My favorite Chinese movie

My favorite Chinese movie – maybe my favorite movie, period – is “The Emperor and the Assassin,” which came out in 1998.  Its subject is Ying Zheng, who made himself the first ruler of a unified China; his Chin dynasty gave China its name. It is an epic on the scale of “Ben Hur” or “Cleopatra” which took three years to produce. The recreations of ancient palaces, costumes and battles are supposed to be historically authentic. There is a cast of thousands, and the real Chinese army supposedly helped in the battle scenes.

The fascination of the movie is in the moral trajectory of the two main characters.  One is the future emperor, Ying Zheng, who begins as an idealist who wants to unify China and establish peace, and ends as a cruel remorseless tyrant; and the assassin, Jing Ke, who begins as an amoral sociopathic killer and ends as a self-sacrificial hero.

The most unforgettable scene I have seen, in this or any other movie, is the one that introduces the assassin, Jing Ke. He is given a contract to murder a family of sword-makers, which he does with ruthless efficiency.  He first cuts down the old man, then the grown sons with a few swift sword-strokes. Then he hears a sound in the next room. He enters and sees a 12- or 13-year-old girl, standing with her hands behind her back.

He perceives that the girl is blind. She says quietly, You’ve killed my family, haven’t you?  I want you to kill me. You can see I can’t survive on my own like this. Just kill me.

The assassin hesitates. The girl then pulls out a sword in her right hand, and plunges it into her stomach. He involuntarily moves forward to pull it out. She then pulls out her other sword in her left hand, and makes a stabbing motion. Unfortunately, being blind, she miscalculated his position and only stabbed thin air.

Oh, she says calmly, You’re left-handed. And she dies.  The assassin cries out in anguish, not at having killed a harmless little girl, but at witnessing the death of a spirit mightier than his own. His anguish causes him to renounce violence – for a time.

I love this scene, not because I am a sadist, but because it shows what it means to be totally committed. I have lived my own life by the principle of “moderation in all things.” That can be the key to a good life, but greatness (for good or evil) is achieved by those who stop at nothing to achieve a goal.  The movie is full of scenes like that.

Gong Li

At the time the movie opens, Ying Zheng is the ruler of Chin, one of five Chinese kingdoms. His goal is to conquer the others, one by one, without having the survivors unite against him.  He seeks to provoke the neighboring kingdom of Yan into attacking him, so he can conquer without seeming to be the aggressor. He sends agents, posing as defectors, into Yan with reports that he is planning an invasion so as to trick  the king of Yan into launching a preventive war.  One of the agents is his beloved mistress, Lady Zhao, played by the lovely Gong Li; to make her defection credible, she has her beautiful face disfigured with a branding iron and claims it was done by Ying. This is what it means to go all-out to achieve a goal.

Later she becomes disillusioned with Ying and recruits Ke to come out of retirement and assassinate him. In order to get within stabbing distance of Ying, he brings him the head of one of his dangerous enemies – who voluntarily allows himself to be beheaded in order to further the plot!

The historical Chin emperor was a follower of the philosopher Mo Tze, who said that a ruler should demand total obedience, instilled by fear and not restricted by any laws or ethical rules.  He ordered the burning of books which expressed other schools of thought, and had hundreds of scholars buried alive for objecting to his rule. He ordered the massacre of whole villages for the slightest disobedience. Once, when village elders sent him a message congratulating him for a victory, he had them punished, because they had no right to an opinion, good or bad.

The Chin dynasty lasted just 15 years.

According to one story, a local official was bringing in a gang of peasants to report for forced labor, and realized he was not going to be able to reach his destination on time. He turned to the peasants and asked, What’s the penalty for being late? They answered, Death. He asked, What’s the penalty for rebellion? They answered, Death.  He then said, Well, I would like to point out that we’re already late, so I would like to invite you to join me in rebellion.

Supposedly that official went on to found the Han dynasty, which lasted 400 years and which was founded on the philosophy of Kung Tze (Confucius) of mutual obligation between ruler and subject.

I don’t know whether this anecdote is true, but I believe its moral. An enduring regime needs a moral foundation; force and fear are not enough.

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