China’s “Hero”

By: Chris Johnson

In 2002, Jet Li starred in a martial arts movie called Hero, a Chinese movie with English subtitles directed by one of China’s most famous directors, Zhang Yimou. The movie tracks the assassination plot by a man who goes by “Nameless” as he gains an audience with the ancient king of one of pre-imperial China’s six kingdoms, Qin. Nameless plans to kill this king of Qin to put an end to his violent efforts to unite the six kingdoms as one people under himself. “Qin” is the linguistic root of “China,” which tells us how this plan works out for him.

At the end of Hero, Nameless’ plan has gotten him close enough to the king to carry out his intentions, but instead he is persuaded by the king’s vision which is expressed in the movie by the calligraphed words “Our Land.”  As the king of Qin had planned, the six kingdoms of China were united and today share a common language, currency, and culture. Nameless, however, in spite of his change of heart, is killed by the king for his assassination plot.

In the end, what earns “Nameless” the title, “Hero” is his decision to sacrifice his life – and thousands of others – for the sake of this vision. In his own words to the king: My decision will cause the deaths of many and Your Majesty will live on.”

When Hero was released, it was the most expensive film that China had ever made. It also quickly became their highest grossing. Clearly, the sentiment it conveyed was moving to many Chinese people.

Shortly after the movie’s release, Jet Li told CNN’s TalkAsia that he considered it to be, “one of the most important action movies of my life.”

“It talks about the peace and what kind of Chinese people can become [a] hero…” he explained.

Li continued: “…Zhang Yimou tried to use martial arts film to talk about Chinese culture, Chinese people. What do they think, what do they want and what do they hope the world will become.”

What the Chinese people want the world to become is a very pertinent subject these two decades later, as the Wall Street Journal reports that, “Washington has tracked about 100 incidents involving Chinese nationals trying to access American military and other installations,” in an article titled: Chinese Gate-Crashers at U.S. Bases Spark Espionage Concerns.”

The article goes on to explain that, “The incidents, which U.S. officials describe as a form of espionage, appear designed to test security practices at U.S. military installations and other federal sites. Officials familiar with the practice say the individuals are typically Chinese nationals pressed into service and required to report back to the Chinese government.”

According to Emily Harding, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “The advantage the Chinese have is they are willing to throw people at collection in large numbers. If a few of them get caught, it will be very difficult for the U.S. government to prove anything beyond trespassing, and those who don’t get caught are likely to collect something useful.”

Reading that Wall Street Journal article is what reminded me of the movie Hero. I hadn’t seen it since college, when I and many reviewers were struck by the beauty of the film. It really is a work of art, but I recall being confused by the ending. Ironically enough, as I recall, it closes with the main character in front of the palace wall, facing a sky full of executioners’ arrows. As a naïve Western college student, it seemed to me that the bad guy wins.

Washington Post film critic Stephen Hunter addressed my confusion in his 2004 write-up: “The movie, spectacular as it is, in the end confronts what must be called the tyrant’s creed, and declares itself in agreement with the tyrant. The argument: The great man wishes to unify the six Chinese kingdoms and give them the same language, the same monetary system, the same mores and traditions; then he will protect them by building a great wall… To do these things, alas, hundreds of thousands of people must die.

“But, the tyrant argues, it’s better that way. So the movie, in the end, endorses his right of conquest and unification on the grounds that fewer people will die than if the six nations continued to war against one another… Why do all this fighting against me; peace through conquest.

My question is this: Was Jet Li’s assessment of the Chinese worldview accurate? Does his movie communicate what “they hope the world will become?” Remember this movie set box office records in China. Does the Chinese ideal of civilizational unity stop at the borders of China or does it extend to the rest of the world as well?

If you’ve been paying attention to the news for the past year, you’ve probably noticed an uptick in stories tagged “China:” Coronavirus research in Wuhan.  China’s access to TikTok’s dataChina’s “Rogue” weather balloon. The woman arrested for trespassing at Mar-a-lago in possession of 2 passports, digital devices contain malware, and a device to detect security cameras. A nearly 1000% increase in Chinese illegal immigration into the US. Attempts to position Huawei-made equipment in strategic locations. The nearly 400,000 acres of agricultural land owned by China in the United States. And of course, the incidents highlighted by the Washington Post article above. The FBI director even reports that they’ve “caught people working for Chinese companies trying to dig up fields in rural areas of the US to try to get access to genetically modified seeds.” That’s just a sample of what’s made the news in the past few years. And that’s not even to mention the Chinese battery company that’s trying to open a battery plant less than an hour away from our offices here in Michigan – a company whose employees in China were recently filmed pledging their lives to the Chinese Communist Party, by the way. Don’t worry though, their North American VP says, “There is no communist plot within Gotion to make Big Rapids a center to spread communism.”

All of these examples raise the question, just how far does China think “Our Land” reaches?


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