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
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
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
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
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
As mentioned in Essay 1, ancient
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.
$9.00 per copy
$9.00 per copy
Chinese edition 401 pages; 中文版﹐401頁﹐書後有文獻與索引
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