Christmas is a time where our family usually buys quite a number of DVD movies as Christmas presents. Among the ones we purchased several Christmas’s ago was a movie starring Jet Li, called Hero. It isn’t often that we buy martial arts films, for although we find the subject interesting (seven out of eight of us have studied the Korean martial art of Kuk Sool Won, three having made it to first degree black belt), such movies are typically rated R, and so fall outside our family’s acceptable viewing range. This one, along with Shaolin Soccer, (which we found highly entertaining), was rated PG-13.
The movie is set between 230 and 231 BC. At this time, seven kingdoms ruled the land area of what is now modern-day China, and Qin Shihuangdi, the ruler of the Kingdom of Qin, was in the process of conquering the other six, ultimately succeeding, and founding China’s first dynasty, the Qin dynasty.
It was a brutal time. Whereas Qin had a vision of uniting the land under one banner, that being his, the rulers of the other six kingdoms did not share his dream, and fought hard in opposition. Qin himself was considered a tyrant by many, including three assassins, Sky, Broken Sword, and Falling Snow, who made it their life’s work to bring him down. The story begins with the nameless hero, who has recently killed all three assassins, winning the King’s favor and the honor of sitting within ten paces of him to tell the story of how this came to be. For so great was the king’s fear of these three assassins that no one was normally allowed within 100 paces of him under pain of instant death.
And so unfolds the story. It turns out that Broken Sword and Falling Snow had nearly succeeded in killing the King once before (the reason why no one is allowed within 100 paces of the King), but that Broken Sword had inexplicably balked at the last moment and allowed the King to live. No one but Broken Sword, Falling Snow, and eventually the Nameless Hero (who also, as it turns out, is really an assassin) knew why. The reason, which was deemed insufficient by Falling Snow and the Nameless Hero, is understood by the King, who is amazed that of all the people in the world, only this one assassin, Broken Sword, whom he has never met except that once in combat, truly understands his motivations. And in fact, it is that understanding which ultimately stayed his hand. Indeed, it is that understanding that at the last instant, also stays the hand of the Nameless Hero, who has the ability and the opportunity to slay the King as well.
The king is on a mission, fighting for the people, for an end to the endless conflict between the seven kingdoms which despoils the land and kills many. His intent is to bring peace to the land; “our land” as he calls it. The land shall be one, and shall never again be broken up.
Fast forward to 1947. Mao has just won the Communist Revolution in China. The Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-Shek and two million Nationalist Chinese flee to the island of Formosa, now known as Taiwan. While successful in capturing the entirety of mainland China, Mao was unable to achieve complete victory by capturing Taiwan and completely eliminating the former Nationalist government. From the Nationalist’s point of view, they were the rightful government of China, the other 22 provinces being in rebellion. For the rest of his life, Chiang dreamed of returning to China and reinstalling his government, although this was about as likely as a pig learning to fly. As Chiang was a U.S. ally, we did not recognize the Communist government on the mainland, but rather the exiled government on Taiwan as “China”. Indeed, for a period of time there were “two Chinas” in the United Nations; the Communist China located on the mainland, and Nationalist China, located on Taiwan.
Needless to say, this was never the point of view of the Communist government. Their take on matters was that they had rebelled against a tyrannical government (Chiang was hardly a benevolent ruler) and had won. That Chiang and his followers had escaped to Taiwan was of no consequence in that regard. They were the rightful rulers of China, and there can be only one China, not two.
Thus, in the mind of the Chinese Communist government, Taiwan is the breakaway province, ruled by a renegade warlord, which must be brought back, by force if necessary, into the fold.
Hero is an interesting movie, full of beautiful images from a country that most of us will never visit. It describes a period of history that most of us have never studied. It has masterfully choreographed fight sequences that many in an American audience will find, if not quite believable, certainly fun to watch.
It is also, very much a product of the Chinese Communist government. There is no way it could ever have been made, much less exported, if this were not so. In understanding this movie, you also gain insight on China’s policy with regard to Taiwan. And you also understand why it is that China is determined to force reunification, on their own terms, and why anything less, particularly a formalization of what actually is (this being Taiwan’s de facto independence), is unacceptable.
Why is this important? Because sometime in the next 2 to 10 years, this is all going to come to a head, and China is going to present Taiwan an ultimatum; rejoin mainland China or be forcibly annexed. And we as a country are going to have to decide whether we will honor our commitments with Taiwan and help them resist China’s military might with the blood of our kinsmen, or whether we will turn our back and allow the survivors of nearly 23 million people, now living in a free democracy, to be frog-marched back into totalitarianism.