Is HERO a Paean to Authoritarianism?
Jet Li, star of Hero. Courtesy of Miramax.

Is HERO a Paean to Authoritarianism?

Robert Eng challenges those who argue that the hit martial arts film celebrates authoritarianism.

Robert Y. Eng
University of Redlands

Zhang Yimou's Hero has just been released in the United States again stimulating discussion of whether it is a paean to authoritarianism. Hero has been a commercial success in China and now it is a hit in the United States. The past two weekends it was the top grossing film (selling over $35 million in tickets). Still, Zhang Yimou has been widely condemned particularly in China for endorsing authoritarianism as necessary for peace and stability, and for relinquishing art for commercial profit. Does Nameless's abandonment of his assassination of the Qin king (who in history would go on to eliminate the six warring states and unify China for the first time) signify Zhang's acceptance and promotion of the king's vision of peace under heaven (tianxia) and hence unity under an authoritarian imperial regime, and the necessity of individual sacrifices for the common good?

Ever since seeing Hero at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January of 2003, I have felt that not only is it not a paean to authoritarianism, it is a sharp rejection of it. One should not accept at face value what the protagonists say in the film as representative of the intentions of the auteur (or for that matter, even Zhang Yimou's public utterances about Hero). I first saw the Qin army in Hero as a faceless fascist war machine, ruthless in its discipline, its mandated unanimity, and its disregard for human life. The Qin army's unison cry of "Feng! Feng!" is chillingly similar to the Nazi salute "Sieg Heil!" The aerial assault of arrows at the beginning of the Qin invasion of the kingdom of Zhao is reminiscent of modern bombardments raining death at a distance.

Contradicting his own claim that his conquests were to end war and bring peace to the Chinese world divided by the Warring States for four and a half centuries, the Qin king Ying Zheng boasts that the six states he sets out to conquer amount to nothing, and that there is a wider world outside for him to conquer. Throughout the film there is not a single concrete indication that Qin unification will bring about peace, justice and benevolent rule. All we have is the word of the Qin king and the hope of the assassin Broken Sword. What we actually see of the Qin state is its relentless war machine and pityless and faceless bureaucrats. Except for the ominously red plumes on the helmets of the soldiers, both warriors and officials are dressed uniformly in black. The drab blackness of the Qin personnel contrasts starkly with vibrant colors of the costumes of the assassins and their individual scenes. At the end of the film the Qin king himself is helpless to make an independent judgment to save the assassin Nameless despite his own personal feelings and supposed supreme power, since the impersonal and relentless Qin bureaucratic-legal machinery demands the execution of Nameless.

The character of the Qin king is quite different in another film on the First Emperor Ying Zheng, Chen Kaige's The Emperor & the Assassin (1999). Chen's film is more fact-based and grounded in realistic imagery than Zhang's abstract and fantastical Hero: The assassin Jing Ke in Chen's film was a real historical character whereas all the assassins in Hero are imaginary creations with superhuman powers. While Zhang's king is swaggering and self-confident in his drive to unification, Chen's king is conflicted and plagued with self-doubt. Nonetheless, Chen's king too conceives of unification as the route to ending centuries of warfare among the states, and faces a similar dilemma as Zhang's king in grappling with the fate of Nameless. When Chen's king hesitates to put to death his prime minister Lü Buwei (who may be his real-life father), he is reminded by a Qin official of his duties to the Qin ruling house's centuries-old goal of unifying China. Ying Zheng must kill Lü to affirm his legitimacy to the throne, the official emphasizes. While Ying Zheng agonizes over whether he should recognize his real-life father, Lü relieves the king of his indecisive agony by hanging himself, after which the king proceeds to condemn Lü posthumously and exterminate his clan. (Chen Kaige, who played Lü Buwei, by his own account was atoning for his denunciation of his parents during the Cultural Revolution, an act that was common among youth of that era of Maoist fervor.) Both Chen's king and Zhang's king surrender to the relentless logic of imperial consolidation, and thereby diminish their humanity and freedom of individual choice.

A number of American critics writing reviews of Hero on the occasion of its much delayed August 27 U.S. opening essentially support the perspective that it celebrates authoritarianism. J. Hoberman of the Village Voice says that "its glorification of ruthless leadership and self-sacrifice on the altar of national greatness, not to mention the sense that this might somehow stoke the engine of political regeneration, are all redolent of fascinatin' fascism."

Others, however, have suggested that Hero presents a much more ambiguous perspective. Cindy Fuchs states in Philadelphia City Paper: "Zhang has recently been portrayed as a "sellout" for Hero's "sympathetic" view of China's first emperor. But the film is more complicated than this description suggests ... Hero displays and deconstructs the very process of making history, insisting on the ways that deception, self-interest and self-delusion influence not only individuals but also national identities. Finding poetry in both mendacity and veracity, it investigates not the means or end, but the limits of honor, the concept at the heart of wuxia, imperialism and nationalism." In Salon, Charles Taylor comments on whether Zhang Yimou was guilty "of everything from making a movie that kowtows to power to one that embraces fascistic nationalism," as charged by his critics: "Apart from the offensiveness of charging a filmmaker whose films have been banned by the Chinese government -- and who has been prevented from traveling to collect the honors those films have garnered -- of suddenly licking the government's feet, the anti-Hero arguments don't take into account that the film ends not in a surge of patriotic feeling but on a pronounced mournful note of contingency and skepticism. And they ignore how the movie forces the King to live up to the ideology he so glibly spouts about sacrificing the happiness of the individual for the good of all. In our final glimpse of the King, the man has been dwarfed by the trappings of his power."

Jet Li, one of the film's stars, perceptively observes: "Zhang Yimou wanted to explore what kind of person can become [a] hero within the framework of fighting, politics, romance and jealousy. Is it the conquering king? The assassins? The killer of the assassins?" Perhaps all of them can be considered heroes, if highly misguided. The vision of "all under heaven" (tianxia) is contradicted both by the cinematic representation of the Qin state in Hero and by actual historical events. With our historical perspective, can we say that the Qin machine as portrayed in Hero is one of national regeneration rather than ruthless expansionism? Many Germans saw such regeneration as the central theme of Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, the 1934 documentary celebrating Nazi organization and the collective spirit of the German people. Of course Germans today view Triumph of the Will in a very different light. In the case of the Qin king who went on to become First Emperor of China, his imperial regime (221-207 B.C.E.) proved no more durable than the Third Reich. Instead of bringing peace and prosperity to the Chinese people, the Qin state caused great human suffering through oppressive tax and labor demands and endless public construction projects and military campaigns against border peoples. The dynasty went down in the flames of rebellions provoked by its cruelty, and the Chinese people did not enjoy any measure of economic security and peace until the first emperors of the succeeding Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.) instituted Daoist policies of light taxes, minimal interference with lives of the people, and a foreign policy centered on diplomacy and defense rather than offense. This historical outcome, which in my view is presaged by the film's grim and relentless imagery of the Qin, contradicts the statement at the close of Hero that the First Emperor is protective of the country and the people.

The imposition of cultural and ideological uniformity was one of the goals of the Qin. The Qin king in Hero states his intention to unify all the scripts of the warring states. I would submit that perhaps the truest hero in Hero is the master of the Zhao calligraphy school, who urges his students to continue practicing their writing of the Zhao script under the torrential rain of Qin arrows. As the master observes: "Please remember, their arrows might destroy our town and topple our kingdom, but they can never obliterate our culture." This act of resistance may be one of quixote futility. Yet even after centuries of efforts by successive Chinese regimes to prescribe a uniform culture and ideology, cultural diversity persists in China.

While the king in Hero displays no overt interest in winning the hearts and minds of the people, the Qin king in Zhou Xiaowen's compelling but often overlooked 1996 film The Emperor's Shadow is conscious of the power of art in forging individual and national identities, and seeks to harness it for his empire by sponsoring his childhood friend and musician Gao Jianli to write a national anthem. The anthem will mold national unity and loyalty among the Chinese people, he reasons. Zhou's king is a hard-headed realist who is also capable of fatherly love and genuine friendship. Unlike Chen's or even Zhang's king, he is much more of a prime mover with free will than an august figure constrained by the dictates of the Qin institutional framework. Yet ultimately he fails to bend the musician to his will, and to make art serve politics. The fact that we have three fine but very different film versions of the story of the First Emperor is a testament to the artistic richness of the Chinese cinema. All three films, with varying levels of explicitness, point to the futility and the dehumanizing effects of single-minded pursuit of power, even when it is enshrouded in a political vision promising unity and peace under heaven.


Robert Y. Eng is a professor of history at the University of Redlands, where he has taught since 1980. His best known work is Economic Imperialism in China: Silk Production and Exports, 1861-1932 (1986), but he has also published in academic journals such as Modern China, Late Imperial China, Modern Asian Studies. Prof. Eng can be reached at


Asia Pacific Arts offers two reviews of Hero:

Meina Banh, "Oh My Hero!"
Chi Tung, "To America, with love: Zhang Yimou's One-Note Rhapsody"