be lovers,

calligraphy becomes the main concern of the movie. Broken Sword and Sky have

developed new fighting techniques through the practice of calligraphy.

Again, calligraphy and swordsmanship are said to base on the same principles.

Nameless has to study Broken Sword’s calligraphy to understand his new

fighting techniques in order to beat them. Broken Sword writes the words

SWORD and All UNDER HEAVENS for Nameless. “All under

heavens” indicates the whole humankind and the united One of man

and nature together. There is no room for fighting and killing in such a

united world. To act in accordance with such a high ideology, the king

gives his sword to his assassin Nameless, who then has the chance to kill

the king but misses it deliberately. The king, the fifth swordsman,

finally understands Broken Sword’s calligraphy. The Chinese character

SWORD written by Broken Sword, contains the connotation of perfect

swordsmanship and refers to the notion that there is neither a sword

in the hands nor a dagger in the heart but a broad mind that can embrace

the whole world.

When you embrace the whole world, you see only friends and

no enemies. When you embrace the whole universe, you forget your own

life and death. A Taoist sees no differences in the world and faces

anything without emotion. A Westerner will complain of the emotionless faces

of the characters, especially the protagonist or hero of the movie, Nameless.

But it is the essence of the ideal hero who treats matters of life and death

with a plain emotionless manner, neither hot-headed nor cold-hearted.

The Taoist aesthetic motto is: Heaven and earth have great

beauty but do not say a word; perfect beauty has no shape. The Taoist

aesthetic ideal is pristine simplicity. The movie Hero presents a stunning

two hours of flowing of artistic images. Many people are impressed by its

beautiful scenes and images but understand little of the conflicting stories.

The producer has made every effort to make the movie fit in line with

Taoist aesthetics.  In a way, the movie tries to visualize Taoist aesthetics

to its viewers. Although the images are impressive, they are simple in terms

of colour. The landscapes are often mono-coloured, yellow, blue, green,

or white. The swordsmen wear robes of a colour similar to the landscape.

The whole movie has no images of flowers or any delicate ornaments,

though one may expect to see those things in the setting of a royal palace.

Yin yang and the five elements, earth, wood, metal, fire, and

water with the latter subduing the former one, i.e., water subduing fire

subduing metal subduing wood subduing earth and earth subduing water,

are now regarded as part of Taoist philosophy and religion. The king in

Hero is based on the historical king of the Qin dynasty (221-207 BC),

who was said to believe in this theory. Each Chinese dynasty was said to

represent one of the five elements, Chou (1122-256 BC) for fire, Qin for

water, and so on. Each element has its own colour, yellow for earth, green

for wood, white for metal, red for fire, and black for water. In the movie

Hero, the king and all his court officials and soldiers are dressed

either in black or in colours just as dark. The scene surrounding the five

fighting swordsmen is shifting over the five colours: yellow, green including

blue, white, red, and black. But the main colour is yellow that is both the

colour of the first assassin Sky and the colour of the last scene when Broken

Sword and Snow commit suicide together. The first one in the above

list of the five elements is the yellow earth that represents the common

ancestor of all Chinese people, the Yellow Emperor. The only scene of battlefield

of this movie is when Qin fights with another state, the representative of Chou.

A red-hued school of calligraphy becomes the centre beside the battlefield.

It is consistent with the above theory. When Nameless is executed and buried

as a hero, his body is covered with a large sheet of red cloth surrounded

by black soldiers. The red fire of Chou is over, and the black water of Qin sets in.

            The third and fourth lines of the Taoist bible, Tao Te Ching,

read as follows:


            Non-being names the beginning of heavens and earth.

            Being names the mother of all things.


            Ancient Chinese texts were not punctuated and the reader had to break

at his own discretion. Depending on where the comma locates in those sentences,

an alternative interpretation of the same Chinese words is as follows:


            Nameless is the beginning of heavens and earth.

            The named is the mother of all things.


            In the place of God, Chinese Taoist philosophy designs the concept

of Tao. Tao is said to be beyond human imagination. There is no name for

Tao, since name is part of our world, and Tao is out of the universe.

That’s why Tao was able to create the universe. In the two versions of the

above quotation, non-being and nameless are apparently referring to Tao.

Swordsman Nameless in the movie Hero obviously hints Tao, since the

movies tries to create a Taoist hero Nameless. I consider such attempts

 a blasphemy.

As a movie, Hero creates an illusion of Taoist ideology. It is a pure

fiction with a historical setting. If the audience knows the history, the

movie will leave them in a deep fog, wondering what the producer really

meant to say but could not get across.

The historical king of Qin was the most notorious figure in

Chinese history. He had a bad name when he was alive. Here are some

examples of his notoriety. After his success in uniting China, he moved

twelve hundred thousand rich families, more than a million people as estimated,

from the conquered territory to his capital. To build new palaces that covered

 a hundred miles, he moved away eighty thousand households. He used

700,000 prisoners or three and a half per cent of the population to

build his tomb, and all of those workers were doomed to be killed after

 they finished the job. Confucius and his followers promoted governments

of knowledge and virtue more than two centuries before the king,

and Alexander the Great led only 35,000 troops to conquer Persia a century earlier.

In history, there was a man who tried to force the king of Qin to

withdraw his troops and return the conquered land by brandishing a

poisoned dagger, since there had been a successful confrontation of this

kind before. The man tried to kill the king but missed, and the king

escaped from his grip. Two men had killed themselves to enable this man

to have such a chance. Many details of this event were recorded. In more

than two thousand years, this heroic story fascinated Chinese people and

warmed their hearts. It was a beacon of hope in the darkness when people

had to swallow their tears under a tyrant’s rule. Their heroic deaths are

remembered forever by Chinese people. Although the history is similar

to the movie of Hero in many ways, a failed assassination and a giving up

make the difference even the latter is in the name of mankind.

The historical king of Qin was once attracted by and obsessed

with the Taoist idea of immortal real persons. He even called himself the

real man instead of the king. His Taoist consultants decided that the

king’s behaviour was contrary to the ideology of Taoism which

emphasizes a non-assertive and natural way. In their view, the king would

never become an immortal real man. They all escaped and left no trace.

The king was so enraged that he buried 460 Confucian scholars alive who

had nothing to do with those fugitives. The movie’s attempt to beautify

the king of Qin is groundless, farfetched, and runs against the Taoist

ideology the movie is trying to convey. This contradiction leaves no clear

message in the end. The audience is left in a puzzle surrounded by

flooding images of beauty.

There has been a groundless belief in recent years that ancient

Chinese people wanted a united nation to stop wars among the leftover

kingdoms. There is no solid evidence to support such a belief. Except for

a few with power, the majority of people certainly did not want to see

millions losing their lives for this unity.

In this movie, the king is wise, and shares this same idea with his

assassins: He conquers the world for the sake of humankind. The

historical king of Qin did succeed in uniting China, but he succeeded

only by militarizing his whole population and imposing marshal law,

the total war policy. He sacrificed the people’s basic needs for this

unnatural goal that went against the more humane philosophical

foundations laid down earlier by Lao Tzu, Confucius, and other thinkers.

The historical king of Qin’s policy was ridiculed by many in his time,

and his kingdom was called the Beast Country.

After the historical king of Qin died, there was a rebellion, and

his dynasty was soon finished when the revolting force overwhelmed this

oppressive regime. After six years of chaos and turmoil, a commoner rose to

the throne as the new emperor of China. A scholar looked down upon

this commoner emperor, and said: There are no heroes in the world so that

such a bloke has come to the fore.

The founder of the Communist China, Chairman Mao, was

often worried about his lack of education when meeting knowledgeable

professors. During the Great Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976

when Mao waged his last battle against intellectuals who were better

educated than he was, at least twice Mao lost his mind not knowing if he

was a bloke or a hero. According to Mao’s secretary Li Rui, millions of

people died in a famine caused by Mao’s errors in the late 1950s and the

early 1960s. Mao admired the king of Qin and even compared himself

to him.

There is a strong renaissance today in China of the long forgotten

Taoism and other ancient ideologies. Since the young generations have not

been taught about the recent communist history, they identify Mao as a

national hero, believing he was as traditional as Taoism is. Mao might

have been attracted by Taoism just as the historical king of Qin was,

but neither of them was a sincere Taoist believer. Taoism teaches us

to accept reality as it is without any emotion but with serenity, a

wordless beauty of the mind. We need not to say that those like the

 king and Mao who did not genuinely believe in Taoism are part of

the beauty.

On the other hand, people who lived under a totalitarian regime

had nothing to do except admired their leaders. Hero provides a way for

those people to admire their own sacrifices which, they felt, had not been

acknowledged. The two lover swordsmen, Broken Sword and Snow,

are the most unforgettable characters. Their romance and their long

endeavour to assassinate the king for the people’s sake end as a futile sacrifice.

What a pain it is!   Fine arts sometimes have the same quality as religions:

soothing the pain with beauty.

To be precise, there is no hero in the movie Hero, which speaks

so clearly and beautifully: There was not a hero either in the real world,

but there is sacrifice by the people that has not been recognized.


Afterword: The Tragedy of Chinese History


Ironically, the Movie Hero would become a masterpiece of tragedy if we replaced the king of the movie with the historical king of Qin. Its significance relies on the fact that it illustrates the tragic side of Chinese history. People with the loftiest ideology in the world gave up their lives heroically and nobly to enable a shameless bloke to become the emperor to muddle up with their national affairs and ruin their lives. Let us imagine:


Hitler did not commit suicide, and he met face-to-face with four generals of the Allied Force who first entered Berlin. They all had the desire to kill Hitler with their own hands. As Hitler had his gun, so their guns at one time were pointing to each other. All of a sudden, one of generals pushed his way into the front: “Please let me shoot Hitler! I have struggled for twelve years for this day. Please give all your guns to me!” He lost his whole family under the iron rule of Hitler, and both his father and mother died tragically in Nazi camps. After he collected the three guns from the other three generals, he suddenly shouted, “For the sake of Europe and for the sake of the world, we cannot kill Hitler. Listen to me, Hitler is the only hope for a united Europe. Without Hitler, we will face a divided Europe and a divided world with endless wars and endless suffering! For the world's sake and for the people's sake, I forgive Hitler for his cruel killing of my family, because we need Hitler for a united Europe.” With tears streaming down his face, Hitler said, “Dear Friend, I am so happy to hear those words from the bottom of your heart. I have not been understood by the world, by the people, and even not by my ministers and generals. I applied violence for the world's sake, and I have killed for the people's sake. Finally, I have one man who understands my lofty purpose. With such a friend in the world, I feel content to die!” After those words, Hitler threw his gun to the three other generals, and turned his back to them, and said, “Please make your decision for the world on this shot!” The three generals decided not to shoot Hitler. Though it was a tough decision for him, Hitler ordered the execution of the four generals for assassination attempts as his government and people demanded. Both Britain and Russia had a large territory outside Europe and the United States was an American country. If Europe were isolated as the ancient China, it would have been most likely that Hitler united Europe by force but his empire disintegrated immediately after his death to leave Europe in a political situation similar to what is now.


As mentioned in Essay 1, ancient China was like today's world with a powerless United Nations. The Chinese national king and his court had only the largest central state. This central state lost most of its territory in 841 BC because of the barbarian invasion and internal turmoil. During the subsequent Spring Autumn Period (770-476 BC), the national king was only symbolic, since his territory was no longer the largest among the hundreds of states. The ideal political situation sought out during this period was the puppet king plus a hegemonic state to function as the original super state. The first hegemonic state used to call on all states to form an alliance in order to keep out barbarian invasions and to enable cooperation among different states. During the Warring States Period (476-221 BC) when seven major states competed with each other, a fundamental social transformation took place, which was comparable to the one that transformed the whole Europe after the French Revolution in1789. The subsequent wars served no longer to select a hegemonic leader to form a loose confederation but represented the violent conflicts of different political ideologies and different ways of life. In both modern Europe and ancient China, the popular political intention was to keep a balance among different powers with different ideologies. That's why this dangerous situation lasted more than two hundred years, and many powerless small states were able to survive. Like Nazi Germany, the State Qin with by far the largest military power represented a ruthless regimented lifestyle. Such a state though militarily powerful lacked the ability to unite Europe or China by pure force, since most people disliked such a way of life. Like Nazi Germany, State Qin applied the most dishonourable diplomatic policy: They bribed the high ranking officials of the other six states and assassinated those who refused the bribery. According to Chinese records, a Qin general once, at the end of a battle, buried four hundred thousand surrendered soldiers alive, which represented two percent of the Chinese population. No lofty political goal could be reached by such ruthless killing and such dishonourable diplomatic trickery. Such tricks only work once because nobody can be fooled twice. But once was often enough to change history. After the Qin united China in 221 BC, there was a long debate and struggle between the original system of confederation with a super state and the later system with a centralized bureaucratic government of provinces and counties. It was only during the reign of Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty (140-86 BC) when the latter system took control of China and was set up as the norm for the subsequent history until 1911.Emperor Wu was indeed ambitious. The Chinese population was reduced by half during his reign. It means some fifteen millions of Chinese people lost their lives, either killed or died of starvation, for his historical achievement. Shortly before his death, Emperor Wu admitted that he had behaved exactly like the king of Qin. Nevertheless, during the reign of those two notorious kings or emperors, millions lost their lives. The author of the movie Hero took the liberty to assume that those people gave their lives willingly and nobly for a political system of centralized bureaucratic government. Thus those deaths were no longer tragic but honourable. I think we had better left those deaths remain tragic. A Chinese poet from the Tang dynasty wrote:


Mountains, rivers, lakes, and lands all become battlefields,

How can the people continue to enjoy their labour in the farm fields?

I beg you not to ask how to receive a title from the imperial order, 

Ten thousand skeletons decay in the wilderness to achieve one general’s honour.


Will our United Nation become a worldly imperial power when an accelerating warring phase occurs in the future like in ancient Chinese and modern European history? Let’s hope Not.

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