In this class we’re going to talk about representations of Chinese heroes and Chinese Others.
Let’s start with a quick group discussion.
- Who are your heroes?
- Tell us about them. What did/do they do? Why do they seem heroic to you?
- Do you think they influence you? If so, how?
- Who are you bad guys (villains)? Tell us about them, and why you think they are bad.
The Lecturing bit: Heroes and National Identity
Let me start by explaining how Anglophone academics talk about representations of heroes and national identity. What do they mean by these terms, how do the terms work as representations (cinematic representations in particular)?
Heroes are important to national identity and a sense of belonging to a national community.
The construction of national identity involves the production and reproduction of heroes who exemplify the national spirit or embody the nation’s quest for meaning, identity, unity and collective vitality.
Heroes, together with common values, symbols, events and landscapes, constitute a repository of national culture. This repository can be drawn on by successive generations of the national community (Smith, 1993: 38).
For that reason, the heroes of each nation are indicators of its collective conception of itself (its self-identity):
“Tell me who your hero is, and I’ll know who you are.” (Ruhlman, 1960: 150).
Different kinds of heroes, or different versions of the same hero correspond to differing national identities and communities, or to the discourse (way of talking about) these things.
Heroes and imagined communities
Benedict Anderson described the means in which an idea of imagined community is established and maintained. The age of the newspaper and national papers in particular meant that the stories being told became nationally shared. TV, radio and cinema are other form of national sharing; the stories told in movies potentially become national stories, their heroes national heroes.
Let’s talk a little about Zhang Yimou’s film Hero (Ying Xiong, 2002).
Historical context, plot summary
Hero is set in the time of the founding of the Qin Dynasty in 221 BCE.
In Zhang’s film set during the bloody Warring Kingdoms age, only Qin Shihuang, the ruler of Qing stands a chance to unite China into a single peaceful empire.
To survive, the rivals send hired martial arts grand masters to kill the Qin king. Nameless, a modest provincial mandarin, tells the king during a private audience, at an exceptionally close distance awarded only to who delivered him of such killers, how he eliminated first spear-wielding Sky in duel, then the lovers Broken Sword and Flying Snow during the siege of their realm, Zhao.
The king however questions the story, sees through an elaborate plot involving Nameless, only to be equally surprised himself.
Wuxia heroes and heroines and their ‘all under heaven’ sacrifice
Hero reinvents the wu xia genre and the traditional culture it is based on.
The four fictional assassins all resemble the typical ‘chivalrous and righteous hero’ (xiake) of the warring states. Heroes of this kind are “honest in words, effective in action, faithful in keeping promises and fearless in offering his life to free the righteous from bondage” (Sima, 1959: 3181).
They are also similar to traditional martial (wu) heroes with the seven wu virtues, or the qualities that “suppressed violence, gathered in arms, protected what was great, established merit, gave peace to people, harmonized the masses and propagated wealth” (Pulleyblank, 1976: 33).
They resemble but they are not simply xiake/wu xia heroes and heroines. Hero expresses heroism in terms of three levels of swordsmanship. The screenplay of the film makes the following further distinctions between types of martial heroes;
- assassins (cike)
- swordsmen (jianke)
- chivalrous and righteous heroes (xiake, including sishi)
It is the third of these categories that the film represents as truly heroic.
The xiake may excel in courage and swordplay but they are most heroic in their readiness to give their all to ‘all under heaven’ and to a kind of justice unrestricted by state boundaries (or commitment to their own people). They are prepared to die for these causes. This is a new kind of heroism that looks beyond self, family, love and motherland, one that forsakes violence.
Sky, Broken Sword, Flying Snow and Nameless all start off in the story as honorable assassins (cike). They demonstrate moral integrity, single-minded determination (each had worked on their plans to kill the Qin king for 10 years, making great sacrifices to do so), and unquestioning loyalty.
All of the four fail to look beyond self, family and motherland at the beginning of the story and only Broken Sword and Nameless come to realize that ‘all under heaven’ is more important, recognizing that the Qin King is the only means of achieving peace for all under heaven for only he has the power to unify the warring states.
It is this wisdom, their abandonment of violence (the attempted assassination) and their willingness to sacrifice themselves in this cause that makes them particularly heroic (xiake) in the film’s representation.
Hero is not a film interested in presenting accurate history. Rather, it is a film in the wuxia tradition of martial arts narratives (film or literature), where the primary intention is the invention of legendary stories loosely connected with history.
In the historical records, Qin Shihuang is written of as an abusive tyrant who carried out his mission through ruthless suppression and the obliteration of difference. The Qin king killed many people and caused suffering to many more. He burned books and outlawed the use of any script other than that of the Qin.
Hero transformed the historical image of the tyrannical King of Qin.
Instead of a tyrant he becomes:
- a man of wen, possessing cultural attainments
- a man of wu, possessing courage and martial arts skills.
- a man of wisdom and benevolence.
At the end of the Chinese version of Hero, audiences see the following inscription against the background of the Great Wall.
In the year of 221 BCE, after the King of Qin unified China, he ceased the war, built the Great Wall and look good care of the country and the people. He became the first emperor in Chinese history …
The Qin King felt he had been misunderstood, and that only the assassins Broken Sword and Nameless came (eventually) to understand him. This is how the filmmakers represent the King as he reflects on how people have viewed him:
(clip to be played in class 1.15.47+).
Altogether, Hero’s Qin emperor is an imagined national hero.
This is an act of deliberate cultural invention, it involved a lot of representational work to transform a historical tyrant into a wu xia hero.
Academics and film critics (and people online) have talked a lot about why the filmmakers did this. Part of this answer can be found in the social context of the Reform Era when they made the film.
Storytelling at a time of crisis
A national search for heroes may occur at times of crisis and transformation and, arguably, that is what happened in China in the Reform Era.
As Chinese society transitioned from Maoism to something like Capitalism with Chinese characteristics, some had turned western values (cultural, sexual, commercialized, individualistic) and a rejection of Maoism, and a rejection of traditional Chinese culture as backwards. A divergence of cultural values and an identity crisis accompanied the rapid transformation.
Wang Bin, who co-authored the screenplay of Hero, said “all we want to explore in our film is ‘What makes a hero?’” (Xie and Wu, 22 November 2002: 3).
This is an era when people are liable to yearn for heroes, as the passionate aspirations of some and their unwavering commitments to great causes are being overwhelmed in an uproar of materialism, as some have become slaves of fashion and material interest, and as some are concerned that life is now all about satisfying insatiable desires and taking advantage of others. If all cherished values are ruthlessly subverted, how do we maintain our sense of mission and spiritual well being?
Hero is an attempt to provide another kind of national hero. Not a model of heroism from Western modernity, but a model from a renewed Chinese tradition which stresses unity and submission (to the unifier) as heroic characteristics.
In that model of heroism, the ruling power is heroic if it provides tanxia, if it unites ‘all under heaven’.
The things the ruling power has to do to ensure this unity are also heroic (even when they involve suffering).
Therefore it is not heroic to rebel against that power and its values, but instead, it is heroic to submit in the name of unity.
Recent heroes vs. their Others: Wolf Warriors (I, II)
Sergeant Leng Feng (Wu Jing), top marksman of the Chinese Special Forces, is jailed under court martial for disobeying orders by shooting an enemy in dangerous circumstances. But the beautiful Captain Long Xiao Yung, leader of the Wolf Warriors, brings him out of confinement to fight with them.
The Wolves bring Feng into their pack, honing his skills to a knife’s edge in a training exercise. But another team has Feng on their radar: a group of foreign (Western) guns-for-hire, employed by the drug lord to seek revenge for his brother’s murder. The drug lord wants to release a biological weapon that will decimate the Chinese population. Feng and the Warriors must fight to to defeat the criminal gang and save China.
In the final fight scene the hero Leng is nearly defeated by the gang leader Tom Cat, but then becomes resolved to try again when he remembers the he fights for China.
Lets have a look at a few clips.
49.40 carry dead comrade, Patriotic hero speech 50.40 to 52
I fight for money 1.15-1.18 I fight for china
1.25 a romantic ending
Wolf Warrior II is a similar kind of film.
Leng has settled into a quiet life on the sea after he’s imprisoned in military jail for two years for beating up a heartless slumlord. He stops a group of pirates from boarding his Africa-bound sea vessel. Soon after that, he show us he is a manly bro by out-drinking local Africans. Then he saves a group of Chinese expatriates from a group of murderous rebels by shooting and kicking the baddies to bits.
Leng makes contact with local Chinese military leaders, and sets off to rescue humanitarian doctors Chen and Rachel from evil (White, Western) mercenaries led by Big Daddy. Big Daddy and his group are not immediately offensive. But in time, Big Daddy shows he is a bad guy because he’s an outsider who doesn’t care about the people he’s casually slaughtering. The story finishes wit a climatic battle where the Wolf Warrior defeats the mercenary leader.
What kinds of heroes: Wolf Warrior I and II.
In the first Wolf Warrior the heroes are heroic because ‘they fight for China’ and are shown to love their comrades, so much so that they will sacrifice themselves in order to save them. Feng is heroic because he exemplifies these qualities, while keeping a good sense of humor and being prepared to break the rules.
He is the same kind of hero in Wolf Warrior II. But this time, heroism is even more strongly defined in terms of difference (a representational system, heroism, defined by the principle of difference).
The American critic Roger Ebert writes that the jingoistic Chinese action flick “Wolf Warrior 2” is not a harmless piece of pro-military propaganda. Its characters’ sense of patriotism is built on the back of racist assumptions that would, in an American narrative, be rightfully criticized for being part of an ugly “white savior” power fantasy. … its core ideas [are] about how only the Chinese military can save a nameless African country from bloodthirsty native rebels and amoral European mercenaries …
So China, or being Chinese military, is heroic, compared to African backwardness, weakness, savagery (some of the traditional racist terms used for Black peoples) and Western greed and cruelty.
So the Wolf Warrior films present a model of heroism and identity defined by difference.
Remember the phrase, show me your hero and I’ll tell you who you are.
We might also say, show me your enemy and I’ll tell you who you are.
Self: Chinese, heroic, brave, compassionate, good humored, humane, benevolent (saving), advanced (modern, civilized)
Others: Foreign, greedy, savage, backward, weak.
Why create Wolf Warrior’s Military Heroes now?
Jonathan Papish, from China Film Insider, said patriotic movies were nothing new in China: but the patriotism on show in Wolf Warrior 2 was “a product of Xi’s reign and the idea of the rejuvenation”.
“It is a China that won’t take shit from other countries, that won’t be bullied,” he said. “It’s the mentality that the 100 years of oppression from foreign powers is over and we are now in a phase where China can stand on its own feet and defend itself and its citizens. The general population … is very proud of the role that China can play now.”
So the films reflect, for Chinese audiences at least, China’s new role as an emerging superpower and the reversal of former foreign oppression. It chimes with the official discourse of the Xi’s government, which encourages patriotism and the idea of China’s rejuvenation in the world.
Recent heroes and their relations: The Wandering Earth (Liulang diqiu)
The Wandering Earth directed by Frant Gwo, was adapted from the stories of Cixin Liu, China’s famous Scifi writer.
Set in the distant future, the governments of Earth, confronted with annihilation from an unstable sun, have strapped thrusters on to the planet, ejecting it out into the universe in search of a new home. But as the Earth approaches Jupiter, a malfunction in the system puts it on course to crash into the planet.
These are the main characters:
And some of the supporting characters
- Tell us the story, what happens? What was wrong with the earth, what did people do to survive? What went wrong with their survival system, what do they have to do to fix the earth-threatening problem?
- Tell us the story of the family, what do the different family members do? How do their relationships develop, what do they do to help rescue the earth?
- How are foreigners represented in the movie?
- How are women represented in the movie?
- Who are the heroes? How are they heroic? What kinds of heroes are they?
- What values underlie this heroic story of planetary rescue? If the movie Hero is based on Neo-Confucian, wu values and authoritarianism, and the Wolf Warrior films are based on Chinese national/racial superiority, what are the values of The Wandering Earth?