Zhang Yimou’s Hero is a rare production in the history of Chinese cinema. Apart from achieving blockbuster status in the West that few Chinese movies have managed, it is also extremely successful domestically. Nevertheless, just as many other well-received films preceding it, Hero has been the subject of varied interpretations.
Critics seem especially unable to decide on the traditional Chinese philosophy behind Hero. Some view it as the epitome of Confucian teachings on loyalty (Louie), while others argue that it “chooses a Legalist narrative to judge the moral health of the nation … [and] challenge[s] the social morality of Confucianism” (Rawnsley). Few, however, have looked at Hero through the lens of Taoism. Yet, Taoist influence in this movie is undeniable. In depicting the lives of youxia (knight-errant), combining wen and wu (literary and martial), and expounding upon the idea of tianzizhijian (the sword of the Son of Heaven), Zhang Yimou brings Taoist ideals into the retelling of the classic Chinese tale, Jing Ke’s assassination of Emperor Qin.
The concept of youxia was first introduced by Sima Qian, in Shiji (around 100 BC), as someone “honest in words, effective in action, faithful in keeping promises and fearless in offering his life to free the righteous from bondage” (Guo 35). According to Sima Qian’s record, these brave individuals, most of whom lived at the eve of the Warring States Period, often resorted to violence to single-handedly ensure personal justice regardless of the consequences of their actions. As this image of youxia transcended through time, the individualistic personality, the anarchistic attitude, and the high moral standard have become the predominant features of knight-errant (Liu 12). Broken Sword and Flying Snow, who are considered youxia by most critics, are no different. Moreover, the wuxia characteristics embodied by these two lovers are also elements of Taoism exemplified by Hero.
Individualistic personalities, or the refusal to be entangled by society or government, can be best seen from Broken Sword and Flying Snow’s desire to return their cottage after she avenges her father. If they were able to kill the King of Qin, Broken Sword and Flying Snow could easily have become the next King and Queen. This willingness to choose seclusion over fame and glory typify the Taoism ideal of living in accordance with nature. Chuang Tzu, the most influential Taoist besides Lao Tzu, states that “Heaven and Earth were born together with me, and the myriad things and I are one” (Chuang Tzu, 56). In other words, man and nature exist together, and neither can prevail without the other. This belief has led many Taoists to choose seclusion in the mountains, where they are closest to nature, to bring themselves closer to Tao. Thus, in withdrawing themselves from the bonds of society, Broken Sword and Flying Snow are living up to the ideals of Taosim.
The anarchistic attitude toward government and law that...